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Roger Williams
File:Roger Williams statue by Franklin
Roger Williams statue by Franklin Simmons
Chief Officer of Providence and Warwick
In office
9th President of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
In office
Preceded by Nicholas Easton
Succeeded by Benedict Arnold
Personal details
Born c. 1603
London, England
Died March or April 1683
Providence, Rhode Island
Spouse(s) Mary Barnard
Children Mary, Freeborn, Providence, Mercy, Daniel and Joseph
Alma mater B.A. 1627 Pembroke College, Cambridge
Occupation Minister, President, Author, Statesman

Roger Williams (c. 1603 – 1683) was an English Protestant theologian who was an early proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In 1636, he began the colony of Providence Plantation, which provided a refuge for religious minorities. Williams started the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence. He was a student of Native American languages and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans. Williams was arguably the first abolitionist in North America, having organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in any of the original thirteen colonies.

Early life[edit]

Roger Williams was born in London about 1603, though the record of his baptism was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London when the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate burned. St Sepulchre is where the Virginia explorer and settler, John Smith worshiped.[1] Roger was the son of James Williams (1562–1621) who was a citizen and merchant tailor, living on Cow Lane in Smithfield, a part of London.[2][3] His mother was Alice Pemberton (1565–1634), the daughter of Robert and Catharine Pemberton of Saint Albans.[4] His uncle, Roger Pemberton, was Lord of the Manor of Wotton in Bedfordshire and High Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1620. His first cousin, Ralf Pemberton, the Mayor of St. Albans, was the father of Sir Francis Pemberton who became a Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench in 1681 under Charles II.[2] Williams's childhood was an unhappy one, and when he was about 30 years old he wrote about being "persecuted in and out of my father's house these 20 years."[1]

At the age of 11, Williams had a spiritual-conversion experience of which his father disapproved. A few years later he was apprenticed to Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), the famous jurist. Coke had noticed him while taking shorthand, and took a keen interest in him.[5] Years later, one of Coke's daughters wrote, "This Roger Williams, when he was a youth, would in a short hand take sermons and speeches in the Star Chamber, and presented them to my dear father. He, seeing so hopeful a youth, took such liking to him that he sent him into Sutton's Hospital" (which shared a campus with the Charterhouse School).[4] Coke and the lad grew close enough for Coke "to call him [his] son."[5] In the voluminous writings during his career, Williams only mentioned his father once, but mentioned Coke's name thousands of times. Williams would internalize the fact that Coke's "very life became to epitomize a struggle between authority and liberty."[6] Another of Coke's assertions that strongly affected Williams was that "No man ecclesiastical or temporal shall be examined upon secret thoughts of his heart."[7] Working for Coke put Williams in contact with the King, and also the King's son, who he thought to be "vicious, a swearer from his youth, and an oppressour and persecutour of good Men."[1]

Finding Williams to be earnest, intelligent and enthusiastic, Coke had asked Williams's father to "let him have the care" of the lad, which request was "readily granted".[8] In 1621 Coke sent Williams to the Charterhouse School where he excelled, and was given a scholarship to attend Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1623.[9]

Williams received a B.A. in 1627,[10] where he had a gift for languages, and early acquired familiarity with Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Dutch, and French. He began work on an advanced degree, but dropped out of the program, likely because of the requirement to take an oath stating that the Church of England services conformed to scripture, which he did not hold to be true.[11] It was becoming increasingly difficult for Puritans to find preaching positions within the Anglican church structure, but Williams was able to find employment as the family chaplain for Sir William Masham in Essex, whose family was at "the center of Puritan and religious activity."[12] As a member of the Inner Temple with Coke, Masham and his relatives were supporters of Coke in Parliament.[11]

      • Years later he gave John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for refresher lessons in Hebrew.[13]***

Williams had wished to marry Joan Whalley, the granddaughter of Lady Joan Barrington, Masham's mother-in-law and an aunt of Oliver Cromwell, but was strongly repulsed when he made a request to do so.[2] He instead married Mary Barnard (1609–1676), a maid to Masham's step-daughter, Joan Altham, and a daughter of Reverend Richard Barnard.[2] Williams considered his new father-in-law, who authored over 30 books, to be a "conformable Puritan", who was "upright in the mayne, but of very great weaknesses."[14] The marriage took place on 15 December 1629, at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England.[2]

      • Mary's brother, Musachiel Barnard, immigrated to New England and settled in Weymouth.[2] Roger's youngest brother, Robert Williams, also came to New England, settling at Providence and later becoming a schoolmaster at Newport.[2]


Though not ready to emigrate, Williams showed an interest in doing so by attending a planning meeting hosted by the Earl of Leicester at Sempringham Castle in 1629. Williams accompanied two other ministers, John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, and challenged these much more senior clerics on their use of the Book of Common Prayer.[15] He thus demonstrated his willingness to confront authority. By the end of 1630 he decided he could not remain in England under Archbishop William Laud's rigorous (and High church) administration. Puritan ministers were being silenced at an increasingly rapid pace under Laud. In November 1630 Williams may have gotten a warning that the High Commission was seeking him. Perceiving flight to America to be a much better option than going to Holland, he took "his wife, part of his library, and little else," and traveled to the port at Bristol, passing the home of Coke "where that blessed man was."[16] Though compelled to leave England, he later wrote that doing so "was bitter as Death to me".[16]

      • He regarded the Church of England to be corrupt and false, and by the time he and his wife boarded the Lyon in early December, he had arrived at the Separatist position.***

Few voyages sailed in the winter, but the starving Massachusetts Bay Colony was desperate for supplies. Winthrop had commissioned Captain William Pierce to resupply the plantation with a very difficult winter voyage.[17] On 1 December 1630 Williams and his wife boarded the Lyon; also on board was Winthrop's wife and young child.[18] The voyage, described by Williams as "verye tempestuous", ended on 5 February 1631 when the ship anchored in Boston harbor.[19] In his journal, before noting the arrival of his wife or the greatly needed supplies, Winthrop commented on the arrival of the "godly minister" Williams.[20] When the ship unloaded in Boston, Winthrop declared a day of thanksgiving and prayer for the colony.[17]

Salem and Plymouth[edit]

[[File:Roger Williams house in Salem MA USA.jpg|thumb|left|Roger Williams House (or "The Witch House") in Salem c. 1910]

Almost immediately upon his arrival in New England, Williams was offered the position as Teacher of the Boston church, "the greatest such post in English America."[21] The church's officiating minister, John Wilson was back in England coaxing his wife to come back to New England with him. Williams shocked colony's leaders by declining the position because the church had not separated from the Anglican church, writing, "I durst not officiate to an unseparated people."[22] He went even further by advocating the separation of church and state. He asserted that the civil magistrates must not punish any sort of "...breach of the first table [of the Ten Commandments]," such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy—and that individuals should be free to follow their own convictions in religious matters. He felt strongly that these first four of the ten commandments should not be within the domain of the state, an indefensible position not only in Massachusetts, but in England as well.[23]

      • He put forth three principles that were central to his subsequent career: separatism, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.***
      • As a separatist, he concluded that the Church of England was irredeemably corrupt, and that one must completely separate from it to establish a new church for the true and pure worship of God. His search for the true church eventually carried him out of Congregationalism, the Baptists, and any visible church. From 1639 forward, he waited for Christ to send a new apostle to reestablish the church, and he saw himself as a "witness" to Christianity until that time came. He believed that soul liberty and freedom of conscience, were gifts from God, and that everyone had the natural right to freedom of religion. Religious freedom demanded that church and state be separated. Williams was the first to use the phrase "wall of separation" to describe the ideal relationship of church and state. He called for a high wall of separation between the "Garden of Christ" and the "Wilderness of the World." This idea may have influenced the foundations of the religion clauses in the United States Constitution, and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—though the language of the founders is quite different. Years later, in 1802 Thomas Jefferson wrote of the "wall of separation" in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, echoing Roger Williams .***

The Salem church was much more inclined to Separatism, so after the death of their teacher, Francis Higginson, they invited Williams to take his position. When the leaders in Boston learned of this, they vigorously protested, and the offer was withdrawn. Most of the Massachusetts clergy perceived Williams as a threat to Winthrop's vision of "a city on a hill" and thus concluded that he threatened God's vision.[21] The Bay area leaders felt that all souls in Massachusetts depended on the enforcement of God's laws, and that the state had to thus prevent error in religion.[21] Williams, on the other hand, felt that forced worship "stinks in God's nostrils", and he was moved toward a belief that he later called "Soul Libertie".[24]


By the end of the summer of 1631, Williams had moved to Plymouth Colony where he was welcomed, and informally assisted the minister there.[25] He regularly preached and according to Governor Bradford, "his teachings were well approved." One of the missions in the charters of most companies settling in New England was the provision that the natives would be converted to Christianity. Williams was intent on doing this, and not only learned the language of the natives, but also began trading with them. His activities took him from Cape Cod to the Narragansett Bay.[26] During his travels, he noticed that the forests had been cleared of underbrush for hunting, and that the natives were "very exact and puntuall in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People..."[27] This was contrary to the English justification for claiming land because it "lay unoccupied and unused."[27] Williams felt that no European monarch had any right to grant ownership over any of this land, and he took these concerns to the Plymouth authorities, who told him to put them in writing. The result was "an explosive treatise" in which he called King James's claim of being the first Christian king to discover New England as being "patently false", and in which he accused King Charles of telling "a solemne public lye."[27] Even to the separatist Pilgrims these were extraordinarily bold assertions. Governor Bradford later wrote that Williams fell "...into some strange opinions, and from opinion to practice, which caused some controversy between the church and him."[28]

Governor Bradford now considered Williams to be "very unsettled in judgments" and with the ensuing controversy, Williams asked to be dismissed from the Plymouth church during his second year there. The church allowed him to return to Salem in summer or early fall 1633, but Bradford sent a word of concern to the Massachusetts magistrates.[29] Williams was welcomed by Reverend Samuel Skelton as an unofficial assistant in the Salem church. In November 1633 the two men attended a regular meeting of the colony's clergy, and both of them viewed this gathering of ministers as a step toward establishing a presbytery or superintendency. Both were alarmed that such meetings would remove autonomy from individual churches. [30]

Return to Salem[edit]

The Massachusetts authorities were not pleased to see Williams return, and when they learned of his tract attacking the King and the charters, he was summoned in December 1633 to appear before the General Court in Boston. Williams was asked for the treatise that he wrote while at Plymouth, which was subsequently read by several of the magistrates and ministers. Though the issue of Indian ownership of the land was of minor concern, the statements Williams made against the monarchs was alarming.[31] That he charged King James of lying, and wrote that King Charles "committed Fornication with the whore" (referring to the Catholic Church in the form of Charles's Catholic wife), was beyond the tolerance of those in power.[31] Though Williams was to be censured, the authorities wanted him to realize his error and conform. Williams was amenable to this, offering his treatise to be burned. Privately Williams "gave satisfaction of" his loyalty, and the case was closed.[32]

On 2 August 1634 Reverend Skelton died, and Williams became the acting pastor of the Salem church and continued to be embroiled in controversies. He spoke out against state enforcement of the first four commandments, and spoke out against loyalty oaths and mandatory church attendance.[33] He continued to denounce the right of Christian kings to give away the "Lands and Countries of other men", arguing that the Massachusetts charter was an affront.[34] Williams was called to court on 4 March 1635, and magistrate Thomas Dudley wanted to act against him, though Cotton preferred delaying until the churches had a chance to correct him. While Williams capitulated this time, the following month he was brought back into court over another issue. Massachusetts was threatened with losing its charter and self-governance, and responded by requiring an oath of allegiance for all residents. Williams saw this as an affront to God, and when he received a lot of public support, the oath had to be terminated, to the embarrassment of the authorities.[35]

Williams continued his attacks on the overlap of church and state, criticizing forced tithes and having ministers supported with tax money. He had a sizable amount of public support, particularly in Salem, and in June 1635 was formally installed as the teacher of the church there.[36] This was too much for the colony's magistrates who declared that "All Salem had defied the authorities."[37] Salem had petitioned the General Court to annex some land on Marblehead Neck, but the Court would not consider the request until the Salem church removed Williams. As the court convened again on 8 July 1635, several charges were brought against Williams, primarily that he objected to state enforcement of the first two commandments, and that he also objected to rendering oaths. While the court found him guilty and condemned him, sentencing was withheld until the next court.[38] When at the September court the Salem deputies were not seated, Endicott protested to the point of being put in jail. Within hours he capitulated, and that ended his support of Williams.

      • Just prior to October court two ships arrived, bringing two people with whom Williams would interact for many years to come: John Winthrop, Jr. and Henry Vane.


Governor John Haynes presided over the October court, held in Newtown, and new charges were made against Williams for writing letters to area churches condemning the actions of magistrates against him. The Court declared that he was spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions", and defamed the New England magistrates and churches.[4][39] He would not capitulate in any way, and all members of the clergy except one approved of his punishment.[40] The governor read the sentence:

whereas Mr Roger Williams, one of the elders of the church at Salem, hath broached & dyvulged dyverse newe and dnagerous opinions, against the authoritie of magistrates, ... and yet maintaineth the same without retraction, it is therefore ordered that the said Mr. Williams shall dep[ar]te out of this jurisdicion within sixe weeks.

The execution of the order was delayed because Williams was ill and winter was approaching, and he was allowed to stay temporarily provided he ceased his agitation.[4] While he ceased preaching publicly, friends nevertheless visited him at his home, and when the authorities learned of this they sent the authorities to apprehend him.[24] He was to be put on a ship for England where he would most likely be imprisoned, and realizing this, John Winthrop, the deputy governor at the time, tipped him off.[24] When the authorities came to apprehend him, they discovered that he had slipped away three days before during a blizzard.[4] Thirty-five years later he wrote about being "sorely tossed for fourteen weeks in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bed or bread did mean."[4] He walked through the deep snow of a hard winter the 105 miles from Salem to the head of Narragansett Bay where the local Wampanoags offered him shelter and took him to the winter camp of their chief sachem, Massasoit, where he resided for 3 and a half months.

In the spring of 1636 Williams began a settlement on land that he had bought from Massasoit on the eastern shore of the Seekonk River. With him initially were four of his followers, William Harris, Thomas Angell, Francis Wickes, and John Smith (the miller). Soon, the families of these men arrived, with two other families: Joshua Verrin and his wife, and the extended Arnold family, which arrived in April, coming from Hingham. After planting, these settlers were informed by Plymouth that they were still within the Plymouth land grant.[4] They warned that they might be forced to extradite him to Massachusetts and invited them to cross the Seekonk River to territory beyond any charter.


[[File:Roger Williams and Narragansetts.jpg|thumb|Narragansett Indians receiving Roger Williams]

The outcasts rowed over to Narragansett territory, and having secured land from Canonicus and Miantonomi, chief sachems of the Narragansetts, Williams established a settlement on the Moshassuck River.[4] He called it "Providence" because he felt that God's Providence had brought him there.[4] (He would later name his third child, the first born in his new settlement, "Providence" as well.) He said that his settlement was to be a haven for those "distressed of conscience," and it soon attracted quite a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals.

The same year he established Providence, Massachusetts asked him to mediate between the Pequots, Narragansetts, and Mohegans, and keep the latter two tribes from forming an alliance with the Pequots. Years later he wrote, "Three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassadors, whose hands and arms methought reeked with the blood of my countrymen murdered and massacred by them on Connecticut river."[4] In the meantime, the Pequot War had broken out, and it was a great irony that Massachusetts Bay was forced to ask for Roger Williams' help. He not only became the Bay colony's eyes and ears, he used his relationship with the Narragansetts to dissuade them from joining with the Pequots. Instead, the Narragansetts allied themselves with the English and helped to crush the Pequots in 1637-1638. When the war was over, the Narragansetts were clearly the most powerful Indian nation in southern New England, and quite soon the other New England colonies began to fear and mistrust the Narragansetts. They came to regard Roger Williams' colony and the Narragansetts as a common enemy. In the next three decades Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth exerted pressure to destroy both Rhode Island and the Narragansetts.

From the beginning, the settlement was governed by a majority vote of the heads of households, but "only in civil things", and newcomers could be admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote. In August 1637 they drew up a town agreement, which again restricted the government to "civil things." In 1640, thirty-nine "freemen" (men who had full citizenship and voting rights) signed another agreement that declared their determination "...still to hold forth liberty of conscience." Thus, Williams founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate—that provided religious liberty and separation of church and state.

In November 1637, the General Court of Massachusetts disarmed, disenfranchised, and forced into exile the Antinomians, the followers of Anne Hutchinson. One of them, John Clarke, learned from Williams that Aquidneck Island might be purchased from the Narragansetts. Williams facilitated the purchase by William Coddington and others, and in the spring of 1638 the Antinomians began settling at a place called Pocasset, which is now the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Some of the Antinomians, especially those described by Governor John Winthrop as "Anabaptists", settled in Providence.

In March 1638 he wrote about his purchase of the Providence lands from the Narragansetts: "I spared no costs towards them in tokens and presents to Canonicus and all his, in my years before I came in person to the Narragansett; and when I came I was welcome to the old prince Canonicus, who was most shy of all English to his last breath."[4] On or about 8 October 1638 he shared his land with 12 other settlers, for a fee that went into the town coffers.[4] These men became the founding proprietors of Providence.

First Baptist church[edit]

In 1639, Williams was baptized by his fellow settler, Ezekiel Holliman. He in turn baptized Holliman and several others, establishing the first Baptist church in America.[4] Baptists were considered major heretics among the orthodox Puritans because they denied infant baptism and they disavowed the validity of magistrates.[28] Boston's magistrate John Winthrop reacted to this in his journal, writing that at "Providence things grew still worse; for a sister of Mrs. Hutchinson, the wife of one Scott, being infected with Anabaptistry, and going last year to live at Providence, Mr. Williams was was taken (or rather emboldened) by her to make open profession thereof..."[28]

They met together, in private homes, for a few months, but soon Williams departed from the group.

First return to England[edit]

In 1643, the neighboring colonies formed a military alliance called the United Colonies and pointedly excluded the towns around Narragansett Bay. The object was to extend their power over the heretic settlements and put an end to the infection. In response Williams was sent to England by his fellow citizens to secure a charter for the colony. The English Civil War was in full swing in England when Williams arrived. The Puritans were then in power in London, and through the offices of Sir Henry Vane a charter was obtained despite strenuous opposition from agents from Massachusetts. Historians agree that the key that unlocked the door for Williams was his first published book, A Key Into the Language of America (1643).[41][42] Printed by John Milton's publisher the book was an instant "best-seller", and gave Williams a large and favorable reputation. This little book was the first dictionary of any Indian tongue in the English language and fed the great hunger of the English about the Native Americans. Having secured his precious charter for "Providence Plantations" from Parliament, in July 1644 Williams then published his most famous book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. This produced a great uproar, and Parliament responded in August by ordering the public hangman to burn the book. By then, Williams was already on his way home to Providence Plantations. Also, by then, the settlers on Aquidneck Island had renamed their island Rhode Island.

Because of opposition from William Coddington on Rhode Island, it took Williams until 1647 to get the four towns around Narragansett Bay to unite under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed. The colony became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs-including Baptists, Quakers, and Jews. Still, the divisions between the towns and powerful personalities did not bode well for the colony. Coddington, who never liked Williams nor liked being subordinated to the new charter government, sailed to England and returned in 1651 with his own patent making him "Governor for Life" over "Rhode Island" [Aquidneck] and Conanicut.

Second return trip to England[edit]

As a result, Providence and Warwick dispatched Roger Williams, and Coddington's opponents on Rhode Island sent John Clarke to England to get Coddington's commission canceled. To pay for the trip, Williams sold his trading post at Cocumscussec, near present-day Wickford, Rhode Island. This trading post was his main source of income. Williams and Clarke were successful in getting Coddington's patent rescinded, but Clarke remained in England until 1664 to secure a new charter for the colony. Williams returned to America in 1654 and was immediately elected the President of the colony. He would subsequently serve in many offices in the town and colonial governments, and in his 70s he was elected captain of the militia in Providence during King Philip's War in 1676.

One notable effort by "Providence Plantations" (Providence and Warwick) during the time when Coddington had separated "Rhode Island" (Newport and Portsmouth) from the mainland came on May 18, 1652, when they passed a law that attempted to prevent slavery from taking root in the colony. In 1641 Massachusetts Bay had passed the first laws to make slavery legal in the English colonies, and these laws spread to Plymouth and Connecticut with the creation of the United Colonies in 1643. Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton both opposed slavery, and the law passed in 1652 was the attempt to stop slavery from coming to Rhode Island. Unfortunately, when the parts of the colony were reunited, the Aquidneck towns refused to accept the law and it became a dead letter.[43] The economic and political center of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was Newport for the next 100 years, and they disregarded the anti-slavery law. Indeed, Newport entered the African slave trade in 1700 and became the leading American slave traders from then until the American Revolution.[44]

Relations with the Baptists[edit]

[[File:First Baptist Church in America in RI.jpg|thumb|150px|left|First Baptist Church in America. Williams co-founded the congregation in 1638]

By 1638, Williams' ideas had ripened to the point that he accepted the idea of believer's baptism, or credobaptism. Williams had been holding services in his home for some time for his neighbors, many of whom had followed him from Salem. To that point they had been like the Separatists of Plymouth, still believing in infant baptism. Williams came to accept the ideas of English antipedobaptists.

John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton were co-founders of the Baptist movement in England, and produced a rich literature advocating liberty of conscience. Williams certainly had read some of their writings because he commented on them in his Bloudy Tenent. While Smyth, Helwys and Murton were General Baptists, a Calvinistic Baptist variety grew out of some Separatists around 1630. Williams became a Calvinist or Particular Baptist.

However, Williams had not adopted antipedobaptist views before his banishment from Massachusetts, for antipedobaptism was not a charge leveled at him by his opponents. Winthrop attributed Williams's "Anabaptist" views to the influence of Katherine Scott, a sister of Anne Hutchinson, who may have impressed upon Williams the importance of believers' baptism. Historians tend to think that Williams arrived there from his own study.

Williams had himself baptized by Ezekiel Holliman in late 1638.[45] Thus was constituted a church that still survives as the First Baptist Church in America. A few years later, John Clarke, Williams' compatriot in the cause of religious freedom in the New World, established the First Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1847 the Newport church suddenly maintained that it was the first Baptist church in America, but virtually all historians have dismissed this claim. If nothing else, Roger Williams had gathered and resigned from the Providence church before the town of Newport was even founded. Still, both Roger Williams and John Clarke are variously credited as being the founder of the Baptist faith in America.[46]

It should be noted that Roger Williams was a Baptist only briefly. He remained with the little church in Providence only a few months. He became convinced that the ordinances, having been lost in the Apostasy [when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire], could not be validly restored without a special divine commission. He declared: "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."[47]

He never again affiliated himself with any church, but remained deeply religious and active in preaching and praying. He looked forward to the time when Christ would send a new apostle to restore the church, but in the meantime, he would be a "witness" to Christianity. He always remained interested in the Baptists, being in agreement with them in their rejection of infant baptism as in most other matters. He has been mistakenly called a "Seeker", both in his own time by his enemies and by his admirers in the last century. Some of his enemies in England called him a "Seeker" in an attempt to smear him by associating him with a heretical movement that accepted Socinianism and universal salvation. Both of these ideas were anathema to Williams.

Church and state[edit]

Williams had read their writings, and his own experience of persecution by Archbishop Laud and the Anglican establishment and the bloody wars of religion that raged in Europe at that very time convinced him that a state church had no basis in Scripture. Clearly he had arrived at this conclusion before he landed in Boston in 1631 because he criticized the Massachusetts Bay system immediately for mixing church and state. He declared that the state could legitimately concern itself only with matters of civil order, but not religious belief. The state had no business in trying to enforce the "first Table" of the Ten Commandments, those first commandments that dealt with the relationship between God and persons. The state must confine itself to the commandments that dealt with the relations between people: murder, theft, adultery, lying, honoring parents, and so forth.

He believed that any effort by the state to dictate religion or promote any particular religious idea or practice was forced worship. He colorfully declared that, "Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God." He would write that he saw no warrant in the New Testament to use the sword to promote religious belief. Indeed, he said that Constantine had been a worse enemy to true Christianity than Nero, because Constantine's support corrupted Christianity and led to the death of the Christian church. In the strongest language, he described the attempt to compel belief as rape of the soul, and spoke of the "oceans of blood" shed as a result of trying to command conformity. He believed that the moral principles in the Scriptures ought to inform the civil magistrates, but he observed that well ordered, just, and civil governments existed where Christianity was not present. All governments had to maintain civil order and justice, but none had a warrant to promote any religion.

Most of Williams's contemporaries and critics regarded his ideas as a prescription for chaos and anarchy. The vast majority believed that each nation must have its national church, and that dissenters must be made to conform. Rhode Island was so threatening to its neighbors that they tried for the next hundred years to extinguish the "lively experiment" in religious freedom that began in 1636.


[[File:ProvidenceProspectParkMonumentStatehouse.jpg|right|thumb|230px|Williams' final resting place in Prospect Terrace Park] [[File:Roger Williams Root.jpg|thumb|150px|right|The "Roger Williams Root" in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society]

Williams died between January and March 1683 and was buried on his own property.[48][49] Fifty years later, his house had collapsed into the cellar and the location of his grave had been forgotten. In 1860, Zachariah Allen sought to locate his remains, but found nothing. In the grave that Allen thought was that of Williams, he found the apple tree root, but little else. Some dirt from the hole was placed in the Randall family mausoleum in the North Burial Ground. In anticipation of the 300th anniversary of the founding of Providence, the dirt was retrieved from the mausoleum and placed in an urn and kept at the Rhode Island Historical Society until a proper monument was erected at Prospect Terrace Park in Providence. The actual deposit of the "dust from the grave of Roger Williams" did not occur until 1939 when the WPA finished the monument. The apple tree root is now regarded as a curio and kept by the Rhode Island Historical Society at the John Brown House Museum.[50]


Williams's career as an author began with A Key into the Language of America (London, 1643), written during his first voyage to England. His next publication was Mr. Cotton's Letter lately Printed, Examined and Answered (London, 1644; reprinted, with Cotton's letter, which it answered, in Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii.).

The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience soon followed (London, 1644). This is his most famous work, and was the ablest statement and defense of the principle of absolute liberty of conscience that had appeared in any language. It is in the form of a dialogue between Truth and Peace, and well illustrates the vigor of his style.[51]

During the same year, in London, an anonymous pamphlet—now is ascribed to Williams—appeared, entitled Queries of Highest Consideration Proposed to Mr. Tho. Goodwin, Mr. Phillip Nye, Mr. Wil. Bridges, Mr. Jer. Burroughs, Mr. Sidr. Simpson, all Independents, etc. These Independents were members of the Westminster Assembly and their Apologetical Narration, sought to find a way between extreme Separatism and Presbyterianism, and their prescription was the acceptance of the state church model of Massachusetts Bay. Williams attacked their arguments for the very same reasons that he found that Massachusetts Bay violated liberty of conscience.

In 1652, during his second visit to England, Williams published The Bloody Tenent yet more Bloody: by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb; of whose precious Blood, spilt in the Bloud of his Servants; and of the Blood of Millions spilt in former and later Wars for Conscience sake, that most Bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, upon, a second Tryal is found more apparently and more notoriously guilty, etc. (London, 1652). This work reiterated and amplified the arguments in Bloody Tenent; but it has the advantage of being written in answer to Cotton's elaborate defense of New England persecution, A Reply to Mr. Williams his Examination (Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii.).

Other works by Williams are:

  • The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's (London, 1652)
  • Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and their Preservatives (London, 1652; reprinted Providence, 1863)
  • George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes (Boston, 1676).

A volume of his letters is included in the Narragansett Club edition of Williams's Works (7 vols., Providence, 1866–74), and a volume was edited by J. R. Bartlett (1882).

  • The Correspondence of Roger Williams, 2 vols., Rhode Island Historical Society, 1988, edited by Glenn W. LaFantasie.

Brown University's John Carter Brown Library has long housed a 234-page volume referred to as the "Roger Williams Mystery Book".[52] The margins of this book are filled with notations in handwritten code, believed to be the work of Roger Williams. In 2012, Brown University undergraduate Lucas Mason-Brown cracked this code and uncovered conclusive historical evidence attributing its authorship to Roger Williams.[53] Translations are revealing transcriptions of a geographical text, a medical text, and some twenty pages of original notes addressing the issue of infant baptism.[54] Mason-Brown has since discovered more writings by Williams employing a separate code in the margins of a rare edition of the Eliot Indian Bible.[55]

Indian language and culture[edit]

While living at Salem, Williams spent a lot of time with the natives, learning their language and culture. He traveled throughout southern New England, mostly by canoe. While he didn't relish staying with the Indians, he nevertheless opted "to lodge with them in their filthy Smoakie holes". He was perceived by them as an English sachem.[56]

Williams intended to become a missionary to the Native Americans and set out to learn their language. He studied their language, customs, religion, family life and other aspects of their world. As a result he came to see their point of view about colonization and developed a deep appreciation of them as people. He wrote his A Key into the Language of America (1643) as a kind of phrase book coupled with observations about life and culture as an aid in communication with the Indians. In it he talked about everything from salutations in the first chapter to death and burial in chapter 32. The book also sought to instruct the English, who thought of themselves as vastly superior to the Native Americans, that they were mistaken. He repeatedly made the point that the Indians were just as good as the English, even superior in some respects.

"Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood;
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All,
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal."

Having learned their language and customs, Williams gave up the idea of being a missionary and never baptized a single Indian. He was severely criticized by the Puritans for failing to Christianize them, but Williams had arrived at the place in his own thinking that no valid church existed. He said he could have baptized the whole country, but it would have been hypocritical and false. He formed from friendships and developed deep trust among the Native Americans, especially the Narragansetts. He was able to keep the peace between the Indians and English in Rhode Island for nearly forty years because of his constant mediation and negotiation. He twice surrendered himself as a hostage to the Indians to guarantee the safe return of a great sachem from a summons to a court: Pessicus in 1645 and Metacomet (King Philip) in 1671. He, more than any other Englishman, was trusted by the Native Americans, and proved trustworthy. In the end King Philip's War (1675–1676) was one of the bitterest events in his life, as his efforts ended with the burning of Providence in March 1676, including his own house.

Tributes and memorials[edit]

[[File:RWU Roger Williams Statue.jpg|thumb|The statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University]

Moore (1963) traces the 'negative' approach of the orthodox Puritan writers (Bradford, Winthrop, Morton, Cotton Mather, Hutchinson, Winsor, and Dexter), the 'romantic' approach (George Bancroft, Vernon Parrington, Ernst, and Brockunier) and the 'realistic' approach (Backus, H. Richard Niebuhr, Roland Bainton, and Hudson), and regards the work of Mauro Calamandrei, who was followed by Perry Miller and Ola Winslow, as crucial. The realistic writers created a synthesis of the earlier interpretations.

Williams has been considered an American hero ever since the Puritans of his own day stopped dominating historical interpretations. His defense of Native Americans, accusations that Puritans had reproduced the "evils" of the Anglican Church, and denial that the king had authority to grant charters for colonies put him at the center of nearly every political debate during his life. By the time of American independence, however, he was considered a defender of religious freedom and has continued to be praised by generations of historians who have often altered their interpretation of his period as a whole. Historians have been able to appropriate Williams because he was unusual, prolific, and vague.[57]

"Pilgrims and Puritans came to America
seeking religious freedom for themselves.
Roger Williams arrived in America
seeking Liberty of Conscience for all of us:
Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, unbeliever and pagan."

It was Williams, and not Thomas Jefferson, "who first called for a 'wall of separation' to describe the relationship of church and state..." Williams was also the first to use the word "liberty" in modern terms.[59]


Roger and Mary Williams had six children, all born in New England. The oldest, Mary, was born in Plymouth Colony in August 1633 and married John Sayles. The next child, another daughter named Freeborn, was born October 1635 at Salem and married first Thomas Hart, and later married Walter Clarke who was sometimes governor of the Rhode Island colony.[49] The third child and oldest son was Providence, born in Providence September 1638, did not marry. Fourth was Mary, born in Providence about 15 July 1640, married first Resolved Waterman and second Samuel Winsor.[49] Daniel, the fifth child, was born in Providence about 15 February 1642, married Rebecca (Rhodes) Power, the daughter of Zachariah Rhodes and widow of Nicholas Power. The youngest child, Joseph, was born in Providence in December 1643 and married Lydia Olney.[60]

Roger Williams's younger brother, Robert had come to New England by 1644.[60]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Barry 2012, p. 44.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Moriarty 1944, p. 234.
  3. ^ Barry 2012, p. 43.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Austin 1887, p. 430.
  5. ^ a b Barry 2012, p. 23.
  6. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 24-25.
  7. ^ Barry 2012, p. 31.
  8. ^ Barry 2012, p. 45.
  9. ^ Barry 2012, p. 58.
  10. ^ "Williams, Roger (WLMS623R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  11. ^ a b Barry 2012, p. 73.
  12. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 73-74.
  13. ^ Pfeiffer, Robert H. (April 1955). "The Teaching of Hebrew in Colonial America". The Jewish Quarterly Review. pp. 363–73. JSTOR 1452938.
  14. ^ Barry 2012, p. 138.
  15. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 105-108.
  16. ^ a b Barry 2012, p. 142.
  17. ^ a b Barry 2012, p. 2.
  18. ^ Barry 2012, p. 143.
  19. ^ Barry 2012, p. 147.
  20. ^ Barry 2012, p. 148.
  21. ^ a b c Barry 2012, p. 3.
  22. ^ Barry 2012, p. 150.
  23. ^ Barry 2012, p. 151.
  24. ^ a b c Barry 2012, p. 4.
  25. ^ Barry 2012, p. 154.
  26. ^ Barry 2012, p. 157.
  27. ^ a b c Barry 2012, p. 160.
  28. ^ a b c Anderson 1995, p. 2008.
  29. ^ Barry 2012, p. 162.
  30. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 165=166.
  31. ^ a b Barry 2012, p. 167.
  32. ^ Barry 2012, p. 168.
  33. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 187-188.
  34. ^ Barry 2012, p. 188.
  35. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 191-192.
  36. ^ Barry 2012, p. 193.
  37. ^ Barry 2012, p. 195.
  38. ^ Barry 2012, p. 197.
  39. ^ LaFantasie 1988, pp. 1:12-23.
  40. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 203-205.
  41. ^ Gaustad 1999, p. 62.
  42. ^ Ernst 1932, pp. 227-228.
  43. ^ McLoughlin, William G. Rhode Island: A History (W.W. Norton, 1978), p. 26.
  44. ^ Coughtry, Jay, The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (Temple University Press, 1981).
  45. ^ One frequently sees the founding date as March 1639. This is because Governor John Winthrop made an entry in his journal in March 1639 about the new church in Providence. Of course the actual event had taken place sometime earlier.
  46. ^ "Newport Notables". Redwood Library. 
  47. ^ Quoted in Picturesque America p. 502.
  48. ^ Austin 1887, p. 432.
  49. ^ a b c Anderson 1995, p. 2009.
  50. ^ Rhode Island Historical Society, "Body, Body, Who's Got the Body? Where in the World IS Roger Williams", New and Notes, (Spring/Winter, 2008), p. 4.
  51. ^ James Emanuel Ernst, Roger Williams, New England Firebrand (Macmillan Co., Rhode Island, 1932), pg. 246 [1]
  52. ^ Mason-Brown, Lucas. "Cracking the Code: Infant Baptism and Roger Williams". JCB Books Speak. Retrieved 16 September 2012. 
  53. ^ Fischer, Suzanne. "Personal Tech for the 17th Century". The Atlantic. Retrieved 16 September 2012. 
  54. ^ McKinney, Michael (March, 2012). "Reading Outside the Lines" (PDF). The Providence Journal. Retrieved 16 September 2012.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  55. ^ Mason-Brown, Lucas. "Cracking the Code: Infant Baptism and Roger Williams". JCB Books Speak. Brown University. Retrieved 16 September 2012. 
  56. ^ Barry 2012, pp. 181-182.
  57. ^ Irwin (1994)
  58. ^ Roger Williams, CLC - Center for Liberty of Conscience
  59. ^ Barry 2012, p. 6.
  60. ^ a b Anderson 1995, p. 2010.


  • Barry, John M. (2012). Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-670-02305-9. 
  • Gaustad, Edwin S. (1999). Liberty of Consciencr: Roger Williams in America. Valley Forge: Judson Press. 
  • Moriarity, G. Andrews (April 1944). "Additions and Corrections to Austin's Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island". The American Genealogist. 20: 234–235. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brockunier, Samuel. The Irrepressible Democrat, Roger Williams, (1940), popular biography
  • Burrage, Henry S. "Why Was Roger Williams Banished?" American Journal of Theology 5 (January 1901): 1-17.
  • Byrd, James P., Jr. The Challenges of Roger Williams: Religious Liberty, Violent Persecution, and the Bible (2002). 286 pp.
  • Davis. Jack L. "Roger Williams among the Narragansett Indians", New England Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Dec., 1970), pp. 593–604 in JSTOR
  • Field, Jonathan Beecher. "A Key for the Gate: Roger Williams, Parliament, and Providence", New England Quarterly 2007 80(3): 353-382
  • Goodman, Nan. "Banishment, Jurisdiction, and Identity in Seventeenth-Century New England: The Case of Roger Williams", Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal Spring 2009, Vol. 7 Issue 1, pp 109–39.
  • Gaustad, Edwin, S. Roger Williams (Oxford University Press, 2005). 140 pp. short scholarly biography stressing religion
  • Hall, Timothy L. Separating Church and State: Roger Williams and Religious Liberty (1998). 206 pp.
  • Miller, Perry, Roger Williams, A Contribution to the American Tradition, (1953). much debated study; Miller argues that Williams thought was primarily religious, not political as so many of the historians of the 1930s and 1940s had argued.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Roger Williams: the church and the state (1967) 170 pages; short biography by leading scholar
  • Neff, Jimmy D. "Roger Williams: Pious Puritan and Strict Separationist", Journal of Church and State 1996 38(3): 529-546 in EBSCO
  • Phillips, Stephen. "Roger Williams and the Two Tables of the Law", Journal af Church and State 1996 38(3): 547-568 in EBSCO
  • Skaggs, Donald. Roger Williams' Dream for America (1993). 240 pp.
  • Stanley, Alison. "'To Speak With Other Tongues': Linguistics, Colonialism and Identity in 17th Century New England", Comparative American Studies March 2009, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p1, 17p
  • Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams, A Biography. (1957) standard biography
  • Wood, Timothy L. "Kingdom Expectations: The Native American in the Puritan Missiology of John Winthrop and Roger Williams", Fides et Historia 2000 32(1): 39-49


  • Carlino, Anthony O. "Roger Williams and his Place in History: The Background and the Last Quarter Century", Rhode Island History 2000 58(2): 34-71, historiography
  • Irwin, Raymond D. "A Man for all Eras: The Changing Historical Image of Roger Williams, 1630-1993", Fides Et Historia 1994 26(3): 6-23, historiography
  • Morgan, Edmund S. " Miller's Williams", New England Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Dec., 1965), pp. 513–523 in JSTOR
  • Moore, Leroy, Jr. "Roger Williams and the Historians", Church History 1963 32(4): 432-451 in JSTOR
  • Peace, Nancy E. "Roger Williams: A Historiographical Essay", Rhode Island History 1976 35(4): 103-113,

Primary sources[edit]

  • William, Roger. The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (7 vol; 1963)
  • William, Roger. The Correspondence of Roger Williams. Vol. 1: 1629-1653. Vol. 2: 1654-1682 ed. by Glenn W. LaFantasie. (1988) 867 pp.


  • Settle, Mary Lee, I, Roger Williams: A Novel, W. W. Norton & Company, Reprint edition (2002).

External links[edit]

[[Category:1603 births] [[Category:1683 deaths] [[Category:17th-century Baptist clergy] [[Category:17th-century Calvinist theologians] [[Category:Alumni of Pembroke College, Cambridge] [[Category:American Calvinist theologians] [[Category:American people of English descent] [[Category:American sermon writers] [[Category:Anglican saints] [[Category:Colonial governors of Rhode Island] [[Category:Immigrants to Plymouth Colony] [[Category:Massachusetts colonial-era clergy] [[Category:New England Puritan ministers] [[Category:People from London] [[Category:People from Providence, Rhode Island] [[Category:People from Salem, Massachusetts] [[Category:Rhode Island colonial people]


  • Arnold, Elisha Stephen (1935). The Arnold Memorial: William Arnold of Providence and Pawtuxet, 1587–1675, and a genealogy of his descendants. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing Company. OCLC 6882845. 
  • Arnold, Fred A. (1921), "William Arnold, Stukeley Westcott and William Carpenter", in Arnold, E. S., Arnold Memorial, Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing Company, pp. 9–39, OCLC 6882845 
  • Barr, Lockwood (1946). A brief, but most complete & true Account of the Settlement of the Ancient Town of Pelham, Westchester County, State of New York. Richmond, Virginia: The Dietz Press, Inc. 
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  • Battis, Emery (1981). "Mrs. Hutchinson's Behavior in Terms of Menopausal Symptoms". In Bremer, Francis J. Anne Hutchinson: Troubler of the Puritan Zion. Huntington, New York: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company. pp. 16–17. 
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  • Bremer, Francis J. (1981). Anne Hutchinson: Troubler of the Puritan Zion. Huntington, New York: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company. pp. 1–8. 
  • Champlin, John Denison (1913). "The Tragedy of Anne Hutchinson". Journal of American History. Twin Falls, Idaho. 5 (3): 1–11. 
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  • Moriarity, G. Andrews (April 1944). "Additions and Corrections to Austin's Genealogical Dictionary of Rhode Island". The American Genealogist. 20: 233. 
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