To start, this is the meme I’ll be discussing.
The point of the meme is obvious. It’s intended to mock the conservative dislike of undocumented immigrants entering the country and receiving benefits by pointing out that the earliest English colonists came without any permission from the native inhabitants of the land and would have starved to death without their assistance. I agree with the general thrust of the meme entirely. I want to be 100% clear on that. Unfortunately, this is possibly the single worst painting that could be used for this meme.
You might recognize the painting as the below, Roger Williams Being Received by the Indians, 1635, by Alonzo Chappel.
Roger Williams is, to put it succinctly, a man with a morality beyond that of the present day who inexplicably found himself in the 17th century.
Let’s start with the first line of the meme: “Undocumented Immigrants Refuse to Learn the Local Language.” Can you guess who wrote A Key Into the Language of America, the world’s first English-Native American language dictionary? I hope so, because otherwise your deductive skills are lacking. It was Roger Williams! His initial intention was to minister to the Native Americans. In order to accomplish this, he learnt their culture and language. However, by the time he had the knowledge to attempt to convert them, he no longer had the desire: his conscience would not allow him to do so. He had discovered that they had their own culture, their own religion, their own forms of worship, and he had no desire to tear them away from their ancestral forms. He left behind all churches and belonged to none. He was a Christian, but would not associate himself with any specific church, instead claiming that he was waiting for a new apostle to lead him, and that until then, it was unknowable which church was correct.
In contrast with most of the other colonists, then, we can see that Roger Williams did learn the language. He also purchased Providence from the Wampanoags, although he admits that he was only able to purchase it due to love. Even then, he knew that it was a myth that the Native Americans had no concept of property.
The natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that prince or people, even to a river, brook, &c. And I have known them make bargain and sale amongst themselves for a small piece or quantity of ground; notwithstanding a sinful opinion amongst many, that christians have right to heathen’s land.
Roger Williams was a friend of the Native Americans, and kept Providence Plantations neutral in most of the wars fought against them by the other New England colonies. He even gave himself as a hostage to the Native Americans, in order to ensure the return of their chiefs by his fellow colonists. He worked his whole life towards maintaining peace between the Native Americans and the colonists, yet Providence was nevertheless burned in 1676. I think by now it’s pretty obvious why a different colonial leader would have been more appropriate. Since I like Roger Williams a lot, though, I’ll mention some other great things about him.
Roger Williams, despite the opinion of many other Europeans, realized that the Native Americans had a concept of property, and that therefore, land not bought from them was gained immorally.
“The natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that prince or people, even to a river, brook, &c. And I have known them make bargain and sale amongst themselves for a small piece or quantity of ground ; notwithstanding a sinful opinion amongst many, that christians have right to heathen’s land.”
Roger Williams was the first proponent of the Separation of Church and State, and for Religious Freedom, in America, and established the first government in modern history in which government and religion were entirely separated.
“It is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.”
Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his objections to the church’s attempts to interfere in the secular lives of the colonists and force them to conform to a single religion. He believed that the church should only concern itself with those things that dealt with God, while the state should deal with affairs between human beings.
“God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”
Roger Williams promoted a free and open society in Providence, Rhode Island. He did not attempt to silence his enemies, but let them speak freely, believing that sincere disagreement was better than hypocritical conformity.
“Although the loose will be more loose (yet) possibly being at more liberty they may be put upon consideration and choice of ways of life and peace, yet, however, it is infinitely better that the profane and loose be unmasked than to be muffled up under the veil and hood of traditional hypocrisy, which turns and dulls the very edge of all conscience either toward God or man.”
In 1641, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first law legalizing slavery in the English Amerian colonies. In 1652, thanks in part to support by Roger Williams, slavery was declared illegal in Providence Plantations. However, when Providence Plantations unified with the towns of Rhode Island, becoming Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the state’s official name, and the longest name of any state), the merchant towns, especially Newport, opposed the law and ignored it, continuing slavery in the colony for over another century. Newport became the greatest shipper of slaves in the 13 colonies.
Roger Williams, at the age of 70, rowed himself from Providence to Newport, a distance of about 30 miles. He did so in order to hold a religious debate with George Fox, leader of the Quakers in Newport. The debate took place, but Fox was not present. Williams claimed that God helped his old bones row the distance.
Roger Williams’s tolerance of other religious brought hordes of travelers to the colony, hoping for religious freedom. The first Baptist church in America was founded by Roger Williams in 1638. The oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere is in Newport, Rhode Island. Quakers arrived in Newport in 1657, and Huguenots, French Calvinists, settled in Rhode Island in 1686. Antinomians founded Portsmouth in 1638, led by Anne Hutchinson. In no other colony was such a diversity of religious opinion tolerated.
Edit: To clarify my position, this meme would be 100% accurate if it depicted Jamestown or Plymouth. My only issue with it is that it depicts Roger Williams, who is the worst of the English settlers to use as an example for this, and even then, the assistance that he got from the Native Americans was quite literally life-saving, and he would have frozen to death without their aid.