Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The  names of Nathan Hale and Thomas Payne are well known but there is another who looms large in the history of our country -  Roger Williams  - 1603 -1683? His name is largely forgotten now, except in Rhode Island but I learned about him in Junior High School - and recall that he left Massachusetts'  Puritan colony and established Rhode Island as a haven for those seeking both freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion. I remember being very impressed with a person of the times who was so unafraid to publicly differ from most of his contemporaries. In any event,  I had to do some research to come up with the details: 

Williams was originally a clergyman in the Anglican church but joined the Puritans and came to this country. Deeply devout, he nonetheless challenged the Puritan beliefs and attitudes - he was , in truth, a maverick. He had many differences  with the Puritans, both in politics and religion. He was eventually tried and convicted of sedition and heresy and was ordered to be banished. He left Salem, MA and walked 105 miles to Narragansett Bay where he and some kindred spirits purchased land from the Indians. He called the settlement Providence.

In 1637, they drew up an agreement limiting the government to "civil things". The colony was now named Rhode Island  and became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs, including Baptists, Jews and Quakers. Williams was not the first advocate for separation of church and state but he was the first to establish a place where it could be practiced - Rhode Island stood for both freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion. At the end of his life, he was not affiliated with any church but remained deeply religious  and active in preaching and praying. He died about 5 years before the infamous Salem witch trials, to which he almost certainly would have fallen victim if  he had remained in Salem. How ironic that a group that came to this country seeking freedom of religion should then deny that very freedom to others. 

There's much talk now about the separation of church and state. It was even proposed that Thomas Jefferson be excised from Texas school books because he wrote the First Amendment! Why does THAT not surprise me...We should remember that his amendment  stands as a bulwark between us and various extremes of religion. Listen up 'tea partiers'. Brush up on your history. I don't know what kind of leaves you're brewing that 'tea' from - but I think I can guess....


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