Roger Williams statue by Franklin Simmons
|Chief Officer of Providence and Warwick|
|9th President of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations|
|Preceded by||Nicholas Easton|
|Succeeded by||Benedict Arnold|
|Born||21 December 1603
|Died||between 27 January and 15 March 1683 (aged 79)
Providence, Rhode Island
|Alma mater||Pembroke College, Cambridge|
|Occupation||Minister, statesman, author, preacher|
Roger Williams (c. 21 December 1603 – between 27 January and 15 March 1683) was a Puritan, an English Reformed theologian, and later a Reformed Baptist who was expelled by the Puritan leaders from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because local officials thought that he was spreading "new and dangerous ideas" to his congregants. He fled the Massachusetts colony under the threat of impending arrest and shipment to an English prison; he began the settlement of Providence Plantations in 1636 as a refuge offering freedom of conscience.
Williams was the 1638 founder of the First Baptist Church in America, also known as the First Baptist Church of Providence. He was also a student of Native American languages, an early advocate for fair dealings with American Indians, and one of the first abolitionists in North America, having organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in any of the British American colonies. He is best remembered as the originator of the principle of separation of church and state.
Roger Williams was born in London around 1603; however, the exact date has not been established by scholars because his birth records were destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666 when St Sepulchre's Church was burned. His father James Williams (1562–1620) was a merchant tailor in Smithfield (now part of London); his mother was Alice Pemberton (1564–1635). At an early age, Williams had a spiritual conversion of which his father disapproved.
As a teen, Williams was apprenticed under Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), the famous jurist. Under Coke's patronage, Williams was educated at Charterhouse and also at Pembroke College, Cambridge (BA, 1627). He seemed to have a gift for languages and early acquired familiarity with Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Dutch, and French. Years later, Williams tutored John Milton in Dutch in exchange for refresher lessons in Hebrew.
Williams took holy orders in the Church of England in connection with his studies, but he became a Puritan at Cambridge and thus ruined his chance for preferment in the Anglican church. After graduating from Cambridge, Williams became the chaplain to Puritan gentleman Sir William Masham. Williams married Mary Barnard (1609–76) on 15 December 1629 at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. They ultimately had six children, all born in America: Mary, Freeborn, Providence, Mercy, Daniel, and Joseph.
Williams knew that Puritan leaders planned to migrate to the New World. He did not join the first wave, but he decided before the year ended that he could not remain in England under Archbishop William Laud's rigorous (and High church) administration. Williams regarded the Church of England as corrupt and false; by the time that he and his wife boarded the Lyon in early December, he had arrived at the Separatist position.
Almost immediately upon the Williams' arrival in Boston on 5 February 1631, the Boston church invited him to become its Teacher minister, to officiate while Rev. John Wilson returned to England to fetch his wife. However, Williams declined the position on grounds that it was "an unseparated church." In addition, Williams asserted that 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. These three principles became central to Williams' subsequent career: separatism, freedom of religion, and separation of state and church.
As a separatist, Williams considered the Church of England irredeemably corrupt, and believed that one must completely separate from it to establish a new church for the true and pure worship of God. He believed that "soul liberty" or freedom of conscience is a gift from God, and thought freedom of religion a natural right which demanded that church and state be separated: "When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness, as at this day." His search for the true church eventually carried him out of Congregationalism, the Baptists, and any visible church. From 1639 forward, Williams waited for Christ to send a new apostle to reestablish the church, labeling himself as a "witness" to Christianity until that time. However, his religious freedom concept may have influenced the prohibition against foundations of the religion clauses in the United States Constitution and the First Amendment—though the founders used quite different language. Years later in 1802, Thomas Jefferson used the "wall of separation" phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, echoing Roger Williams.
Meanwhile, the Salem church was much more inclined to Separatism, and invited Williams to become their Teacher. When the leaders in Boston learned of this, they vigorously protested, and Salem withdrew its offer. As the summer of 1631 ended, Williams moved to Plymouth colony where he was welcomed, and informally assisted the minister there. He regularly preached and, according to Governor Bradford, "his teachings were well approved."
After a time, Williams decided that the Plymouth church was not sufficiently separated from the Church of England. Furthermore, his contact with Native Americans had caused him to doubt the validity of the colonial charters. Governor Bradford later wrote that Williams fell "into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him." In December 1632, Williams wrote a lengthy tract that openly condemned the King's charters and questioned the right of Plymouth (or Massachusetts) to the land without first buying it from the Indians. He even charged that King James had uttered a "solemn lie" in claiming that he was the first Christian monarch to have discovered the land. Williams moved back to Salem by the fall of 1633 and was welcomed by Rev. Samuel Skelton as an unofficial assistant.
The Massachusetts authorities were not pleased at Williams' return. In December 1633, they summoned him to appear before the General Court in Boston to defend his tract attacking the King and the charter. The issue was smoothed out, and the tract disappeared forever, probably burned. In August 1634, Williams became acting pastor of the Salem church, the Rev. Skelton having died, and continued to be embroiled in controversies. Despite his earlier promise not to raise the charter issue again, he did. Thus, in March 1635, Williams was again ordered to appear before the General Court to explain himself. In April, he so vigorously opposed the new oath of allegiance to the colonial government that it became impossible to enforce it. He was summoned again for the Court's July term, to answer for "erroneous" and "dangerous opinions". The Court ordered Williams removed from his church position.
This latest controversy welled up as the Town of Salem petitioned the General Court to annex some land on Marblehead Neck. The Court refused to consider Salem's request until its church removed Williams. The Salem church felt that this order violated the church's independence, and sent a letter of protest to the other churches. However, the letter was not read, and the General Court refused to seat the delegates from Salem at the next session. Support for Williams began to wane under this pressure, and his support crumbled entirely when he demanded that the Salem church separate itself from other churches. He withdrew and met in his home with a few of his most devoted followers.
Finally, in October 1635, the General Court tried Williams and convicted him of sedition and heresy. The Court declared that he was spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions".  He was then ordered to be banished. The execution of the order was delayed because Williams was ill and winter was approaching, so he was allowed to stay temporarily, provided that he ceased his agitation. He failed to do so, and the sheriff came in January 1636, only to discover that Williams had slipped away three days earlier during a blizzard. He traveled 55 miles through the deep snow of a hard winter, from Salem to present day Raynham, Massachusetts where the local Wampanoags offered him shelter at their winter camp. Their chief Sachem Massasoit hosted Williams for the three months until spring.
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In the spring of 1636, Williams and a number of his followers from Salem began a new settlement on land that Williams had bought from Massasoit in present-day Rumford, Rhode Island. However, Plymouth authorities asserted that he was within their land grant and warned that they might still arrest him. Williams, with his crops already planted, decided to cross the Seekonk River, as that territory lay beyond any charter. The outcasts rowed and encountered Native Americans who greeted him with the phrase "What cheer, Neetop" (Hello, friend). He acquired land from Canonicus and Miantonomi, chief sachems of the Narragansetts. Williams and twelve "loving friends" then established his new settlement which Williams called "Providence", because he felt that God's Providence had brought him there.(Williams later named his third child "Providence," as well, the first born in his new settlement.)
Williams wanted his settlement to be a haven for those "distressed of conscience", and it soon attracted a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals. From the beginning, a majority vote of the heads of households governed the new settlement, but "only in civil things". Newcomers could be also admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote. In August 1637, a new town agreement 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. This was combined with the principle of majoritarian democracy.
In November 1637, the General Court of Massachusetts disarmed, disenfranchised, and forced into exile the Antinomians, the followers of Anne Hutchinson. One of them named John Clarke learned from Williams that Aquidneck Island might be purchased from the Narragansetts. Williams helped William Coddington and others in the purchase, which the settlers on Aquidneck Island renamed Rhode Island a few years later. In spring 1638, other Antinomians began settling at a place called Pocasset, which ultimately became Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Some Antinomians settled in Providence, especially those whom Governor John Winthrop labeled "Anabaptists".
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In the meantime, the Pequot War had broken out. Massachusetts Bay asked for Roger Williams' help, which he gave despite his exile. Williams became the Bay colony's eyes and ears, and also dissuaded the Narragansetts from joining with the Pequots. Instead, the Narragansetts allied themselves with the English and helped to crush the Pequots in 1637–38. The Narragansetts thus became the most powerful Indian tribe in southern New England.
Williams formed firm friendships and developed deep trust among the Indian tribes, especially the Narragansetts. He was able to keep the peace between the Indians and English in Rhode Island for nearly forty years by his constant mediation and negotiation. He twice surrendered himself as a hostage to the Indians to guarantee the safe return of a great sachem (paramount chief) from a summons to a court: sachem Pessicus in 1645 and sachem Metacom ("King Philip") in 1671. Williams, more than any other Englishman, was trusted by the Indians, and proved trustworthy.
However, the other New England colonies began to fear and mistrust the Narragansetts, and soon came to regard Roger Williams' colony as a common enemy. In the next three decades, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth exerted pressure to destroy both Rhode Island and the Narragansetts. In 1643, the neighboring colonies formed a military alliance called the United Colonies which pointedly excluded the towns around Narragansett Bay. The object was to put an end to the heretic settlements, which they considered an infection. In response, fellow citizens sent Williams to England to secure a charter for their new colony.
Williams arrived to find the English Civil War in full swing. Puritans held power in London, yet Williams obtained a charter through the offices of Sir Henry Vane the Younger, despite strenuous opposition from Massachusetts' agents.
His first published book A Key into the Language of America (1643) proved crucial to his charter success, albeit indirectly. The little book combined a phrase-book with observations about life and culture, as an aid to communicate with Indians. The book covered everything from salutations in the first chapter, to death and burial in chapter 32. Williams also sought to correct English attitudes of superiority toward the Native Americans:
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.
This became the first dictionary of any Indian tongue in the English language, and fed the great curiosity of English people about the Native Americans. It was printed by John Milton's publisher, Gregory Dexter, and became an instant bestseller, giving Williams a large and favorable reputation.
Williams secured his charter from Parliament for "Providence Plantations" in July 1644, then published his most famous book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. This produced a great uproar; Parliament responded in August by ordering the public hangman to burn all copies. By then, however, Williams was already on his way home to Providence Plantations.
Because of William Coddington's opposition on Rhode Island, it took Williams until 1647 to get the four towns around Narragansett Bay to unite under a single government. Freedom 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 never liked Williams, nor did he like being subordinated to the new charter government. He sailed to England and returned in 1641 with his own patent making him "Governor for Life" over "Rhode Island" (Aquidneck) and Conanicut.
As a result, Providence and Warwick, and Coddington's opponents on Rhode Island, dispatched Roger Williams and John Clarke to England to get Coddington's commission canceled. Williams sold his trading post at Cocumscussec (near present-day Wickford, Rhode Island) to pay for his journey, although the trading post was his main source of income. Williams and Clarke succeeded in getting Coddington's patent rescinded, but Clarke remained in England for the next decade to protect the colonists' interests and secure a new charter. Williams returned to America in 1654 and was immediately elected the colony's President. He subsequently served in many offices in town and colonial governments.
"Providence Plantations" (Providence and Warwick) passed a law on 18 May 1652, during the time when Coddington had separated "Rhode Island" (Newport and Portsmouth) from the mainland, intended 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 had spread to Plymouth and Connecticut with the creation of the United Colonies in 1643. Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton both opposed slavery, and the 1652 law was their attempt to stop slavery from coming to Rhode Island. Unfortunately, when the parts of the colony were reunited, the Aquidneck towns refused to accept this law, making it a dead letter. For the next century, the economic and political center of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was Newport, which disregarded the anti-slavery law. Indeed, Newport entered the African slave trade in 1700, after Williams' death, and became the leading port for American ships carrying slaves in their Triangular trade until the American Revolution.
By 1638, Williams had come to accept the idea of believer's baptism, or credobaptism. He 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, that a valid baptism required knowing consent.
John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton were co-founders of the General Baptist movement in England and had written extensively about liberty of conscience. Williams had commented on them in his Bloudy Tenent. Smyth, Helwys, and Murton were General Baptists, but a Calvinistic Baptist variety grew out of some Separatists after 1640. Williams became a Calvinist or Particular Baptist.
However, Williams had not adopted antipedobaptist views before his banishment from Massachusetts, for that had not been a charge against him in those legal proceedings. Gov. Winthrop instead attributed Williams's "Anabaptist" views to the influence of Katherine Scott, a sister of Anne Hutchinson. It is possible that she impressed upon Williams the importance of believers' baptism, though it seems that Williams likely arrived there from his own studies.
Ezekiel Holliman baptised Williams in late 1638. Thus began 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, which suddenly claimed to be the first Baptist church in America in 1847. 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.
Williams 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 remained a "witness" to Christianity. Williams remained interested in the Baptists, agreeing with their rejection of infant baptism and most other matters. Both enemies and admirers sometimes called him a "Seeker", first as a smear in England by associating Williams with a heretical movement that accepted Socinianism and universal salvation. Williams rejected both of these ideas.
Williams was convinced that a state church had no Scriptural basis through his own experience of persecution by Archbishop Laud and the Anglican establishment, as well as the Baptists' writings and the bloody wars of religion that raged in Europe in that era. His criticism of the Massachusetts Bay system for mixing church and state immediately after his arrival demonstrates that Williams had arrived at this conclusion before landing in Boston in 1631.Williams declared that the state could legitimately concern itself with matters of civil order only, but not of religious belief. He rejected any state attempt to enforce the "first Table" of the Ten Commandments, those initial commandments dealing with the relationship between God and individuals. Instead, Williams believed that the state must confine itself to the commandments which deal with the relations between people: murder, theft, adultery, lying, honoring parents, and so forth.
Williams considered any effort by the state either to dictate religion or to promote any particular religious idea or practice as forced worship. He declared, "Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils." Indeed, Williams called Constantine a worse enemy to true Christianity than Nero, because the subsequent state support corrupted Christianity and led to the death of the Christian church. In the strongest language, Williams 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. The moral principles in the Scriptures ought to inform the civil magistrates, but Williams observed that well-ordered, just, and civil governments existed even where Christianity was not present. Thus, he knew that all governments had to maintain civil order and justice, and decided that none had a warrant to promote or repress 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 could require that dissenters 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.
King Philip's War (1675–1676) pitted the colonists against Indians with whom Williams had good relations in the past. Williams, although in his 70s, was elected captain of Providence's militia. That war proved to be one of the bitterest events in his life, as his efforts ended with the burning of Providence in March 1676, including his own house.
Williams died between January and March 1683 and was buried on his own property. Fifty years later, his house had collapsed into the cellar and the location of his grave had been forgotten. Providence residents determined to raise a monument in Williams' honor in 1860, according to the National Park Service. "When they dug up the spot where they believed the remains to be, they found only nails, teeth, and bone fragments. They also found an apple tree root" which they thought followed the shape of a human body; the root followed the shape of a spine, split at the hips, bent at the knees, and turned up at the feet. The Rhode Island Historical Society has cared for this tree root since 1860 as representative of Rhode Island's founder, and has had it on display in the John Brown House since 2007.
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 in Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii, along with Cotton's letter which it answered).
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 that had appeared in any language of the principle of absolute liberty of conscience. It is in the form of a dialogue between Truth and Peace, and well illustrates the vigor of his style.
An anonymous pamphlet appeared in London during the same year which is now ascribed to Williams, 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 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:
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).
Brown University's John Carter Brown Library has long housed a 234-page volume referred to as the "Roger Williams Mystery Book". 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. Translations are revealing transcriptions of a geographical text, a medical text, and some twenty pages of original notes addressing the issue of infant baptism. Mason-Brown has since discovered more writings by Williams employing a separate code in the margins of a rare edition of Eliot's Indian Bible.
Williams' legacy has grown over time with changing values. 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.
Tributes to Williams include:
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Williams, Roger.|
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