Monday, June 9, 2008

Roger Williams: Restorationist

Nearly every student of early American history has heard the tale of Roger Williams. His story is usually told from the perspective of his being a brave rogue of religious radicalism, who defied the Puritans of Massachusetts and established a community of religious toleration in Rhode Island. While this version of the Williams story is generally true, there is a deeper saga that is often omitted from the Williams chronicle.

As we all know, Williams was a deeply inquisitive man. His knack for questioning everything around him -- particularly in the religious arena -- caused Williams to constantly push the religious envelope. Though he originally embraced Puritan theology, Williams' concerns about an attachment to the Church of England -- which he saw as a continuation of Roman Catholic dominion as the Antichrist -- caused him to adopt a more Separatist perspective. Inspired by these anti-Church of England sentiments, Williams embraced the admonition of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to, "come out from among them, and be ye separate."

Upon his arrival to the "New World," Williams took his religious views even further. Instead of following the traditional beliefs of the early Puritans in Massachusetts, Williams chose to criticize his new neighbors for what he saw as a lack of penance. While Massachusetts Puritans were happy to accept both the godly and ungodly in their worship services -- with an exception being made for the Lord's Supper -- Williams believed that those outside of God's grace should not be permitted to worship with God's elect. In other words, those who had not yet experienced God's saving grace could not even attend the same services as those that had received God's grace (See The Hireling Ministry None of Christs). In addition, Williams also believed that any person who had not repented for his/her former association with the Church of England was in danger of losing their salvation. As Williams stated:

"why although I confesse with joy the care of the New English Churches, that no person be received to Fellowship with them, in whom they cannot first discerne true Regeneration, and the life of Jesus: yet I said and still affirm, that godlie and regenerate persons are not fitted to constitute the true Christian Church, untill it hath pleased God to convince their soules of the evill of the falce Church, Ministry, Worship etc. And although I confesse that godly persons are not dead but living Trees, not dead, but living Stones, and need no new regeneration, yet need they a mighty worke of God's Spirit to humble and ashame them, and to cause them to loath themselves for their Abominations or stincks in Gods nostrils..." (The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1, 350).
These religious views, which eventually landed Williams in trouble with the Puritans of Massachusetts, only tell part of the story. Williams' departure to Rhode Island actually caused him to further question his faith. Williams began to question the validity of his baptism and those of his followers, which eventually helped to spawn the Anabaptist movement. As Williams continued to ponder the Bible and its teachings, he eventually came to the shocking conclusion that no church had the authority to assemble in Christ's name. His reasoning was simple: The apostles commissioned by Christ had been his personal ministers on earth. Until Christ returned to the earth and renewed the apostleship, no person/persons had the right or authority to gather as a Christian Church. Williams makes this belief clear when he writes:

I desired to have been dilligent and Constant Observer, and have been my selfe many ways engaged in City, in Countrey, in Court, in Schools, in Universities, in Churches, in Old and New-England, and yet cannot in the holy presence of God bring in the Result of a satisfying discovery, that either the Begetting Ministry of the Apostles or Messengers to the Nations, or Feeding and Nourishing Ministry of Pastors and Teachers, according to the first Institution of the Lord Jesus, are yet restored and extant" (The Complete Writing of Roger Williams, vol. III, 160).
Williams further adds credence to his argument when he writes:

"If Christs Churches were utterly nullified, and quite destroyed by Antichrist, then I demande when they beganne againe and where? who beganne them? that we may knowe, by what right and power they did beginne them: for we have not heard of any new Jo: Baptist, nor of any other newe waye from heaven, by which they have begunne the Churches a newe" (John Winthrop Papers, vol. III, 11. Quoted in Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 52, by Edmund Morgan).
In much the same way that Thomas Jefferson believed that the original doctrine of Christ had been changed over time, Williams believed that the religion and authority of Christ was not on the earth, and would not return until Christ's Second Coming. In essence, Williams' religious beliefs should be classified as those of a Restorationist. In this sense, Williams can be compared with the Restorationist beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Smith, Jemima Wilkinson, etc.


Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi Brad. Interesting post on Roger Williams.

I don't think that Williams' argument that churches have no right to assemble because Christ gave His instructions to the Apostles, and therefore, His instructions applied to them only, is not entirely scriptural.

First of all, Jesus knew that the Apostles would not live forever, and would not live to see His second coming, so His instructions were for those Christians who survived the Apostles, which includes all Christians to this present day.

The author of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament (believed to be either Peter or Paul), wrote:

"And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day [of Christ's return and the final judgment]approaching." Hebrews 10:24-25

I am not sure exactly what Williams meant by "the religion and authority of Christ was not on the earth, and would not return until Christ's Second Coming." Did he mean that there was then no single denomination that had faithfully embraced and practiced the teachings of Christ, and that there would never be such until Christ's Second Coming? Or did he mean something else?

It is not un-Christian to question the established religious status quo; Jesus did it all the time during His earthly ministry. Roger Williams was both brave and just; he followed the Bible to the best of his knowledge, even though every last thing he believed may not have been scriptural. He nevertheless tried to please God and do what was right, and I think that for that, he is an ornament to Christianity.

BTW, I've written a little post on the big hype with George Washington and communion, and the investigation of Wilson and Abercrombie. If you are interested in reading it (it has some valuable information that even surprised me), you can do so here.

I confess, however, that I cringe when people like Jonathan keep harping on the "communion issue"; taking communion or not taking it does not prove one's beliefs either way. There are many motives which could explain why Washington did not take communion, but skepticism is not the most probable motive, because Washington gave no other proof of being a skeptic.

And yet instead of focusing on the words of Washington (Jon basically put such phrases in Washington's writings such as "blessed Religion revealed in the word of God" on a level with insignificant tidbits), the fact which is more inflatable (that is, requires more speculation to come to a conclusion) such a the communion issue, was the focus of attention.

Perhaps he would throw in, as he has, the fact that Washington referred to the Great Spirit in his addresses to the Indians. I have studied Christian missions to the Indians (such as that of Sam Kirkland to the Oneidas) for several years, and I am certain that "the Great Spirit" is not a phrase that strictly refers to a pagan deity. It is just the Indian expression used to refer to the Creator. If Washington had used "God" and not "The Great Spirit" to speak of the Creator to the Indians, they would not have been able to connect with that idea; the word "God" was not a word they commonly used to refer to the creator. However, when Washington used the "Great Spirit," he would have been talking about the same person, but in Indian terms.

Indians who were truly converted to Christianity (and the Christians who brought them the Gospel) still used the phrase "The Great Spirit" to refer to God, the Creator, even though now they understood Him as the God of the Bible. So the "great Spirit" argument to disprove Washington's Christianity is weak.

I think I have rambled on a bit, but I hope that the information was helpful.

God bless.

Brad Hart said...

Hey Herc. Thanks for the comment.

As to your question on Williams, I think he was clear on his belief that Christianity lacked the authority needed to establish a Christian church. He was passionate about the idea that religion required apostolic authority in order to work according to the laws of God.

Thanks for the info on Washington. I look forward to reading your post!