Thursday, 11 April 2019

The Subversive Puritan: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience

AT last I return to my blog. and I do so shamelessly to promote a new book that Evangelical Press has published for me. It is a biography with some contemporary application of Roger Williams (1603-83) who founded the state of Rhode Island in the seventeenth century.

Williams went to Massachusetts as did many Puritans to find freedom of worship. When he arrived he found the Puritans were not as pure as he would have liked, not was he as free as he would have liked.

Williams fought for decades to establish Rhode Island as a state for those 'distressed for conscience', a concept that made him obnoxious to many Massachusetts Puritans, though in the end some of them expressed a grudging admiration for him and some remained close friends.

Williams obtained a charter that broke church and state apart (as American Historian John Barry says). Freedom of conscience and separation of church and state were the two pillars on which his colonial venture was based.

Williams wrote a number of polemical works, a beautiful devotional book for his wife, and a remarkable guide to the language of the Native Americans (the Narragansetts) with whom he established exceptional relations.

But what of liberty of conscience today? And is religion necessary to the stability of state? Can we exist on civility or do we need the gospel? Can religious exclusivism survive within political pluralism?

Does Williams have something to teach us today? Contemporary authors like Os Guinness, Martha Nussbaum, Miroslav Wolf and Teresa Bejan think so. So do I. You can find this book on Amazon and on 10of as well as on Evangelical Press's own website.

Garry Williams (Director, Pastors' Academy, London Seminary) says:

In this engaging volume Mostyn Roberts provides us with an introduction to the life and theology of Roger Williams, as well as an encouragement to learn lessons from him on how to live in our own times. Mostyn deftly sets Williams in his historical context on both sides of the Atlantic without bewildering the reader with too many of the vicissitudes of seventeenth-century political history. As Mostyn shows, Williams held some views still rightly regarded as eccentric, but his theory of mere civility as a viable basis for society is very close to the contemporary ‘two kingdoms’ theology that finds that basis in natural law. Even for those of us unpersuaded by the two kingdoms project, Mostyn’s work can only serve to help us engage thoughtfully over the question of an adequate foundation for civil society. And the story of Williams and his trials is itself fascinating and well-told: what an extraordinary challenge these people faced as they sought to construct societies from scratch on the other side of the world!

Michale Haykin of Southern Baptist Seminary, writes,

This new biography of the key Puritan thinker Roger Williams is most welcome. Like many pioneers, Williams had some quirks and oddities in his thought, which Mostyn Roberts' biography does not hide, but his clarity of thought about the necessary matrix of true Christianity was nothing short of remarkable and this is why he must be remembered. Drawing upon the latest research on the Puritan author, Roberts outlines the contours of his life with special focus on his thought about religious liberty and why it is so important today. An excellent and truly thoughtful volume.

Sharon James, adviser to the Christian Institute says,

If you visit the famous ‘Reformation Wall’ in Geneva, Switzerland, you will see a huge statue of Roger Williams. Sadly, he is little known today. As founder of the first ever colony to allow freedom of conscience and religion, and author of one of the first landmark works defending religious freedom, Williams deserves to be better remembered. We now take it for granted that freedom of thought, conscience and religion are fundamental to a free society, and we look back with horror at the religious persecution and coercion of a past age. So we should honour Roger Williams, who suffered much for insisting that force never produces genuine faith, and that compelled worship is abominable to God. Mostyn Roberts has filled a real gap by providing us with this clear and comprehensive account of Williams’ life and thought. Helpfully, he does not gloss over Williams’ undoubted oddities and eccentricities, but through it all the essential courage and conviction of a great man shines out.

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