Appreciating Roger Williams


I stumbled upon the history of Roger Williams almost by accident. I had bought A Patriot’s History for my own study. At the time, I was most interested in the years between Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. I wanted to appreciate more why Ronald Reagan chose Calvin Coolidge as his political mentor. I all but ignored the nation’s founding, content in the understanding I had already developed.

I decided to pull my children out of school this year, because of the local teacher’s union strike. Not only was it unlawful, but a judge ordered them back to the classrooms in plain English, an order they claimed they could not understand. At the same time the teacher’s union representative was telling us that he was practicing what he taught the children — to fight against bullies (as if the taxpayers and parents and administrators in Tacoma were bullies, and as if there really was a policy to encourage children to fight back (there wasn’t). I decided that no union teacher deserved to fill my young children full of ideas, especially if they could not appreciate the truth, the law or a court order, and set their union up in opposition to the very people they were supposed to serve.

However, I do not believe in “free range” education anymore than you can cultivate a beautiful garden by letting it run wild. I had a strict regimen for my children, consisting of plenty of reading, plenty of writing, and plenty of math. On the side were history and scientific pursuits. I find they can accomplish more work in 2 or 3 hours, than they would accomplish in an entire week at school, even spending 2-3 hours a night with them completing their homework.

So it was that I assigned my oldest son, 10-year-old Archie, to read a page or so from A Patriot’s History, and write brief summaries about what he read.

When we reached the story of William Bradford, I asked him to write a short report on the man. He did, and it was terrible. So I read about William Bradford, and admired him for the great sacrifices he made.

On the next page, I read briefly about Roger Williams, a man who stood opposed to William Bradford’s views on almost everything. So I assigned my son to read about Roger Williams, and write a short report about why he is so important in history. This report was much better, although it missed some key elements I had hoped he would find. In expounding this to my son, we talked about some of the things Roger Williams did in detail. Soon, I was engrossed in his history.

After reading about Roger Williams, I am impressed to say that he was the first Mormon in America. Indeed, searching “roger williams mormon” uncovers a number of interesting links. Mormons universally appreciate Roger Williams, and quote him frequently. Our apostle, Elder Holland, claims him as his tenth great grandfather. He is found in our Sunday School material, alongside Wycliffe and Luther, as revered names who will be forever remembered as a critical component to the restoration of the gospel.

I believe Roger Williams represents the view that many early Mormons had, and explains why they clung so quickly and so faithfully to Joseph Smith. They were looking for a man like Joseph Smith, and had been studying to be ready to identify him when he came. Those who knew scriptures knew what Joseph Smith was, in the same way people who knew the scriptures knew who Jesus was when he walked the earth, even when his disciples would try to hide his identity.

I say “know” the scriptures because I find there are two types of people in this world. Those who read the scriptures, see the words, and understand that they carry some meaning; and those who read the scriptures and are filled with the spirit of God, and uncover treasures of knowledge that cannot be found by a study of the letters and words alone.

In effect, I believe Joseph Smith and the early saints bled America dry of these people who thirsted for the spirit and knew enough to recognize it when they tasted it. As they left the United States to colonize the desolate land of the Great Salt Lake, they took with them a large proportion of the spiritual heirs to Roger Williams.

Rewind a few days in my life, and I was up in the south end of Seattle at a Bible study. (For those of you familiar with LDS faith, we do not do Bible studies, at least not in the way our Christian friends outside of the church do.) I listened for over an hour to a man expound the scriptures and give the most beautifully simple sermon on Latter-day Saint doctrine. He explained, with conviction, power, and authority, the basic doctrines of the LDS church, including a summary of the structure of the church, a structure which still amazes me in its simplicity, brilliance, and utter impossibility were it not for the direction of the spirit. (That is a lesson for another day.)

To those who are “church watchers” or critics or who are trying to find fault, I pity you. If you look for the bad among the membership of our church, you will find it, probably in every one who is a member of our church, without exception. We freely admit that we, as individuals, not perfect, but full of faults, and we confess and forsake our faults when we can, according to the doctrine of repentance. We strive to be better every day than we were the day before last. We fail sometimes, but we succeed as well.

If you are finding fault with the structure of the church, or our doctrine, or our belief in revelation, then you are finding fault with God, and you align yourself against all that is good and holy and honorable and just and merciful. There is no easy way to put that. If you feel some degree of darkness slip into your heart when you do this, if something inside of your heart and mind cries out in pain as you do this, then you know for a fact that you are assaulting that which is good and honorable. You have every right to do this. God gave you your life and your time on this earth so that you can be free to do what you wish with your agency, but that doesn’t erase the fact that one day, you will have to stand before God, with a perfect recollection of all your guilt, and confess that all his ways are just and merciful. If you do not believe what I say is true, ask God right now, in all sincerity and humility if he will not judge against you in the last day for finding fault with the church. I trust that God will answer in the way that is appropriate for you.

Roger Williams lived, as best as I can tell, according to his conscience. From day one, he was willing to sacrifice his own life for pursuing that which he knew in his heart was true. Every step forward was plagued with all manner of trouble and affliction, but isn’t that what Christ promised his disciples?

That’s the kind of perspective that Roger Williams had. He was, in my mind, the first modern Mormon to set foot on this continent. I cannot deny that he was sent by God, and inspired by Him, and laid the groundwork not only for our nation but for our church.

More importantly, those who claim a faithfulness to the idea of a separation between church and state, should pay their honor and homage to Roger Williams, and the faith and doctrine that lead him to proclaim such. After all, Roger Williams found that the separation of church and state was a doctrine of the gospel of Christ, much more than just a good idea.


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