Roger Williams, Independent (HCC #3)

Roger Williams, because of his views of freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, and the fact that he was able to implement them in Rhode Island, is celebrated as the founder of American liberties by writers as diverse as nineteenth-century Democratic historian George Bancroft (History of the United States, vol 1, p. 255), Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney (Lectures in Systematic Theology, p. 880) and the writer of the article on Roger Williams at Wikipedia.

In his view of the church, his life exemplifies the gradual working out of the principle of Independency in successive stages. Beginning with de facto separation, he moved through stages with inexorable logic to a rejection of the possibility of a continuing catholic church on earth. I summarize his life under the heading of each stage to bring this out more clearly.

The first move: separation

Roger Williams was born in 1603 in London, studied at Cambridge, and entered the ministry in the puritan wing of the Church of England. However, he gradually became convinced that the inherited church was corrupt, and therefore, the continuing church would need to separate from it. This caused him to run afoul of Laud, and he emigrated to America. Arriving in Boston in 1631, there was a vacancy and his gifts were immediately recognized; but he declined a call to that church because it was unseparated.

Pause a moment; think about it: Roger Williams could not accept a call to a New England congregational church because it was unseparated!

The second move: cutting the umbilical

The problem was, that the people of New England were willing to retain communion with the Church of England during trips back to the old country. The clergy were not willing to say this was sinful.

At first blush, Williams’ rejection of this “tolerance” might seem to resemble second-order shunning. “Outside the camp” is a notorious example of this in our day. It is claimed that anyone, otherwise orthodox, but that does not regard everyone as apostate that the accuser regards as apostate, is thereby apostate.

However, more likely Williams’ objection was more simply the logic of consistency: if separation is possible at all, then it must presuppose absolute rejection of that from which it separates.

After a couple years, in 1633 he accepted a call in Salem, where sympathies for his ideas existed. There, he became the center of a long series of controversies.

Digression: political dissent

Williams began to agitate a number of ideas that he regarded as merely religious opinion, but which the civil authorities regarded as seditious. It would be interesting to discuss whether Williams’ theses regarding the civil magistrate don’t have a deep connection to his ecclesiastical views. For now, however, I wish to maintain the ecclesiastical focus.

At length, in 1635 he was tried by the General Court and exiled. He wandered south by foot.

Third move: rejection of inherited ordinances

Some Indians helped Williams survive. At length, he planted the third New England colony, that of the Providence plantations (later to become the state of Rhode Island).

In 1638 the logic of rejecting the mother church came to its ultimate fruition: he was re-baptized by a man named Holliman, before himself re-baptizing Holliman!

In the movie The Apostle, Robert Duvall at one point baptizes himself. Roger Williams did not quite go that far. He found someone else that by mutual consent could perform his new baptism!

The problem of baptism brings the ecclesiastical issue home. Baptism is an event of short duration in anyone’s life; it is interesting how as a topic it has the power to divide history.

Fourth move: There are no ordinances

The reader that is plugged into these kinds of issues might suggest that Williams’ rebaptism had less to do with a (negative) rejection of the ordinance of his mother church and more to do with the baptist’s (positive) view of the nature of baptism as only for believers. While this may have been part of the ground-motif, the fourth move shows that that is not the whole story.

The divine right of church power entailed by baptism and ordination troubled Williams, and he was driven by the logic of the case to deny the continued existence of any church ordinance, on the grounds that a true apostolic succession of officers would, after the great Apostasy, have to be re-established by God himself, directly and immediately. He came to see that even his attempt at rebaptism had no foundation. At length, he worshipped privately at home with his wife, believing that no external and visible church was possible. He died in 1683.

Assessing Williams’ place

Williams is interesting because we see in one life the temporal outworking of a logical progression. The question will of course remain, is that progression a logical entailment, or merely one way the logic of his position could work itself out?

It behooves us at least to analyze each move, even if only to set the stage for a deeper subsequent reflection anon.

1. The act of separation

There is obviously a wide spectrum of motivations for separation. Providential physical removal, such as being part of a colony, is certainly reason for de facto separation. It raises the question of when de jure, or legitimate separation is possible. This will need to be explored more deeply.

2. Cutting the umbilical

It is odd, in view of his emphasis on liberty of conscience, that Williams was unable to allow that the separation of some was de facto only, even if also partly motivated by a desire to improve worship.

Separation de jure might entail that the body left behind is not a church at all. In Williams’ case, the radical individualism of his Independent spirit did not seem to allow that others might not yet have reached that conclusion, even though there was no juridical watershed that could be pointed to force the issue.

3. Rejection of the inherited ordinances

Williams came to think that the same corruption that justified separation also vitiated the possession of church power by the host church, even looking into past history. But this seems like a new variant of the donatist error.

We believe that Protestantism continued the true catholic church. Perhaps this entails the rejection of the ordinances (e.g. baptism, ordination) of Roman Catholicism — that discussion is for another day. But in any case, at the time of the original separation, it was not necessary to say that Rome did not possess the ordinances. On the contrary, we say that Luther and Calvin received true ordination from the holy catholic church, and continued the succession of that ordination.

In contrast, the Independents try to deny any divine right of church power going beyond what is possessed by every believer. But then, they should recognize that, on their principle, Robert Duvall was entirely right.

4. There is no lawful church power left on earth

Though shocking, it seems to me that Williams was being logical and consistent here. Would that all Independents, at least of the type that would balk at baptizing themselves, would show such consistency!

Roger Williams tried the Independent’s logic: that all powers of the church reside in the individual believer. Tom baptizes Harry, then Harry baptizes Tom.

Indeed, it seems like the logic of the case is such that either Tom can baptize Harry prior to Harry baptizing Tom (unless indeed Tom can baptize Tom); or there are no ordinances left in the elect church; or Independency is impossible.

Roger Williams stands as a scare-crow, but also as an admirable case of logical consistency.

27 thoughts on “Roger Williams, Independent (HCC #3)

  1. It is interesting that many of the spiritual heirs of Roger Williams are the ones who speak the most about the church and covenant. They start their own independent congregations and affiliations independent from any established demonination and then go on to exhalt the importance of the Holy Catholic Church.

  2. For Wilson’s position on this, see

    Basically, he argues that “though I am an ordained minister, I do not believe that I am at the tail end of a long chain of governmental ordinations going back to Christ. But this does not mean that I do not believe in apostolic succession. I am also baptized, and I do believe there is a web of baptisms that go all the way back.”

    You’ll have to read the whole post for all the nuances. I find his argument to be a case of classic-Wilson cleverness, but overall deficient. It reads well (its interesting), but doesn’t add up well. Just whose Trinitarian baptisms are incluced in the web? Wilson says “all Trinitarian communions”. Bahnsen once noted that Mormons and children playing church can offer Trinitarian bapstism. What is are the criteria for a legitimate “communion”?

    I’m sure Wilson’s familiar with such a criticism, but his principle seems to need modified to avoid it.

  3. Good sleuthing, Joshua. Yes, that article is classic Wilson legerdemain. You gotta hand it to those guys– they come up with totally new ways to justify their deviance. I’ve never seen the radical congregational principle justified from Heb 10 before.

    Re Bahnsen’s reductios: It’s shocking that Wilson included Mormonism at the “fringe” of the church (albeit qualified as “cultic”). Yet on his principle, how could he exclude Mormons? How could one group of boys playing church declare that another group of boys playing church were illegitimate, without exposing their own pretension?

  4. Hey Tim,
    I got into a “discussion” with one of my professors the other day concerning this and he either explicitly said or strongly implied (I don’t recall exactly) that he doesn’t see anything such as an institutional church in the NT but that “wherever two or three are gathered…” (he did say that). This seems to be a position a lot of dispensational fundies are taking (c.f. SharperIron message board).

    Can you give me a recommended reading list on this so I can do more studying? Right now I’m not at the point where I could argue sufficiently with the prof. if he is mistaken.

  5. Jonathan — Actually I’m planning to do an annotated bibliography as one of the HCC posts. In the meantime, I discuss that particular passage a bit in an old article here (click on the link to “challenge and beauty of church discipline,” then go about a third of the way down). There’s so many facets to the issue, it’s hard to recommend a single source, unless it should be the two-volume Bannerman. The short essays on the subject in the works of John Murray (which is a must-have set anyhow) might be a good place to start. More anon…

  6. to #1 — yes; this reminds me of when I used to hang out at the Religious Cretins chat room. The webmaster (whose viciousness drove everyone but 4 clones off the site) had a thing going on the side called “reformed catholicism.” He was advocating veneration of Mary, high liturgy, the whole nine yards. But then, it turned out he himself was a Southern Baptist!

  7. (and by mentioning that, I mean no insult to our dear Southern Baptist readers– it is just pointing out the irony of that particular SB ragging on Presbyterians for not being “catholic” enough.)

  8. This is so much potent balderdash. You can find no scriptural precedent for leaving the eklessia and starting one of your own. The Jewish theological kingdom was rife with corruption, idol worship, and wicked kings, yet we find no orders from God to “come out from among them and start your own eklessia”.

    It was an act of treason and rebellion against that covenantal kingdom which God established on earth to foment the Protestant Rebellion. Show me any scripture which makes such command to believers as to shred the Body of Christ into pieces.

    Show me anywhere in Holy Scripture where it was plainly stated or prophesied that the Church would apostacize and John Calvin would have permission to set up another body and claim authority over believers as he did.

    Your premise is terribly flawed inasmuch as the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ insures a sacrificial cleansing for the Church which protects her from the errors of Her people.

    Brother Ed

  9. I thought I did. Maybe I was tired.

    What do you feel that I missed. What I saw was a man — Roger Williams — who had no time for authority and ultimately decided that he was the ultimate authority in his own life.

    Help me here. What do you feel I said amiss?

    Thank you.

    Brother Ed — who may have been tired when I read the post after a long day.

  10. — because the entire point of the essay was to show the absurdity of Williams’ position, and derivatively, of most American congregationalism; whereas your reaction only makes sense if I was doing the opposite.

  11. Oh, okay. Then we are sort of one the same side.

    Sort of.

    After all, you belong to a group who basically did the same thing with the authority which God established in St. Peter, didn’t you?


    Brother Ed

  12. Well Ed, I would encourage you as this discussion evolves to be less quick to identify as “same side” or “other side” followed by emoting in terms of that. Rather, seek to identify the key argument and the point at which the argument begins to diverge from the position you hold, then drill in at that point. In these first three installments (and it will continue for a few more) I am trying to establish the formal attributes of the holy catholic church. A material principle such as the function of the bishopric of Rome is not yet in view.

    BTW not all Romanists agree with the doctrine of the primacy of the pope.

  13. Tim wrote:

    BTW not all Romanists agree with the doctrine of the primacy of the pope.

    That kind of comment certainly whets my appetite to see what you have in store. I’m not sure how someone could be a “Romanist” in the post-Vatican I era and disagree, but I haven’t heard your position yet. I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing it!


  14. Some Tridentine Catholics believe in an “interregnum”, i.e. the Popes since Vatican II are not real Popes, but phonies precisely because they do not uphold the (supposed) settled doctrines of Roman Catholicism. Thus they called John Paul “that Polack” instead of His Majesty (or whatever silly name they would otherwise use). Nevertheless the office of Pope (when held by a “real” Pope) is still the office of Christ’s Vicar. At least that’s my understanding, not being a Roman Catholic of any stripe but Reformed Presbyterian.

  15. Yes, ElizaF, there are folks who consider themselves Sedavacantists. I wonder if that is what Tim was referencing?


  16. I was thinking of the protest to the 1983 Canon Law that Thomas Schirrmacher discussed. Unfortunately, the link doesn’t take you right there. Go here, then click on “vol 1 no. 2” then on the link titled “Has Roman Catholicism Changed? An Overview of Recent Canon Law.” The discussion relevant here is almost exactly halfway down.

  17. Kudos to the translator!

    It was an interesting read. I was unaware of that development, and feel a bit abashed that I am nearly two decades behind the times.

    Here’s a link that worked for me to get me directly there. Hopefully it will work for others as well.

    Thanks, Tim!


  18. TF — you’re welcome; and thanks for the link.

    I should point out a couple translation errors that never got fixed.

    I said “ascension” (of Mary) rather than “assumption.” Also, Council is often erroneously given as “counsel.” Let the context determine the correct reading.

  19. I have some nagging questions about this issue. Take your time, and sorry for the outlining (I don’t know the html tags).

    1. Just what are the criteria for being a part of the HCC?

    a.) A tracing of Bishops (Apostolic Succession)back to the apostles? Then the OPC (you guys) and the PCA (and I) are not part of the HCC.

    b.) Ministerial Succession (a different form of AS)? PCA and and OPC ministers can be traced back to the the time of the Reformation, so we’re good. But so is the theological compromized and liberal PCUSA. And why cannot an OPC pastor leave to join the CREC if in his view the OPC is corrupt (this has precedent, you know?)?

    c.) Apostoloic Doctrine, Baptism, Recognition by others, etc. You have already dealt with these adequately.

    2. What are the grounds on which lawful, HCC ministers may leave the HCC?

    a.) Wholesale theological and ecclesiastic abuses, a la those of 15th and 16th century Roman Catholic church?

    aa.) Just which abuses? Justification? Lord’s Supper? Predestination? Sola Scriptura? Papal Supremacy?

    aaa.) Where does scripture list these issues as the criteria for judging churhes as in or out of the HCC?

    b.) Three marks of the church (which are found in scripture)?

    bb.) Then many local congregations of legitimate HCC denominations have unfaithful preachers of the gospel, no discipline, and quasi-sacraments. Is HCC to be determined on a local by local level?

    bbb.) And how do we judge if a church really has the marks? Some think that a lack of law/gospel antithesis from the pulpit is no goespel. Is Welch’s juice a sacrament?

    I’ve got more, but I don’t want to unload too much. Thanks for the previous posts on HCC. I look foward to any repsonses you might give.

  20. Joshua — good questions; many of these will be dealt with more thoroughly in future HCC posts that focus on specific themes. However, here are a few previews:

    1a,b. Some kind of succession is necessary, but not necessarily via individuals. I will argue that both OPC and PCA have the necessary succession (as you already hint in 1b).

    1c. Because, the CREC has no claim whatsoever to being part of HCC; no succession at all. Whenever you think “CREC,” think, “Starbucks Bible Fellowship” — a bunch of guys that liked to get together for coffee and cigars, who one day said, “we be a church!” But it doesn’t work that way.

    At the end of the day, there will be tough cases to adjudicate; but some, such as the CREC, can be ruled out so quickly that it is not even necessary to make all the eventual qualifications and nuances.

    2a. The proper way to leave is to be kicked out for orthodoxy; this is how Luther, and the OPC started, for example. But we should model it that the corrupt side that is doing the “kicking” is actually kicking itself out; the “kickee” is the continuing body. (Thus, aa and aaa are largely obviated.)

    2b. When I write on the marks, I am going to favor the earlier two-mark model and suggest that the third mark is implied by the first two. The marks will become a useful guideline once the principle of correlativity is understood: a mutually-implied dialectic of the given (represented by ordination and sacraments) and the essence (represented in the preaching of the word). This only needs to be applied at historical junctures: it would never need to be applied at the local level, except perhaps in America as a practical family matter after moving.

  21. TJH,

    Thanks for the preview. You’re definitely scratching where it itches. I think it must be poison ivy, because now I have more questions! Just one, though.

    If the proper way to leave is to be kicked out for orthodoxy(and the kickee is the faithful remnant after judgment, is it were), then that only changes the form of my question. What are the grounds for the kicker to become the “kicked out”? It must be a doctrinal matter, hense your term “orthodox”, but which doctrines constitute that, and whose exegesis trumps the other’s?

    We need a principle that can protect orthodoxy and the HCC, and yet deter the misguided, but yet doctrinaly-wounded conscience of some young zealot from starting a new splinter group. Perhaps Rome thinks the OPC and PCA are Starbucks Bible Study groups?

  22. Joshua,
    If the universal position of the church for let’s say 1400 years (until Wycliffe and Huss) was tactile succession. By this I mean the laying on of hands for ordination either to the office of Bishop or that of Priest by a Bishop. From what I understand for many hundreds of years it was understood that only a Bishop could ordain because he shared in the Apostolic function. As an aside the Priest shared in the Apostolic function too, but never was an ordination by a priest,in the Catholic sense of the term, recognized as valid. Anyone who assumed the perogative of ordination apart from being ordained a Bishop was recognized as a schismatic and therefore seperate from the Apostolic Church. The Apostolic Church is the only Church there can be for it was to them that the authority was given by Christ Jesus for laying the foundation of the same. Certainly, wolves can come into the Church and scatter the flock. If indeed, there were abuses at the time of the Reformation that scattered the flock then the sheep today (protestants) are not justified in remaining apart from the Church, nor were they at the time of the Reformation. Certainly, it is not pleasant to be scattered and there might be seemingly very good reasons to run like Forrest Gump to get out of there, but ask yourself, “Should the sheep come back?” Are they justified in remaining scattered? For my money I think the Anglican Communion got the best of both worlds. She remained Catholic, yet was washed with the Reformation. Tactile succession was the Universal standard because the Church was and is one. To throw it out is to deny the visible Church no matter how much you wiggle. As I’ve pointed out before: The Church held this position universally, therefore if the PCA or OPC in seizing ordination apart from a Bishop thinks itself justified it in effect says the Universal Church was in error for over 1400 years. This is too incredible to believe and we are bound to believe Christ Jesus, when he says, “The Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth.”

  23. I think there are a few things going on here.

    1. The Bishopric: I’m not concerned with “what was understood” by the early church, as much as I am in the objective, inspired (and thus infallible) Word. You know my take on the so-called distinction between Bishop and Preist, John, so I won’t belabour that.

    2. The Scattered: It takes the Bishopric view to grant your point that Presbyterian Protestants are scattered. I think TJH will argue that Rome is scattered itself, and thus we Presbyterians don’t need to come back home–we are home. They are the ones with the work to do. Grant the points of a)ministerial succession (not only bishops, but all elders can peform “orders”), and b) Rome has left the fold, and I think you’ll agree that the PCA and OPC is “in”.

    3. Interpretation: I think this is going to go back to the question, “Who interprets scritpure?” We both grant that our views of church government must be grounded in scripture, and we both agree that the church must be the Apostolic church. You see Christ and the Apostles as setting up a Bishopric to perpetuate the apostolic authority and unity of the church, and I see otherwise. As I’ve said in the past to you, I don’t think Scripture itself teaches us that non-authoritative words (church history, Church fathers, etc.) are the way to interpret scripture. Would you agree that Scripture needs to teach us this? Or starting with the Bishopric, are you content with the words and traditions of the men in that office?

  24. John — We are actually not as far apart as you probably find yourself in most interactions with modern presbyterians. Hang in there in the coming weeks if you will. And let’s not try to settle every issue in an hour, or with one post.

    The thesis I am defending is that ordination by succession is necessary, but that the body of succession is not “any individual bishop” but rather the presbyery. (Here I use the term “presbytery” for an authoritative manifestation of holy catholic church representing the universality principle [i.e. by no means just a local church], even if not exactly organized in the way we categorize as “presbyterian.”)

    To be sure, this is a different position than that adopted by the Anglican church; yet the two principles are not contradictories. There is an overlap between them; and if the P-principle is the correct one, it only means that the A-principle was unnecessarily restrictive, but not that it was in error in the sense of denying the truth. That would only follow if the bishops in the succession were acting contrary to the wishes of the wider assembly, the virtual “presbytery.” But I have no reason to think this was ever the case.

    On the assumption that the P-principle is correct, and that the bishops were not acting autonomously and contrary to the holy catholic church, then the bishops in the act of ordaining were de jure executives of Presbytery. This is less than optimal (since it would have been better if Presbytery had been present and more active) but it is not contradictory to the P-principle in the sense of negating it.

    Therefore, you neither are forced to model what we do as “seizing ordination apart from a Bishop,” nor to suppose that adopting our principle “says the Universal Church was in error for over 1400 years.” There is a middle position that is logically sound.

    The Holy Spirit leads the church into all truth; but He does so in strange and mysterious ways. Sometimes, the church has done what was necessary without understanding very perfectly why, and even, it may be, partly misconstruing the reason.

  25. TJH,

    You write: “…we say that Luther and Calvin received true ordination from the holy catholic church, and continued the succession of that ordination.”

    I can corroborate Luther’s ordination (he was a priest), but I have difficulty verifying Calvin’s. My reading indicates that Calvin was likely installed (by protestants) as Pastor in Geneva, but by whom I don’t know. Any help on this?

  26. Joshua — my proposed answer is already outlined in #25.

    I’ll be back with more. I haven’t forgotten this series, it’s just my plate is full and it’s taking longer than I ever thought.

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