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By Thomas W. Bicknell, LL.D.
The act of banishment which severed Roger Williams from the Massachusetts Colony, in 1635, was the means of advancing, rather than hindering, the spread of the so-called heresies which he so bravely advocated. As the persecutions which drove the disciples of Christ from Jerusalem were the means of extending the cause of Christianity, so the principles of toleration and of soul-liberty were strengthened by opposition, in the mind of this apostle of freedom of conscience in the New World. His Welsh birth and Puritan education made him a bold and earnest advocate of whatever truth his conscience approved, and he went everywhere “preaching the word” of individual freedom. The sentence of exile could not silence his tongue, nor destroy his influence. “The divers new and dangerous opinions” which he had “broached and divulged,” though hostile to the notions of the clergy and the authorities of Massachusetts Bay, were at the same time quite acceptable to a few brave souls, who, like himself, dared the censures, and even the persecutions, of their brethren, for the sake of liberty of conscience.
The dwellers in old Rehoboth were the nearest white neighbors of Roger Williams and his band at Providence. The Reverend Samuel Newman was the pastor of the church in this ancient town, having removed with the first settlers from Weymouth in 1643. Learned, godly, and hospitable, as he was, he had not reached the “height of that great argument” concerning human freedom; and while he cherished kindly feelings toward the dwellers at Providence, he evidently feared the introduction of their sentiments among his people. The jealous care of Newman to preserve what he conscientiously regarded as the purity of religious faith and polity was not a sufficient barrier against the teachings of the founder of Rhode Island.
Although the settlers of Plymouth Colony cherished more liberal sentiments than their neighbors of the Bay Colony, and sanctioned the expulsion of Mr. Williams from Seekonk only for the purpose of preserving peace with those whom Blackstone called “the Lord Bretheren,” yet they guarded the prerogatives of the ruling church order as worthy not only of the respect, but also the support, of all. Rehoboth was the most liberal, as well as the most loyal, of the children of Plymouth; but the free opinions which the planters brought from Weymouth, where an attempt had already been made to establish a Baptist church, enabled them to sympathize strongly with their neighbors across the Seekonk River. “At this time,” says Baylies, “so much indifference as to the support of the clergy was manifested in Plymouth Colony, as to excite the alarm of the other confederated colonies. The complaint of Massachusetts against Plymouth on