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Was Roger Williams Really a Baptist?
By Louis F. Asher


      A review of New England history can be very revealing. It is worthwhile now and then to retrace the paths of historical evidence in order to readjust historical perspectives. The overlooking of significant points often leads to erroneous evaluations, because what is not said too often becomes criteria for inaccurate conclusions. Christianity came to America through the first permanent settlers who located in the New England area. The first group was known as the Separatists. Following close behind were the Puritans who settled close by in Massachusetts. By 1600, the Church of England (known variously as Episcopal and Anglican Church) founded by King Henry VIII of England in the sixteenth century, witnessed some reforming groups within her ranks. The Separatists represented those who emerged from the Brownists or Independents who had come out of the Episcopal Church. A group of them had settled in Leyden, Holland, and belonged to a congregation pastored by John Robinson. As exiles from Robinson's congregation, they became the first permanent settlers of the New World. Their religious persuasion differed from the later Puritans in that the Separatists sought to reform the Church of England by separating from her formal system of worship, hence the title, Separatist. Another group of dissenters within the Episcopal Church attempted to reform the church by maintaining active ties with the church. A group of those people formed a stock company in England for the purpose of aiding the colonization of a New England colony. John Winthrop was appointed governor over the group; they migrated to America in 1629. In the New World they set up a government in Massachusetts which was administered by religious leaders, sometimes referred to as an Oligarchy. Those settlers were known as Puritans. Both the Puritans and Separatists practiced a congregational form of church government and held essentially to the same theology. It was out of the Puritan background that the celebrated Roger Williams emerged. Williams came to America as a well recommended Puritan minister. Very soon, however, he manifested a troubled spirit with regard to the Puritan intolerant religious exclusivism which prevailed in Massachusetts and among the Puritans at large in New England.


      The answer to the question, "Was Roger Williams really a Baptist?" requires first the definition of a Baptist as viewed by Williams' contemporaries. In view of the brevity of this article, may it suffice to say that the least act required would have been membership in a Baptist church. That is only a part of a definition, but without that identification a person would not be considered a Baptist either then or now. Therefore, if no evidence of membership is known, then Williams was not a Baptist. Williams did express a belief in religious freedom. He held that the local church was a voluntary congregation of baptized believers; he felt that there were recorded witnesses to the truth who extended back to pre-reformation times; he believed in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit and other kindred Baptist teachings. Nevertheless, other important Baptist beliefs Williams objected to, the most important of which was active fellowship in a Baptist church. Much energy and talent have been devoted toward emphasizing Roger Williams' Liberty of Conscience. Since that has been a unique feature of the Baptist forerunners, unwitting writers have identified Williams with the Baptists. Most of those extolling Williams' contributions to Christianity at large and the Baptists in particular have been preoccupied with his work. To be sure, Williams' whole soul breathed in freedom of thought and expression. In all fairness, however, it should be pointed out that Williams was not singular in this, nor was he the innovator of such, as he himself so nobly attests. He was inspired and encouraged by such places as Holland, where others before Williams had stressed this Biblical teaching. He said: "One of the gallantest of the Lady-Cities of world was the fisher-town of Amsterdam." (John Russell Bartlett [ed.], The Complete Writings of Roger Williams [7 vols.; New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1963], VII, 216-217. Hereinafter cited as Writings). Leonard Busher preached and wrote in that noble city many years before Williams came to New England. He borrowed from earlier giants of the Faith such as the Lollards of England; the Waldenses of Piedmont; and the various Anabaptist groups. Neither Busher nor Williams, then, heaped upon himself any claim for introducing this revolutionary concept into the Western Hemisphere, even though an abundance of scholarship has placed this halo around the head of Roger Williams as the implied innovator. Williams simply echoed this classic doctrine.


      Most historians have identified Williams with the Baptists of early Rhode Island colonization. In fact, he has been honored as the first Baptist pastor in America. Strangely enough, no conclusive evidence has appeared which objectively supports that claim. On the contrary, Williams' own writings fail to clearly identify him with any Baptist church at any time! His debates with the Quakers made that clear (Writings, V, 215ff.). Although Williams believed in an apostolic sending ministry, he held to no continued church authority. He viewed local church authority as arbitrary and without Christ's personal commission. On that subject, Williams appeared ambiguous at times. He considered himself a Protestant. In his writings he said he was separated "from my Father the Pope and my mother the Church of Rome" (ibid., pp. 342-43). In speaking of any concrete succession of the true New Testament witnesses, Williams was difficult to interpret, because he allegorized and spiritualized so much of the time. He held to a Reformation and Protestantism before the Lutheran Reform, for he claimed the beginning of "these protesters have been since the Waldenses." Again, he spiritualized by holding that God used "Moses to bring the Protestants out of the Egypt of Popery.' (Ibid., pp. 460, 462). Yet, he confessed that there was always a remnant of the New Testament ministry--but not always congregations--which were allowed freedom to worship God according to their convictions. He followed many of the later Anabaptists who maintained that the New Testament ministry was corrupted in the fourth century A.D., when the "Ministerial Gifts" were withdrawn (Writings, VII, 162-63, 167-68, 172; V, 390).


      Williams believed that the authority Jesus gave to the Apostles to baptize was no longer valid. He was consistent in his search for an "apostolic baptism" like that of first-century Christianity, because he believed that the apostolic office was meant to be permanent. According to Williams, because of a breakdown in the apostolic office it needed to be restored or reestablished. He called the apostles the "Ministerial Foundations of the Churches." Their office, he maintained, was violated through the nationalization of the churches, which moved the Holy Spirit to withdraw the ministerial gifts. The removal of those charismatic gifts, Williams contended, vitiated the apostolic office. Their absence, therefore, is a sign of no authoritative administration of the church ordinances. (Ibid., V, 172, 220; IV, 371-72, 442; VII, 162-63, 167-68, 172, 176). The cause for withdrawal, then, was apostasy, according to Williams (ibid., V, 390) ; and the absence of the gifts was evidence that no true ministry existed (ibid., IV, 371-72; VII, 158-59, 162-63, 167-68, 353). According to Williams, a greater blow to the primitive form of Christianity was dealt by Constantine the Great than by "bloody Nero, Domitian, &" (ibid., IV, 72, 333-34, 384). Since Constantine merged church and state, no extant ministry could be found which was according to what Williams called those "pure golden Candlesticks framed after the first patterne" (ibid., p. 383). On the other hand, he admitted to some existing "golden Candlesticks of Christ Jesus" (ibid.). Williams confessed to a continuing ministry, but one devoid of apostolic authority. On that issue, he expressed a ring of ambiguity. Some he maintained, did "hould the Truth of the continuance of Christ's visible Church in the way of particular Congregations" (ibid., p. 442). Williams, however, expressed his dissatisfaction with the order of organizing (or gathering) of the churches. Of course, he distinguished between the institution and its administration. He believed the New Testament church institution consisted of particular congregations, but he denied divine authority for their administration. Because of that, Williams never actively associated with the Baptists by uniting with them.


      Since Williams did not fellowship with the Baptists in a church, how did he reconcile his views with his practices? The ministerial calling, for example, he considered as threefold: The calling of Christ during His personal ministry was first; then followed the ministry of the first century primitive churches; and the third phase came with the calling of the Holy Spirit. Since Christ has ascended back to the Father, and the primitive order of the local church ministry has been corrupted, then only the calling of the Holy Spirit remains effective. It is by means of this latter calling only that the Christian ministry is carried on today (ibid., VII, 131, 160, 191-92). As a result of the conviction that the true New Testament ministry had apostatized, Williams held to no absolute way of the Christian ministry. He found no existing religious persuasion with which he could actively associate. He gave the following reason for not joining a contemporary church: "If my Soul could find rest in joyning unto any of the Churches professing Christ Jesus now extant I would join them" (ibid., V, 390).


      In spite of Roger Williams' conflicting and often inconsistent views of the New Testament church, he held to a continuing ministry through "particular" congregations. He wrote at length on national versus particular churches in New England and elsewhere; in fact, he was preoccupied with the separation of church and state (cf. Writings, IV, 74-75, 78, 80, 365-66, 389-91; VII, 177-78, 199, 231; et passim). Williams viewed the Old Testament order of the church among Israel as having been changed from a national figure to "particular and congregational" in the New Testament period (ibid., IV, 80). In the Old Testament, the "kings of Israel, Gods Church and people," he believed, "before Christ time, was but a figure of the spiritual land or Christian church" (ibid., p. 212). To Williams, the New Testament period was transitional. The nature of the "Church of Christ" became "the Israel now, . . ." the "Church of spiritual Israel," "a congregation of saints, flock of sheep" (ibid., pp. 73, 74, 79; IV, 70; VII, 159). The church became a "spiritual society voluntarily uniting," a spiritual Canaan or Israel--"the true and onely Christendome," he believed (ibid., IV, 277). Further, she was the only school for prophets and saints (ibid., p. 177). Since the original order of the Christian ministry was corrupted through a re-nationalization of the churches, Williams alleged, the witnesses in the only remaining valid forms of the continuing ministry have been sent forth through the agency of the Holy Spirit. These, Williams held, were found among such groups as the Waldenses, Hussites, Lollards, Wickliffites; and, strangely enough, even among the Lutherans and Calvinists--the latter, referring to the followers of John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland, better known as Presbyterians (ibid., VII, 158-59, 353; IV, 470, 206-207).


      The smoke of confusion and contradictory opinions about Williams and his Baptist affiliations clear up some when his basic theological beliefs concerning the church and her ministry are carefully analyzed in his own writings. To be sure, he vacillated in his beliefs. A long-time friend and companion of Williams, David Scott, charged him with unstable opinions, especially with regard to baptism. (See author's thesis, Life and Letters of Dr. John Clarke of Rhode Island). The Quakers accused Williams of inconsistency in affirming the Baptist opinions of his day but refusing to become a Baptist by joining one of the Baptist churches. (It seems strange that Williams did not counter by confessing that he was a Baptist at one time, granting that he ever was). John Clarke's church for example, was in Newport, Rhode Island and going strong at that period. Clarke and Williams were the best of friends and associates, both politically and socially. Throughout Clarke's life in New England, however, Williams never associated with Clarke in any religious fellowship, insofar as available records are concerned. Williams' brother, Robert, and Robert's wife, Elizabeth, were both members of Clarke's church in 1672. (Writings, V, 47, 108, 212, 213). Robert was a "Schoolmaster in Newport," and the other brother was a "Turkey Merchant." (Ibid., p. 146). Originally, Robert and his wife were members of the group with Williams at Providence. (Morgan Edwards, Materials for a History of the Baptists in Rhode Island. Vol. VI; In Collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society. [Providence: Hammond, Angell & Co., Printers, 1867], 314). These are materials gathered by Edwards for the purpose of writing a history but he never completed the work. The collection contains many errors, a considerable amount of supposition, hearsay and undocumented traditions. No record seems extant which gives Robert's baptism at either place, and no primary record has appeared to clarify the problem created by chronicler Edwards' claim. Further, evidence is lacking to show that the group at Providence constituted a Baptist church before about 1654, at which time a Baptist church was organized by some Particular Baptists who had recently migrated from England. When Roger Williams charged the Quakers with denying a visible way of worship--that is, churches, ministers, baptism and other cardinal ministerial practices, the Quakers countered by pointing out Williams' inconsistency in affirming such a teaching of the Baptists but refusing to become actively identified with them (Writings, V, 384-85). Williams debated the Baptist order, but he practiced a passive ministry. He countered by attesting to the existence of a superlative degree of the Christian ministry, while he denied an absolute extant form, since he believed its pure beginning had been marred and thus had become non-apostolic. That belief, to him, reconciled his apparent inconsistency in practice. At times, Williams did seem contradictory. It was difficult to determine precisely what he meant. For example, editor Lewis Diman of Williams' Letters suggested that Williams alluded to the Congregationalists as the Churches of the Bay as those "nearer than others to the first primitive Churches." Elsewhere, however, Williams clearly stated that the Baptists were nearer to the "Last Will and Testament of Christ" (ibid., VI, 187-88; VII, 215, 257-58; V, introduction, lvi). However, Williams was unsatisfied with even the New England Baptists and their "dipping" (ibid., VII, 246). He said that ordination was necessary, but he never quite adequately explained how or by whom one should be ordained (ibid., IV, 64). His ministerial call and Christian practices he reconciled by spiritualizing (ibid., VII, 152). Williams turned in anticipation to a restoration of the apostolic office, because he never became fully persuaded that a true New Testament church ministry was qualified to function as the New Testament apostles did when they received the Commission personally from Christ to preach, baptize and organize churches, ordain ministers, observe the Lord's Supper in church capacity and assemble as a brotherhood in congregations of fellowship and worship. Although he expressed belief in several fundamental Baptist teachings, Williams never consistently encouraged and walked in the Baptist way. According to Williams' belief, the Holy Spirit still calls to salvation; He calls men into the gospel ministry; He keeps the new-born people in grace; and otherwise functions in His own way; however, the order of the Baptist way and all others, for that matter, have no Biblical basis of true authority. For church order, no authoritative guidelines remain. Williams, then, left us with an apprehensive "seeking" for a revived apostolic authority. To him, a church is without Bible authority because the charismatic gifts are no longer in the church. The Baptist way, of course, is that the gifts, like the other New Testament miracles--healing, feeding multitudes, raising the dead and other New Testament signs--served a needed purpose. When that purpose was fulfilled, the signs were recorded under divine guidance for our admonition and learning in order to engender faith and action. In misunderstanding this, many false notions appear, even among such noble and courageous personalities as Roger Williams. Such nobility and courage, although highly desirable, should not move us to "baptize" Williams into the Baptist way. In spite of an abundance of historical acumen alleging that Roger Williams was the first Baptist pastor in America, he was not a Baptist at all!

Louis F. Asher, B.A., B.D., M.A., Ph.D. candidate., was a professor of Church History at Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary for some twenty-five years. Louis Asher died in November 1996.

[This article, used by permission, first appeared in a publication of Baptist Publishing House, P. O. Box 7270, Texarkana, TX 75505-7270. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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