Roger Williams
Clergyman and founder of the colony of Rhode Island

1603? - 1683

Roger Williams was a clergyman, a founder of the colony of Rhode Island, and a strong supporter of religious and political liberty. He believed that people had a right to complete religious freedom, rather than mere religious toleration that could be denied at the government's will. Williams helped establish a complete separation of church and state for Rhode Island. This example contributed greatly to a similar system of separation that was later adopted by framers of the Constitution of the United States.

Williams was born in London, the son of a merchant tailor. As a youth, he became a scribe for Sir Edward Coke, a noted English lawyer and judge. Coke helped Williams enter Cambridge University, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1627. In 1629, Williams became a chaplain in the household of a wealthy family. But Williams was a religious nonconformist--that is, he did not agree with principles of England's official church, the Church of England. At the time, King Charles I and William Laud, bishop of London, were persecuting those who dissented from the Church of England. As a result, Williams began to associate with nonconformists who were anxious to settle in New England, an area of English colonies in America. In 1629, Williams married Mary Barnard. They had six children.

Williams and his wife came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in America in 1631. Williams refused an invitation to become the minister of the church in Boston because he opposed its ties to the Church of England. In 1634, he became the minister of the church at nearby Salem. There, many people favored his desire to have a church that was independent of the Church of England and of the colonial government.

By this time, Williams had gained a reputation as a troublesome person. He argued that the royal charter did not justify taking land that belonged to the Indians, and he declared that people should not be punished for religious differences. Officials of Massachusetts Bay Colony acted to send Williams back to England. But he fled into the wilderness in January 1636. The Narragansett Indians provided Williams with land beyond the borders of Massachusetts, and he founded Providence, later the capital of Rhode Island.

Rhode Island. Williams established a government for Providence based on the consent of the settlers and on complete freedom of religion. In 1643, American colonists organized the New England Confederation without including the Providence settlement or other settlements in Rhode Island. The Confederation repeatedly denied membership to the Rhode Island settlements because of disagreement with their system of government and of religious freedom. To safeguard Rhode Island liberties and lands, Williams went to England in 1643 and secured a charter from the English government. Under this charter, Rhode Island adopted a system of government that included frequent elections, a flexible constitution, and local home rule. Williams went to England again in 1651 to save the colony from a rival claim.

Williams's most famous work, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), was published during his first visit to England and upheld his argument for the separation of church and state. He wrote it as part of a long dispute with John Cotton, a Puritan leader of Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the work, Williams explained his belief that the church had to be spiritually pure to prepare corrupt and fallen human beings for eternity, and that governments were for earthly purposes only.

From 1654 to 1657, Williams was president of the Rhode Island colony. In 1657, he contributed to Rhode Island's decision to provide refuge for Quakers who had been banished from other colonies, even though he disagreed with their religious teachings.

Williams earned his living by farming and trading with the Indians. He went on missionary journeys among them and compiled a dictionary of their language. Williams was a close friend of the Indians. But he acted as a captain of the Providence militia and fought against the Indians during King Philip's War (1675-1676).

For most of his life, Williams, an intensely religious man, was a "seeker" after "truth" without a church he could call his own. He died in 1683 and was buried with military honors. Rhode Island placed a statue of him in the U.S. Capitol.

Contributor: Craig W. Horle, Ph.D., Associate Editor, Papers of William Penn, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Additional resources

Gaustad, Edwin S. Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Eerdmans, 1991.

Gilpin, W. Clark. The Millenarian Piety of Roger Williams. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1979.


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