On October 9, 1635 the General Court of Massachusetts ordered Roger Williams, who they considered an obnoxious religious and political crank, into exile from the colony. Specifically the 32 year old was convicted of both heresy and sedition for spreading, “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.”
Williams was born in 1603 to a conventional Anglican family. His father was a prosperous master tailor and merchant in Smithfield, London. A bright, inquisitive, and pious boy, Williams had a personal religious conversion experience which began his long journey as a dissenter. His father disapproved but allowed his wayward son to continue his education, including an apprenticeship with the great legal scholar and jurist Sir Edward Coke. He attended Charterhouse, a prestigious public school before enrolling at Pembroke College, Cambridge from which he graduated in 1627. He excelled at classical—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—and modern—Dutch and French—languages.
While at Cambridge Williams became a Puritan—an advocate of purifying the Church of England by stripping away the remaining trappings of Catholicism including the Mass, use of Latin in liturgy, and idolatry in the form of statues of saints and icons. He took Holy Orders as an Anglican priest, but his chances at advancement were blocked by the firmly High Church hierarchy. He took a position as a private chaplain to Sir William Macham, a leading Puritan lord. As such he was privy to plans to seed a Puritan colony in the New World. Newly married, he passed on his opportunity to go in the first ships sent to found what would become Massachusetts in 1630. But he was soon so disgusted with church leadership that he determined to join the migration. He also privately abandoned any hope of reforming the corrupt church and became a Separatist.
Williams and his wife Mary set sail for New England in December on the Lyden and arrived in Boston in February 1731. He found himself not only welcome, but honored. He was offered as a position as Teacher—sort of an associate pastor—of the Boston congregation. He declined the position and openly declared himself as a Separatist. He also insisted that civil magistrates should have no authority over religious maters and that individuals were free to develop and express their own religious convictions. These positions shocked and appalled the Puritan worthies who demanded complete conformity to their beliefs in matters both civil and religious.
The church in Salem was then tending toward Separatism and invited Williams to become Teacher there. Outraged leaders in Boston threatened the Salem church, which rescinded the invitation. By August 1631 he had left Massachusetts for a friendly welcome among the Separatists of Plymouth. Although not given an official position, he assisted the local minister and occasionally preached. Governor William Bradshaw found his preaching, “entirely amicable” to the local church.
But Williams was never one to go long without examining his conscience and in holding the church to the very high standards he demanded. He began to doubt that the Plymouth church was sufficiently separated from Anglicanism. And his growing and admiring contact with native inhabitants led him to question the legitimacy of Royal Charters that granted land that the King did not own. Instead he maintained that land need be purchased from its rightful owners, the native tribes. In December 1632 Williams wrote a lengthy tract on these subjects which he circulated to churches in both Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies.
By this time Bradford noted that Williams had fallen “into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him.” In 1633 he had worn out his welcome and was back in Salem, which now seemed more inclined to support him. Upon learning of his return, the Massachusetts General Court summoned him to Boston. Williams apparently agreed to make some concessions and all known copies of his critical tract were burned. Allowed to return to Salem, he became acting pastor when his sponsor, Rev. Samuel Skelton died.
Soon Williams had returned to his criticisms of both civil authority over religious matters and of the legitimacy of colonial charters. He was called before the General Court again in March of 1635 and in April he so vigorously opposed a new oath of allegiance to the colonial government that it became impossible for the magistrates to enforce it.
Unable to reign in Williams, the General Court turned on the Town of Salem. It refused a routine petition to annex adjacent land on the Marblehead Neck and took other actions against Salem’s interest. In July the Court formally demanded that Williams be removed from the pulpit of the Salem Church. The Salem Church asserted that the order was a violation of congregational polity and independence and circulated a protest letter to other churches. The General Court ordered that the letter not be read in the other churches and refused to seat delegates from the town of Salem until the Church was in compliance.
As pressure grew on the Church, Williams demanded that it formally separate itself from the Standing Order. His support within the Church then collapsed. Williams withdrew as minister and began meeting privately with a few followers in his home.
Without the protection of the Salem church or Town, the General Court went ahead with its sedition and heresy trial in October. When the conviction was handed down, Williams was confined to his bed by illness. He was given a reprieve from banishment until spring on condition that he remain quiet. Typically, Williams would not shut up. The Sheriff was sent to seize him in January 1636 but found Williams gone.
|Roger Williams rests on his winter treck to freedom.|
Rather than be taken into custody and dumped, most likely, in hostile Indian country, Williams fled on foot through the deep mid-winter snows. He marched 105 miles from Salem to find refuge at the head of Narragansett Bay, where he was welcomed by his friend Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoags. That spring he was joined by his most loyal followers from Salem and began to settle on land he purchased from the Wampangoags. Learning that his claim was within the boundaries of the Plymouth Colony, however, Williams and his people crossed Seekonk River to territory beyond any charter and purchased land from Canonicus and Miantonomi, chief sachems of the Narragansetts. Williams named his new settlement Providence.
Williams declared his settlement a haven for those of distressed of conscience. It was soon attracting dissidents and exiles from both Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies. The settlement was governed by a majority vote of the heads of households, and newcomers could be admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote.
In August of 1637 electors drew up a town agreement, which limited the government to civil matters. In 1640 another agreement declared their determination “still to hold forth liberty of conscience.” Williams had founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separated, and where there was religious liberty and separation of church and state. In fact Williams to advocate what he called a “wall of separation” between church and state—a term Thomas Jefferson would borrow over a 140 years latter in his famous Letter to the Danville Baptists.
|A romanticized 19th Century rendition of Williams meeting with the Narragansett to purchase land for his haven.|
Meanwhile, a second wave of exiles arrived on the Narragansett Bay. In 1837 the Massachusetts Court moved against the followers of Anne Hutchins. Williams invited them to settle near him and arranged for them to purchase land on Aquidneck Island. They named their settlement Portsmouth and the island Rhode Island. Their elected leader, William Coddington quickly turned out to be a civil and religious tyrant and was ousted. He formed a second town, Newport. Eventually these two settlements reunited with separate local administrations.
Meanwhile the Pequot War had broken out and much of Massachusetts was in flames. Leaders there were forced to do what they loathed most—turn to Roger Williams for help. And help he did. Not only did his extensive contacts among all of the tribes—he was making his living by this time trading with the natives for furs—provide vital intelligence, he persuaded his friends the Narragansetts not to join the uprising and to become allies of the settlers. The assistance of the Narragansetts became critical to the final victory in that ugly war.
Now, however Williams, his colony and his native allies became regional powers. In the next three decades Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth exerted pressure to destroy both Rhode Island and the Narragansetts. In 1643 those colonies joined in an alliance excluding the towns around Narragansett Bay and hostile to them—the United Colonies. To prevent the alliance from overwhelming them, Williams went to England to secure a Charter of his own. He arrived just as his breakthrough dictionary of Native American words was published and creating a sensation among the English intellectual elite. Through their influence he was able to get his charter for Providence Plantations over the vehement objection of Massachusetts agents.
|Roger Williams's banned book.|
While in England, however, Williams could not refrain from stirring the pot. In July of 1643 he published his most famous book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, a scathing indictment of religious intolerance and plea for separation of church and state. The book caused an uproar and cost him the support of many former friends. The Public Hangman was ordered to confiscate and burn copies. Luckily Williams was on board ship home with his charter in his pocket or he might have been arrested and even executed.
Back home it took Williams until 1643 to bring the two towns of Rhode Island—by then prosperous seaports with larger populations than Providence—into a single government under his Charter. Coddington, in fact, plotted to usurp Williams. He sailed to England and in an astonishing bit of power politics returned in 1751with a document naming him governor for life over Rhode Island. Providence and its allied town of Warwick sent Williams back to England to reverse the decision joined John Clarke representing Coddington’s numerous critics from Portsmouth and Newport. Williams had to sell his trading post, the only source of income for his family, which now included six children, to pay for his crossing. The two somehow succeeded in overturning Coddington’s patent.
Williams returned to America in 1654 and was immediately elected the President of the colony. He subsequently served in many offices in the town and colonial governments, and in his 70s he was elected captain of the militia in Providence during King Philip’s War in 1676.
Clark stayed in England and in 1664 obtained a new charter under the name Rhode Island that covered all of the towns on the mainland and on the island. The colony remained a haven for all sorts of religious minorities—Baptists, Quakers, even Jews and Catholics.
Williams is usually described as a Baptist. And indeed by 1638 had come to adopt the key Baptist tenant of believer’s baptism or credobaptism as opposed to the Puritan and Separatist practice of infant baptism. He had been exposed to the writing of English General Baptists but arrived at the conclusion on his own. He was baptized by Ezekiel Holliman in late 1638 and founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence. A few years later John Clarke formed a second church in Newport. Following the traditions of their founders, Baptists in America became the leading advocates of church and state separation.
Yet the restless Williams did not himself remain a Baptist long, although he remained sympathetic to them. He concluded that the corruption of the early church when it was co-opted by the Roman Empire under the Empower Constantine had broken the sacred covenant between God and the Church. A new church, he now believed, could not be established without a special new divine commission. He declared, “There is no regularly constituted church of Christ on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking.”
|Williams's WPA built grave site and monument.|
Williams spent the rest of his days praying privately with friends awaiting that great day. Despite his honors in the colony he founded and his many achievements, Williams died in relative poverty and obscurity some time in early 1683. He was buried in an unmarked grave on his property.
Within 50 years his house had collapsed and his grave was lost. In 1860, Zachariah Allen sought to locate his remains but found only an apple tree root in the grave he believed to be that of Williams. The root has been preserved as a relic by the Rhode Island Historical Society. Dirt from the supposed grave was named “the Dust of Roger Williams” and preserved in an urn that was finally interred in a monument erected by the Works Project Administration (WPA) in Providence’s Prospect Terrace Park in 1937. You can be sire that he would have protested.
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