I was attending a theological conference when news broke of the execution by burning that took place this week. Most of the others in the conference were pastors who would be leading worship on Sunday. Someone asked the question: “What should we do? How should we respond to this terrible event?”
My first response was that we need to remember that English-speaking Christians have done the same thing. For pastors, an important example is Thomas Cranmer, chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer, which probably has been second only to the King James Bible in shaping the language and rhythms of Christian faith, prayer, and practice in all of the English-speaking world.
According an online entry published by Encyclopedia Britannica, Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) was “the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury (1533–56), adviser to the English kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. As archbishop, he put the English Bible in parish churches, drew up the Book of Common Prayer, and composed a litany that remains in use today. Denounced by the Catholic queen Mary I for promoting Protestantism, he was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.”
American Christians can be especially grateful to Roger Williams who fled the England of that period, only to discover that a similar system ruled the Puritan regimes around Boston. He barely escaped with his life and founded a new colony based on radically new principles.
Two years ago I posted two columns on Williams and his role in creating the American system that protects religious conviction and practice from politically backed enforcement and persecution. I have converted them to a pdf document that begins with the following paragraphs.
Thanksgiving is unique in the American sequence of major holidays. It is rooted in one of the nation’s primary historical eras and expresses one of America’s foundational narratives. It combines religious, political, and cultural elements, but in a way that allows the holiday to be embraced not only by Christians but also by people of other religions or of no religion.
This holiday, perhaps more than any other, reveals the fact that the nation’s very existence is based upon the radical disregard for the people who already were here when Europeans arrived. Thus, no matter how joyfully we celebrate the day, it is right that Americans remember, with remorse, those whose way of life has been trampled upon in order to allow the rest of us enjoy the way of life experienced by the dominant members of the population.
Although we rightfully focus our attention upon the good things in life, as manifested in traditional Thanksgiving services and feasts, this holiday is also a time to revisit the central political themes that are enshrined in the historical tradition.
For me this year, this political aspect of remembrance focused upon Roger Williams who was one of the most astute architects of the American system of liberty and equality. During the days surrounding the holiday, I came across an extended review of John M. Barry’s new biography: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.
“Anyone who reads this book,” reviewer John Fea writes, “will need to come to grips with the fact that it is Williams, not [John] Winthrop, who best represents the historical roots of the religious liberties that citizens of the United States enjoy today.” (This review, with the title “The original separationist,” appears in Christian Century, November 14, 2012, pp. 36-37.)
My second encounter with Williams over the Thanksgiving weekend was in a book entitled Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008). Its author is Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher who “holds appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School at the University of Chicago, is co-chair of the university’s Human Rights Program, and…is the author of thirteen previous books” (from the book jacket).
Nussbaum is a vigorous defender of the central pillars of the American tradition, which she describes as freedom and equality. It is clear to her that this way of setting up national life is unique in the world and that it is “a tradition under threat.” To read more, click Religion and Politics According to Roger Williams