Roger Williams: Champion of Religious Liberty


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Roger Williams was a 17th-Century leader who founded the Rhode Island colony in America and was one of the foremost promoters of religious liberty.

Roger Williams

Williams is thought to have been born in early 1603 in London. Like many in his age group and social class, he grew up learning the teachings of the Church of England. He would no doubt have borne witness to King James I's persecution of the Puritans.

As a teenager, Williams studied law under the famous Sir Edward Coke, who at one time served as Chief Justice of England. Williams parlayed that association into a place at Charter House School in London and then Pembroke College, Cambridge; he graduated from there in 1627. He excelled in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.

His degree behind him, Williams served as chaplain to a wealthy family. He also got married, to Mary Barnard. They eventually had six children.

In 1630, Roger and Mary Williams boarded the ship Lyon and sailed for the New World. They landed at Boston on Feb. 5, 1631.

Williams had thought it best to leave England because he had gained a reputation for spreading religious ideas that were at odds with English doctrine. In this, he followed in the footsteps of the Pilgrims, whose colony he joined. He preached in both Plymouth and Salem and came into conflict with the Puritans who ruled the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He strongly believed in the idea of "soul liberty," or "liberty of conscience." More radically, at least according to Puritans and members of other religions, Williams believed and taught that no one could know for certain which form of religion was the one that the Christian God had chosen. Already at odds with the Church of England, which was the reason that he left England, he was now at odds with the Puritans as well.

Facing deportation in 1636 after being convicted of heresy and sedition, he escaped during a blizzard and traveled 55 miles through deep snow to Raynham, Mass., where he found friends in Massasoit and the Wampanoag. Williams waited out the rest of the winter, then went southwest, to the headwaters of the Narragansett Bay. He still had some money with him Roger Williams and Native Americans and bought land from nearby Native American tribes the Canonicus, Miantonomi, and Narragansett. He named his settlement Providence and decreed that people of all faiths could find a home there. (Many did, including Anne Hutchinson.) He also believed strongly in the separation of church and state. Another of the ways that he set himself apart from (and in opposition to) other English colonists was in this belief that Native Americans had the right to sell the land they lived on or hunted on, and he demonstrated this belief by insisting on paying for the land on which he wanted to build his colony. In 1638, he founded the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence.

He found it difficult to let things go, as evidenced by his long-running feud with Boston minister John Cotton over various religious ideas. Although he himself maintained good relations with neighboring Native Americans, he found himself unable to resolve some fundamental conflicts between members of his own colony and between them and their Native American neighbors. Time after time, he was negotiating boundary disputes and mediating other disagreements.

Williams sailed to England in 1643 and, despite the advent of the English Civil War, secured a royal charter for his colony. It was during that voyage that he produced the writing for which he is most well-known, Key into the Languages of America. It was the first dictionary of Native American languages ever produced. He had proved quite adept at keeping the peace with neighboring tribes, particularly the Narragansett, even surrendering himself as a hostage twice in order to ensure that a negotiation was completed to the satisfaction of both parties.

Roger Williams

Charter in hand, he returned to his colony. He then published what has become his most well-known book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. He established a trading post at Cocumscussos, which is now North Kingstown. Williams and fellow religious leader John Clarke sailed to England in 1651, to renew the colony charter.

Williams served as governor of the Rhode Island colony in 1654–1658. While he was away, the Rhode Island colony had passed a law to prevent slavery in the colony, in stark contrast to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which a decade earlier had passed a law that allowed slavery. Rhode Island's early abolition didn't last. Newport entered the slave trade in 1700.

Providence suffered near destruction during King Philip's War, in 1675 and 1676, when the Rhode Island colonists fought against Native Americans who had been friendly with Williams before but, after the death of Massasoit and the ascension of his oldest son, Metacomet, chose to fight. Williams, whose own house was burned in the conflict, helped rebuild the town.

He died in 1683, leaving behind a legacy of advocating for religious liberty.

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