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The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

Bernard Bailyn, one of our greatest historians, shines his light on the nation’s Dark Ages

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” “But didn’t his zealotry lead to tolerance?”

“It did, but this was not the big issue for him. He was trying to find out the proper form of Christianity. He started with the Church of England and that was full of trouble. Then he became a Baptist and that was no good. He kept taking off all the clothes of organized Christianity till nothing was left. And he ended up in a church of his own with his wife and a few Indians. He’s a zealot who went all the way!”

“But he wasn’t a zealot who persecuted others.”

“No, he was not. That’s why they hated him...he was complicated. He was well educated, he was a gentleman—but he was a nut case! They didn’t know what to do with him. Among his views, first of all, was that you do not seize Indian land. You don’t own it, you don’t take it. And you treat people civilly and there is no purity in any stage of Christianity, hence toleration.”

“What’s nutty about that?” I asked

“You don’t live in the 17th century.”

“So you’re not saying he’s a nut case from the perspective of the 21st century?”

“No, certainly not. He became properly famous for all this—later. At the time people hated him. Because he was breaking up the unity of Christianity. One of his contemporaries had a wonderful phrase for him. Namely, he is ‘unlamb-like.’ No lamb, this guy. He sure wasn’t. But he got close to the Indians, knew them well, lived with them.”

Bailyn’s description of the many contradictory aspects of Williams’ character stayed with me. A zealot, but tolerant. An outcast, but a self-outcast. Willing to be seen as a “nut case” in his time. A visionary sense of the way to a better future in that dark century. So much of the American character, like Williams, emerges from the barbarous years. And that century has left its stamp on us. Not the “zealous nut case” part, though that’s there. I’m thinking of that compound word Bailyn likes about Williams: “unlamb-like.” That’s us.

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