WASHINGTON, D.C. — It may require more effort than in the past to observe the U.S. bishops’ annual Religious Freedom Week, ending June 29, with fewer days than the original two-week Fortnight for Freedom window and, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the closure of churches, or strict limits on Mass attendance, put in place either by dioceses or governments.
But that kind of inconvenience is a trifle compared to what Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, had to deal with in the 17th century.
Convinced the Church of England was corrupt and incapable of reform, Williams, to avoid persecution in his native England, made the trans-Atlantic boat crossing to Massachusetts, where he could preach to his fellow Puritans. Except that he got expelled by the Massachusetts Colony’s leaders — all of whom happened to lead both religion and government. There also was the occasional burning of heretics, defined as anybody who was of the wrong religion.
Williams’ Rhode Island — it was originally called Rogues’ Island — was a safe haven for religious practice, according to author Becky Garrison, a direct descendant of Williams, who wrote a new book on her forebear, Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues.
“He would have debated them,” the Catholics, just as he debated the Quakers, whose beliefs he abhorred, Garrison said in a June 24 phone interview with Catholic News Service.
But “if Catholicism had been imported to Rhode Island, they would have had the first diocese there” instead of in Maryland, which many Catholics and scholars believe was named in honor of the Blessed Mother. (Other historians say it was named for Queen Henrietta Maria, the devout Catholic wife of England’s King Charles I.)
Garrison, who grew up as an altar server in her ordained father’s Episcopal parish, said: “The religious right has completely confused what he (Williams) meant by religious liberty. When he said you have the right to worship as you please, he meant it — worship in the general sense vs. ownership at a particular church. If you wanted to worship at his particular church, he could kick you out” if your beliefs were not aligned with his, she said.
But Williams was against “having state-imposed religious beliefs imposed on anyone.”
Williams was ahead of his time in “treating the natives as equals. He gave them a fair price for their land. He learned their language to communicate with them. But he didn’t feel the need to Christianize anyone,” Garrison said — unlike colonial Massachusetts, which required uniformity of belief.
She added those Puritan sentiments still persist: “When people say they want religious liberty today, what they really want is a Christian nation.”
Williams also advocated the strict separation of church and state, perhaps influenced by his experience in Anglican England and reinforced after his emigration to colonial Massachusetts. Williams wrote of a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” a metaphor used by Thomas Jefferson in his 1801 letter to the Danbury Baptists.
It’s a view Garrison shares with her kinsman. “I would be with him outside the National Prayer Breakfast” instead of attending it, she told CNS. “Why are invitations being sent on congressional letterhead and RSVPs going to the White House?”
Because Williams died nearly a century before the establishment of the United States, it’s impossible to know for sure, Garrison said, what he would have thought of religious organizations receiving federal grants to do charitable works aligned with their faith’s mission.
Calling it “my strong hunch” although “I can’t prove that,” Garrison said, “I think he would have not taken the federal funds,” adding she has a hard time understanding “when the Catholics say, ‘We don’t want to do abortions, but we want federal funds.'”
“Unlike Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Roger didn’t tackle the virtues directly,” Garrison writes in the book, as she’s on a first-name basis with her kinsman throughout its pages. Williams may have written on the virtues, but his books were burned after he died, and his surviving writings don’t address them specifically.
“But we can explore through the diligent application of prudence and temperance,” two such virtues, Garrison writes. “Roger was able to employ the virtues of justice and courage to craft a charter (for Rhode Island) that would define ‘religious liberty’ for everyone — including non-Christians — and that continues to stand the test of time.”