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Roger Williams, and Roger Williams University: Civil Discourse and Civic Engagement

February 19th, 2013 by dfarish

Roger Williams University is named for the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams.  Roger Williams was a remarkable individual, who deserves much broader recognition in our nation than he generally receives. (A recent book by John Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, provides a fascinating account of his life.) Suffice it to say, he was a man well ahead of his time. Consider:

  • At a time when colonists of the New World more or less shoved Native Americans aside (or simply killed them), Roger Williams always purchased settlement land from the sachem of the tribe.
  • He spoke the primary language of the southern New England Native Americans better than any other person in the colonies, and wrote the first major study of a Native American language.
  • At a point in history when virtually every nation (and every American colony) had a state religion and an intolerance of other faiths, Roger Williams argued that having religion subject to state oversight would surely lead to the corruption of religion.
  • As a consequence, he advocated for freedom of religious expression, and called for “a wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world”—at a time when such views were seen as heretical.
  • Roger Williams initially settled in Massachusetts.  Alerted that state officials intended to banish him for his views, before being arrested he walked (in January!) from Salem, Massachusetts, to what is now the site of Providence, Rhode Island, where he founded a new colony—one that allowed the practice of any (or no) religion.
  • In 1663, after decades during which both Connecticut and Massachusetts threatened to take over parts of the Rhode Island colony, Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke of Newport were finally successful in obtaining a charter from King Charles II of England that specifically permitted Rhode Island to offer freedom of religion as “a lively experiment.”
  • Rhode Islanders thought that freedom of religion was so important that Rhode Island became the last colony to ratify the Constitution—and did so only after the Bill of Rights (where freedom of religion was officially incorporated) was added to the Constitution.
  • Roger Williams also opposed slavery, and endeavored to prevent its introduction into Rhode Island. For complex reasons, he was unsuccessful. His position was ultimately vindicated, of course—two centuries later!

So those of us at the institution that bears his name take his legacy seriously. We often ask, “What would Roger do?” as a way of helping us think through thorny problems and issues—not because we are seeking divine guidance, but because we want to be faithful to his sense of fairness and openness. He spoke of “soul liberty,” a term that sounds anachronistic today, but which basically refers to protecting people who are following their conscience in what they do. “Toleration” doesn’t really describe it. Rather, it was more a celebration of differences, a sense that each person is entitled to find his or her own way in being faithful to his or her beliefs.

To be sure, Roger Williams was more than pleased to be able to debate those with views different from his own—openly challenging the strength and clarity of a person’s beliefs was very much a part of his world—but he never thought ill of people who held different beliefs.

At Roger Williams University, we are strong proponents of civil discourse and civic engagement. We are more than delighted to challenge accepted wisdom, but strive to do so without rancor or ridicule. We are not interested in having our students hermetically sealed away for four years, in monk-like contemplation, shielded behind the University’s walls (by conscious design, we don’t even have walls around our university), but instead we find a myriad of ways to have them participate in the workings of society from the first week of their freshman year. We want our students as fully prepared as possible to thrive and succeed in the world that awaits them after graduation.

Civil discourse coupled with civic engagement. We think Roger Williams would approve.