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Prof’s portrayal of Roger Williams recounts push for religious freedom

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The first synagogues in the United States were generally located in colonies where Baptist influence was the heaviest, said Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church in America, during a chapel at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Nov. 7.

Williams, portrayed by retired Southwestern professor John Drakeford, said Jews found protection in these areas because of Baptists’ historic support of religious liberty.

Williams, who died in 1683, was the founder of the Rhode Island colony and the first Baptist church in America. Drakeford, distinguished professor emeritus of psychology and counseling, portrayed Williams dressed in a colonial-era black suit, with white bib and cuffs.

In modern America, the idea of religious liberty is a constitutional guarantee, but in Williams’ day state churches dominated. Through Williams’ efforts, the Rhode Island colony received a charter, the first that guaranteed a land for liberty of conscience.

Through Drakeford, Williams retold his life story beginning as a youth working in the court of Sir Edward Coke as a shorthand writer. The jurist arranged for Williams to attend the Charter House, a school in London, and later Cambridge University. During his time as a shorthand writer in the court, Williams became familiar with many of the people who had become prisoners of conscience in England.

Upon Williams’ graduation from Cambridge, Coke wanted to help Williams study law. While at Cambridge, however, Williams had become acquainted with Puritans, who were seeking to make reformations in the Church of England during this time.

When Coke asked Williams if he was interested in studying law, Williams responded, “No, I’m not interested.”

“As a matter of fact I was very interested in grace rather than law,” Williams said.

Williams became a private chaplain to a wealthy family. The next year, as his ideas about freedom of religion made him more controversial, he set sail for the New World, arriving in February 1631.

He was offered a staff position at the church in Boston but turned it down and went to work at a church in Salem. Under increasing pressure from the church in Boston, which was loyal to the Church of England, Williams soon found himself unemployed.

Williams returned to preaching, speaking on the two tables of the Ten Commandments. The first table, the first four commandments, Williams contended, related to man’s relationship to God and, therefore, was not under the control of the state.

“These first commandments had to do with God, and the state had nothing to do with it,” he said. “For example, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.’ You could be fined five pounds if you didn’t go to church in the Massachusetts Bay colony. I found that was ridiculous.”

A delegation from Boston told him not to preach about the first table, and if he did, he faced deportation to England. He kept traveling through the colony, not preaching, but showing the truth in the Ten Commandments. He eventually went to live among the American Indians to hide himself from possible capture and deportation to England.

During that time in 1636, he negotiated with Indians to purchase land that was eventually given to him to establish a settlement.

“I called it Providence. Providence because it was by the providence of God that I had come to this particular place,” he said.

In Providence, Williams began to believe in believer’s baptism. Williams and 19 others were eventually baptized in the ocean, establishing the first Baptist church in America.

“[Those baptized] never dreamt that the day would come when 25 million people in this America would proudly call themselves Baptists,” Williams said.

In 1643, Williams returned to England to secure a charter for Providence. While there, he became the leading expert on American Indians. Upon his return, Williams’ ship was greeted by a fleet of canoes. Williams, known as “The Apostle of Liberty,” had triumphantly returned home.

“I stood in the canoe,” Williams said, “stood up, and held aloft the charter of the first society ever established on the basis of liberty of conscience.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN DRAKEFORD AS ROGER WILLIAMS.

    About the Author

  • Roy Hayhurst

    Roy Hayhurst is director of denominational and public relations services for GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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