God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any civill state…true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or Kingdome, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile.
Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference Between Truth and Peace, 1644.
Roger Williams landed near Boston, Massachusetts, on this day, February 5, in 1631, aboard the ship Lyon.
According to the Library of Congress, he was
A radical Puritan who argued for the complete separation of church and state, Williams would within five years suffer banishment under Massachusetts law because of his drastic views. The settlement at Providence along the Narragansett Bay, established by Williams and his followers in 1636, soon became a haven for religious dissidents.
In 1644 Williams obtained a patent for the colony of Providence Plantations, later Rhode Island—the same year that he published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, his most famous work.
The expulsion of Roger Williams was not an isolated judgment, but somewhat indicative of the times. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850, was a Romance novel by genre, but it could also rightfully be classified as Historical Fiction. The book portrays Puritan-led Colonial Boston as a harsh, judgmental world in which guilt and shame were administered by a close coalition of ministers and magistrates. While Hawthorne’s book was melodramatic by design, it was in no way farfetched. The Antinomian Controversy of 1636-38 was the result of a long-brewing dispute over church-imposed legalism versus proponents of free grace. Hawthorne’s heroine Hester Prynne was a literary reconstruction of Anne Hutchinson (also mentioned in the book) who was banished two years after Williams. Dr. Jonathon Beeke of Puritan Reformed Seminary has demonstrated the deep roots of this mindset and the British origins of antinomianism.
Beyond his importance as the founder of the First Baptist Church in America, Roger Williams was the father of religious liberty. The Great Commission has always been the headwaters of every group organized under the general moniker of “Baptist.” In this sense, the ends find general alignment, but the means are widely divergent. The mandate of disciple-making has led to both passive and persuasive mission tenets which invariably have borne creed, polity, and behavior. The experiment of America has always been attractive to individuals who prize liberty, and many who initially migrated to her shores were Separatists from England seeking refuge from a church that was governed by the state, whose theology was imposed by compulsion. Roger Williams was such a man. To his dismay, Williams found the same compulsive behavior replanted afresh in Colonial America and spent his life fighting for religious liberty.
In many ways, Roger Williams was an unlikely hero. He might have easily died in anonymity had his message not proven its durability in the hearts of men. It certainly was not so in his lifetime. His exact birth date is unknown as is the date of his death. He was apparently a prolific writer, but we have only a portion of his work; a few books mainly with some letters and pamphlets, but none of his sermons. Thankfully, his known work was collected in six volumes during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century, a seventh was added. His zeal for religious liberty is undoubtedly his legacy, but to paraphrase Newton, Williams was standing on the shoulders of giants.
Before Roger Williams’s Life
The early church cherished its freedom in Christ, having long suffered the legalistic constraints of the Pharisees. Though loosed from this constraint, greater coercion was exercised by Rome, which required devotion to Caesar. In this context, Tertullian sought coexistence by directing Christians to love and pray for the emperor whom they considered divinely appointed to civil governance. Tertullian’s asserted diplomacy to Rome by saying “…it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us—the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice.” Though persecution continued, this balance held within the church despite inevitable and prolific heresies afforded by the same liberty, for the church was able to police herself theologically. The milestone that imposed unity to Christendom was Constantine’s Council of Arles in 314 AD in which he declared “the Highest God has committed the government of all earthly things” to himself thereby imposing prescriptive direction to the church. This amalgamation of church and state would ultimately become the Gordian Knot Roger Williams could never resolve because in it he saw the disappearance of apostolic succession and likewise any legitimacy on which the church could stand.
Life Before America
Roger Williams began life around the time of the reign of James I, and pursued theological education at Cambridge in hopes of becoming a minister in the Church of England. It was there he embraced Puritanism, running him afoul of King James and eventually compelling him to follow like-minded individuals to America where it was surmised, they could reform the Church of England from afar. Williams married Mary Barnard in 1629 when he was about 26 years old, and the couple sailed for New England along with 20 other passengers on the ship Lyon the following year. The crossing was relatively trouble-free, but the ease of the journey did not forebode the calamity Williams was to undergo almost immediately upon arrival.
Roger Williams’ Life in Banishment
Life in Colonial America was far from free. When Roger Williams arrived in Boston, he was hailed and quickly offered the pulpit of a newly organized Puritan church. The assignment was fortuitous because the colony was struggling under food shortages and harsh winters, and the post would provide the young family with ongoing sustenance. Williams, however, found the assignment untenable. He reasoned that he could not align with a church that was still firmly attached to the Church of England. His resignation was insulting to the community, and he did not help himself with an exit of diplomacy. His harsh and critical words resulted in his banishment from Boston.
The Williams family fled 15 miles north to Salem where they were initially welcomed, but upon hearing of it, the aggrieved and still bitter leaders of Boston pressured the leaders of smaller Salem to expel them as well. From Salem the Williams’ moved 30 miles south to Plymouth Colony where they found respite for two years, but for reasons unclear to history he fled and returned to Salem in 1633. It was here Williams became convicted by the unilateral acquisition of Indian land by the English, a grievous sin in Williams’ estimation. If Roger Williams arrived in America with any caution about speaking his mind, by now, it had vanished entirely. By October of 1635, Roger Williams had once again been shunned, but this time he was ordered out of the community. The order stated in part
“Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the elders of the church at Salem, hath broached & divulged diverse new & dangerous opinions …It is therefore ordered, that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks.”
With nowhere to go, the Williams family outstayed the six-week order by a longshot, but the court had not forgotten. By January it was clear they were to be arrested and deported to England but fearing greater peril there, Roger Williams and his wife fled to the wilderness where he would spend 14 winter weeks “not knowing what bed or bread did mean.” During this time he was taken in by the Indians who cared for him and his wife. His time spent with them forever shaped his worldview by both confirming his earlier conviction of their inherent right to the land on which they lived as well as his broadened perspective on religious liberty.
In time he purchased land from the Indians about 40 miles southwest of Boston which he named “Providence” owing as he wrote, “a sense of God’s merciful providence to me in my distress.” The colony grew to 40 families by 1640, and the community was firmly established. Importantly for Williams, the rule of law was based on religious liberty and the founding members declared
“We agree, As formerly hath been the liberties of the Town, so still to hold forth Liberty of Conscience.”
Having established the town, Williams recognized the need for a church. His convictions were based on the voluntary consent of the congregants, both in participation and baptism. For Williams, the English Baptists most closely aligned with his beliefs and in 1638 he, along with 11 other settlers organized the First Baptist Church in America. Though the church still exists some 381 years later, Roger Williams didn’t stay longer than a few months. He left the church after concluding that no denominal church was legitimately possible with all traces of apostolic succession lost from Constantine onward. To Roger Williams, only the return of Jesus could restore the rightful mandate of Christ. Williams lived out the rest of his life as a self-proclaimed “Seeker.” He witnessed the near destruction of Providence during a war with the Indians known as King Phillip’s War in 1675-1676, and he lived to see its reconstruction. He died in Providence in either 1683 or 1684.
The Impact of Roger Williams’ Life
No image exists of Roger Williams. What is known of him is derived from the written record of his life, both from his hand and that of others. Writing in 1702, Cotton Mather documented his impression of Williams by likening him to a windmill he had seen in Holland that was driven so fast by high winds that the revolving milestones grew so hot they set the windmill (and subsequently) the town on fire. Mather wrote
“But I can tell my readers that, about twenty years before this, there was a whole country in America like to be set on fire by the rapid motion of a windmill in the head of one particular man…who had less light than fire in him.”
Mather gloried that Williams had been expelled from Boston before his fire ignited all of Massachusetts. Though he was certainly not a fan of Williams, Mathers was certainly correct that he was a firebrand.
The years following the life of Roger Williams were those immediately preceding the birth of America. Writing only a short time after the death of Williams, John Locke published his Letters on Toleration in 1689. Aligning himself with Williams, he wrote of the “necessity above all to distinguish between the business of civil government and that of religion.” James Madison and Thomas Jefferson likewise followed suit in arguing for Religious Liberty in the new country. Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom expanded on Rhode Island’s charter
“That no man shall be compelled to frequent [attend] or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs.”
Williams was driven by a love for liberty and saw within it the heart of Christ. Contemporary biographers like Vernon Louis Parrington and James Ernst tend to cast Williams as a “free thinker,” but this vastly understates his worldview which was essentially theological. Unlike Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Roger Williams was guided by his love for Christ. He was a dissenter, certainly, but his dissent was on the grounds of religious purity. At the end of his life, Williams called himself a “Seeker,” and perhaps that best describes the quest that drove him.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
The Library of Congress
- Roger Williams has served as an icon of American religious freedom. For example, to see him evoked in Nineteenth-Century African American religious texts, do a full-text search on Roger Williams in African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Likewise, do a full-text search in The Making of America External using Roger Williams as a phrase.
- See Today in History features on William Penn, Anne Hutchinson, John Carroll, and “To Bigotry No Sanction” to learn more about freedom of worship in early America.
- View the exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Part 2 of Section I of the exhibition, Persecution in America includes discussion of the persecution of Roger Williams, the Quakers, Anabaptists, Jews, and Roman Catholics.
- Explore Rhode Island history by searching the Library’s digital collections on Rhode Island, and on place names such as Providence and Newport. Also check the Rhode Island State Guide for more resources.
Edwin S. Gaustad, Roger Williams, Lives and Legacies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).ix.
Malcolm Yarnell, “The Development Of Religious Liberty: A Survey Of Its Progress And Challenges In Christian History,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Missions 6, no. 1 (2012): 117–136.
Alexander Roberts et al., The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, 10 vols. (Buffalo,: The Christian literature publishing company, 1885).105-8.
W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church; a Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (Oxford,: Blackwell, 1965).543.
Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Master Roger Williams, a Biography (New York,: Macmillan, 1957).54.
Philip F. Gura, A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory : Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984).165.
Jonathon D. Beeke, “Hogs, Dogs, and a Wedding Garment: John Eaton, His Doctrine of Free Justification, and Covenant Theology within the Godly Puritan Community,” Puritan Reformed Journal (July 2012) 4, no. 2 (2012): 50.
Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff and Massachusetts. General court., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay, 5 vols. (Boston,: W. White, printer to the commonwealth, 1853).
Roger Williams et al., The Correspondence of Roger Williams, 2 vols. (Providence, R.I.: Published for The Rhode Island Historical Society by Brown University Press/University Press of New England, Hanover and London, 1988).610.
Providence. Record commissioners. et al., The Early Records of the Town of Providence, V. I-Xxi … Printed under Authority of the City Council, 21 vols. (Providence,: Snow & Farnham, 1892).
Roger Williams and Henry Martyn Dexter, Roger Williams’s “Christenings Make Not Christians,” 1645. A Lnog-Lost Tract Recovered and Exactly Reprinted (Providence,: S. S. Rider, 1881).31-41.
Cotton Mather et al., Magnalia Christi Americana, or, the Ecclesiastical History of Nevv-England, from Its First Planting in the Year 1620 Unto the Year of Our Lord 1698 : In Seven Books (London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst … 1702).521.
John Locke and David Wootton, Political Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003).433.
Constance E. Thurlow et al., The Jefferson Papers of the University of Virginia. A Calendar, University of Virginia Bibliographical Series, (Charlottesville,: Published by the University of Virginia Library, with assistance from the Research Council of the Richmond Area University Center, 1950).545-547.
Sources & Resources
commissioners., Providence. Record, Horatio Rogers, George Moulton Carpenter, Edward Field, William E. Clarke, Daniel F. Hayden, William G. Brennen, and William C. Pelkey. The Early Records of the Town of Providence, V. I-Xxi … Printed under Authority of the City Council. 21 vols. Providence,: Snow & Farnham, 1892.
Frend, W. H. C. Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church; a Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus. Oxford,: Blackwell, 1965.
Gaustad, Edwin S. Roger Williams. Lives and Legacies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Gura, Philip F. A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory : Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.
Locke, John and David Wootton. Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003.
Mather, Cotton, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Library Collection (Library of Congress), and John Davis Batchelder Collection (Library of Congress). Magnalia Christi Americana, or, the Ecclesiastical History of Nevv-England, from Its First Planting in the Year 1620 Unto the Year of Our Lord 1698 : In Seven Books. London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst … 1702.
Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, Allan Menzies, Ernest Cushing Richardson, and Bernhard Pick. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. 10 vols. Buffalo,: The Christian literature publishing company, 1885.
Shurtleff, Nathaniel Bradstreet and Massachusetts. General court. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay. 5 vols. Boston,: W. White, printer to the commonwealth, 1853.
Thurlow, Constance E., Francis L. Berkeley, Helen Duprey Bullock, and University of Virginia. Library. The Jefferson Papers of the University of Virginia. A Calendar. University of Virginia Bibliographical Series,. Charlottesville,: Published by the University of Virginia Library, with assistance from the Research Council of the Richmond Area University Center, 1950.
Williams, Roger and Henry Martyn Dexter. Roger Williams’s “Christenings Make Not Christians,” 1645. A Lnog-Lost Tract Recovered and Exactly Reprinted. Providence,: S. S. Rider, 1881.
Williams, Roger, Glenn W. LaFantasie, Robert S. Cocroft, and Bradford F. Swan. The Correspondence of Roger Williams. 2 vols. Providence, R.I.: Published for The Rhode Island Historical Society by Brown University Press/University Press of New England, Hanover and London, 1988.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Master Roger Williams, a Biography. New York,: Macmillan, 1957.