Last night I shared with the congregation of Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., about the significant contributions of early Baptist leader Roger Williams. It was the first in a series of Wednesday evening presentations I will give over the next few weeks in recognition of the 400th birthday of the Baptist movement.
My already deep appreciation for Williams was increased a few years ago by reading Edwin Gaustad’s superb biography released by Oxford University Press in 2005.
Well ahead of his time, Williams did not accept the religious practices and social behaviors of his day just because they were familiar. He examined them carefully in light of the biblical revelation that culminates in Jesus Christ.
As a result, Williams was stubbornly committed to the biblical concepts of human freedom and human worth. Such commitments would not mesh well with those who valued racial superiority and government-controlled religious practices.
According to Gaustad, Williams and his wife, Mary, came from England to New England in 1631 to a warm welcome. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony deemed him “a godly minister.”
But Williams did not stay in favor with government and church officials for long. Two primary convictions kept him at odds with those seeking to run the emerging government and the church.
One, Williams opposed the idea of an established church. Two, he (to quote Gaustad) “was especially troubled by the use of the Christian religion to do a very un-Christian deed: namely, depriving the Indians of their own property without due compensation or negotiation.”
Roger Williams believed with all his heart that authentic faith could only be voluntary. He even opposed having sworn testimonies end with “So help me God” — noting that making an unbeliever swear to God was to cause the Lord’s name to be taken in vain.
His emphasis on a personal affirmation of faith also led him to embrace believer’s baptism as opposed to the common practice of infant baptism.
Williams believed that all persons are of equal value in the eyes of God. He embraced the affirmation of the disciple and early church leader Peter who said: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.” (Acts 10:34 NIV)
So, when expelled from the Colony, Williams wandered for weeks in bitter winter conditions before purchasing land from Native Americans that would become the modern city and state of Providence, R.I.
There Williams and others would work relentlessly to create a place of welcome for all persons. As a result, the governing documents of Providence guaranteed “liberty of conscience.”
Williams spearheaded the founding of the First Baptist Church in America in 1638, a congregation that is still active in Providence. Though he did not remain a Baptist for long, his contributions cannot be diminished.
On more than one occasion, these convictions were called “dangerous” by those possessing political and religious power at the time. But thank God for Roger Williams’ “dangerous ideas” that:
1. God shows no favoritism.
2. Faith in Christ is an individual choice.
3. Baptism is for believers.
4. The government should never force religious practices on a person.
5.In government and in church, there should be room for dissent and diverse opinions without suppression or exclusion.
As we mark the historic milestone of four centuries of the Baptist movement, Roger Williams’ “crazy ideas” are worth embracing, celebrating and protecting.