“Among the Christian Savages”
The Barna Group is a long-tenured research organization that tracks “spiritual indicators” and the role of faith within American culture. Barna maintains massive databases on everything from Americans’ TV-viewing habits to weekly church attendance, and its data is used extensively.
A recent Barna study, commissioned by the American Bible Society, sought to determine the level of “Bible-Mindedness” in this country’s largest cities. The rubric for the study was simple: Participants who claimed to read the Bible weekly and who strongly asserted the “Bible to be accurate in the principles it teaches” were considered “Bible-Minded.” Those who did not meet this standard were deemed to be unbiblical.
The major cities in the South “engaged and esteemed the Christian scriptures” with the greatest fervency, per Barna. Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, along with Shreveport, Louisiana, led the way with the majority of these residents being “Bible-Minded.” On the other end of the analysis were major cities from New England, not one of which could score above 20%, meaning the overwhelming majority of these people demonstrate “resistance to the Bible,” again, per the Barna study.
But far and away, the most “unbiblical” city in America is Providence, Rhode Island. There, only 9% of survey participants regularly read and adhere to the Bible. This should come as no surprise, given Rhode Island’s history. The state began as a haven for those who had been mistreated by strict biblicists – “Bible-Minded” people – who embraced the letter of the law, not the spirit of grace.
So you could conclude, historically speaking, that Islanders have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to religion, and it began with Rhode Island’s founder, a hero of mine, Roger Williams. When Williams arrived in Massachusetts more than a century before the American Revolution, he was part of the Puritan effort to build that famed “City on a Hill,” a divinely instituted nation where everyone would be “Bible-minded.”
He settled into his new role as pastor of the church in Salem, and in short order became the most controversial figure on the continent. How so? Williams relentlessly preached liberty of conscience and freedom from state-driven religious conformity, espousing a revolutionary idea that there should be a separation between church and state.
Vexed to the point of murder, the authorities finally made plans to kidnap Williams and deport him to England where he would be executed. But warned just hours before the authorities arrived to arrest him, Williams escaped into the wilderness where he eventually purchased from the Narrangansetts, the land that would become Rhode Island.
And it was exactly that: An island, a sanctuary for all kinds of religious dissidents in the earliest years of the American colonies, surrounded by the stormy waters of zealous extremism. Jews. Quakers. Baptists. Catholics. Atheists. They came in manifold and variegated expressions, and Roger Williams, this nation’s first Founding Father of toleration and liberty, welcomed them all, in spite of being viciously hated by New England’s religious establishment.
Meanwhile, back at Salem, an awful scar was soon slashed into America’s early history: The abominable witchcraft trials where twenty people were executed. An addition thirteen died in their prison cells, and hundreds more were ensnared in the inquisition. All this was carried out by by professing Christians who had rejected Roger Williams’ appeal for religious toleration.
It was no wonder, then, when Massachusetts Governor, John Winthrop, asked Roger to recant of his beliefs, leave the natives of the wilderness and come home, Roger responded, “I cannot; for I feel safer among the Christian savages, than I do among savage Christians.”
Ironically, Roger Williams never lost his Christian faith, and to the end of his life, he was definitely a “Bible-minded” man. Maybe, if he were alive today, he would wish that more of his neighbors “engaged the Christian scriptures,” but he would never force them to do so. He would say as he said: “Men’s consciences ought never to be violated…for a religion that must be upheld by violence, is a religion that cannot be true.”