Bloomberg News

Heretic Williams Fled Puritans After War Over God: Lewis Lapham

February 17, 2012

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Interview by Lewis Lapham

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Fleeing English religious persecution, in 1631, devout Puritan Roger Williams arrived in Boston, where he was warmly welcomed. By 1636, convicted by the General Court of sedition and heresy, he was banished.

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Williams was convinced that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” and that the state had no business meddling in matters of conscience. To provide liberty for the soul, a wall was needed between church and state. In fact, legitimacy for the ruler came not from God, but from the ruled.

To escape thugs sent to put him on a boat to England, where he faced arrest, an ailing Williams was forced to flee alone into the wilderness during a blizzard, getting help during the freezing winter from American Indians.

He went on to found Providence as a uniquely free society, with no mention of God in its charter, a place so threatening that for the next century its neighbors tried to wipe it out.

I spoke with John M. Barry, author of “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul,” on the following topics:

1. Legal Influences

2. Religious Freedom

3. Banishment

4. Uniquely Free Providence

5. Broad Legacy

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

--Editors: Zinta Lundborg, Jeffrey Burke. Producer: Paul Goguen.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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