John Winthrop planned to reform the Church of England through the establishment of a Puritan colony in America. In opposition to Winthrop, colonist Roger Williams questioned Puritan reform and advocated for separation from the Church of England. Williams also challenged Winthrop by defending the land rights of Native Americans and tolerating different religions. Ultimately, the debate between Winthrop and Williams is a battle between the ideologies of essentialism and pluralism. Winthrop can be associated with essentialism because he believed in the established hierarchical order and subjection to authority.
On the other hand, Williams’ philosophy fits with the ideology of pluralism because he believed in religious tolerance and the right of individuals to follow their own conscience. Winthrop attacked anyone who challenged Puritan beliefs. Williams was one of the first colonists to challenge Puritanism. Specifically, he challenged the Puritan conception of liberty.
Puritans believed in subjection to the liberty imposed by the government and the church. On the contrary, Williams believed in a less restrictive form of liberty known as soul liberty.
Soul liberty stated that individuals should be allowed to follow their own consciences. Soul liberty thus promoted the idea of religious tolerance. Religious tolerance was not acceptable to Winthrop and the Puritans because they believed their religion was the ultimate truth. They believed they were a “City Upon A Hill” and an example for the rest of the world to follow. Williams further alienated himself from the Puritan community when he also challenged the belief that God had sent the Puritans on a divine mission to America.
He challenged this belief because he thought everyone was equal in God’s eyes and that no one was favoured by God.
After confronting the Puritans, Williams was perceived as a threat to the Massachusetts Bay colony. Therefore in reaction to the threat, Winthrop and the leaders of the colony decided that they needed to send Williams back to England. In Winthrop’s journal he notes the urgency of the removal of Williams because he “had drawn about 20 persons to his opinion and they were intended to erect a plantation about the Narragansett Bay, from whence the infection would easily spread” (179). However, when they went to deport him they discovered he had already fled to Rhode Island and taken shelter with the Narragansett Indians.
During Williams’ tenure, Rhode Island would become a place of religious liberty. In Rhode Island it was not mandatory to attend church and there was no official Church. This level of freedom encouraged many Jewish people and religious dissenters to settle there. Rhode Island also distinguished itself from Massachusetts Bay by increasing democratic practices. The governor and the assembly in Rhode Island would be elected by the people on an annual basis.
Williams also countered Winthrop by creating close ties with the Native Americans. He learned many of their complex languages and attempted to understand their culture. While attempting to understand them he witnessed “many solemn confessions to myself, and one to another of their lost wandering conditions.” (Williams 197). This led Williams to empathize with the misfortunes of the Native Americans and contributed to his passionate defence of their ownership of American land. His defence of their land rights was significant because it challenged the authority of Winthrop and the English monarchy. Winthrop and the monarchy believed it was their god given right to claim the Native American land in America. It was available to claim because they stated it had not been properly settled by the Native American peoples.
In Winthrop’s journal, it is noted that Williams defended the Native Americans land from the monarchy by demanding compensation for the Native Americans: “he disputes their right to the lands they possessed here, and concluded that claiming by the King’s grant they could have no title, nor otherwise except they compounded with the natives.” (178). Winthrop also agreed that the site should be purchased from the Natives. However, he also insisted that the Native Americans pay tribute to the American colonists and convert to the Puritan religion. In many cases the Natives would allow colonists such as Winthrop to enforce their will upon them because they believed the Englishmen were superior. The Native belief in the superiority of the English is presented in Williams’ A Key into the Language of America when he states that the Natives : “have no clothes, books, nor letters, and conceive their fathers never had; and therefore they are easily persuaded that the God that made Englishmen is a greater God, because He hath so richly endowed the English above themselves.” (195).
Ultimately, Winthrop did not treat the Native Americans with respect because they followed natural liberty. Winthrop defined natural liberty as acting without restraint. In his opinion, their inability to act without control made them savages. Winthrop also disrespected the Native Americans because he was fearful of the influence they may have on colonists. He thought that their alternate viewpoints might sway colonists away from Puritanism. Thus to counteract outside influences, Winthrop said the community should act “with more enlargement towards others and less respect towards ourselves and our own right.” (170). Winthrop thus wanted to emphasize the community and limit individualism. A tightly knit community would help prevent independent thinkers like Williams. It would serve to ensure that the hierarchical order stayed intact without any challenges.
In Williams’ The Bloody Tenet of Persecution he criticizes the hierarchical order of the Puritans and the Church of England: “In vain have English Parliaments permitted English Bibles in the poorest English houses, and the simplest man or woman to search the Scriptures, if yet against their soul’s persuasion from the Scripture, they should be forced to believe as the Church believes.” (205). This served to expose the constraints placed upon religious liberty by the Church of England and the Puritans. They both strictly enforced their beliefs and restricted liberty by oppressing any other viewpoints.
Williams’ also criticizes the violent evils of the Church of England in The Bloody Tenet of Persecution: “Six years preaching of so much truth of Christ kindles the flames of Queen Mary’s bloody persecutions. Who can now but expect after so many scores of years preaching and professing of more truth, and amongst so many great contentions amongst the very best of Protestants, a fiery furnace should be heat” (205). This revealed the desire of Williams to separate from the Church of England. In his eyes the church was single minded and unnecessarily violent. In this instance, Williams compared Queen Mary to John Winthrop to criticize the leadership of Winthrop. Winthrop and Massachusetts Bay had persecuted Williams for speaking out against the Puritan beliefs in similar fashion to the persecutions committed by Queen Mary in England.
In Williams’ A Letter to the Town of Providence he further defends his idea of liberty in this passage: “None of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers of worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ought to command the ship’s course, yea, and also command that justice, peace, and sobriety be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers” (206).
This served as an argument for Williams’ belief in the separation of church and state. He agreed that a community should have a government and laws in order to prevent disorder. However, he did not believe that one particular religion should be enforced upon the citizens of that community. Williams had learned from the holy wars of Europe and wanted to prevent religious conflicts from occurring in America as well. Ultimately, he believed that different religious beliefs were irrelevant as long as citizens abided by the laws of their society and were contributing members of the community.
The American colonies were created to reform the Church of England and advance its particular beliefs. This was exemplified by the utopian Puritan colony led by Governor John Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay. Despite attempts at creating a utopia, the imperfections of Massachusetts Bay and the Church of England were exposed by revolutionary colonists.
Specifically, the colonist Roger Williams challenged the Puritan way by advocating for colonial separation from the Church of England. He believed separation was necessary because of the need for religious liberty in the American colonies. Ultimately, Williams’ challenge to the Puritans was successful because he was able to create a following and establish a new colony in Rhode Island. Thus it is evident that the critique of the Church of England and the Puritans by Roger Williams led 17th century colonial America on a path to liberty and independence.