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Williams, Roger


WILLIAMS, ROGER (16031683), English and American Puritan minister and prophet of religious liberty, founder of Rhode Island. Born in London, Roger Williams was the son of Alice and James Williams, a merchant tailor. Of his early education little is known, but his ability at shorthand probably attracted the attention of Sir Edward Coke, then lord chief justice, who enabled him to attend Charterhouse School, from whence he won a scholarship to Cambridge (B.A., 1627). After several years' further study in divinity at that Puritan stronghold, Williams became chaplain in the household of Sir William Masham, and he married Mary Barnard, who was to bear him six children. As a convinced Puritan at the time when Bishop William Laud was vigorously opposing the movement, he found it advisable to join the great migration to New England in December 1630.

Called to serve the church at Boston, Williams refused to accept the post because the Massachusetts Bay Puritans had not fully broken with the Church of England or rejected legal religious establishment, and Williams was by then a thorough Separatist. Instead, he ministered for several years at Plymouth Colony, where the Separatist element was stronger, and undertook missionary work among the Algonquin Indians, learning their language. Williams returned to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633, however, accepting a call to the church at Salem. But he angered colonial leaders by insisting that the churches profess separation, by claiming that the royal charter did not provide a valid title to the land, by denying that the unregenerate could take an oath of loyalty (which for him was an act of worship), and by arguing that magistrates could not punish breaches of the first commandments (which deal with religious obligations), but only of those that deal with moral or civil matters. Brought to trial in October 1635, he was banished. Williams fled southward, purchased land from the Indians, and founded Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636. In a departure new in Christian civilization, no church was established in the new colonyreligious liberty was for all, even those with whom Williams was in sharp theological disagreement.

Williams earned his living by farming and (until 1651) trading with Indians at a lonely outpost on Narragansett Bay. His knowledge of Indian ways and his friendship with them permitted him to mediate among them, as well as between them and the English, on many occasions. His skill prevented what could have been a powerful Indian alliance against the colonies in 1637. His political abilities were also exercised in helping to keep order among the growing towns of Rhode Island. To secure a charter so that Rhode Island would not be swallowed up by Massachusetts Bay Colony, he journeyed to England in 16431644. He became known to the rising Puritan leadership through such writings as A Key into the Language of America (1643) and The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience (1644), a hastily written but forceful scriptural argument for religious freedom. Successful in obtaining the charter, Williams returned home, but political changes soon jeopardized that achievement. he sold his trading post to finance a return to England (16511654), where he associated with such powerful figures as John Milton and Oliver Cromwell. Again he published extensively, notably The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody, Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and The Hireling Ministry None of Christs, all in 1652. Called home by political turmoil and family need, he left John Clarke of Newport to complete the diplomatic mission; Clarke remained until 1663, finally securing a permanent charter for Rhode Island from the Restoration government. Meanwhile Williams served three years as president of the colony he had founded.

Williams's deepest concern throughout his life was with matters of religion, the central theme of his extensive writings. He remained faithful to common Puritan presuppositions but doggedly pursued their implications to radical conclusions few could accept. A Calvinist in theology, he emphasized the authority of the Bible as the means by which the spirit of God speaks, interpreting many of its passages in typological and millenarian ways. His greatest divergence with other Puritans was over the doctrine of the church. He sharply differentiated the pure church from the secular world, but he had difficulty identifying it amid the warring sects of his time. Briefly in 1639 he believed that the Baptists came the closest to his ideal of the church. Williams was baptized by affusion (pouring), baptized others, and participated in the founding of the first Baptist church in America at Providence. He soon left the congregation, however, and became known as a "seeker," but was not a member of any Seeker group, although he was acquainted with the Calvinist Seekers in England in the early 1650s.

Williams became convinced that the apostasy of the churches since Constantine had engulfed Christendom and that until God raised up new apostles the true church could not be discerned. Meanwhile, God called "prophets in sackcloth" to preach and witness to the truth, but not to gather churches. As a "prophet in sackcloth" Williams ministered among both English and Indians, but he remained highly critical of Christendom in all its forms, as well as of clergy who earned their livings by ministering. he believed that the truly faithful must be prepared for misunderstanding and persecution, having as their sole defense the sword of the spiritthe word of God. Magistrates have no competence in matters of religion, he insisted, for their rule extends only to civil matters.

Although Williams believed ardently in religious freedom, he was not a tolerant man; he could attack vigorously with tongue and pen (though never by force) those with whom he disagreed in matters of theology and biblical interpretation. He was deeply opposed to George Fox and the Quakers; as a Calvinist he objected to their separation of Word and Spirit, as well as to what was for him their inadequate Christology. He hoped to debate Fox when the latter was in Rhode Island in 1672, but had to settle for sharp exchanges with other Quaker leaders, about which he wrote in his most polemical work, George Fox Digg'd out of His Burrowes (Boston, 1676).

Williams's role as a pioneer of religious liberty and the separation of church and state has been rightly celebrated as his major contribution; the twentieth-century renaissance in Puritan studies has made clear how deeply his work was rooted in his religious commitments.


Almost all of Williams's extant writings are in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, 7 vols. (New York, 1963); the first six volumes are reprints of nineteenth-century editions, but the seventh adds tracts not included in previous collections and was edited by Perry Miller with an interpretive introduction. Miller had previously written Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition (1953; reprint, New York, 1966), which includes brief, modernized passages from Williams's major works. A well-delineated interpretation of Williams's thought, based on his writings, is Edmund S. Morgan's Roger Williams: The Church and the State (New York, 1967). A thoughtful treatment that includes informed attention to the English as well as to the American locales of Williams's life is John Garrett's Roger Williams: Witness beyond Christendom, 16031683 (New York, 1970). A study of his religious and biblical views is W. Clark Gilpin's The Millenarian Piety of Roger Williams (Chicago, 1979).

Robert T. Handy (1987)

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