Dr. Greg Tomlin, Carroll Fellow and Associate Professor for Faith & Heritage, provides a new treatment of Roger Williams, the New England firebrand known as the father of American religious liberty, in the Spring 2022 issue of Baptist History & Heritage: Baptist Men and Women Engaging the World Around Them.
Scholars often refer to Williams as the 17th-century fountainhead of many of the political ideals later espoused by America’s founding fathers (such as Thomas Jefferson), but in this article, Tomlin writes Williams should primarily be viewed as a man of religion rather than politics. His concern was the purity of the church and his arguments in favor of liberty of conscience were developed primarily to protect God’s marriage bed—his “bed of worship.”
Scholars have for years noted William’s use of the term “soul rape” (or “spiritual rape”) to refer to oppressive government power over the conscience, but the full body of his work had not been examined to uncover the origin of the term or its placement in the larger argument he was making about ecclesiological purity. Williams, from his early writings in the 1630s through his writings in the 1650s, was weaponizing the already popular and nearly ubiquitous Puritan typological exegesis of the Song of Solomon, which most in the period saw as a love letter between Christ and his bride.
“Williams’ voluntarist arguments in favor of a pure and consenting church drew significant strength, and, indeed, were inseparably intertwined in his use of intimate, marital imagery for the relationship between Christ and his church,” Tomlin writes. “He contrasted the loving bride willingly communing with her groom against the forced sexual act of rape through the coercive power of the established church. He also contrasted the cleanliness of purity of the ‘chaste and loving wife’ of the true church with the filthy and bloody whoredom of the false church.”
Editor Joe Coker wrote in the introduction to the journal that these “thorny” metaphors of marriage, infidelity, and sexual violence in the writings of Roger Williams have largely been ignored. “Dr. Tomlin does us a great service by uncovering and elucidating them,” Coker wrote.
Tomlin’s article appears alongside articles by Jacob Hicks, Carol C. Holcomb, Melody C. Maxwell, T. Laine Scales, and Andrea Di Stefano. The Spring 2022 issue of Baptist History & Heritage is available at www.thebhhs.org.