“The reason we must 'defend to the death’ the right to utter ‘intolerable speech’ is that failure to do so results in the swift and certain condemnation as 'intolerable’ all speech that diminishes the power or legitimacy of those in power. More succinctly, we must defend the ‘pariah’s’ right to speak or everyone who crosses the regime, conveniently, becomes a pariah.”
-Emily Burns 2023
“Men's consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged, or constrained. And whenever men have attempted any thing by this violent course, whether openly or by secret means, the issue has been pernicious, and the cause of great and wonderful innovations in the principallest and mightiest kingdoms and countries…”.
-Roger Williams 1644
by MURRAY BUTTNER:
It was on this day, October 9th, in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for holding “new and dangerous opinions against the authority of the magistrates.”
Exile at that time of year was essentially a death sentence.
Fortunately for Williams, Governor John Winthrop intervened to postpone the banishment going into effect until the Spring. However, when Williams kept spreading his "heresies" in his home church, the magistrates had had enough: they sent a gang of men to apprehend him and send him as a prisoner back to Britain, where he would most likely face trial by the ecclesiastical authorities and then execution.
One could say that the censorship-industrial complex was a lot more efficient and ruthless back in the 17th century!
Cancelling, deplatforming, shadow banning… the growing intolerance of those with different worldviews and the suppression of dissenting voices by those in power that we are living through is not new. The world has been here before, many times.
Some might say these behaviors are hardwired into our species.
Lord Acton famously said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
When we hear that phrase, we tend to think of the second clause regarding absolute power and imagine infamous tyrants and genocidal mass murders: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. But power can corrupt up and down the pecking order, and nobody is immune to its temptations.
America’s Founding Fathers certainly understood the perils of unchecked power. They tried to mitigate against our republic devolving into a tyranny through the checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution and the limitations on government and the guarantees of personal freedoms and rights in the Bill of Rights.
Most of us are familiar with the history of the American Revolution and the subsequent writing and passage of the U.S. Constitution.
Less familiar are the events of a century and a half earlier, and the story of the man who has been called the Founding Grandfather. He also happens to have been the first cancelled American. In how he responded to that cancellation, Roger Williams shaped our modern world.
Tolerance was not common in the first half of the 17th century. Europe was awash in blood from the crescendo of religiously motivated violence that we now call the 30 Years War, (which eclipsed both World Wars in both military and civilian casualties).
While that was happening on the Continent, across the waters in the British Isles, Catholics and Protestants were suppressing, torturing and killing each other in turns, depending on which of Henry VIIIth’s children was on the throne.
And the suppression and killing wasn't just Protestant vs. Catholic. Under Queen Elizabeth and then King James I, reforming Protestants were felt to be a threat to the establishment and were treated accordingly. William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, used his powers to suppress, harass and torture those who did not fall into line.
Some of these fled to the Netherlands and then to new settlements in North America, where they could try to live and practice their beliefs unmolested. The first of these groups was the Pilgrims, who in 1620 crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth.
In 1630, a larger group of colonists founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony 35 miles away in what would become greater Boston. The colony struggled mightily that first Winter – over 20% of the colonists perished and many who survived the Winter chose to return to England.
In February 1631, a Cambridge educated preacher Roger Williams and his young wife Mary arrived on the relief ship Lyon. Williams’ Christian faith was extremely strong, even for that characteristically religious age, and his reputation preceded him to New England. He had fled Britain because his views were unacceptable to the established Church of England and he was in Archbishop Laud’s sights.
On arrival in Boston he was offered one of the most prestigious positions in the new colony, that of teaching pastor at the Boston church. His future would have been secure. But he turned the position down on the grounds that the Boston church had not separated from the Church of England.
Over the next four years he moved first to Salem, then to Plymouth, and then back to Salem. He kept moving because he kept discomforting the local powers that be with his heterodox worldview.
Though brilliant and charismatic, Williams was also strong willed and unbending in his core beliefs. And the two beliefs that he held dearest were, first, that the state should not interfere with matters of conscience, i.e. that there should be no state established religion; and second, that the colonists had no right to the lands of the Native Americans if they did not purchase them, and furthermore, that the King of England had no right to be granting the Native American’s lands away. Those beliefs cost him everything in 1635 when he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The handful of small, fragile settlements along the New England shore could ill afford to have someone as esteemed as Williams stirring up dissent and questioning their land claims. They tried to muzzle him, but he wouldn't stay muzzled.
When he kept speaking his mind to others in Salem during the Winter delay to his banishment, the magistrates had had enough. By mid-January they sent troops to arrest him.
Once again Governor Winthrop intervened and tipped Williams off. He fled alone into the wilderness, leaving his wife and small children behind. Had he then died of exposure, which easily could have happened, we would be living in a very different world.
The story of his flight, of how he was sheltered by Native Americans and subsequently given land by them on Narragansett Bay, where he founded the community of Providence, is relatively well-known and has almost an air of folklore about it. But it is at that point, however, that his story gets really interesting.