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Influential Personalities: Roger Williams

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Freedom of Conscience and Religious Liberty

The author, Sandra M. Gustafson, has written a small biography on the literature writer Roger Williams. Gustafson immediately describes Williams as “the preeminent figure associated with freedom of conscience and religious liberty” (203). The literature piece written by Williams titled “From a Key into the Language of America” may give the impression to the reader that he felt compelled to write about the experiences he had witnessed concerning freedom of conscience and religious liberty toward the native American Indians (205).

In order to gain an understanding of Williams, the biography written by Gustafson is a compressed over view of his life. Gustafson continues to depict the character of Williams as one who writes about controversial topics or ideas. She includes during this time of American Literature that Williams “was a brilliant polemicist” and his “polemical writings on colonization and religion contributed importantly to the rise of popular print culture in England” (Gustafson 203). Gustafson includes Williams as “the son of a London merchant” and while in England he was influenced by a man who she describes as “a leading legal thinker,” Sir Edward Coke (203). According to Gustafson, Coke helped Williams to obtain his education from Cambridge University and after graduating Williams began taking holy orders (203). However, years later Gustafson adds that the Archbishop William Laud began to require that all clerics “pledge an oath of loyalty to the Church of England” thus contributing to the “Great Migration of Puritans to New England” (203). Gustafson illustrates for the reader the background information which portrays how people viewed Williams, some of his thought processes concerning his literature, and how he himself felt the attacks of freedom of conscience and religious liberty from the Church of England (203).

Williams wrote about how he had experienced enlightenment, the actual awareness of religious liberty. He informs the reader of his intent with this key piece of literature. Williams expresses his faith, hopes, and views so eloquently. He states, “by the assistance of The Most High to cast those materials into this key” (Williams 205). Williams informs that there are many different forms of language used by the native Indians. He also advises the reader that even though there are thousands of people with a different dialect, with the help of this key, that a man could “please the Father of Mercies to spread civility, (and in His own most holy season) Christianity” (Williams 205). Williams informs that he will discuss four topics; the names that the native’s go by, how they descend, their religion and customs, as well as how the Indians came to conversion (205). Williams began to get accustomed to the natives and soon realized that these people had their own beliefs about a God and their type of religious practices (206). As Williams details some of the accounts with the natives, he leads the reader to gain the understanding that these people are no different than the people of England (206-208). His key allows for one to empathize with these people, imagine sharing the gospel with the natives, and then letting them decide if they want to believe in the son of God, Jesus.

Jessica R. Stern has also written about Williams in the academic journal “A Key into the Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.” Stern explains, “Williams fully articulated his argument against religious violence and his manual for peaceful coexistence in two pamphlets he published” (579). She also states that his, “religious ideas determined his discussion of Native American culture” (Stern 579). Stern also discusses Williams life before migrating to America and how he was “dedicated to the cause of liberty of conscience from the time he landed in Massachusetts Bay” (580). Stern’s article further demonstrates how Williams argument for religious freedom developed from his own experiences with the native Indians of America.

In the book, On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams, the author James Calvin Davis, illustrates Williams as “America’s earliest pioneer for religious liberty” (1). Davis also states, “Williams commended freedom of conscience as being in the best interest of both religion and state” (1). Davis also discusses the many issues Williams experienced that gave him enlightenment as well as having conviction from his own thoughts about religion (1-2). Davis adds that Williams “insistence on absolute purity in worship sensitized Williams to the importance of protecting religious practice” (2).

In conclusion, the information provided from the key literature piece by Williams, the biography provided in the text book by Gustafson, the academic journal from Stern, as well as the book from Davis, all of these sources express the religious views that Williams shared. Williams himself experienced religious condemnation and he left England to have the freedom to share his views. Williams became enlightened when he realized that the native Indians also had their beliefs in a God. While sharing his beliefs, he began to see how other Puritan’s were demanding one type of belief system, thus awakening the need to defend the freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all people in this new land of America.

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