by Ian Williams Goddard - eighth-great-grandson of Roger Williams
(© 1997 Ian Williams Goddard -- free to copy nonprofit with attribute)
At the unveiling of the Roger Williams statue at the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on January 9, 1872 Rhode Island Senator William Sprague observed that:
Roger Williams...successfully vindicated the right of private judgment in matters of conscience, and effected a moral and political revolution in all governments of the civilized world.
Roger Williams' life was a crusade for freedom of conscience and religious liberty. Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1636 as a stronghold of religious freedom after purchasing the land from the Narragansett Indians.
A refuge from religious persecution, Rhode Island became home to the first Jewish synagogue in America and a sanctuary for Quakers who were being killed and persecuted by anti-Quaker laws in Massachusetts and other colonial territories. Rhode Island was an open door to all people, a safe harbor in a sea of tyranny and oppression, a safe harbor with a bright beacon shining forth the light of liberty, and that bright beacon was Roger Williams.
Before founding Rhode Island, Roger Williams was exiled by law from Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he was repeatedly hauled before the Salem Court, of witch trial fame, for spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions" that questioned the Church. Perhaps most treasonous of all, his "dangerous opinions" challenged the legitimacy of the King of England's claim to the American colonies with the radical proclamation that the rightful owners of the land were the Native American Indians, not the King.
Amazingly, the law written in Massachusetts that exiled Roger Williams was not removed from the books until 1936, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed House Bill 488, which formally ended the 300- year-old exile. It would seem that during that time they were determined to make sure that trouble maker wasn't coming back.
Roger Williams worked to persuade his fellow European settlers to respect the land claims of Native Americans, and to live and trade with them as neighbors, not kill them like vermin. Roger's first book was entitled A Key to The Language of America, which featured a language-translation guide teaching Europeans how to speak with the Natives — a primary precondition for peaceful association. Unfortunately for the Native American people, the majority of European settlers preferred extermination over translation.
Roger's contemporaries argued that Native Americans did not believe in property rights, and therefore the claims of European settlers violated no preexisting property rights. Roger argued that the Native Americans did make claims to property, claims that must be respected. Edwin Gaustad, professor of history at the University of California, describes the case Roger Williams made for Native land-rights:
The English...justified their grabbing of Indian land by claiming that these simple folk did not really believe in property rights. On the contrary, Williams observed, "the Natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People," even bargaining among themselves for a small piece of ground.
Roger Williams, a Christian minister by training, argued most vigorously against the forced conversion of the Natives to Christianity. Williams believed that forced conversion violated Christian principles and was one of the most "monstrous and most inhumane" acts forced upon the Native peoples of North and South America.
Roger called forced conversion "Antichristian conversion" and said that it was like compelling "an unwilling spouse...to enter into a forced bed." Ignoring Roger's appeal to the sanctity of property and the individual, European settlers rushed forward to rape not only the Indian's lands but their minds as well.
While most European settlers rejected his vision of peace and harmony between European settlers and Natives, Roger Williams helped to establish an American tradition of religious freedom and individual liberty that has endured to some extent to this very day, encoded in that most sacred document: The Bill of Rights. I could not be more proud of my eighth-great-grandfather, Roger Williams of Rhode Island, enemy of tyranny and champion of liberty!
In closing, I offer an excerpt from historian Cyclone Covey's book, The Gentle Radical: Roger Williams
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