Roger Williams: Peacemaking, Soul Liberty, and the Public Good: A Review Article

Diane L. Olinger

God, War, and Providence, by James A. Warren. New York: Scribner, 2018. xiii + 287 pages, $30.00.

Many have lauded Rhode Island founder Roger Williams as an early proponent of religious liberty. This book adds a new layer to what we know of Williams, focusing on his role as a peacemaker and as a tireless servant of the public good. God, War, and Providence is intended for a general audience (xiii), although its scholarly documentation and thorough bibliography will make it useful to academics as well.

Williams arrived in the New World in 1631, a Cambridge-trained dissenting minister in the Church of England, and was welcomed by New England worthies like John Winthrop and William Bradford. In addition to his reputation as a godly minister, Williams brought with him a strong grounding in English jurisprudence and political philosophy, having clerked for Sir Edward Coke, whose ideas would influence the framers of the American Constitution (40).[1]

Williams soon came into conflict with the Puritan establishment of Massachusetts. The first issue was separation. Williams pushed for full separation from the Church of England, rejecting a prestigious position in the Boston church soon after his arrival on the grounds that the church had not fully separated (41). This had political implications, as well as theological; a separated church crossed the line between acceptable religious dissension and political subversion.

The second issue, the one most associated with Williams, was the role of the civil government in religious matters. In striking contrast to his fellow Englishmen, Williams believed that the civil government had no legitimate role in enforcing compliance with the First Table of the Law, those commandments dealing with man’s relationship to God (52). Thus Williams objected to the magistrate punishing religious dissension and heresy.

The third issue, the main concern of this book, was the Puritans’ treatment of the Native American tribes.[2] Williams described colonization as “a sin of unjust usurpation upon others’ possessions” (49). To have a legitimate claim to land, settlers needed to deal with its rightful owners—the Indians, not the King of England.[3] Williams rejected the idea that the King as a Christian ruler had a right to claim for Christ the lands of the New World. Williams saw the modern nation state as a civil, not a religious, entity; the King, therefore, was committing blasphemy when he claimed to act in Christ’s name (50). Williams also rejected the application of the legal doctrine vacuum domicilium to Indian lands. Pursuant to this doctrine, Indian lands were considered to be unoccupied, since their homes were not fixed nor their lands fenced. Unoccupied lands may be taken. Williams, who spent considerable time trading with the Indians even before his banishment, knew that the Indian sachems were particular about land boundaries and assigned certain lands for planting, hunting, and villages. Ignoring this because it didn’t fit English preconceptions was sinful.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts by the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to rein in Williams and his destabilizing ideas, the General Court banished Williams from Massachusetts in 1635. After a fourteen-week winter trek across the New England wilderness, Williams befriended Canonicus and Miantonomi, the sachem-chiefs of the Narragansett tribal confederation, and was deeded land by them, on which he established Providence at the head of Narragansett Bay as a refuge for those “distressed of conscience.” As more settlers arrived, Providence became the capital of the colony of Rhode Island. From its start, Rhode Island had a “uniquely symbiotic relationship” with its Narragansett neighbors (248).

The focus of God, War, and Providence is what happened next with respect to the relationship between and among the Puritans, Williams, and the Narragansetts.

From the Pilgrims’ first arrival in Plymouth in 1620 until 1650, the Puritans’ relationship with the Native Americans, though not without incident, was marked by “mutual accommodation, peace, and growing prosperity for Indian and Puritan alike” (4). For the Puritans, one of the most important tasks of their Holy Commonwealth was bringing Christ and his blessings to the Indians (36). “In the Puritan mind, Christ’s blessings were inextricably tied to the adoption of the institutions, ideas, and patterns of life associated with English civilization. Thus, conversion required that the Indian not only jettison his religion, but his political allegiance and his entire mode of subsistence, and take up the manners and mores of the English” (36). But, the Puritans saw few Indian conversions, and in reality invested little effort in evangelizing them (129–30). As the English population in the New World expanded, they began to see this heathen Indian population as a security threat and as an obstacle to their growth and prosperity.

Like his fellow Puritans, Williams believed that the Indians were in spiritual darkness and needed to be converted to Christianity. But Williams, who immersed himself in Indian culture, was known for treating them as humans worthy of dignity and respect; he shared his Christian faith with them but trusted that God would open their hearts to that message in his time.[4] Williams rejected state-sponsored missions that were inherently coercive, producing false conversions. In A Key into the Language of America, which was published in London in 1643, Williams shared the fruits of his study of the language, culture, and daily life of the Narragansetts (130). The book’s tone is hopeful, reflecting the author’s optimism for English-Indian relations and his view that “if the Narragansetts have much to learn from the English, so, too, do the English have much to learn from the Indians” (133).

During the Pequot Wars (1636–38) and King Philip’s War (1675–76), Roger Williams was called upon “time and again . . . to mediate disputes between Puritans and Indians” (87). Williams did so, not only to protect the English, but also because he feared for the lives of the Narragansetts, whose sachems were his close allies and personal friends. In addition, he feared that a war between the Puritans and the Narragansetts might destroy Providence or lead to a Puritan army occupying Narragansett country, including Rhode Island (87).

Indian raids on English villages were put down brutally, with disproportionate force. For instance, after a Pequot raid that resulted in nine deaths and three captures, the Puritans retaliated by burning a village of four hundred Pequots to the ground (90). The Puritans justified their actions by referencing Old Testament passages in which Israel was instructed to kill their enemies, even the women and children (91). Williams denounced such reasoning, maintaining that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not a covenant people akin to Israel, and that no nation could claim such spiritual power in politics after the coming of Christ.[5] The Narragansetts tried to stay out of these conflicts between the Puritans and other tribes,[6] though they were eventually drawn into King Philip’s War by a preemptive strike against them by the Puritans (248). The outcome of the war was the “compete eradication of Indian political power and cultural autonomy throughout the region” (3). 

In sorting through the reasons for these conflicts, Warren digs into a wealth of historical treatments of the colonial period. Warren acknowledges that some of this is guess work. When Warren enters into the realm of conjecture, he alerts the reader, “Now, let the reader beware” (79). Gaping holes in the evidence and problems sorting out exact chronology make it difficult to uncover the intentions of the participants in the conflicts between the colonists and the native tribes. The Indians didn’t leave records, so we are left with the Puritans’ recorded recollections of these events. Warren, like most modern historians, takes a skeptical view of their justifications of their behavior or their characterization of tribal behavior. For instance, the Puritans faulted the Pequots for not complying with treaty provisions, but, upon examination, those provisions appear unconscionable by English legal standards, let alone those of the Pequots.[7] Warren suggests that, by making such draconian demands, the Massachusetts’ leaders were simply setting up justification for land grabs. Even readers who disagree with Warren’s take on the historical record should appreciate his intellectual honesty as he deals with these disputed matters.

Harvard historian Perry Miller’s 1953 work Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition established that Williams’s views on religious liberty and the separation of church and state were firmly grounded in his Christianity.[8] Warren extends this thesis to Williams’s relationship with the Native Americans of the region, concluding that here too Williams’s actions should be seen as driven by his Christian beliefs.

And, Roger Williams took his Christian beliefs very seriously. The only difference between a prominent Puritan clergyman like John Cotton and Roger Williams was that Williams “took these doctrines of Calvinism with such utter consistency that rather than settle for rough approximations to the kingdom of God on earth, he demanded the real thing or nothing at all.”[9] In other words, the Puritans’ views of the church, the state, and society were not pure enough for Roger Williams. It’s understandable that the Puritan establishment looked on his ideas disapprovingly and as a threat to good order in the church and the community. Indeed, Rhode Island, for which Williams served as governor as well as a spiritual leader, was a hotbed of religious schismatics and libertarians, if not libertines.

But Williams’s religious eccentricity is intriguing. His view of the spirituality of the church—and non-spirituality of the state—stands in sharp contrast to the Puritans’ conflating of the roles of church and state in an effort to transform their world. Convinced of the righteousness of their cause, the Puritans demanded conformity, banished those who disagreed, justified land encroachment and brutal suppression of Indian uprisings, and forced Indian “conversions.” In contrast, Williams tolerated proponents of views with which he disagreed, even making a home for them and working to secure their peace, and patiently sought to befriend the Narragansetts as he trusted God to bring about their salvation in his time. Perhaps paradoxically, because Williams abjured any use of the state as a means to enforce Christian beliefs,[10] he was peculiarly fit to be “a tireless servant of the public good—with public being expansively defined to include the Indians” (254).

But, is a focus on the public good, like Williams’s, the same as advocacy of public religion? In a lecture delivered at Covenant College on March 3, 1998, OPC historian Charles G. Dennison described a 1991 ceremony in which the stated clerk of the PCUSA presented a Delaware Indian chief with a sacred health-guardian doll.[11] Many years before, the doll had been given to a Christian missionary by a Native American convert as an idol that conflicted with his new faith. The ceremony was part of the mainline church and US government’s effort to support “Native American communities trying to reclaim their cultural heritage and religious identity.”[12] Dennison criticized the actions of the PCUSA as those that dignified “outright paganism by commending in the name of public religion the outrageous religious beliefs, which a courageous convert abandoned at great cost.”[13] How would Roger Williams have reacted to such a ceremony? He certainly had a greater respect for the Indians’ culture, and even their spirituality, than did the Puritans of his day. But, the key for him was “soul liberty” (125). If the early convert gave up the doll willingly, and not as a result of coercion or inducement, then it seems that Williams would have applauded the convert’s act of Christian faithfulness and would have recognized the PCUSA’s return of the doll, insofar as it was intended to have religious significance, as demeaning to Native Americans, as well as unbiblical. 

In writing this review, I hope I have not made Roger Williams into either a proto-Orthodox Presbyterian or a modern-day civil libertarian. In fact, he was neither. He dreaded what he saw as emergent presbyterianism among the Puritans. And, Williams and Rhode Island ultimately “treated the Indians only marginally better than the Puritan colonies” (248). But despite this, Williams’s story has implications for Christians living in a pluralistic society. Warren’s God, War, and Providence is a well-researched account of this important chapter in American history.   


[1] Coke’s influence is detailed by John M. Barry in Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Penguin, 2012).

[2] In this article I will use both the terms “Native Americans” and “Indians,” in addition to particular tribal names.

[3] This scruple would not prevent Williams from later returning to England in the 1640s to obtain a Parliamentary patent for Rhode Island. After the English civil war and the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II granted Rhode Island a royal charter in 1663, bestowing upon its citizens a degree of religious freedom that was unheard of at the time.

[4] In A Key into the Language of America, Williams wrote that he had told the biblical creation story to Narragansetts “many hundredths of times, [and] great numbers of them have heard [it] with great delight and great convictions” Warren, God, War, and Providence, 132, citing Key (1643; repr. of 5th ed., 1936, Bedford, MA; Applewood, n.d.), 131). Though Williams reported that the Indians exhibited “a profound curiosity and respect for matters of the spirit (132), there is little evidence that his exchanges with them resulted in many Christian conversions.

[5] Miller, Roger Williams, 54.

[6] However, the Narragansetts sometimes provided intelligence and manpower to the English pursuant to treaty commitments.

[7] As retribution for the mistaken killing of an Englishman who had captured some Pequots, Massachusetts demanded the surrender of the killers but also the payment of a sum of wampum and other goods equal to about half the total property taxes levied on the whole colony in a year (81).

[8] Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953). See also, Edmund Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967).

[9] Miller, Roger Williams, 28.

[10] It’s important to remember that Roger Williams did not object to the civil magistrate enforcing the Second Table of the Law, commandments five through ten, dealing primarily with man’s relationship to man. In other words, Williams would not have raised an objection to morals legislation (no public drunkenness, no adultery). Instead, his concern was “soul liberty.” The magistrate should not use his power to control what people thought or believed. To describe him in twenty-first-century terms, Williams would have more in common with Antonin Scalia than with the Libertarian Party. See Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) (Scalia dissenting, warns that if the court is willing to strike down anti-sodomy laws, then other legislation based on the moral disapprobation of the majority would soon fall, as well). See also the platform of the Libertarian Party, emphasizing personal freedom and opposing most morals legislation (e.g., the party opposes laws either for or against abortion), https://www.lp.org/platform/.

[11] Charles G. Dennison, “J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis in the Reformed World,” in History for a Pilgrim People: The Historical Writings of Charles G. Dennison, ed. Danny E. Olinger and David K. Thompson (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2002), 41.

[12] Dennison, 42 (citing “Department of History Repatriates Delaware Doll,” Presbyterian Heritage: The Newsletter of the Department of History, Presbyterian Church (USA) 4:3 (Fall, 1991): 3.

[13] Dennison, 43.

Diane L. Olinger is a member of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, February 2019.

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