Monday, September 19, 2016
September 19, 2016: Rhode Island Histories: Roger Williams
[Other than a weeklong series inspired by a visit to Newport’s historic mansion The Breakers, I haven’t had the chance to write much in this space about my neighbor to the south. Well, Little Rhody, that changes this week! Leading up to a special post on some of my many wonderful RI colleagues!]
Two inspiring layers, and one frustrating one, to the life and identity of the founder of English RI.
1) His Progressivism: I think it’s relatively well known (at least up here in New England) that Williams’ religious beliefs (including the separation of church and state) were too progressive for the Puritans, who expelled him from Massachusetts as a result. But in a 21st century world where public dissent is as easy as signing up for social media or recording a YouTube video, it’s worth remembering just how striking it was for any inhabitant of tiny, insular, hugely homogeneous early 17th century Puritan Massachusetts to express and fight for such alternative, progressive views. And Williams’ progressivism didn’t stop there, as he dedicated much of his life to advocating for Native American rights and a good portion of it to fighting for the abolition of slavery in New England (a forgotten subject on which a great new scholarly book, Wendy Warren’s New England Bound, focuses). Williams might well have been the most progressive 17th century European American—and he’s definitely on the short list!
2) His Writings: Williams’ first and best-known book fits directly into that progressivism: A Key into the Language of America (1643), the first study of Native American languages in English and, to my knowledge, one of the most thoughtful and nuanced investigations of Native American cultures and communities published by any European throughout the centuries of contact and settlement. Demonstrating the breadth of his interests and talents, Williams published in the following year The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace (1644), which uses the idea of individual conscience to argue in opposition to Massachusetts’ religious uniformity and for the aforementioned separation of church and state. Williams would go on to publish many more books and pamphlets, espousing and extending his religious beliefs and ideas; but to be honest, if he had only published these pioneering first two, he’d still be one of the most unique and significant early American writers.
3) His Last Public Action: In Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent argues that “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Villain is far too strong a term for Roger Williams’ final public action, but it was at the very least deeply ironic: during the brutal 1675-76 conflict between the English and Native Americans that came to be known as King Philip’s War, the 70-something Williams was elected captain of Providence’s militia; not only did this mean he had to lead the fight against native communities with which he had been a longstanding friend and ally, but in the course of that fight much of Providence, including Williams’ own house, was burned. In a chapter in my second book I make the case, through Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative and changing perspective, that violence and division were not the only—or at least not the necessary—endpoints of English and Native American relations in the 17th century. But far far too often that is where they ended up, and such was the case for even the progressive and inspiring Roger Williams.
Next RI history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from RI (or any state) you’d highlight?