Sunday, June 2, 2013

Lone Journey: The Life of Roger Williams, by Jeanette Eaton

Ah, Jeanette Eaton, you writer of juvenile biographies, you.  We meet again!  This time her subject is one of great interest to me, Roger Williams.  Since I moved to Rhode Island for graduate school, I missed out on the local history lessons that the long-time residents received in public school.  But *everything* down here is all about Roger Williams (there's a university, I'm just a quick drive from the park and the zoo it contains). . . you can't visit Rhode Island without tripping over the man.

Lone Journey does an excellent job of describing pertinent events in the childhood and youth of Roger Williams that led him to his eventual place of influence in the colonies.  As a young child, he was raised Anglican, as was proper.  It was believed at the time that it was absolutely necessary that religious and state authority be unified, and one used to enforce the other, to maintain power and influence.  But Roger soon saw how the civil government and the church corrupted each other, and waged war against decent people (often other Christians, especially Puritans) for their refusal to conform.  Despite the disapproval of his parents, Roger also became a member of the Puritan faith and went to study under a prominent lawyer.  Here, also, he discovered firsthand how the King and other politicians used his influence to force the church to sanction their own immoral acts.  Eventually becoming outspoken in his own right, Roger fled to the colonies to avoid prosecution in England for his beliefs.

He had hoped to find new freedoms in a new land, but found to his disappointment the powers that be (in this case, the heads of the Massachusetts Bay Company) were recreating exactly the same power structure that existed at home.  Men were imprisoned for refusing to attend church services, and those of minority Christian faiths were being persecuted and exiled (and, in later years, executed).  Roger Williams was of the firm conviction that civil law should only address civil matters, and that matters of religious faith and belief should be left to the individual to freely express.  He founded his own colony in Providence, as well as the islands in Narragansett Bay, and welcomed people of all faiths, including Quakers, which were being exiled from Massachusetts, and Jews, which were being cast out of Europe.

Part of the reason for his success in his colony is that he was a genuine and honest man, who dealt honestly with his peers, and with the native tribes that surrounded him.  He always brokered fair trades, paid for land with fair currency, and was often relied on to mediate disputes amongst tribes, or between tribes and other white men.

It is interesting to note that Roger Williams seemed to have a great fondness for Native American tribes (going so far as to publish a language reference which is still available today), but did not see it as his mission field to try to convert them to Christianity.  He felt that it would be hypocritical to encourage him to join the white man's faith, when the white men were behaving so abominably and in direct opposition to what they claimed to believe.  Instead, he lived his own faith through his actions.

Finally, the last tidbit that made this book especially fun for me was getting to meet the people who various places in Rhode Island are named for.  Makes me feel like I kind of know where I am!

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