Roger Williams’ Mandate for the American Church
This is a paper I wrote for my American Church History class. I was pretty excited about it and I think there’s more potential here. Some day I would like to clean up some of the awkward working, fill out the details, and try to get it published somewhere. In the meantime, blogging is still publishing, of sorts.
America’s Radical Reformer
Roger Williams, the primary founder of Rhode Island, often invoked the illustration of a garden surrounded by wilderness, recalling imagery from Genesis 2. The garden represents God’s people, the church, while the surrounding wilderness represents the rest of the world, which is hostile to the things of God. Throughout history, “by degrees the gardens of the churches of saints were turned into the wilderness of whole nations, until the whole world became… Christendom.” The term Christendom represented all the evils that resulted from the marriage of church and state.
In a nation that places a high value on freedom of religion, historians have tended to find the historical significance of Roger Williams in his views on civil government. The principal mandate for the state, said Williams, is to protect the freedom to worship as one’s conscience directed, which must extend even to non-Protestants like “Jews, Turks, and Papists.” For the officials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams presented a subversive challenge to the role that the government should play in the promotion of religion. As Gaustad states, “Williams advocated the scariest political heresy of his day: namely, that a civil institution could survive without the supporting arm of the church.”
Yet Williams himself preferred theology to political science. His passion was to cleanse the Church of all impurities. Though the American Puritans had made substantial strides forward, they had not gone far enough, and he was determined to complete the process. By proposing a new prophetic mandate for the church, Roger Williams subverted the dominant Puritan orthodoxy regarding civil government, church government, and dissenting congregations.
The process by which he arrived at this new mandate continued through the first half of his life.
A New Mandate for the Church
Williams came from England to Massachusetts with his wife in 1630. He was offered a pastoral position at the Boston church, but turned it down because they had not officially broken their ties with the Church of England. As a strict separatist, he soon found himself drawn to the Plymouth colony which had been founded by the original separatist pilgrims. However, he became disenchanted with them when he learned that they allowed members to attend worship with the Church of England when they returned abroad. In allowing this practice to continue, they showed themselves to be impure separatists, a position Williams could not tolerate.
Williams was a puritan in the true sense of the word, believing that the church must be absolutely purified of every trace of defilement. The separatist platform based the rejection of the Church of England on the fact that, as a national church, it did not challenge the membership of nominal or backslidden Christians. Additionally, its bishops received their authority through a lineage that included the Roman Catholic Church, which had become universally identified with the biblical anti-Christ. But in his rejection of the Plymouth church, Williams went beyond separatism to become one of the first advocates of secondary separation, or the rejection of all churches that did not hold to strict separatism.
He left there and found a site to settle which he named Providence. He gathered with other marginal movements, which had formed their own nearby communities, to found the colony of Rhode Island. He stood solidly for a policy of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience for all. Through a thorough re-examination of his beliefs, he soon concluded that his baptism, received as an infant by the Church of England, was invalid. After having himself re-baptized, this time as an adult believer, he proceeded to baptize a small group followers. This group became the first of the Baptist congregation in America.
Membership in the new Baptist congregation required one to be able to give a compelling account of conversion in good Puritan style. The standard Puritan conversion was expected to follow a general pattern: conviction of sin, exposure to true Biblical teaching, identification of personal hypocrisy, self-examination, and finally evidence of God’s individual election. To this standard Puritan requirement, Williams added the additional requirement that a membership candidate must fully renounce the Church of England.
By 1652, at the publication of The Hireling Ministry None of Christ’s, Williams’ view of the Church had been fully formed. As with most of his writings, nearly every page contained some provocative doctrine, guaranteeing the alienation of nearly all his readers. Nevertheless, this essay was highly influential and spelled out his views on the mission of the Church. Starting with the book of Revelation, he rejected the dominant post-millennial theology held by the Puritans in favor of his own unique interpretation. The first of the four horsemen of Revelation 6, the white horse who was given to conquer, represented the original apostolic mission to the nations, whose time was now ended. The church was now represented by the two prophets of Revelation 11, and should expect nothing but persecution and martyrdom. This prophetic ministry would bring about the downfall of Babylon in chapters 18-19, which was the ‘Romish Beast’ of ‘Popery’. The downfall of the beast was probably soon, however, and in chapter 19 the ministry of the white horseman would be restored and the fullness of the Gentiles would be brought in.
The mandate for the church at the present time, said Williams, is to fulfill the “Ministrie of Prophesie.” Christians are to take their stand with the revolutionaries that have lived all through the history of the church. Putting forth Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as the standard for true Christian ministry, several groups were singled out for special mention:
Look upon Berengarius with the Saints, enlightened by him; Look upon Waldus, with his Waldenses in France, Wickliffe in England, John Huss, and Jerome of Prague in Bohemia, Luther in Germany, Calvin in Geneva, those Parts and other places, and Countries… wherin they Witnessed against the False, against the usurpations and Abominations of Antichrist, and therein they were the Infallible Witnesses, and Prophets of Christ Jesus, Preaching, and oft times Suffering to the Death for his Name sake.
For the present time, the church was to take up the sword of the spirit rather than the physical sword. In other words, the mandate of the church is to preach truth and leave the results up to God. For the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this new mandate struck at the very heart of the Puritan experiment.
Liberty of Conscience
For the Puritan establishment, the most significant aspect of Williams’ mandate for the church was his insistence that the church remain entirely independent of the civil government. No church should be allowed to use the resources of the civil government in order to compel people to worship.
The Puritans saw themselves as establishing God’s kingdom on earth. They looked to the Old Testament as a model for a Christian government where civil laws are grounded in biblical revelation. In contrast to them, Williams’ proposed a biblical defense for pluralism. In his book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, he argued that the church must remain separate from the civil government if it is to remain truly Christian. Christ Himself did not come to found an earthly kingdom, but if that were the goal, He surely would have.
Williams was drawn into a huge debate with John Cotton over the interpretation of the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). While Cotton minimized the distinction between the weeds and the wheat (it was the inability of the servants to distinguish between the two until they were fully grown that prevented them from uprooting them), Williams argued that the weeds represented people who were openly opposed to the gospel. The field clearly represents the world, not the church and believers are called to live peacefully with everyone.
Williams was also opposed to all uses of force to reach the Native Americans. Instead, missionaries must speak truth to them and allow them to come to their own conclusions. However, by the time of the publication of The Hireling Ministry, Williams had moved to reject all forms of missionary activity as the improper mandate for the church at the present time. In fact, he came to reject the very validity of the local church government and pastoral ministry.
Shortly after the foundation of the first Baptist church in North America, Williams began to reexamine the moorings for the local church itself. It was not enough for the church to separate from impure churches and clarify the relationship between the church and the civil government. The church must have a clear understanding of its mission and place in the world. It was in seeking to clarify this direction that Williams came to the doctrine that was perhaps the most controversial: rejection of all pastoral ministry and local church government. For the Puritans, this moved him from being a marginal Puritan or Baptist to become a heretical Seeker.
Mainstream Puritans, who held the upper hand during the English Revolution under Oliver Cromwell, gave pejorative titles to all the groups who opposed them. With censorship laws no longer in effect in England, every sort of sect was allowed to form. The Puritans tended to group them together for polemical reasons, whether they agreed with such groupings or not. Those who rejected all church authority structures were called Seekers, though few would choose this label for themselves. This is the term many Puritans subsequently used to describe him.
Williams produced four reasons to reject modern pastoral ministry. First, those who claim to stand in apostolic succession do not demonstrate any of the gifts of an apostle. Here Williams is anticipating a similar argument that would be made later in our nation’s history, primarily by holiness and Pentecostal movements. Both argued that supernatural signs should follow valid Christian ministry, but unlike those that would come after him, Williams did not think they were currently operational.
Second was that no minister had any way to receive a valid calling. The only true New Testament church was one established by a true apostle. Subscribing to a view of apostolic succession similar to the Roman Catholic view, which was in turn inherited by the Church of England, Williams believed that a true apostle must be able to trace directly back to the original apostles, who in turn received their authority from Jesus Himself. However, unlike Rome or Canterbury, he did not think such an apostolic succession had survived much past Constantine. Instead, he argued, the church had been taken over by anti-Christ. Therefore, no true church was possible any longer.
Third was confusion over the work of ministry – what was the proper field of evangelism? The great commission of Matthew 28 specified the nations as the proper field. Modern ministry does not take place among the heathen but rather among the so-called Christian nations. If the nation was truly Christian, then it was an improper field for evangelism, and therefore invalidated all ministries in those places.
Fourth, and most importantly for Williams, was the problem of pastoral wages. Whereas Jesus commanded his followers to freely give, modern ministry was based on a sort of careerism where pastors negotiated for higher salaries and became simply hirelings.
Perhaps the consequences of this doctrine were too radical even for Williams, for he never put much effort into its promotion. He was content to allow people to worship according to their conscience without feeling the need to molest them. He seemed satisfied to hold his own religion privately without becoming an ‘evangelist’ for the seeker movement. In fact, he capitulates, he only published his treatise on the rejection of church government at the urging of friends who “importuned for more copies than I was possibly able to transcribe.” Though Williams did not draw a large movement of Seekers to himself, his rejection of the church was significant nevertheless. He served as another voice for a disorganized group of people that had become dissatisfied with all local church structures.
Williams’ rejection of the church may be important for another reason as well. Rather than focus any longer on the purity of the church, he became free to focus his energies on creating a government that promoted true civility between citizens. Williams pictured the civil government as a ship: people did not have to agree on how to live their lives when they were in the cabins, but everyone must cooperate in the maintenance and steering of the ship. It is unlikely that his civil vision would have been brought to fruition had his focus been on ordering cabin life.
Yet the most significant results of Williams’ views were not the changes he implemented in civil or church governments. Ironically those most positively affected were those who disagreed with him.
By proposing that the Church’s mandate was to raise a prophetic protest against all forms of false religion, Williams opened a door for other subversive groups, many of which were attracted to Rhode Island as a safe place to avoid oppression.
After Williams was first expelled, he drew a group of about 20 people and founded the first Baptist church in North America. This group became the first settlers of Providence, which would later become the capitol of Rhode Island. They determined to put a civil government in place that guaranteed radical freedom for people of every religious persuasion. Historians in the revolutionary era would look back to Williams’ mandate as a model for later radical sectarians. By 1764, the Sabbatarian Baptists had become powerful enough to establish the College of Rhode Island. The college later became Brown University, one of the eight Ivy League universities.
Three years after Williams’ expulsion from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson was also expelled. Highly critical of most of the Puritan clergy, Hutchinson rejected any claim to a covenant of works, but boldly proclaimed that salvation comes by faith alone. She was labeled an anti-nomian by the Puritan establishment, who claimed she taught that Christians could ignore the law and live as they pleased, a claim she flatly denied. She was expelled after asserting that she had the ability to hear the voice of God. Though she was killed soon after in an Indian raid, her followers soon left the Massachusetts Bay Colony as well. Though Williams’ view of the prophetic mandate of the church was not yet fully formed, there was clearly a kindred spirit between the two groups. The Hutchinsonians founded the city of Portsmouth just south of Providence, as well as Newport a year later.
Other groups soon followed. Williams extended a welcome to the Gortonites, led by Samuel Gorton, who were radical egalitarians. They founded the city of Warwick. In the 1670s, Rhode Island began to receive a large influx of Quakers. Paradoxically, Williams himself became one of their greatest enemies, though he remained committed to his ethic to combat them through words rather than persecution. In 1672, he organized a four day debate with them, followed by a book refuting their doctrines.
As more and more religious outcasts were attracted to Rhode Island, religious diversity created an atmosphere in which pluralistic tolerance (or as Williams would say, civility) became a necessity. No one would have predicted how the landscape of America would change over the next three centuries to become the most ethnically and religiously diverse nation on the globe. The precedent set by Williams continues to be important for us today.
A Mandate for Today
We have seen how Williams’ mandate for the church presented a subversive challenge to the Puritan understanding of civil government by insisting that the church was called to promote itself through prophetic confrontation rather than legislating religion. This mandate was also subversive to local church bodies, as this prophetic ministry made pastoral “hireling” ministry invalid. His subversive message drew other radicals, helping to promote their growth. But the subversive mandate Williams laid out in the 17th century continues to be just as subversive today.
First, Roger Williams provides an alternative to the story of America as told by many modern Christians. Marshall and Manuel argue that the United States was intended by God to be a Christian nation, and the Puritans got it right. In their history, Williams plays the role of a misguided and stubborn villain who needed to be “pruned from God’s vineyard”. Yet it is unclear why William Bradford, John Winthrop, John Davenport, or Thomas Hooker should have any more of a claim to establish the destiny for our nation than Roger Williams. After all, he founded a colony too.
Yet Williams also presents a challenge to those who would paint the Puritans in a negative light. Williams was himself a product of the Puritan worldview. Yet he emerged as one of the strongest voices for what we might call religious tolerance, though he himself would have rejected the term because it did not provide enough protection for religious minorities. He instead spoke of civility, a guarantee that despite our differences, we will all get along.
For Christians who are uncomfortable with the idea of pushing through legislation to turn the clock back to some perceived era when the government was truly Christian, Williams provides a clear biblical defense of separation of church and state in his book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. In fact, it serves as a sort of theology of civil government. Although it is somewhat difficult to read, given that it is written as a dialog between ‘truth’ and ‘peace’, Williams delivers several clear and cogent arguments, most of which are as relevant for evangelical Christians today as they were then.
Some may appeal to Williams’ rejection of local church government as precedent to do so today. George Barna suggests that there is a new Christian revolution that is occurring as those who are worn-out on church are “finding vibrant faith beyond the walls of the sanctuary.” Perhaps this movement can look to Williams as a “spiritual father”. But on a second look, William’s reasons for rejecting church government look very foreign from our perspective over three hundred years later. Few who would embrace Barna’s revolution would be comfortable with Williams’ usage of the book of Revelation to support his views, nor his other conclusions, like the futility of a missions movement until the papacy is destroyed.
However, many modern commentators would agree with Williams on one point of his interpretation: the two witnesses of Revelation 11 are intended to refer to the ministry of the church rather than two individuals. This means that even if a general consensus of evangelical Christianity would reject much of Williams’ theology, we can still appropriate his mandate to the church to be a prophetic people. We can still look to him as a hero of the faith, willing to take a stand for truth, no matter how unpopular.
Byrd, James P., Jr. 2002. The Challenges of Roger Williams: Religious Liberty, Violent Persecution, and the Bible. Macon: Mercer.
Davis, James Calvin. 2001. “A Return to Civility: Roger Williams and Public Discourse in America.” Journal of Church and State 43:689-717.
Gaustad, Edwin S. 1991. Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
—–. 2005. “Roger Williams: Soul Man.” Interview in Church & State July/August 2005:157-158.
Gilpin, W. Clark. 1979. The Millenarian Piety of Roger Williams. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Irwin, Raymond D. 1994. “A Man for All Eras: The Changing Historical Image of Roger Williams, 1630-1993.” Fides et Historia 26:6-23.
Marshall, Peter and Manuel, David. 1977. The Light and the Glory: Did God have a Plan for America? Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell.
McGregor, J.F. 1984. “Seekers and Ranters” in Radical Religion in the English Revolution, ed. J.F. McGregor and B. Reay. New York: Oxford University Press.
Morgan, Edmund S. 1967. Roger Williams: The Church and the State. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
Williams, Roger. 1644 . The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, Discussed, in a Conference Between Truth and Peace. Ed. Edward Bean Underhill. London: Hanserd Knollys Society.
—–. 1652 . “The Hireling Ministry None of Christ’s: or a Discourse touching the Propagating the Gospel of Christ Jesus” in A Review of the “Correspondence” of Messrs. Fuller & Wayland: on the subject of American Slavery/ by Cyrus Pitt Grosvenor… To Which is Added a Discourse by Roger Williams, printed London, 1652, on “The Hireling Ministry.” Utica: Christian Contributor Office.
 Williams 1644, 155 (Chap LXIV.2).
 Williams 1652, 161.
 Gaustad 2005, 157.
 Morgan 1967, 18-20.
 Arguably, Williams’ rejection of the Plymouth church actually constituted tertiary separation, or separation from those who refuse to separate from non-separatists.
 Gilpin 1979, 5-7.
 Williams 1652, 161-5.
 Williams 1652, 165.
 Williams 1644, 92 (XXX.4).
 Byrd 2002, 87-127. Byrd goes into great detail regarding a controversy that we cannot do more than touch on here.
 Byrd 2002,189-90.
 McGregor 1984.
 These points are spelled out in Williams 1652, 166-7.
 One might expect Williams to follow this through to call for a new missionary movement, as William Carey would do a century later. However, Williams’ believed he was living between the times, so to speak, and therefore a missionary movement would not be effective until the downfall of the papacy.
 Williams 1652, 158.
 Gaustad 1991, 146.
 Irwin (1994) names John Callender, Isaac Backus, and Stephen Hopkins as the three most prominent historians from the late 18th century to praise the course set by Williams (p.11).
 Gaustad 1991, 51-54.
 Gura 1984, 276-303.
 Marshall and Manuel 1977, 191-9.
 Gilpin 1979, 2-4.
 Davis 2001, 691.
 Barna 2005. I am not suggesting that Barna himself has made the connection with Williams.