“For whose coming I am seeking”: Quote-unquote Roger Williams

In Ensign articles and in General Conference addresses, it is not unusual to find appeals to people before 1830 who thought that Christianity had slipped into general apostasy. One of the most prominent of these is Roger Williams (1603-1683), to whom the following statement is attributed.

There is no regularly constituted church on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking.

The source for this citation is nearly always identified as Picturesque America (1872) by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878). This is somewhat troubling, as we usually prefer not to rely on nineteenth-century picture books to document statements made over two hundred years before they were published, even if the picture books were edited by famous poets. Can we find a better source?

If you can find a copy of the first edition of Picturesque America (the passage is missing in later revised editions), you will indeed find a quotation from Roger Williams on pages 500-2:

Mr. Williams, however, continued to be [pastor of Providence’s first Baptist congregation] for only four years, when he withdrew, not only from his official relations, but also ceased any longer to worship with his brethren, having come to the conclusion that there is “no regularly-constituted Church on earth, nor any person authorized to administer any Church ordinance; nor could there be, until new apostles were sent by the great Head of the Church, for whose coming he was seeking.”(Bryant 502)

Bryant is quoting Williams from somewhere – but he doesn’t indicate the source. Are we stuck?

Thanks to Google Books, no. A bit of searching shows that Bryant was quoting from what was for its time a quite reliable source: William R. Staples’s Annals of the Town of Providence (1843). Staples writes:

A letter of Richard Scott appended to “A New England Fire-Brand Quenched,” and published about 1673, states that Mr. Williams left the Baptists and turned Seeker, a few months after he was baptized. Mr. Scott was a member of the Baptist church for some time, but at the date of this letter, had united with the Friends. According to Mr. Williams’ new views as a Seeker, there was no regularly constituted church on earth, nor any person authorized to administer any church ordinance, nor could there be, until new apostles should be sent by the Great Head of the church, for whose coming he was seeking.(Staples 409)

This sounds promising – if we can find the letter of Richard Scott, we should find our quotation from Roger Williams. Three editions of George Fox’s A New England Fire-Brand Quenched were published in 1678 and 1679, all of which contain a letter of Richard Scott. (If you have access to the Early English Books Online database, facsimiles are here , here, and here.) The letter begins

 Concerning the Conversation and Carriage of this Man Roger Williams, I have been his Neighbour these 38. years: I have only been Absent in the time of the Wars with the Indians, till this present — I walked with him in the Baptists Way about 3 or 4 Months, but in that short time of his Standing I discerned, that he must have the Ordering of all their Affairs, or else there would be no Quiet Agreement amongst them. In which time he brake off from his Society, and declared at large the Ground and Reasons of it: That their Baptism could not be right, because It was not Administred by an Apostle. After that he set upon a Way of Seeking (with two or three of them, that had dissented with him) by way of Preaching and Praying; and there he continued a year or two, till Two of the Three left him.

That which took most with him, and was his Life, was, To get Honor amongst Men, especially amongst the Great Ones…

Scott’s letter does state that Roger Williams had left the Baptists and become a Seeker – but the quotation we are seeking is nowhere to be found. What has gone wrong?

The genesis of this particular quotation involves a cascade of errors involving at least three people over four decades. I believe the process worked like this: In 1843, William Staples wanted to show that Roger Williams had become a Seeker only after leaving Massachusetts in 1636, and so he referred, accurately, to Scott’s letter. In order to explain Seeker beliefs, Staples provided a quick summary of what Roger Williams must have believed in order for a contemporary to refer to him as a seeker. Unfortunately, Staples did not clearly distinguish between his explanation, Roger Williams’s own statements, and Richard Scott’s report made decades after the events Scott describes. William Staples is the unwitting primary author of what has become among Mormons the most famous and oft-quoted statement of Roger Williams.

William Cullen Bryant was not the first to start moving Staples’s words into Williams’s mouth. An unsigned review of two biographies of Roger Williams in The Christian Observatory 1 (1847: 188) places the statement in quotation marks without attributing it to Staples, just as Bryant would do in 1872. But it was Picturesque America rather than The Christian Observatory that was the path for the quotation’s entry into Mormon discourse.

Around 1882, John H. Morgan’s first missionary tract for the Southern States Mission, Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Its Faith and Teachings, discovered the quotation and made it known to Mormon readers. Morgan seems to have noticed the incongruity of Williams seeming to speak about himself in the third person, as this version, while citing Picturesque America, improves upon the quotation by making it a first-person statement in the present tense, rather than a third-person, past-tense statement. Note the discrepancies in bold below:

Bryant, Picturesque American [1872]

Morgan,  Doctrines of the Church [ca. 1880]

[T]here is “no regularly-constituted Church on earth, nor any person authorized to administer any Church ordinance; nor could there be, until new apostles were sent by the great Head of the Church, for whose coming he was seeking.” There is no regularly constituted church of Christ on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking.(Morgan, as cited in Rich 303)

Already in 1882, Matthias Cowley excerpted the quotation, now attributed directly to Williams, in a short article for the MIA Contributor, and it was soon found in Mormon literature by B.H. Roberts and many others.(Cowley 240; Roberts 205)

The quotation of Staples-as-Williams continues to be repeated by Mormon scholars and church leaders in its particularly Mormon form, although someone should have noticed that the quotation was untraceable, and that the language doesn’t belong to the seventeenth century. And in fact, at some point, someone must have realized that something was amiss and made an effort to find the original quotation. A 2006 conference address by James E. Faust, for example, gives the quotation in Bryant’s formulation and accurately treats it as a statement about Williams. Jeffrey Holland’s 2004 conference address “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” cites—correctly, although requiring a great deal of editing—a different statement made by Cotton Mather, one of Williams’s bitter opponents, about Roger Williams in an 1853 edition of Mather’s religious history, Magnalia Christi Americana. (Curiously, Robert Millet cites this address of Holland’s in reference to the LDS version of the Staples-as-Williams quotation in his 2010 book By What Authority? [Millet 121 n. 33])

To sum up, it would be best not to treat the passage in question as a quotation made by Roger Williams, and to cite William Staples rather than Willam Cullen Bryant as the source when using it as a statement about Williams.

 * * *

Does this mean that another faith-promoting rumor bites the dust? Not so fast. It’s important to recognize that at no point did anyone misrepresent beliefs that Roger Williams held during his lifetime. As W. Clark Gilpin writes,

 In this manner, Williams strongly contrasted the church of his own day, a church scattered in the wilderness, with Christianity in its authentic form. He believed that the glorious church of the latter days would bring the godly out of the wilderness by repristinating the doctrine, discipline, and spiritual authority of ancient, apostolic Christianity. This primitivism constituted a characteristic emphasis of his piety; the goal of God’s providential plan for his church was the precise restoration of its original pattern, and Williams now awaited the apostles whose preaching would bring that plan to realization.(Gilpin 59)

Gilpin documents this and similar statements about Williams with numerous references to Williams’s own writings. One thing that allowed the misquoted quotation to stay in circulation so long is that it does accurately reflect what Williams believed, even if Williams never conveniently put those beliefs together in a single memorable sentence.

The genesis of the Staples-as-Williams quotation is also significant because it illustrates how faith-promoting stories are generated. Everyone in the chain of transmission, from Staples to Bryant to Morgan, reproduced the quotation in good faith and according to the best of his abilities using the best sources available to him. Staples merely added a helpful sentence to explain what Williams, as a Seeker, must have believed. Bryant put into quotation marks material that he was quoting from Staples. And Morgan updated the language to reflect what he thought the original first-person quotation must have been. We are not smarter than Staples or Bryant or Morgan. Like them, we make use of the best sources we can find, but we have been blessed to come forth in the day of Google Books and HathiTrust.

When we come across a faith-promoting text that seems hardly credible, it’s tempting to cry “forgery!” and assume that some conscious dishonesty has been at work. Undoubtedly that sometimes does happen, but not nearly as often as we suspect. We don’t have to assume a conniving CES instructor or a scheming missionary in order to account for a textual intervention. What at first seems like a wild invention would often be revealed as the product of a series of gradual improvements made in good faith if only so much of the textual record had not been lost.

The generation of a quote by Roger Williams does not reflect some particularly Mormon flaw. Extracting, explanatory expansion, media transfer, and exposure to linguistic and historical changes create gaps that people fill with meaning. The things that created the quotation are universal processes that affect every human act of textual production.

One of the problems with pseudoquotations, of course, is that they too easily become roadblocks that prevent deeper engagement with authentic texts: Why bother reading the long polemical writings of Roger Williams when it’s quicker and easier to repeat a familiar sentence? But excessive skepticism is equally pernicious, because it can prevent us from accepting the possibility that someone who lived nearly four centuries ago had some things to say that resonate with us today in a particularly Mormon way. But Roger Williams and other Seekers really are our spiritual ancestors, and we should be reading their authentic works and grappling with them in their complexity.



Bryant, William Cullen. Picturesque America. New York: Appleton, 1872.

Cowley, Matthias F. “Apostacy.” The Contributor 3 (1882): 239–43.

Gilpin, W. Clark. The Millenarian Piety of Roger Williams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

M’Clure, Alexander Wilson, ed. “Lives of Roger Williams.” The Christian Observatory 1 (1847): 180–89.

Millet, Robert L. By What Authority?: The Vital Question of Religious Authority in Christianity. Mercer University Press, 2010.

Morgan, John. Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Its Faith and Teachings. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1882.

Rich, Ben. E. Scrap Book of Mormon Literature. Vol. 1. 2 vols. [S.l.]: B. E. Rich, 1910.

Roberts, Brigham Henry. Outlines of Ecclesiastical History. Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons, 1895.

Staples, William R. Annals of the Town of Providence, from Its First Settlement, to the Organization of the City Government, in June, 1832. Rhode Island Historical Society Collections 5. Providence: Knowles and Vose, 1843.

20 comments for ““For whose coming I am seeking”: Quote-unquote Roger Williams

  1. Nice detective work, Jonathan. Once upon a time the North Visitors Center on Temple Square had this quote displayed on a plaque as part of an exhibit highlighting Christian Reformers who said things friendly to the LDS view of apostasy and restoration. I wonder if the quote is still there?

  2. Love this. (As a Rhode Islander, I’ve always been partial to Williams.)

    I reached the same conclusion re: good intentions on the part of the players in a post I did on the “generals in the war in heaven” quote. It is my sense that our belief in shifty-eyed monks tampering with scriptures has led us to ignore the dangers that good people pose to the historical record.

  3. Good point Julie, although no matter who is reading, they must be shifty-eyed with such narrow columns as our scriptures have. =)

  4. I found this post very useful. Thanks.

    “…the dangers that good people pose to the historical record.” Verily it is so. Amen.

  5. The Roger Williams quotation in its evolved form was illustrated by a modern artist engaged by the Church as one of several quotes from Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, and one or two other religious reformers, illustrating the reality of a loss of the original authority of Christianity and need for a Restoration, and displayed in the Mormon Pavilion at the 1963 World’s Fair. That exhibit was the Church’s first effort in a multimedia visitor center, with a facade that looked like the front of the iconic Salt Lake Temple. The Christus statue copy which now is the centerpiece of the Temple Square North Visitor Center was created for that exhibit, and most of the original paintings, translight panels, dioramas and so forth that were created for the World’s Fair were incorporated into the Temple Square site. When you came to the Apostacy exhibit, the guide would insert a key and the exhibit would light each panel in turn, while a recorded voice would read the quotation of each apostle or Protestant reformer. At the end, all would remain lit so the visitor could reflect on the messages, in preparation for seeing a reproduction of the Sacred Grove, whete the prophesied restoration took place.

    Most Mormons know the 1963 World’s Fair mainly from the iconic “flying saucers” structure that, in Men in Black I, are actually flying saucers, and the focus of the dramatic final battle of the movie. But back in 1963, it was a bold and confident assertion of the Mormon message in the contemporary world, right next to the other World of Tomorrow pavilions. All of the paintings were published in The Improvement Era church magazine and in missionary brochures, especially the Apostacy exhibit. Most of the iconic Harry Anderson paintings of the life of Christ were created for this exhibition. So were the Old Testament paintings of Noah and Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah. The crowning achievement was the film Man’s Search for Happiness, about the Plan of Salvation and the Mormon answers to the questions Whetendid I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Much of the 1963 pavilion was adapted for the 1970 Osaka, Japan World’s Fair, including a Japanese version of the movie with Japanese actors and locations. The last half of my mission in Japan included looking up visitors who had placed their addresses in the visitor center guest book. All of the missionaries in Japan, at that time in four missions, were given permission to travel to the Fair to see.it and the other exhibits. So the Roger Williams portrait and quotation, further evolved.into Japanese, is one of the fond memories of that trip.

  6. Thank you for the kind comments. I’ve been trying to track down the origin of this quote for the better part of a decade. It shouldn’t have taken that long, but I needed access to a first edition of Picturesque America (still not available anywhere online), the major book-scanning projects that have opened up in the last five years, and the proprietary EEBO database.

    Like Julie, I think in most cases we can dispense with the figure of the shifty-eyed monk (or missionary) intentionally corrupting a text, or disingenuously inventing one. Textual changes are usually well intentioned. Then again, texts only get copied in the first place by people who care about them, so we usually have to choose between a text mangled by historically uninformed amateurs, or no text at all.

  7. The World’s Fair in New York was held from 1964 to 1965, not 1963.

    I remember using those display panels and setting them up in marketplaces in Norway (translated into Norwegian, of course), where I served my mission in 1968-1970.

  8. this is not for your current article but the one from 2008 on Gertrud Specht… I agree with you that the lady was miraculous but today in sacrament meeting the “showy”version was recounted at my church. just wondering how I can support my congregation and also make sure they are in the “know” recently baptized in Courtenay B.C.

  9. Christine, education is slow and thankless work, and all too often trying to correct some bit of information will not be worth the disruption that it would cause in a class. I usually try to wait until I’m the one who has an opportunity to teach or speak so that I can say: Look, here’s the truth and we can learn from it, rather than What The Teacher Has Just Said Is Wrong.

  10. Jonathan, I really enjoyed this, especially your emphasis on not assuming bad intent by those creating this chain.

    Kent wondered if there were more quotations like this that need to be clarified. Maybe I can suggest one for someone to examine. There is a story popular among LDS, in fact I heard it referenced just last night in a fireside, about the young King Louis of France. He was abducted by evil men that try to debauch him, yet he never buckled or gave in to the temptations of the flesh. His bewildered captors can’t understand and he replies that he resisted because he was born to be a king.

    I heard this story a few months ago and immediately doubted it’s veracity. In the complete version of the story the young king is only 8-10 years old, not a ripe age for debauchery; and kings of any era are hardly role models for morally virtuous behavior. The story was just too perfect and too simplistic, it sounded like it came straight from the Friend magazine.

    I did some Google searching and found not one hit from a source other than LDS. It appears to have first entered the church from a talk given by Vaughan Featherstone in the 70s and then took on a life of its own. But I’m no researcher and a Google search is hardly definitive. I wonder how this story came to be and if it is based on any real historical incident.

  11. KLC, the problem with poorly-sourced quotations is that they’re often a lazy shortcut that keeps people from finding the really good stuff. That Roger Williams never uttered the quote in question shouldn’t lead us to ignore the fact that he said many things quite similar to it (just not all in the same place). The truth is often more faith-promoting than the faith-promoting rumor.

    About the story you mention, I don’t see much problem with it because it mostly functions as an exemplum for use in devotion. It’s not claiming anything miraculous or trying to score apologetic points. Even if the story is pure fiction, I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow over its use in moral teaching.

    But if the story did bug someone, it’s not enough to say that it sounds implausible. To figure out where it came from, you’d have to look at how the story gained form among French monarchists, and how it entered American consciousness, and then how it entered Mormon discourse. All of that is much more interesting than merely declaring a story untrue, but it also takes quite a bit more work.

  12. So Jonathan, I assume you didn’t raise an eybrow over Paul Dunn’s fictional autobiographical stories? They also functioned as exemplum for use in devotion. I know, I was a kid who heard him tell them, they were inspiring, is that really all that matters?

  13. KLC, I think it would be fair to draw a distinction between Paul Dunn’s anecdotes, which he knew to be false or embellished, and the use of a faith-promoting story or quote (like the OP’s Roger Williams quote or the King Louis story you mention) that the speaker believes to be true. (I’m assuming that Vaughan Featherstone didn’t simply fabricate the anecdote from whole cloth…it came from somewhere, right?)

  14. Robert I agree and I was just posing a thought question as reaction to Jonathan’s “Even if the story is pure fiction, I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow voer its use in moral teaching.” I’m sure Jonathan doesn’t approve of falsification when used for moral teaching either but that quote can be used to justify less than honorable methods.

    I don’t think Featherstone made it up, he probably heard it from someone local in his life and gave it a big stage as a general authority. It has since been cited in a Covey book and by Julie Beck in the YW general meeting a few years ago as well as by dozens if not hundreds of sac talks and blog posts judging by the google results. But after a few hours of searching using my elementary skills I couldn’t find a single non-LDS usage.

    But the story as quoted is usually very specific, it cites a specific King Louis and always posits it as an historical fact. I would have no problem if LDS usage for its moral message quoted it as a story without the historical gloss that makes it so appealing. That kind of appeal to authority does make me raise an eyebrow…or respond to a blog post.

  15. Well, there was Louis XVII whose parents were guillotined and who was placed by the revolutionaries in the care of the shoemaker Antoine Simon who was told to make the boy to lose the idea of his rank. The boy died at age ten and was the subject of many 19th Century stories, like the Scarlet Pimpernel secretly saving him or a con-man on the Mississippi claiming to be him. Likely the royalists had some nifty tales about demonstrations of his regal qualities while in Simon’s care.

  16. KLC, it’s a reasonable question, and maybe I am being inconsistent. One difference I see between this and the Dunn experience is that the story doesn’t serve to increase the storyteller’s own authority. The story also doesn’t need the historical context for its didactic purpose; if you changed the opening to “Once upon a time,” it would still have much the same effect. The path of transmission that John Mansfield suggests sounds pretty plausible, so that if you managed to trace the story, you’d likely end up with quasi-legendary sources anyway. Knowing those sources would certainly be interesting, and having a source to cite is always better than not having one. There just isn’t enough to get me personally to start digging, but someone else who wants to spend some quality time with nineteenth-century French royalists might reach another decision.

    Part of my problem here might be the story itself, which does seem to reflect the experience of Louis XVII. When I consider that the point of origin seems to involve a child who was imprisoned and brutalized by his captors for years before dying of his mistreatment, I become less offended by a general authority’s sloppy footnoting and more inclined to shut up and let the man get on with his work.

    But I keep saying that reality probably holds more faith-promoting material than fiction does, so someone digging into the sources should turn up something even better. It’s not a project for me, but hopefully someone else will take a look.

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