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Critical Analysis: A Letter to the Town of Providence by Roger Williams

8 pages
2049 words
Middlebury College
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Roger Williams writes a letter to the town of Providence in which he had become a resident. The central theme in this letter was religious freedom and tolerance as well as liberty of the soul. The first line of this letter indicates his motive which he writes about continuing what he calls the great Liberty of the town meetings. Also, the letter is in response to a previous one which had been sent to the dwellers of Providence by his brother. The previous letter must have been an attack on Williams views since he talks of presenting his impartial testimony in response. Williams was a political leader as well who advocated for the separation of the church and the state. As such, he is also passing a message of peace and welfare for the town of Providence, insisting that this should be outside the achievement of anyones private ends. The letter is more religious than political revealing Williams orientation to the people of Providence. It suggests that he was more inclined to them religiously and therefore, felt the need to give his guidance for a subject he was passionate about to people that he considered close to his heart. The analysis in this paper will follow the central idea in the letter, that is, religious freedom and tolerance and how it is presented by Williams.

A letter to the town of Providence carries a central idea of religious freedom and tolerance. However, there are other ideas presented but which revolve around the central idea. These include unity, peace, and what he terms as liberty of soul. There is also the idea of supremacy that he outlines towards the end of the letter. As earlier mentioned, religious freedom is the foundation upon which this letter is laid. Williams is known to be an activist towards this course. He believes that everyone should be allowed to exercise their worship without being judged. The differences in the religious practices were supposed to be met with tolerance with each other as members of the same society. This he demonstrates by giving the example of a ship that is holding many hundreds of souls which represents the combination of human beings. These individuals on the ship could be Papists, Jews, Protestants, or Turks. In such a ship, he says that no one should be forced to come carry out prayers of worship. If one was to conduct prayers or worship, he/she should do it at ones willingness. This aspect of freedom of religion and worship should be allowed and exercised by the rest of the members who could be holding different beliefs.

The idea of religious freedom is one that Williams carried out with a lot of passion. He advocates for the liberty of the soul or conscious. The idea of liberty of soul was based on his belief that it was not possible for the true church of Christ to be known among men unless Christ himself came on earth and established it. He claimed that from the readings on the New Testament, Christ had commanded the coexistence of religious truth and error in every nation until the end of the world. From this, Williams concluded that liberty of conscience or the soul was necessary and should be allowed since no one could ascertain which form of religion was true for practice as God intended. The act of imposing this notion on the people of the town of Providence can be interpreted as spreading the good news of freedom on the one hand. On the other hand, it could be seen as imposing his beliefs on the people and making them adopt his religious philosophies without necessarily making efforts to establish the truth. However, to a greater degree, it is seen as a means of preaching love and unity among the people even in their diverse religious orientations.

Tolerance is another theme that is intertwined with religious freedom. While people practice their different forms of worship depending on their religion, the rest who do not agree with their orientation should exercise tolerance towards them. Tolerance is the virtue that will make the people of Providence live as one society even with the diversity among them. This is the idea behind which the people will be able to coexist in the same ship without raising conflicts, allowing the different religious groups to conduct their prayer and worship without interference or use of force. Tolerance is the virtue that will see them reach the destination the ship is headed to as a society. This is his appeal to the people of Providence.

The other two themes exhibited in the letter are the themes of peace and unity. At the beginning of the letter, Williams talks of improving the peace and welfare of the town. The themes of religious freedom and tolerance are all geared towards promoting peace and unity. The use of people traveling in the same ship and being allowed to act at liberty as regards their religion is a pointer to the need of coexistence/unity which goes hand in hand with peace. Williams brings out the reality of the people having a common ground and therefore the need for coexistence. This is seen when he says that the people on the ship have common weal and woes. These factors are supposed to bring them together as the society of the town of Providence.

Finally, Williams brings out the idea of supremacy in the letter. This he does when giving directions on who holds the command over peoples behavior. He says that the commander of the ship directs its course and commands that justice, peace, and sobriety be practiced among the seamen and the all the passengers. He further says that whoever among these groups who refuses to perform his duty as expected or disobeys the rules of the ship with the claim that all are equal in Christ, the commander of commanders will execute judgment upon the transgressors according to their deserts and merits. This shows his recognition of a higher power that is beyond human beings who is in control and judges people depending on their deeds. Williams brings out the idea of supremacy in an open way since he does not impose human authority over other humans. Instead, he gives liberty to the people to choose whether to obey the rules and the commanders and officials governing them, failure to which they will be exposed to the command of the Father of Light.

Williams also employs the use of different literary styles in his letter. The existent styles in this letter are the use of metaphors, symbolism, and contrast which are used for illustration and passing the message in a way that the people could relate. The first instance he uses a metaphor is when he talks about the ship. Williams gives a picture of a ship that sails into the sea carrying many hundred souls. The ship is used a representation of the community of the people of the town of Providence. The many hundred souls are the people in a community that have differences in their lifestyles and orientations either religiously and politically. The people in the ship have a common ground in that they are on the same ship and headed in the same destination. Through this illustration, Williams was trying to pass a message concerning the reality of life whereby the world is made of numerous people each with a different orientation in life. The differences create diversity among the people, yet they are brought together by the fact that they belong to the same community. Williams argues that no soul in the ship should be forced to offer prayers or worship suggesting that they should be allowed to practice these things at their volition. This argument brings out the aspect of tolerance that he was encouraging to be practiced among the people of Providence. One community, different orientations creating the diversity that is embraced through tolerance.

The use of the ship as a metaphor can also be demonstrated from another angle in which it is seen as a means of taking people from one place to another. A ship is a means of transport that aids people in moving from one destination to another preferred destination. This was a vessel with which the people of Providence could identify. The idea of the many people traveling on the same ship suggests a sense of the people of the town of Providence embarking on a journey that leads to a common destination. Since the people are traveling in the same vessel, the experiences encountered throughout the journey are the same giving them a common story which binds them together. This means at the end of the journey, which is the progress the people of Providence are making as relates to embracing religious freedom and tolerance, they will be in a position where they can relate to each other since their story is common.

Symbolism is another literary style that Williams utilizes in his work. He uses hinges to explain the pillars that hold liberty. When explaining the situation in the ship where no one should be forced to pray or worship against their will, Williams points out that liberty of conscious turns upon two hinges. These hinges he identifies as not being forced to come for ships prayers or worship and not being compelled from ones prayer or worship. These he said is for either the Jews, Papists, Protestants, or Turks. Hinges are used to symbolize the rules that should govern the liberty of conscious in the community of Providence. The use of hinges as a symbol could be relatable to the people since they came from homes that had doors or other structures turning on hinges. Therefore, they could understand the symbolism when it came to social matters.

Williams also employs contrast as a literary style, although in a small proportion. This style he applies by placing one word versus another. In the description of the people in the ship, he says that their weal and woes are common. The meaning of these two words are contrasting yet they are used in the same sentence to explain a similar situation. Weal is interpreted to mean fortune or commonwealth while woe is misfortune. These two situations are being spoken of for the same group of people, being those in the ship which represents the people of Providence. The idea of the people in the same society having contrasting experiences furthers the idea of diversity. The use of contrast shows the differences that exist in a community even though they have a common history and a future destination. Even with the contrasting situations, the people undergo similar experiences in the boat as they forge to a common destination.

Williams letter to the people of the town of Providence is an excellent piece of literature since the writer has articulated his agendas in a clear manner that leaves no contradiction. For instance, the central theme that was the main idea that the writer was passing to his people, which is religious freedom and tolerance, is well articulated throughout the letter. The writer uses several illustrations to bring the people into the understanding of the message in the letter. He does this by using things that the people could relate to like a ship. He explicitly explains to the people the situation of a ship carrying many people each with his differences, yet they are required to stay in harmony since they are headed for the same destination. He brings out the diversity in society by incorporating the image of having people of the different religions such as Papists, Protestants, Jews, and Turks in the same ship. With the directions on how these groups should relate, Williams has managed to pass his message successfully. Additionally, he has managed to apply literary styles effectively to pass his message in a way that the people can understand more. These styles are metaphors, symbolism, as well as the use of contrast.

However, there is one weakness portrayed in this piece of literature. The author uses his beliefs as the basis to advocate his ideas on the people. His belief that no man understands the true church as Christ would want it resul...

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