In matters of conscience the colonists manifested from the first an autocratic tendency, and the determination that God should be worshipped in their province in only one way, and that the way of the Puritans. That thought could be confined to so narrow a channel was, however, impossible, and there began at an early date that strenuous effort to weed out what was to them heresy which forms an important part of the history of New England. To the earliest of these troubles, that connected with the name of Roger Williams, the settlement of the province of Rhode Island was due. Similar religious dissensions had their share in the settlement of the provinces of Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire.
We may premise by saying that Roger Williams was a young Puritan minister, of fine talents and education, who had been driven out of England by the intolerance of Archbishop Laud. On landing in Boston he found himself unable to join the church in that place, from its opposition to his views respecting religious freedom. He was subsequently called to the church in Salem, but was prevented from officiating through the opposition of Governor Winthrop. Two years afterwards he again received a pastoral call to Salem. Here his doctrine gave great offence to the colony, though he was warmly supported by the people of Salem.
HOWEVER liberal their system of civil policy might be, as their religious opinions were no longer under any restraint of authority, the spirit of fanaticism continued to spread, and became every day wilder and more extravagant. Williams, a minister of Salem, in high estimation, having conceived an antipathy to the cross of St. George in the standard of England, declaimed against it with so much vehemence as a relic of superstition and idolatry which ought not to be retained among a people so pure and sanctified, that Endicott, one of the members of the court of assistants, in a transport of zeal, publicly cut out the cross from the ensign displayed before the governor's gate. This frivolous matter interested and divided the colony. Some of the militia scrupled to follow colors in which there was a cross, lest they should do honor to an idol; others refused to serve under a mutilated banner, lest they should be suspected of having renounced their allegiance to the crown of England. After a long controversy, carried on by both parties with that heat and zeal which, in trivial disputes, supply the want of argument, the contest was terminated by a compromise. The cross was retained in the ensigns of forts and ships, but erased from the colors of the militia. Williams, on account of this, as well as of some other doctrines deemed unsound, was banished out of the colony.
Among these obnoxious doctrines were, that it was wrong to enforce an oath of allegiance to the sovereign, or of obedience to the magistrate; that the king had no right to usurp the power of disposing of the territory of the Indians, and, more particularly, that all religious sects had the right to claim equal protection from the laws, and that the civil magistrates had no right to restrain the consciences of men, or to interfere with their modes of worship or religious beliefs. It was decided to send the heretical pastor to England, and he was ordered to repair to Boston. As he did not obey this order, a party was sent to Salem to arrest him. On reaching there they found that Williams had left the settlement, and was making his way through the forest wilderness and the cold and hardship of a New England winter in search of a locality where he might have the privilege of worshipping God in accordance with the dictates of his conscience.
The prosperous state of New England was now so highly extolled, and the simple frame of its ecclesiastic policy was so much admired by all whose affections were estranged from the Church of England, that crowds of new settlers flocked thither (1635). Among these were two persons whose names have been rendered memorable by the appearance which they afterwards made on a more conspicuous theatre: one was Hugh Peters, the enthusiastic and intriguing chaplain of Oliver Cromwell; the other, Mr. Henry Vane, son of Sir Henry Vane, a privy councillor, high in office, and of great credit with the king: a young man of a noble family, animated with such zeal for pure religion and such love of liberty as induced him to relinquish all his hopes in England and to settle in a colony hitherto no further advanced in improvement than barely to afford subsistence to its members, was received with the fondest admiration. His mortified appearance, his demure look, and rigid manners, carried even beyond the standard of preciseness in that society which he joined, seemed to indicate a man of high spiritual attainments, while his abilities and address in business pointed him out as worthy of the highest station in the community. With universal consent, and high expectations of advantage from his administration, he was elected governor in the year subsequent to his arrival (1636). But as the affairs of an infant colony afforded not objects adequate to the talents of Vane, his busy pragmatical spirit occupied itself with theological subtleties and speculations unworthy of his attention. These were excited by a woman, whose reveries produced such effects, both within the colony and beyond its precincts, that, frivolous as they may now appear, they must be mentioned as an occurrence of importance in its history
It was the custom at that time in New England among the chief men in every congregation to meet once a week, in order to repeat the sermons which they had heard, and to hold religious conferences with respect to the doctrine contained in them. Mrs. Hutchinson, whose husband was among the most respectable members of the colony, regretting that persons of her sex were excluded from the benefit of those meetings, assembled statedly in her house a number of women, who employed themselves in pious exercises similar to those of the men. At first she satisfied herself with repeating what she could recollect of the discourses delivered by their teachers. She began afterwards to add illustrations, and at length proceeded to censure some of the clergy as unsound, and to vent opinions and fancies of her own. These were all founded on the system which is denominated Antinomian by divines, and tinged with the deepest enthusiasm. She taught that sanctity of life is no evidence of justification, or of a state of favor with God; and that such as inculcated the necessity of manifesting the reality of our faith by obedience preached only a covenant of works: she contended that the spirit of God dwelt personally in good men, and by inward revelations and impressions they received the fullest discoveries of the divine will. The fluency and confidence with which she delivered these notions gained her many admirers and proselytes, not only among the vulgar, but among the principal inhabitants. The whole colony was interested and agitated. Vane, whose sagacity and acuteness seemed to forsake him whenever they were turned towards religion, espoused and defended her wildest tenets. Many conferences were held, days of fasting and humiliation were appointed, a general synod was called, and, after dissensions so violent as threatened the dissolution of the colony, Mrs. Hutchinson's opinions were condemned as erroneous, and she herself banished (1637). Several of her disciples withdrew from the province of their own accord. Vane quitted America in disgust, unlamented even by those who had lately admired him; some of whom now regarded him as a mere visionary, and others as one of those dark turbulent spirits doomed to embroil every society into which they enter.
However much these theological contests might disquiet the colony of Massachusetts Bay, they contributed to the more speedy population of America. When Williams was banished from Salem, in the year one thousand six hundred and thirty-four, such was the attachment of his hearers to a pastor whose piety they revered, that a good number of them voluntarily accompanied him in his exile. They directed their march towards the south; and having purchased from the natives a considerable tract of land, to which Williams gave the name of Providence, they settled there. They were joined soon after by some of those to whom the proceedings against Mrs. Hutchinson gave disgust; and by a transaction with the Indians they obtained a right to a fertile island in Narragansett Bay, which acquired the name of Rhode Island. Williams remained among them upwards of forty years, respected as the father and the guide of the colony which he had planted. His spirit differed from that of the Puritans in Massachusetts; it was mild and tolerating; an, having ventured himself to reject established opinions, he endeavored to secure the same liberty to other men, by maintaining that the exercise of private judgment was a natural and sacred right; that the civil magistrate had no compulsive jurisdiction in the concerns of religion; that the punishment of any person on account of his opinions was an encroachment on conscience and an act of persecution. These humane principles he instilled into his followers, and all who felt or dreaded oppression in other settlements resorted to a community in which universal toleration was known to be a fundamental maxim. In the plantations of Providence and Rhode Island, political union was established by voluntary association and the equality of condition among the members, as well as their religious opinions; their form of government was purely democratical, the supreme power being lodged in the freemen personally assembled. In this state they remained until they were incorporated by charter.
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