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Leaving Salem

Leaving SalemLeaving Salem is the blogging home of storyteller, scribbler, and seeker Ronnie McBrayer at Beliefnet.com. I’m glad you have found this page. To learn more about Ronnie, see the “Meet Ronnie” page or visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net.

As names of blogs go (and there are some strange ones out there), what does “Leaving Salem” mean? Well, it has nothing to do with running away from a witch trial, but it is the same town.

Fleeing religious persecution in England, Roger Williams came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. He quickly moved from Boston to become pastor of the Puritan church in Salem, Massachusetts. And it didn’t take him long to get into trouble. He believed that the state had no right to enforce religion on people. In fact, he believed coercion should not be a part of spirituality at all. Roger Williams stood in the pulpit at Salem and said, “God does not require a uniformity of religion, only its unity. To enforce uniformity is to deny the very principles of Christianity. Forcing a person to be converted is like compelling an unwilling spouse to enter into a forced bed. It is nothing less than the rape of a person’s soul.” Tough words, to say the least.

Convicted of heresy and under threat of deportation, Roger Williams left the village of Salem and escaped into the New England wilderness. He was befriended by the native tribes of the region, who kept him alive, and eventually purchased from the Narrangansett, the land that would become the state of Rhode Island. Rhode Island became a haven for all kinds of dissidents and spiritual seekers in the earliest years of the American colonies. The very first Quakers, Jews, Anabaptists, and Baptists came to Rhode Island to escape religious persecution, and while Roger did not always agree with the beliefs of all these groups, he still believed that these people had the right express their faith according to their own conscience, and without controlling intrusion from anyone or anything else.

Williams eventually left the institutional church altogether to become only a “Seeker” after Christ. Anglican priest in the Church of England. Puritan reformer. Separatist rebel. Baptist pastor. Seeker. It was no wonder, when John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts asked his friend Roger to recant of his strange beliefs, leave the Indian tribes of the wilderness and come home, Roger responded, “I cannot; for I feel safer down here among the Christian savages than I do among the savage Christians.”

The law that exiled Roger Williams to the wilderness was not repealed until 1936 when the Massachusetts House finally ended 300 years of calling Roger Williams a heretic. But I would much rather be called a heretic, if that means pursuing Christ, than remain chained to any system of manipulation or coercion. That is what it means to leave Salem.

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