When John Winthrop sailed across the Atlantic in 1630 the perceptions of others was at the forefront of his mind. Born into a family of English gentry, Winthrop was elected governor of Massachusetts Bay by speculators and investors who had never set foot in New England.
As Winthrop sailed to America, he spoke to many of America’s earliest colonists aboard the English ship Arbella. His first concern was to preserve aristocratic authority and maintain old-world hierarchical social divisions among the inhabitants of New England. He opened his sermon with these words:
“GOD ALMIGHTY in his most only and wise providence hath soe disposed of the Condicion of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion.”
The first third of the speech gave Winthrop’s apologetic for why a divinely ordained hierarchy should be preserved within both civil and ecclesiastical life and why every society must be divided between rich and poor. He underscored his point with an admonition that the “the poore, and dispised” should not “rise vpp against their superiors, and shake off their yoake.” Each person has a preordained place from which to work for “the preservation and good of the whole.
Winthrop concluded with a warning. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he said. If they were faithful, God would bless them and they would be like a city on a hill (i.e. the envy of all the people of the world). If, however, they were not faithful to their community, God would curse them and they would be a story and a byword (i.e. looked down upon by all the people of the world.)
For Winthrop there were only two vantage points from which to be viewed. Either one is elevated, exalted and envied in the eyes of others or one is debased, despised and looked down upon by others. From beginning to end, he displayed a self-consciousness concern with perceptions.
A few months later another ship sailed into Boston harbor. Aboard it was Roger Williams, the son of a moderately prosperous merchant in Smithfield, England.
Like Winthrop, Williams was also concerned with perceptions. The chief difference between Winthrop and Williams was that Roger Williams’ concerns were asymmetrical and egalitarian rather than aristocratic. This can easily be gleaned from a passage in the preface to a book he wrote after he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience:
“Two mountains of crying guilt lie heavy upon the backs of all men that name the name of Christ, in the eyes of Jews, Turks, and pagans.
“First, the blasphemies of their idolatrous inventions, superstitions, and most unchristian conversations.
“Secondly, the bloody, irreligious and inhuman oppressions and destructions under the mask or veil of the name of Christ, etc.”
Here Williams’ concern with how Christians were being perceived by “others” was clear. Williams’ interests were markedly different from Winthrop’s.
Winthrop’s concerns were generic. For him the “eyes of all people” represented the anonymous crowd of cultured European Christians. The sophistication of the crowd perceiving him was important. Their religion, culture and ethnicity were important to him, not the eyes. Winthrop was not interested in their faces, only their adulation.
Williams, on the other hand, cared about faces. Three hundred and twenty years before the French philosopher Emmanuel LÃ©vinas would propound his ethics of asymmetrical face-to-face relations, Roger Williams gave specificity to the eyes observing him and passing judgment on the church. He distinguished the eyes from one another by identifying the faces that concerned him. He named the faces of Jews, Turks and pagans–the very people whose eyes held least significance to the aristocratic Winthrop and the closed community that he helped create.
Williams’ self-consciousness was markedly different from that of Winthrop. Winthrop highly valued places of elevated authority and status within his community. Williams turned down the powerful pastorate of the Boston church. Winthrop wished to be exalted in the eyes of the cultured world. Williams, a missionary to Native Americans, was more concerned with the discernments of Jews and Turks and pagans. Winthrop feared losing his place among his peers. Williams preferred banishment from his peers to losing a clear conscience and a good report with those to who had not received the gospel.
For nearly 400 years, Williams has often been painted as an inveterate individualist when, in reality, his understanding and commitment to community was far greater than that of his detractors.
Williams refused to draw a tight circle for civil community. For him, civil community encompassed all humanity, and it prompted him to be an unrelenting advocate for liberty of conscience and justice for all.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. This column is adapted from a presentation he gave at the recent annual meeting of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and also appears on his blog.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.