Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ever heard of this guy? (9)

Many people actually have heard of the Rev. Roger Williams. He's the guy exiled from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay region and who moved down to Rhode Island, where the textbooks say he encouraged freedom of religion and made nice with the Indians.

All true, but what got him into trouble in the first place? As it turns out, he was a pain.

Williams, for instance, started thinking about the Puritan practice of calling all the men in the colony Goodman, much as we might say "Mister." Williams raised the question: "Are all these people 'good?'" If not, as certainly was the case, why should we honor them all with such an honorific?

When the community in which Williams was the pastor got into a land dispute with a nearby town over boundaries, the folks in his congregation naturally assumed the reverend would take their side. But Williams said: Wait a minute - this land belonged to the Indian tribes. Who is to say any of us "own" any of it?" You can imagine how that went over.

Communion was another problem. Williams began thinking that the privilege of drinking Christ's (literal) blood was a privilege earned only by the truly holy among the congregation. Soon, fewer and fewer of the members of that congregation were deemed holy enough to partake. Eventually, it only was Williams and his wife who were allowed to take communion. And then Williams started worrying about his wife.

Before long, recognizing the reductio ad absurdum nature of his thinking, Williams decided that EVERYBODY was sinner, and therefore communion should opened to everybody as an incentive to grace, sinners or not.

All this stuff, especially his congregations' ire at Williams' insistence on challenging every thought, led the Puritan authorities to declare him a heretic and banish him. To them, it was good riddance. (Incidentally, despite being a staunch Puritan, Williams also was America's first Baptist. He decided people shouldn't be baptized until they were adults, old enough to know what was up.)

Let's add something about someone almost nobody has ever heard of: An early Puritan merchant named Robert Keayne. Keayne sold a bag of nails for a six-shilling profit, and was accused of "profiteering," a sin in the eyes of the church. He was tried and fined 200 pounds. For years, until his death, Keayne objected that commerce - free trade - must be unregulated. It must be left alone by the powers that be.

Unlike most Puritan controversies of the time, points out Professor Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University in Boston and the Harvard Extension School, this dispute has endured right up to the present day.

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