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.