From its beginnings as a European colony, Rhode Island (where I have spent a lovely Thanksgiving holiday) was a haven for religious dissenters; despite the folk etymology that "Rhode Island" is a corruption of "Rogue’s Island", the name arose from a comparison of the size of Block Island, today a summer vacation destination for Southern New Englanders, to the Isles of Rhodes, although the Rogue’s Island nickname might well have arisen later, as a Puritan response to the trickle of dissenters who were expelled or removed themselves from Puritan Massachusetts and headed south to religious liberty. These included Anne Hutchinson, who founded Portsmouth (in the swampy, Lovecraftian section of Rhode Island) with her husband William. Hutchinson had been run out of Massachusetts after being convicted of "traducing" — that is, slandering — the Puritan ministers. Williamson and her followers were Antinomians, who rejected the supremacy of Biblical law and the covenant of works, holding that the sanctity of God and their worship was all the grace they needed. (Hutchinson is often grouped with the Quakers, with whom she shared many beliefs.) Hutchinson held meetings in her house to discuss sermons, and as her popularity grew — Henry Vane, then the colony’s governor, attended her meetings — she became a deeply divisive influence on the community. Those who saw her as a pernicious influence on both the colony’s political existance and its religious well-being (not really separate in the minds of most Puritans) responded. Her brother-in-law was exiled; her son and son-in-law were jailed; she was tried, convicted, and, having "troubled the Church with [her] errors", cast out of the church, delivered to Satan, and exiled from the colony. She was viciously attacked by the Puritan power structure; even after she was exiled from the colony, her detractors continued to defame her, conflating her religious beliefs with both a disdain for civil law and a disregard for morality. When Hutchinson was killed in New York by Mahican warriors, John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, wrote, "Proud Jezebel has at last been cast down," neatly tying her supposed irreligious lasciviousness and whoredom with the image of St. John the Divine’s Babylon the Great, Mother of Harlots. The Puritans were not going to politely ignore Anne Hutchinson.
For all the cheery Thanksgiving imagery of friendly Indians giving turkey and squash to their new Puritan neighbors, the New England frontier was an exceedingly dangerous place for Europeans. Starvation and slaughter were initially very real possibilities, but the Puritans were no small dangers themselves. The Salem witch trials were some thirty years off when Mary Dyer, a follower of Hutchinson, was hanged on the Boston Commons, a martyr to her religion. When the Hutchinsons arrived in Rhode Island, they were greeted and allowed to settle by an earlier exile, Roger Williams, who negotitated with the Narragansett tribe to ensure their safety. Williams was, at the time, probably the greatest European expert on Native New Englanders; he was the author of A Key into the Language of America (not to be confused with poet Rosemarie Waldrop’s book of the same name), which was both an Narragansett-English dictionary and a series of observations about life among the Narragansetts. Williams was a Cambridge-educated preacher, trader, and politician. He was also something of a radical, having been kicked out of Boston in 1636 for asserting these dangerous beliefs:
- That we [the Massachusetts Bay Colony] have not our land by patent from the King, but that the natives are the true owners of it, and that we ought to repent of such a receiving of it by patent.
- That it is not lawful to call a wicked person to swear, to pray, as being actions of God’s worship.
- That it is not lawful to hear any of the ministers of the parish assemblies in England.
- That the civil magistrate’s power extends only to the bodies and goods, and outward state of men.
That is, Williams asserted that that among the duties of the Church was to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s; that the state should not force a man to pray or a woman to cease talking about sermons; that the Puritans had truly broken from the Church of England, despite their rhetoric about being the true children of a corrupt church; and that the lands upon which the Puritans had settled didn’t belong to them.
Even Bartolomé de las Casas, the "Savior of the Indians," had never gone so far as to publically proclaim that his king had no jurisdiction over the lands occupied by Native Americans. Although Williams considered himself a friend of the Narragansetts, a student of their language and culture dating back to his time mediating between colonists and natives while he ran a trading post in what is now North Kingston. In Rhode Island, Williams could continue to speak out in favor of religious liberty and the inalienable rights of the natives without reprisal. His personal charisma propelled him into the statehouse, where he served a term as the colony’s governor; after he left office, he was to see his attempts at building unity and a relationship of equals between European and Native Rhode Islanders left in ruins; during King Phillip’s War, Providence was burned to the ground. (Note the reference to "vagrant and jesuiticall priests" in the report on the war written by Edward Randolph, James’ agent in New England.)
But even if Williams tilled at windmills, from our later, more secular and humanist point of view, it’s inarguable that he was right. Rhode Island has been called (and may well be) the most corrupt state in the Union, but if arguing in favor of separation of church and state and the essential equal worth of the Narragansetts made Williams a rogue, "Rogue’s Island" is a title Little Rhody can bear with pride.