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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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1. Native Voices   

1. Native Voices

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Chippewa Songs
- Louise Erdrich
- Ghost Dance Songs
- Thomas Harriot
- Black Elk & John G. Neihardt
- Simon J. Ortiz
- Leslie Marmon Silko
- Stories of the Beginning of the World
- Luci Tapahonso
- Roger Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683)

 A Key into the Language of America (1643)
[5219] Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (1643), courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Roger Williams Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Although we do not have written texts by Algonquian Indians from the very early contact period, we can learn about their language and culture from the way it is presented by such Europeans as Roger Williams, who lived among native communities. A Puritan whose unorthodox views alienated him from both the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth colonies, Williams has been reclaimed by some contemporary scholars as a democratic and pluralistic hero. Born in London, Williams studied at Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1627, but which he left in 1629, without having completed his M.A., to become a Puritan chaplain. He sailed to the New World on December 10, 1630; there tensions almost immediately arose between him and various members of the Puritan hierarchy (including, at different times, William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Cotton Mather—writers featured in Unit 3, "Utopian Promise").

The primary theological and political position that distinguished Williams was his assertion that church and state should be separate entities, with neither one having jurisdiction in the matters of the other. This was the first American articulation of the separation of church and state, appearing some 150 years before Thomas Jefferson's, and it did not sit at all well with the Puritan oligarchy (though it is worth noting that, unlike Jefferson's, Williams's concern was that the church not be corrupted by the state). In particular, Williams argued that the Massachusetts Bay Puritans should distance themselves from England (and therefore from English material support) by becoming Separatists, that their royal charter was invalid since Christians had no right to heathen lands, and that civil authorities should not meddle in spiritual affairs. When he was charged with subversion and spreading discord, he moved from Boston to Plymouth, where he established friendly trading relations with the Indians. Williams soon became pastor to Salem, where he continued preaching his subversive doctrines and in 1635 was indicted for heresy and divisiveness and sentenced to be banished. He escaped this fate only by fleeing to an Indian settlement, where he purchased land from the Narragansetts and founded Providence. This city became a haven for exiles and outcasts, from Anne Hutchinson to Baptists, Seekers, Antinomians, Quakers, and Jews.

Throughout his life Williams held important offices and fought for Native American rights, acting as negotiator for the Narragansetts during King Philip's War (which did not prevent them from being all but decimated by the end of that war). Although he produced various texts, his most famous is A Key into the Language of America (1643), which is in part a promotional tract for New World settlement in the tradition of Thomas Harriot's A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. A Key into the Language of America, however, is much more complicated ideologically: it is also an ethnographic study of Native American culture, a grammar of Native American languages, a defense of Native American cultures in the face of European allegations of immorality, and a lament for the "false religion" of the natives. Although Williams shared the common European assumption that only Christianity could save souls, this text does reveal his interest in analyzing American Indian language and culture on its own terms rather than by Western standards alone. Williams, like many Puritans, subscribed to the theory that Indians were ancestors of one of the "lost tribes" of Israel, applying a falsely Eurocentric view of native genealogy. Still, Williams remains one of the most powerful seventeenth-century European voices of sympathy and admiration for the American Indian.

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