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Roger Williams

Roger Williams

Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1683), Puritan clergyman in America, founded Providence, R.I. He was the first American spokesman for religious toleration and the separation of church and state.

Roger Williams's views on the relationship of church and state sprang from his religious beliefs. Like his contemporaries, Williams believed that Christ's second coming was imminent and that, in the time remaining, it was a Christian's duty to help gather the most perfect church possible. Williams's search for the spiritually pure congregation eventually led him to a conviction that the world was so deeply sinful that it would not be redeemed until Christ's return. In view of the world's unredeemable state, all a Christian could do was to keep his spiritual life uncontaminated by the world's evil. This view put Williams at odds with the Massachusetts Puritans, who, because they thought their whole society was being redeemed, maintained that civil authority must protect churches.

Born in London, educated at the Charterhouse School and Cambridge, Williams in 1629 became chaplain to Sir William Masham of Essex. That same year he married Mary Barnard. In 1630 Williams and his wife sailed for Massachusetts. Williams's discontent with the Massachusetts Church was quickly evident: he refused to serve as the first minister to the Boston Church because it had not "separated" itself from the spiritual corruption of the Anglican Church. Williams thought of joining the Salem Church, but when the authorities intervened he went to Plymouth. Finding the Plymouth Church too impure, Williams returned to Salem in 1633 as assistant minister.

In 1634 the Salem Church defied the Massachusetts authorities and chose Williams minister. Williams taught that civil authorities could not punish transgressions against the first four commandments of the decalogue, that an oath of loyalty is a religious act, and that the English had no proper title to American land because the English king was in league with antichrist.

Banished to Rhode Island

In 1635, banished from Massachusetts for his teachings, Williams went to Rhode Island, where he founded Providence. He worked as a farmer, Indian trader, and civil magistrate. When visiting the Indians, Williams worked on a dictionary, entitled A Key into the Language of America (1643), which he hoped would serve future apostles who, after Christ's return, would travel in the wilderness to convert the Indians. Williams himself did not attempt to convert the Indians. Williams's own search for spiritual perfection made him first a Baptist and, next, a Seeker rejecting adherence to any specific creed. Williams even refused to pray with his wife because he did not consider her fully regenerate. During the Pequod War, Williams did great service to the Massachusetts colony in his negotiations with the Narragansett Indians.

Believing all present societies, Indian and Puritan, to be unredeemable, Williams thought that men's propensity for evil needed tight control. Consequently he helped pass strict laws for Providence. At the same time, he also believed that, since all men are naturally evil, they have the same natural rights and should share land equally. To that end, Williams assisted in setting up a democratic land association.

Williams in England

In 1643 Williams went to England to secure a charter for Providence. The colony was torn by internal strife and threatened by the other New England colonies. With the help of Sir Henry Vane, Williams got the charter in 1644. While in England, Williams published several books and pamphlets. In Queries of Highest Consideration (1644), he urged Parliament not to establish a national church, Congregational or Presbyterian. In Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered (1644), he argued for religious toleration. A church, he proclaimed, which in Christ's name persecutes people of different faiths and denies them the right to live in the community, is anti-Christian.

In these, as in all his writings, Williams's arguments for separation of church and state are drawn from his interpretation of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Massachusetts Puritans believed that their churches were the successors to the Jewish temples; the Massachusetts governor was as responsible for the churches as David was for the Temple. Williams, on the other hand, maintained that after Christ's coming the church is spiritual only and must remain apart from the world.

Reuniting the Colony

On his return from England, Williams found that William Coddington had received a land grant from England which split the colony. In 1652 Williams again went to England and got Coddington's land title annulled. In London, Williams continued publishing his books. John Cotton had answered William's 1644 work The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution…, so, in turn, Williams in The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652) refuted Cotton's views.

Returning to Providence, Williams united the colony and served as its president. In these years Jews and Quakers came to Providence and were granted religious toleration. However, some extreme sects, like the Ranters, were excluded. In 1659 Williams began a bitter but successful struggle against William Harris, who was trying to defraud the Narragansett Indians of their land. In King Philip's War, which he had striven to prevent, Williams served as captain for Providence. Though he granted them toleration, Williams disagreed with the Quakers, and in 1672 he debated with them in Newport. In 1675 Williams published his side of the argument in George Fox Digg'd out of His Burrowes… . Williams died in providence.

Further Reading

Williams's works are collected in The Complete Writings (7 vols., 1963). Biographies are Cyclone Covey, The Gentle Radical (1966), and John Garrett, Roger Williams (1970). Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (1967), is a good introduction to Williams's thought. An important study of Williams's idea of history is Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contributions to the American Tradition (1953). Irwin H. Polishook, Roger Williams, John Cotton and Religious Freedom: A Controversy in New and Old England (1967), is a short, valuable introduction to one of the most important debates in American history. □

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Williams, Roger (1603-1683)

Roger Williams (1603-1683)

Conscientious separatist

Sources

A Man of Vision. A warm, sweet-tempered, and rigid man, Roger Williams followed a spiritual journey that forced him to separate from first one group and then another. In the process he founded and governed the influential colony of Rhode Island, which was the first in America to advocate religious freedom and complete separation of church and state as matters of principle. He is also credited with starting the first Baptist church in America.

Puritans. Within five years of his arrival in Massachusetts in 1631, Williams had become an enemy to the Puritans. He was the son of a poor shopkeeper, but his intelligence so impressed some influential men that they sent him to Cambridge University, where he excelled in his studies, met John Winthrop, and followed him to the colonies. Several churches were interested in calling this brilliant and highly educated man to lead them. He refused a position in the Boston Church because the congregation would not sever all ties with the Church of England and settled in Salem. There he demanded that the church eschew the informal meetings that the clergy had been holding lest they compromise the congregational autonomy that the Scriptures described. He forbade members to worship or pray with any unregenerate persons, even family members. At the colony level he called for complete separation of church and state, arguing that any interference by the state in spiritual affairs only corrupted religion. In his view magistrates should have no power to maintain orthodoxy by enforcing laws, even the Ten Commandments. He threatened the physical existence of the colony as well by claiming that the king had no right to grant Massachusetts to the Puritans because the land belonged to the Indians.

Rhode Island. For five years Gov. John Winthrop and the magistrates argued with Williams, unsuccessfully, and finally banished him in late 1635. They had intended to ship him back to England, but, forewarned by Winthrop, he fled to the South. There he purchased land from the Narragansetts out of his own pocket and founded a colony based on his principles. He evenly distributed land to insure economic equality and instituted a government that was democratical under which all men may walk as their consciences persuade them. In 1644 he made a trip to England and secured a charter for a self-governing colony, governing it from 1654 to 1657 just to guarantee that political and religious freedoms would continue. Many sought refuge there. Some were seeking complete purity in communal churches, in the tradition of Williams and typified by the Baptists; others were drawn to a more mystical strain which began with Anne Hutchinson and included Quakers.

Baptists and Beyond. In the first church that they organized, Williams and his friends baptized each other, probably by immersion, contending that the Scriptures spoke only of saints as church members and total immersion as the seal of membership. This is generally considered to be the first Baptist church in America. Later Williams condemned adult baptism but only because it was not administered by an apostle as the Scriptures described. Then he began to have doubts about the gracious states of others, finally reaching the position that he could only take communion with his wife. These same doubts drove him to the opposite extreme, and he administered the sacraments to anyone since no human can be certain who is saved. Finally he left the ministry entirely, noting that there was no official scriptural sanction for an organized church or official clergy.

Confrontation. Williamss tolerance was sorely tested by the Quakers because they seemed to ignore the Bible and the historical Jesus Christ in favor of a mysticism that relied totally on human divinity. When George Fox, the founding father of the Society of Friends, visited Newport in 1672, Williams was determined to confront him in a debate. Although over seventy years old, he dragged his fragile body into a boat and rowed alone the thirty miles to meet him. Fox had already departed, so Williams engaged his associates in a battle of published words. It seems fitting that Williams spent his last years in the midst of this pamphlet war over Christian principles.

Sources

Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991);

Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and State (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967);

Ola Winslow, Master Roger Williams (New York: Macmillan, 1957).

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Williams, Roger

Roger Williams, c.1603–1683, clergyman, advocate of religious freedom, founder of Rhode Island, b. London. A protégé of Sir Edward Coke, he graduated from Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1627 and took Anglican orders. He early espoused Puritanism and emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1631. Williams became a teacher (1632) and, after a stay at Plymouth, minister (1634) of the Salem church. However, his radical religious beliefs and political theories—he denied the validity of the Massachusetts charter, challenged the Puritans to acknowledge they had separated from the Church of England, and declared that civil magistrates had no power over matters of conscience—alarmed the Puritan oligarchy, and the General Court banished him in 1635.

In the spring of 1636 he founded Providence on land purchased from the Narragansett. To Providence, a democratic refuge from religious persecution, came settlers from England as well as Massachusetts. There were four settlements in the Narragansett Bay area by 1643, when Williams went to England. Through the influence of powerful friends such as Sir Henry Vane (1613–62), he obtained from the Long Parliament a patent (1644) uniting the Rhode Island towns of Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick with Providence. In 1651, William Coddington secured a commission annulling the patent, but Williams, with John Clarke, hastened again to England and had the patent restored. (Its grant of absolute liberty of conscience was later confirmed by the royal charter of 1663.) On his return in 1654, Williams was elected president of the colony and served three terms. Always a trusted friend of the Native Americans (he wrote Key into the Language of America, 1643), he often used his good offices in maintaining peace with them, but he was unable to prevent the outbreak of King Philip's War (1675–76), in which he served as a captain of militia.

Williams, though he remained a Christian, disassociated himself from existing churches. His writings, reprinted in the Narragansett Club Publications (1866–74), reveal the vigor with which he propounded his democratic and humanitarian ideals. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644) was condemned by John Cotton, who was answered with The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652). Other works include Queries of Highest Consideration (1644), an argument for complete separation of church and state; The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's (1652); and George Fox Digg'd Out of His Burrowes (1676), a polemic against Quaker teachings. Of great personal charm and unquestioned integrity, Williams was admired even by those who, like both the elder and the younger John Winthrop, abhorred his liberal ideas.

See biographies by S. H. Brockunier (1940), P. Miller (1953, repr. 1962), O. Winslow (1957, repr. 1973), E. S. Morgan (1967), J. Garrett (1970), and E. S. Gaustad (2005); see studies by E. S. Gaustad (1991) and J. M. Barry (2012).

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Williams, Roger

Williams, Roger (c.1603–83). Colonist. Williams was born in London, attended Pembroke College, Cambridge, and took holy orders. In 1630 he left England for Massachusetts but his belief that magistrates should have no power over conscience gave him an uncomfortable time when he was appointed to the church at Salem. His sympathy for the local Indians also made him suspect to many of his fellow-colonists. Expelled from Massachusetts in 1636, he founded a settlement at Providence and in 1639 established a baptist church, though he subsequently became a seeker, acknowledging no creed. In 1644 he visited England and obtained a charter of self-government for Providence—the foundation of Rhode Island. The colony soon became known for its tolerant attitude and Jews and quakers were allowed to settle. In 1654–7 Williams served as governor. Milton, whom he knew well, admired him as a champion of religious liberty: Cotton Mather thought he had ‘a windmill in his head’.

J. A. Cannon

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Williams, Roger

Williams, Roger (c.1604–83). Advocate of religious toleration, and an American colonist. After ordination (probably in 1629) he became chaplain to Sir William Masham, but separatist views compelled him to seek religious freedom in N. America (1630). He established a settlement which he named ‘Providence’ (1636), and founded Rhode Island where he formed the first Baptist church in the colonies.

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Williams, Roger

Williams, Roger (1603–83) US Puritan minister, b. England. He emigrated to Boston with his family in 1631, but his liberal notions and support for Native Americans antagonized the Puritan authorities. He was expelled from the Massachusetts Colony in 1635, and sought shelter with the Narragansett. Buying land from them, he founded Providence, the earliest settlement in Rhode Island, in 1636.

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