One of the most towering religious figures of early colonial New England was theologian and churchman Roger Williams.
In 1635 Williams left England to join the Puritans in Boston. He eventually traveled to present day Rhode Island and founded the Providence Colonies.
Before his death in 1683 Roger Williams accomplished much. He founded the first Baptist church in the United States. He became a champion of religious freedom. And he made Providence Colonies a safe haven for all who wanted to worship God as their conscience and the Scripture dictated. This included groups as diverse as Baptists, Quakers, and Jews.
He also became the chief advocate for the Native Americans of southern New England. He considered them equals, studied their customs, and learned their languages. Additionally, Williams insisted on paying them for any lands that his colonists used. He published a book on the languages and customs of the Narragansett and Pequot Indians. The book became a best seller in England.
Today Roger Williams is probably celebrated most for being one of the earliest advocates in America for the separation of Church and State. Williams believed that the government’s power should be restricted to civil law. He also believed that it should not endorse one faith above another or dictate what its citizens should believe. The colony he founded became the first place in modern history in which the government granted citizenship apart from membership in any church or religion. And in 1652 the Providence Colonies also became the first to outlaw slavery.
In tribute to his legacy—which has been kept alive by the founding fathers and later by abolitionists, civil rights advocates, and proponents of religious freedom—many point to a strange event that followed Roger Williams’ death. In 1860, Zacharias Allen excavated Williams’ grave beneath an old apple tree. Mr. Allen wanted to gather his remains and preserve them for a more worthy gravesite. But Mr. Allen never found his body. All that was present in his coffin was a large apple tree root that had taken on the general shape of Williams’ body. The apple tree had literally fed upon his remains. Thus, in a symbolic way—even after his death—the old churchmen continued to bear fruit and nurture the lives of many. The apple tree root that replaced the body of Roger Williams is still on display at the Rhode Island Historical Society. It serves as a symbolic reminder that death does not bring a close to the legacy and impact of one’s life.
Our labors in this life will continue to feed and nurture generations to come. Therefore, it behooves us to invest our lives in a worthy cause and to strive to be a blessing to others—for our works will follow us after we die. As the Scripture says, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them” (Revelation 14:13, NLT).
Dear Father in heaven, please, help me to spend my life for the cause of Your Gospel and in sowing the seeds of Your love. Make me a blessing to others—both while I live and after I die. Amen.