Roger Williams

Inducted: 1965
Born: 1603
Died: 1683

Roger Williams (1603? -1683), Rhode Island’s most famous personage, was born in London, the son of James Williams, a merchant, and Alice Pemberton. Remarkably, the precise year of his birth is unknown, and Williams himself gave conflicting accounts of his age.

As a very young man, he broke with the Anglican state church and joined the growing Puritan faction, to the dismay of his parents. Fortuitously, Williams attracted the attention of Sir Edward Coke, one of England’s leading jurists, who employed him as a clerk and then arranged for his education, first at London’s elite Charterhouse school in 1621 and then at Pembroke College of Cambridge University, from which Williams received his B.A. in 1627. He terminated his graduate studies in 1629 and became a family chaplain in the household of Sir William Masham. He gained acquaintance with several notable Puritan families there, including the Winthrops and the Cromwells.

Whereas Puritans initially aimed to “purify” the Anglican Church from within, Williams was moving toward complete separationism, even rejecting the elements of conformity that existed in the church’s dissenting Puritan congregations. In 1629, he married Mary Barnard, a Masham household maid, and a Nottingham minister’s daughter. During their long marriage, they produced six children and a host of descendants.

Infuriated by the High Church (i.e., “Romish”) policies of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, Roger and Mary left England aboard the ship Lyon, arriving in Massachusetts Bay in 1631.

Almost immediately, Williams’s radical views on religious liberty, separation, and treatment of Native Americans embroiled him in controversy with the rigid Puritan leaders of the colony. He frequently moved from Boston to Salem to Plymouth and then back to Salem. The latter settlements had separatist beliefs, but they became annoyed by Williams’s view that the colonists had no right to the land they occupied because their ownership was not based upon purchase from the Indians. He was even bold enough to declare that the king’s authority to grant such control rested upon a “solemn public lie.”

By January 1636, his preaching earned him banishment by fiat of the Massachusetts General Court. As authorities prepared to place Williams on a ship bound for England, John Winthrop, who liked and respected Williams personally, suggested that he flee to the area around Narragansett Bay, beyond the bounds of Plymouth and Massachusetts. Taking Winthrop’s advice, he left Salem in a wintry blizzard and found shelter with Massasoit and the Wampanoags–the tribe that preserved the Pilgrims during the winter of 1620-21. Williams later wrote of Indian hospitality:

I’ve known them to leave their house and mat.
To lodge a friend or stranger.
When Jews and Christians oft have sent
Christ Jesus to the Manger.

When spring arrived, so did Plymouth authorities to inform Williams and his dozen followers that they had settled east of the Seekonk River on land claimed by Plymouth. Williams uprooted, crossed the river to avoid further trouble, and landed on Slate Rock (marked by a park on present-day Gano Street). Here, in mid-June 1636, they were welcomed by Narragansett Indians with the greeting, “What cheer, netop (friend).” The founders then bypassed this rocky, hilly site and paddled around Fox Point and up the “Great Salt River” to a spacious cove. They laid out their settlement on the east bank near a freshwater spring (where Roger Williams National Memorial has been established). Having “a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress,” said Williams, “I called the place Providence.”

He established his plantation based upon complete religious liberty and separation of church and state (more on this crucial subject later); he obtained deeds in 1638 from Canonicus and Miantonomi (but not Massasoit) for his settlement, confirming earlier verbal grants; he established a trading post in the Narragansett Country in 1637 near present-day Wickford, confirming earlier verbal grants; and he helped to found America’s first Baptist church in 1638, but left it a few months after that to become a “seeker” and a congregation of one.

When the surrounding colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, New Haven, and Connecticut joined in the New England Confederation and threatened his colony’s existence, Williams journeyed to England to obtain the patent of 1644 from the Parliamentary party. This document, secured with the assistance of Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, was the mother country’s first legal recognition of the Rhode Island towns of Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport. Samuel Gorton’s Shawomet, or Warwick, settlement was included shortly after that, again through the intercession of Robert Rich.

In 1651, when William Coddington amended the patent by withdrawing the island towns from the new union, Williams joined with Dr. John Clarke and William Dyer to annul the Coddington commission and keep the tiny fledgling colony intact.

On his first trip back to England in 1643, Williams published the justly famous A Key Into the Language of America. Printed in London by Gregory Dexter, who soon became a Providence settler, Williams’s Key is the first English-language dictionary and ethnography of the Native American people. “Nature knows no difference,” Williams wrote, “between European and American in blood, birth, bodies, etc.”

On this productive visit, Williams also published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644), a condemnation of Puritan intolerance and a defense of the right of each individual to worship God according to his own conscience without interference from any civil authority. Forced worship, said Williams, had been historically the primary cause of persecution and bloody religious warfare. Williams elaborated upon this theme during his second mission by publishing The Bloudy Tenent, Yet More Bloody (1652), condemning the Reverend John Cotton’s defense of New England Puritan policies. During the same visit, however, Williams interacted with such English Puritan leaders as Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, and Sir Henry Vane.

In 1663, Dr. John Clarke crowned Williams’s efforts and his own by securing the Royal Charter of 1663, a six-thousand-word document that contained a ringing affirmation of their theological and political beliefs and dealt a lasting blow to the designs of neighboring colonies to absorb Rhode Island. By then, Williams had successfully headed the colony as “president” from 1654 to 1657 while warding off external aggression and internal threats to the union, and he now began to withdraw from public life. During the 1660s and early 1670s, he held minor town and colony offices, feuded with William Harris over issues relating to the boundaries of Providence, and disputed with George Fox and the Quakers on political and theological grounds.

The transformation of the Antinomians to Quakers and the influx of the latter from England because of Rhode Island’s famed freedom of religion gave the radical sect increasing influence on Aquidneck, especially in Newport, the colony’s largest town. Williams disliked the Quakers because of their growing political and economic power, because they sided with William Harris, and because he was convinced that they elevated themselves above Scripture by believing in an “inner light.” In August 1672, Williams, nearing seventy, rowed (or paddled) from Providence to Newport, reaching his destination at midnight to begin a raucous four-day debate with three Quaker missionaries the following morning. In 1676, he wrote a lengthy account of his experience entitled George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes. Despite his intense disdain for Quakerism, however, Williams never advocated any governmental limitation on the Quaker form of worship or personal behavior.

The growing influence of Quakerism was not the only development that troubled Williams in his declining years. King Philip’s War dashed his long-standing policy of peaceful coexistence with his Native American neighbors. Tragically, he became a victim of that conflict in March 1676 when a band of Indians, including Narragansetts, attacked Providence and burned his house to the ground. Even though the Narragansetts had joined Philip (Metacomet) after a dastardly sneak attack by Plymouth militia on their village in the Great Swamp, Williams was incensed by their action in putting Providence to the torch. After the war ended with a victory for the colonists and their Native American allies, Williams participated with other Providence men in rounding up and selling Indian prisoners of war and their families into a form of indentured servitude–but not permanent slavery, as did the neighboring colonies. This activity was a sharp and sad reversal of form for the man who had constantly advocated Indian property rights.

Williams continued to write and remained active in town affairs until he died in 1683. Samuel Brockunier, his most meticulous biographer, gives us this account of his burial: “On a fragmentary town record appears a reference to ‘The Venerable remains of Mr. Roger Williams, the Father of Providence, the Founder of the Colony, and of Liberty of Conscience.’ He was suitably honored ‘with all the solemnity the colony could shew,’ the militia firing their guns over his grave.”

The exploits of Williams as Rhode Island’s principal founder and his roles as theologian, public official, upholder of Native American rights, and religious leader clearly establish him as the most important personage in the history of Rhode Island–but Rhode Island is a small place. William’s influence transcended both Rhode Island and America. His views on religious liberty and church-state separation are global in significance. Hence, examining how those views were formulated (while difficult and tedious, like Williams’s writings) merits extended analysis.

Williams’s momentous experiment in “soul liberty” began in January 1636, when the Puritan magistrates of Massachusetts Bay banished this volatile dissenting clergyman into the winter wilderness. An avowed Separatist from the Church of England, the Cambridge-educated Williams was ousted for attacking the cornerstones upon which the Puritans’ Bible commonwealth was built: the theology of the covenant and the use of civil magistrates to enforce that theology.

A vital area of disagreement between Williams and the builders of the Bay Colony was that Williams considered some religious doctrines propounded by the Puritans to be a prostitution of theology. His alternative to the orthodox Puritan approach was a cause for his exile. This alternative was a significant element in Williams’s notions of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, principles that found their expression in Rhode Island’s basic law.

Roger Williams’s challenge to covenant theology revolved around a method of interpreting the Bible, specifically the relation of the Old Testament to the New, which is called typology. His version of the typological method was based upon a belief that everything in the Old Testament is merely a prefiguration of the New Testament, that each event in the history of Israel could be understood only when it came to fruition in the life of Christ, and that the Old Testament lacked literal and historical content.

In its practical application to the life of Massachusetts Bay, this complex method of Biblical exegesis had significant consequences. Among other things, Williams’s method of interpreting the Scriptures was at variance with the historical mode of typological interpretation upon which covenant theology rested. Orthodox typology held that the Old Testament was simultaneously a literal and a spiritual work. On the literal level, Israel’s scriptural theocracy provided the eternal pattern of civil justice; on the spiritual level, Israel, as the Promised Land, prefigured Christ. Orthodox typology thus intermingled the church and the civil state, and it supported the Puritan contention that the Christian magistrates of Massachusetts Bay could enforce religious conformity by basing their actions on similar powers exercised by the biblical Israelites.

Being of a purely spiritual nature, Williams’s brand of typology disputed the Massachusetts Puritan belief that any political or social arrangement could be legitimized by reference to a similar arrangement described in the Old Testament. Specifically, Williams denied the right of the Massachusetts magistrates to use the civil power to enforce religious conformity, a right claimed based on Israelite precedent. It was Williams’s contention that the events and the laws of Israel, having found completion in the New Testament, were without exception purely moral and ceremonial and not to be emulated by seventeenth-century New Englanders.

Another crucial theological disagreement between Williams and the Massachusetts Puritans stemmed from their divergent views of the Ten Commandments. These divinely revealed injunctions were divided into two “tables”: the first table–commandments one through four–was concerned with God and the worship of God and was called “ceremonial”; the second–commandments five through ten–was directed towards governing human relations and was called “moral.”

Pointing out that judges and kings in the Old Testament state of Israel enforced both tables, Puritan divine John Cotton and his associates contended that this function continued to be valid. According to their interpretation, the task of enforcing the first table (worship of God) resided with civil magistrates and ministers acting in concert.

Williams believed that Jesus had abrogated this Hebraic system. He contended that Christ had set forth new laws of worship that had stripped judges, kings, and civil magistrates of their right to enforce ceremonial provisions of the first table. These matters now belonged purely to the spiritual realm. “Soul liberty,” to use Williams’s phrase, pertained to the first table; it was exclusively an affair of private conscience, and the magistrate had no jurisdiction whatsoever in this area.

As a result of these interpretative efforts, Williams concluded that the temporal power exercised over the religious sphere in the Old Testament was merely the archetype of spiritual power in the New. Thus, whenever the modern state attempted to enforce conformity of religious belief, it acted unjustly. That false assumption of power, asserted Williams, had led and would continue to lead to persecution and religious wars. Williams’s obsession with religious persecution and its baneful effects upon both spiritual and civil life occupies a prominent place in his thought and furnished the theme for one of his major works, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644).

The fiery minister’s typological approach had liberty of conscience as its logical corollary, and it contributed substantially to Williams’s dogma of separation of church and state. It is important to note that the theologically obsessed Williams sought this separation not to protect the state from the dominance of the church but to free the church and the individual conscience from the interference and coercions of the state. Williams’s religious creed thus led him into the political sphere, where he was essentially a traditionalist who believed in stability and deference. Historian Edmund Morgan observed, “So far as the political order was concerned, Williams had really only one revolutionary statement to make. He denied that the state had any responsibility for the only form of life which has absolute importance–the life of the soul.”

Indicative of how strongly Williams felt about state domination of the church, in one burst of vituperation, the polemical theologian asserted that such a condition would render the church “the garden and spouse of Christ, a filthy dunghill and whore-house of rotten and stinking whores and hypocrites.” Obviously, Williams did not take the issue of separation lightly.

Among the conclusions that historians have drawn from Williams’s earthy and passionate theological writings (which are collected, edited, and published in nine volumes), the following seem to be the most significant: (1) any attempt by the state to enforce religious orthodoxy “stinks in God’s nostrils” because it perverts God’s plan for the regeneration of souls, and it is productive of persecution and religious wars; (2) God has not favored any particular form of government, and it is, therefore, to be inferred that forms of government will vary according to the nature and disposition of the people governed; (3) political and, especially, religious diversity is inevitable; and (4) the human conscience must be completely emancipated through the establishment of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

Perry Miller, a noted historian of early American religious thought, has said that Williams “exerted little or no direct influence on theorists of the Revolution and the Constitution, who drew on quite different intellectual sources, yet as a figure and a reputation, he was always there to remind Americans that no other conclusion than absolute religious freedom was feasible in this society.”

In his Religious History of the American People (1975), Professor Sydney Ahlstrom supports Miller’s view. Calling Rhode Island “the first commonwealth in modern history to make religious liberty (not simply a degree of toleration) a cardinal principle of its corporate existence and to maintain the separation of church and state on these grounds,” Ahlstrom then observes that “Rhode Island seems to illustrate in an almost tragic way the . . .dictum, often voiced by historians of science, that premature discoveries are uninfluential.” For Miller and Ahlstrom, Williams is to Madison, Jefferson, and the Enlightenment-era framers of the First Amendment as Leif Eriksson is to Columbus: prior in time but lacking in influence.

Other recent historians of American religion and constitutionalism–including Mark DeWolfe Howe, Martin E. Marty, Edwin S. Gaustad, Patrick T. Conley, and Glenn W. LaFantasie (editor of a recent addition of Williams’s unpublished letters)–hold a contrary view. According to these scholars, the Founding Fathers were well aware of the Rhode Island system of disestablishment and soul liberty, which was still intact under the same frame of government when the Bill of Rights was drafted and ratified; the guarantees in Rhode Island’s famed charter of 1663 influenced similar grants of religious liberty in the proprietary charters of East Jersey, West Jersey, and Carolina issued shortly thereafter. Williams’s views on religion and the state were distilled and reiterated by Algernon Sydney and other English writers of the Whig libertarian tradition with whom our Founding Fathers were quite familiar.

Williams was also associated with an Anglo-American Baptist tradition of separationism and soul liberty, drawing his inspiration from that tradition and strengthening it with his writings and examples. Throughout the colonial and founding eras, as historian William G. McLoughlin has shown, the tradition was maintained, refined, and modernized by the heroic determination of a coterie of lesser-known Baptist ministers and promulgated to the world of the Founding Fathers by the Reverend Isaac Backus (1727-1806), a prolific author and itinerant Baptist preacher who roamed the byways of southern New England spreading the gospel of separationism.

Perhaps Professor Martin Marty has said it best: the American church-state outlook has issued “chiefly from two parallel, often congenial, sometimes conflicting, and occasionally contradictory positions”–the Rhode Island dissenting tradition, with its Biblical base, initiated by Williams, and the eighteenth-century Virginia Enlightenment tradition, rooted in natural law and natural rights, expounded by Jefferson and Madison.

Despite Marty’s balancing act, however, Mark DeWolfe Howe has effectively carried the historical controversy into the realm of current legal and constitutional jurisprudence. Asserting that the U.S. Supreme Court, “in its role as historian, has erred in disregarding the theological roots of the American principle of separation,” he contends that “the predominant concern at the time when the First Amendment was adopted was not the Jeffersonian fear that if it were not enacted, the federal government would aid religion . . . but rather the evangelical hope that private conscience and autonomous churches, working together and in freedom, would extend the role of truth.”

Citing Roger Williams’s letter to the Reverend John Cotton, wherein the Rhode Island exile coined the metaphor “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” Howe maintains that “when the imagination of Roger Williams built the wall of separation, it was not because he was fearful that without such a barrier the arm of the church would extend its reach. It was, rather, the dread of the worldly corruptions which might consume the churches if sturdy fences against the wilderness were not maintained.” Yet in making the wall of separation a constitutional barrier, the modern Supreme Court has failed to realize that “the faith of Roger Williams played a more important part [in the genesis of the First Amendment] than the doubts of Jefferson.”

While one may endlessly debate the question of Williams’s impact on the First Amendment, his influence on Rhode Island’s basic law is indisputable. All of the state’s founding documents bear the indelible impress of his fundamental beliefs. The Providence town compact of 1637, that settlement’s first frame of government, gave political power to the original “householders” but contained the all-important proviso that such control was to be exercised “only in civil things.” A more detailed “plantation agreement” of 1640 reiterated this limitation and the colonial patent that Williams obtained for the original towns in 1644 from the Long Parliament gave implicit sanction to the separation of church and state.

However, the culmination of this pioneering process was Rhode Island’s royal charter of 1663, obtained from King Charles II by tenacious Newport Baptist John Clarke, an important religious leader whose views closely paralleled those of Roger Williams. This document allowed the establishment of a self-governing colony wherein all local officials, from the governor and assemblymen to the viewers of fences, were either chosen directly in town meetings by the freemen or appointed annually by the elected representatives of the people.

The charter’s most liberal, generous, and unusual provision, however, bestowed upon the inhabitants of the tiny colony “full liberty in religious concernments.” The document commanded that “noe person within the sayd colonye, at any time hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinione in matters of religion.”

This guarantee of religious liberty was a vindication of Williams’s beliefs and royal recognition of the fundamental principles upon which the Providence Plantation was founded: absolute freedom of conscience and complete separation of church and state. As Williams observed, this liberality stemmed from the king’s willingness to “experiment” in order to ascertain “whether civil government could consist with such liberty of conscience.” This was the “lively experiment” upon which the government of Rhode Island was based.

Because such a free and open governmental system prevailed in seventeenth-century Rhode Island, the Colony House in Newport became a haven for Baptists, Separatists, Antinomian followers of Anne Hutchinson, Gortonians, Quakers, Sephardic Jews, and Huguenots. In 1702, disgruntled Puritan leader Cotton Mather wrote that Rhode Island was a motley collection of all sects except Roman Catholics and true Christians (i.e., Congregationalists). This was the local legacy of Roger Williams.

As the Reverend Francis Wayland, a nineteenth-century Baptist president of Brown University, observed, the Pilgrims and Puritans sought religious liberty for themselves; Roger Williams sought it “for humanity.” There are some men like Williams, added Wayland, “whose monuments are everywhere.”

Roger Williams was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1965.

For additional reading:

Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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