Books History

The Heroism of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians: James A. Warren’s “God, War, and Providence”

Roger Williams is an odd figure in American colonial history. A Cambridge Puritan, he came to Massachusetts seeking religious freedom and found stifling opposition from former friends in the Bay’s Puritan’s leadership. As we know, if we’re aware of him, he fled and eventually found the tiny enclave of Providence – later Rhode Island. Williams preached a gospel of strict interiority and religious conscience, separation of church and state, and religious toleration. This should make him a hero among American liberals. He is generally forgotten.

James A. Warren has offered a corrective to the forgotten founding father, so to speak, of America’s most cherished ideals. In God, War, and Providence, Warren combines two stories into one: the life of Roger Williams and the tragedy of the Narragansett Indians. Both stories overlap. Williams, that heroic dissenting non-conformist Puritan, eventually became the father of the Baptist movement in America. In his fight against the encroachment of religious liberty from the “Puritan oligarchs” in Massachusetts, he also took extensive risks in defending New England’s Native Americans, foremost among them the Narragansett tribe. The Narragansett, one of the first tribes that opened themselves up to Christianity and allied with the Puritans in the early decades of colonial settlement, eventually found themselves spurned by their Puritan allies leading to their tragic betrayal in King Philip’s War.

The overlapping stories of Roger Williams’s fight for freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and toleration for Native Americans alongside the story of the Narragansett Indians is what Warren tells in his quick history of this forgotten episode of American history. In it he defends and lauds Roger Williams. He gives a deeply sympathetic reading of the Narragansett Indians. He paints the Puritans in a starkly negative light.

Here, however, some problems emerge. While it is true that the Puritans eventually became suspicious even of their former indigenous allies (like the Narragansetts), Warren’s bleak depiction of the Puritans is clearly part of the last 30 years of anti-Puritan writing and scholarship from popular writers (of which Warren is one). As I reviewed in Francis Bremer’s The Puritan Experiment, the universally negative depiction of the Puritans is problematic as it paints a misleading picture of the Puritans and their contributions to American society and ideals: education, science, and, eventually, abolitionism, are all the derivative outgrowths of the Puritan tradition in America. None of that, of course, matters to Warren.

But we may accept that this is Warren’s depiction of the Puritans because he isn’t interested in telling the other side of the Puritan story. He’s solely dedicated, as his subtitle entails, of telling us the “epic struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England.” And that he does. As such, his heroes are those who stood against the Puritans’ emerging oligarchy.

Roger Williams does deserve to be more fondly remembered than he is today. As Warren notes, “Williams has been justly celebrated as America’s first advocate for religious liberty and separation of church and state, and for putting both those principles into practice in Rhode Island. But his role as peacemaker, as tireless servant of the public good—with public being expansively defined to include the Indians—hasn’t been as widely appreciated as it should be.” So Warren hopes his book will remedy this defect while also restoring the Williams we may be familiar with—the Williams who is “justly celebrated as America’s first advocate for religious liberty and separation of church and state”—to the public’s attention.

In doing so, he also brings to the attention of the public the wars between the Puritans and the Native Americans culminating in King Philip’s War. King Philip’s War, however, is a bit more nuanced than Warren admits in his pages. Indigenous rivalries existed long before the arrival of the Puritans. And those rivalries continued to play out even into King Philip’s War. Warren glosses over these realities and places the scrutiny of blame squarely on the Puritans even though extenuating circumstances offer a different picture: The Puritans certainly took advantage of Native American rivalries, but this doesn’t remove the fact that Native American tribes were long squabbling with each other and their petty rivalries spilled over to bring the Puritans into their conflicts which undeniably, as we know, ended up benefitting the Puritans.

What makes the Narragansett story so tragic, however, is that they were among the first tribes to ally with the Puritans and never got anything in return for it. In fact, the Puritans launched a surprise attack on their main encampment—known as the Great Swamp Fight—during the height of King Philip’s War and shattered Narragansett autonomy in the process. Warren does a remarkable job highlighting and taking us through this episode of early American colonial history and the ramifications of it on the Narragansett Indians (who still exist in Rhode Island – thanks in large part to the efforts of Roger Williams 400 years after the fact).

That the Narragansett Indians defied Puritan encroachment is not just a tragedy. It is a heroic stand. We often forget that in the midst of tragedy there is much heroism to be found. Heroism isn’t just on the side of “winners.” It is often, and undeniably, on the side of “losers.” A heroism of sympathy and pity is what Warren presents for us. And if we have hearts, we will certainly find sympathy and pity for the heroic actions of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians even if we ought to have a fuller portrait of the “villains” of the story: the Puritans of Massachusetts. For, undoubtedly, Mr. Warren would approve of the Puritan contributions to education, science, and abolitionism even if those residual legacies are not part of the story he told.

James A. Warren
God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England
New York: Scribner, 2018; 287pp.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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