49 Introduction to Texts

A Key into the Language of America

In the first study ever conducted of an Indian language, Roger Williams wrote A Key into the Language of America in 1643. It was published in both New England and, across the Atlantic, in London by Williams’s friend Gregory Dexter. Williams had primarily focused on translating words within the lexicon of the Narragansett tribe which, after the absorption of many of those words into English vernacular, are still used today: moose, squash, and quahog are only a few. Although Williams’s work garnered much attention, it also provoked and jeopardized a deeply ingrained European/Judeo-Christian train of thought and way of life, especially within Williams’s own Puritan communities. This was due to the fact that A Key was as much of a ‘Rosetta Stone’ as it was a work of denouncement towards the Puritans’ perceived superiority relative to the indigenous people. For example, Williams adamantly professes that Europeans and Indians are equal and of the same blood (this is further complicated by Williams’s invocation of his own Christian God to justify this equality). In addition, he challenged the assumptions that the crown was entitled to a right to claim Indian land. This idea that Europeans were equal to the indigenous people was radical for Williams’s time and incited a backlash against him. Moreover, A Key’s multigeneric composition – as a translation, historical document, ethnographic study, and a coalescing of both poetry and prose – proves time and time again that Williams produced an integral, underrated piece of early American literature and socio-political advocacy.

 

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution

Upon his arrival in New England, Williams was offered numerous jobs and positions within the Church. However, Williams declined countless times on the basis of the new church’s inability to further separate itself from the Church of England, which he viewed as corrupt and degraded. Around 1635, due to Williams’s separatist dissent and challenges towards the Salem church’s foundational doctrines, the magistrate of Massachusetts had prepared to ship Williams back to England. Although Williams avoided this deportation by fleeing into the wilderness near the Narragansett Bay, Salem’s minister John Cotton delivered various sermons which were fraught with an anti-Williams rhetoric. During a brief stay in London around the 1640s, Williams responded to Cotton’s pragmatic belief in enforced religious uniformity. From this endeavor the The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution was composed and finally published in 1644. Most scholars agree that The Tenent is a stylistic and compositional catastrophe, however, within is held one of Williams’s key ideas: the liberty of conscience, or, more commonly known as, freedom of religion. Williams argues for the importance of an interfaith dynamic in society and espouses a Christian duty to understand and accept those from different religious backgrounds and denominations. Later, The Tenent would become an essential source for John Locke and become a large influence on Thomas Jefferson’s idea of freedom of religion and, by extension, the First Amendment.

 

Roger Williams to the Town of Providence

In this brief letter to the town of Providence, Williams, again, preaches for what he calls a “liberty of conscience.” Although Williams draws upon specific, concrete examples – “papists, Protestants, Jews, [and] Turks” – the letter relies heavily on a savvy use of symbolism and extended metaphor. The imagery of a ship at sea (representing a society) and the diverse crew and passengers aboard (citizens and individuals subscribing to different faiths and religious denominations, or none at all) offers an insight into the turbulent forces at work within politics and religion. Williams’s letter illustrates the power literature holds in unveiling the injustices of a world in a concise and poetic fashion. In Williams’s case, and lifelong fight, this would take the form of separation of church and state and the empathy and human understanding required in accepting those from all different walks of life. An issue he not only observed within interfaith dynamics, but also cultural collisions between European settlers and the indigenous people amidst the colonization of America.

 

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Introduction to Texts by Timothy Robbins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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