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 BA in 1627. He terminated his graduate studies in 1629 and became family chaplain in the household of Sir William Masham. There, he gained acquaintance with several notable Puritan families, 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 maid in the Masham household and the daughter of a Nottingham minister. 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 moved frequently, 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 on purchase from the Indians. He was even so bold as to declare that the king’s authority to grant such control rested on a “solemn public lie.”
By January 1636, his preaching had 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 on a personal level, 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 had 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. To avoid further trouble, Williams uprooted, crossed the river 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. There, on the east bank near a freshwater spring (where the Roger Williams National Memorial has been established), they laid out their settlement. Having “a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress,” said Williams, “I called the place Providence.”
A relatively short biographical profile such as this can only outline Williams’s forty-seven-year career as founder. He established his plantation based on complete religious liberty and separation of church and state, 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 thereafter 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 first legal recognition of the Rhode Island towns of Providence, Portsmouth and Newport by the mother country. Samuel Gorton’s Shawomet, or Warwick, settlement was included shortly thereafter, 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 major cause of persecution and bloody religious warfare. Williams elaborated on 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 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 their belief of 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 on the following morning. In 1676, he wrote a long 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 been a constant advocate of Indian property rights.
Williams continued to write and remained active in town affairs until his death in 1683. Sameul Brockunier, his most meticulous biographer, gives us the following 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 was able to 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. Williams’s influence transcended both Rhode Island and America. His views on religious liberty and church-state separation are global in significance. Hence, an examination of 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 major 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 on 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 lives of Massachusetts Bay residents, this complex method of biblical exegesis had important 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 civil power to enforce religious conformity, a right claimed on the basis of 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 were 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 toward governing human relations and was called “moral.”
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, and thus, whenever the modern state attempted to enforce conformity of religious belief, it was acting in an unjustifiable manner. 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 on 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.
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, Glenn W. LaFantasie (editor of a recent addition of Williams’s unpublished letters) and myself—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; and 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 example. 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.
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.
The culmination of this pioneering process, however, 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 and corders of wood, were either chosen directly in town meeting by the freemen or appointed on an annual basis 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” on 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.
For Further Reading:
Patrick T. Conley. Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010.