• Old Bone

Roger Williams & the Providence of God

The founder of the colony of Rhode Island and of the first Baptist church in America, Roger Williams, left England for America in 1630. Having studied under one of England’s greatest minds and jurists, Sir Edward Coke, Williams had come to embrace the concepts of both political and religious freedom—concepts that were at odds with the prevailing culture, the King, Parliament and the Church of England. Williams left his native country under the threat of arrest and imprisonment.

As Williams studied and prayed, and his theology and ideology evolved, he became a threat to the Puritan powers in America as well. His belief that the state should not have power over the church was at odds with his friend John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” vision. Initially welcomed as a man with “great intellect and piety”, the Puritans of Plymouth soon turned against Williams for his political and theological views, as well as the fact that he believed American Indians were the legitimate owners of the land and that their property should be purchased. As biographer John Barry noted,

“after Williams accepted a church post in Salem, north of Boston, and gathered a like-minded congregation, the authorities in the Bay feared that the foul error emanating from him could spread and corrupt the entire colony. In October 1635, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished him, ordering him to leave the colony within six weeks. If he returned, he risked execution.”

After being banished from the Bay Colony and forbidden to preach or teach, Williams’s friends began to congregate at his home in Salem where he continued to discuss and share his controversial views. Williams had come to fully embrace the revolutionary notion first taught by his mentor, Sir Edward Coke: “the house of every one is to him as his Castle and Fortress as well as for defense against injury and violence, as for his repose.” (It is this same common law principle upon which today’s “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” gun laws are based.)

The General Court followed the example of Pilate. Not wanting to be directly blamed for the arrest and execution of Williams (he was still admired and respected by many), the General Court commissioned English soldiers led by John Underhill to arrest Williams and take him back to England where his punishment would include beatings, the cutting off of his ears, the boring of his tongue and life imprisonment in the Tower of London—which amounted to a death sentence. But God had other plans.

Though his old friend, John Winthrop, disagreed strongly with many of William’s views, he did not want to see him suffer arrest, imprisonment and death. So he secretly sent word to Williams that unless he fled his home, he would be arrested and taken to England for trial. Williams knew full well what that meant.

But had it not been for Divine Providence, Winthrop’s warning would have arrived too late. John Barry described what happened:

“John Underhill was a professional soldier, a man not to be trifled with, and he would soon show himself to be a killing machine. He took fourteen men with him. Then, in the dead heart of winter, a great blizzard came out of the northeast, with heavy gale. The pinnace [small boat] hove to in Boston Harbor, waiting out the storm. For four days Underhill waited. It was a great storm, leaving snow-drifts as deep as a man. It was likely with a great but secret pleasure that Winthrop reported, “When he came to his house, they found he had been gone three days before, but whither they could not learn.”

Had the arrest party not been delayed by the storm for four days, they would have caught Roger Williams the day before he left. The extra days allowed Williams to get a three day head start—too much for the Underhill and his soldiers to overcome. Moreover, the drifting snow from the blizzard would have covered Williams’s tracks making it impossible to track him. Williams later noted that the extreme cold also froze all the streams and rivers solid so he could simply walk across them. Otherwise, he would have had to ford them. He later noted he was, “fed by ravens”—meaning the Indians with whom he’d made friends with years earlier.

Had it not been for that blizzard in 1635, Roger Williams very likely would have died a martyr’s death in the Tower of London and would be but a footnote in American history. He never would have fathered a son named Daniel in 1641. And I never would have been born to write this story.

Even in the storms, God is in control and has a purpose. Rest in that.

Happy New Year.

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