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Roger Williams

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Submitted by djl (United States), Oct 15, 2005 at 10:59

R.I. Historical Society finds rare edition of Roger Williams' work
A librarian found the volume tucked inside other historical writings.

01:00 AM EDT on Saturday, October 15, 2005

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- A rare first edition of a 1644 tract by Roger Williams, Rhode Island's first white settler, founder of the state and the father of the doctrine of separation of church and state, has been discovered in the collection at the Rhode Island Historical Society, society officials disclosed yesterday.

In The Bloudy Tenent, Williams lays out his theories of religious liberty, freedom of conscience, the need for a sturdy fence separating the sacred and the secular, and an end to people being persecuted for their religious beliefs, which was all too common in 16th- and 17th-century England.

The discovery occurred in August, when Pheobe Simpson, a librarian at the historical society's library on Hope Street, stumbled across the volume during an inventory of rare books in the collection. But only recently was the volume's authenticity verified.

The Williams volume was tucked inside some other historical writings on a shelf with rare books.

Simpson, who has a background in bookbinding and religious history, recognized immediately that if the volume was what she suspected -- a 1644 Williams edition -- that it was indeed a significant find.

"I just broke out in goose bumps," Simpson said in an interview yesterday. "It was the pure excitement of touching something that Roger Williams touched."

Williams traveled to London to get his 1644 treatise printed. Parliament ordered copies of it burned, but Williams is believed to have spirited an undeterminable number out of England and back to Rhode Island. The first edition was printed in June or July 1644 and a second edition shortly thereafter. The historical society also has a copy of the second edition.

The newly discoveredvolume is in good shape, said Karen Eberhart, the society's library director, because it was printed on paper made from cotton, rather than wood.

The library has been completing a comprehensive inventory of its rare holdings and the Williams volume has been its first big find, Eberhart said.

Research has concluded that the volume is one of only six known first editions of The Bloudy Tenet (the spelling was changed in subsequent editions to "Tenent"). The others are held by Trinity College in England, Trinity College in Ireland, the New York Public Library, The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, and Brown's Hay Library rare books collection.

Williams was a stubborn, righteous and remarkable 17th-century man. Not only was he Rhode Island's founder and the progenitor of church-state separation, he also made friends with Native Americans and learned the language of the Narragansetts; he believed the Indians ought to be compensated for land taken by white Colonists.

He was a Puritan minister who emigrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony with his wife, Mary, in 1631. Williams questioned the legitimacy of government and church in Massachusetts, where church membership was required for voting, and was especially troubled by the use of the Christian religion as a justification for depriving the Indians of their land without compensation or negotiation.

A devout Christian, Williams was repelled by the religious turmoil of 16th- and 17th-century England and Europe, and by persecution that had been committed in the name of Christianity. In his new biography Roger Williams, Edwin S. Gaustad quotes Williams and writes, "We query whether the blood of so many hundred thousand Protestants, mingled with the blood of so many thousand papists [Roman Catholics]" spilled since the Reformation "be not a warning to us."

His views were considered radical; he was banished from Massachusetts and fled to what is present-day Providence, then a wilderness.

As he struggled to establish a stable town government in Providence, Williams also sought to separate religion from civil authority. For those moving to his Colony, Gaustad writes, Williams had ordered that "no man should be molested for his conscience."

"Forced religion," Williams wrote in The Bloudy Tenent, "stinks in the nostrils of God." Williams' writings resonate to the present day, where the government and the courts wrestle with such questions as whether "under God" should be required as part of the Pledge of Allegiance and whether a person's religious background should be considered when he or she is evaluated for a position on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We still puzzle over where to draw the line between the authority of the state and the freedom of the soul," writes Gaustad, a retired history professor at the University of California at Riverside. "We still agonize over the folly of religious persecution. And we still worry about the limits of liberty as these relate to calls for responsibility. If any such matters seem urgent in the opening years of the 21st century, then Roger Williams needs to be a remembered rather than a forgotten man."

Williams' writings came decades before John Locke, the English philosopher whose theories are usually cited as the foundation for the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of religious liberty.

"Just as some great experience in the youth of a person is ever afterward a determinant of his personality, so the American character has inevitably been molded by the fact that in the first years of colonization there arose this prophet of religious liberty," Perry Miller, a Harvard historian, wrote of Williams in 1953. (Gaustad included Miller's excerpt in his biography.)

In 1638, Williams, who had been holding religious services in his home, baptized about 20 other settlers and founded a Baptist church, the first of its denomination in North America, according to historian J. Stanley Lemons of Rhode Island College. That church, the First Baptist Church in America, stands at the foot of College Hill in Providence.

Under Williams' leadership, Rhode Island became a haven for those seeking refuge from persecution and repression. Dissenters, agnostics, Quakers and Jews, banned from other Colonies, found freedom in Rhode Island.

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