A guy named Hugh Bewitt was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on this date in 1640 – he’d been found guilty of heresy, refusing to accept that he had been born in a state of sin. He declared himself sin-free, apparently, which must have annoyed the hell out of his neighbors.
Bewitt went to the only place he could – Providence Plantation. That was where all the heretics, separatists, Jews and religious troublemakers went. Its founder, Roger Williams, had himself been banished from Boston for not following the party line and he created the first community in history that observed a careful separation of church and state.
When Roger Williams first arrived in Boston, he was greeted warmly by his fellow Puritans, who offered him a post in a local church. But after a few months, things got difficult. Williams was a Separatist, believing that the Anglican church was corrupt and he wanted nothing to do with it. He was disappointed to find the Mass Bay Colony churches still clung to the C of E in many respects and in disgust, he moved on to Salem.
That didn’t last long either and by 1636 he was being tried for heresy, found guilty and given an order of banishment. Before it could be served, he slipped away one January night and walked 150 miles in the snow to Narragansett Bay, where he was sheltered by the natives, spending the winter in the camp of the sachem Massasoit.
Williams had planned to be a missionary to the Indians, but once he learned the language and culture, he famously wrote, “Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood; Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good. Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All, As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.”
He paid the Narragansetts for the land where he planned to settle and became increasingly critical of grants of land given by the Crown, considering them all illegal.
Roger Williams was, in short, a real pain to the Puritans of Mass Bay. He was more pure than any Puritan, dissented with the most radical dissenter and found all churches far from ideal – and he tried most of them. He founded the first Baptist church in America, but that was just a phase. He was convinced that all Christian denominations, being the result of the Great Apostasy – the co-opting of Christianity by the first Bishop of Rome – were corrupt.
He decided that the only true faith was to be a witness to Christianity until God sent new apostles. He established Providence as a sanctuary for dissenters, set up a government that was representative, but concerned only with civil things and was steadfast in maintaining “a wall of separation” between church and state.
There’s more about him on google books – he must have been a wonderful, irritating person. Happily, his book on the Indians is still in print.
Bewitt, btw, was given land, settled and became a representative to the General Assembly from 1648 to 1657. He also must have been pretty irritating – in 1652 he was tried for treason, but found inocent and spared “the dreadful punishment reserved for traitors.”
The troublemakers, thankfully, have always been with us.