Religion in America: Plus ça change ...
In Roger Williams, a slim biography just out from Oxford University Press, Edwin S. Gaustad, professor of history and religious studies emeritus at the University of CaliforniaRiverside, chronicles the life of Rhode Island's founder.
In one sense, little is known about Williams, not even the dates of his birth and death. From England, he came to Boston in 1631 with his wife. He was initially offered a job as the resident minister of the new Puritan church in Boston but quickly showed himself to be a contrarian: "Despite having no other visible means of support," Gaustad writes, "he decided to turn down the job offer because this Puritan church had not clearly, cleanly separated itself from the Church of England."
That was just the beginning of a New World career that would see him banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in large part for his criticism of the European seizing of Native American land. He would ultimately buy land from the Narragansett Indians to found Providence, and later the colony of Rhode Island, which became a haven for religious dissenters of all stripes. But back in Salem in the 1630s, he was dealing with two issues that roiled the Puritans at that time, writes Gaustad:
"One argument in progress concerned the matter of women wearing veils in church, an argument from a question the Apostle Paul had put to the church in Corinth: 'Is it proper that a woman pray unto God with her head uncovered?' (1 Corinthians 11:13)
"A Salem pastor ... had answered that question in the negative: No, it was not fitting for a woman to pray unveiled. Williams agreed, and Boston plunged into the debate. A newly arrived minister, John Cotton, felt that this question related mainly to local customs at the time in Corinth. In Massachusetts, far removed from Paul in both space and time, veiling of women was not required, he announced in Boston, and he journeyed to Salem to make the same point. But of course that hardly settled the matter ... .
"The English flag at that time included a red cross that had been given to the king of England by the pope as a promise of victory in battle. A papal cross in a Puritan flag? To some people in Salem, this made no sense, so they proceeded to cut the cross, or a part of it, out of the flag. But defacing and desecrating the flag? To a good many others, that made no sense; it might even be treason. So the General Court ... of the Massachusetts Bay Colony rebuked those who acted rashly and 'without discretion' in defacing the flag."
Ah, yes, veiling and flag desecration: so 1635.