Despite his statue featuring on Geneva’s famous Reformation Wall, Roger Williams (1603-83) is better remembered today by secular historians than by evangelical believers. The Subversive Puritan should help to redress this.
The title is apposite. Williams’ theology was thoroughly Reformed, but his unbending belief in liberty of conscience made him a dangerous extremist in the eyes of other Puritans. He wrote passionately against the medieval concept of a ‘Christian country’ and national church, and contested the civic government’s right to penalise citizens for their theological beliefs. As one of the world’s first advocates of this position, he was banished by the theocratic authorities of Massachusetts, where he had emigrated in 1630. The once-persecuted Puritans had become persecutors themselves.
Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island, and there put into practice his theories of religious freedom for every faith — whether Protestant, Romanist, antinomian, Quaker or atheist. He debated their beliefs vehemently, but refused to regulate their speech, opinions or worship. He had confidence in God’s power to defend his truth without governmental protection.
Ultimately Williams’ arguments won out. His views are accepted widely today as essential components of liberal democracy, and Roberts notes his profound influence on the political theories which birthed the US constitution.
A compelling closing chapter shows the pertinence of Williams’ writings for Britain’s current socio-political divisions. A common religion or identity is not necessary for social cohesion, because man’s status as God’s image-bearer demands respect for all — even those with whom one disagrees fundamentally.
The Subversive Puritan will appeal most to Christians who are interested in the history of political thought. May it lead to a wider recognition of Roger Williams as one of the Reformation’s greatest heroes.