Williams, Roger

views updated May 18 2018

Williams, Roger


London, England


Rhode Island

Pioneer of religious freedom, founder of Rhode Island

" . . . all men may walk as their consciences persuade them."

Roger Williams.

Roger Williams was a religious leader whose spiritual journey forced him to leave one church and then another. He began his quest in 1636, five years after he arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when he became an enemy of the Puritans (those who advocated strict moral and spiritual codes). In the process he founded and governed Rhode Island, the first American colony to be based on separation of church and state. Unlike other colonists, Williams also believed that land in New England belonged to Native Americans and therefore should be purchased, rather than seized, by the British government. He is credited with starting the first Baptist church in America.

Shows intellectual abilities

Roger Williams was born around 1603 in London, England. He was the son of Alice and James Williams, a tailor. As a teenager he showed intelligence and motivation while he was in the employment of Edward Coke, a lawyer and influential figure in London. Williams's job was to record, in a type of shorthand, speeches and sermons that were delivered in the Star Chamber (court). Impressed with Williams's performance, Coke decided to finance his education at Sutton's Hospital, a school where Coke had placed only one other scholar. Williams proved to be a good student, and in 1623 Coke and others financed Williams's attendance at Cambridge University, where he continued to excel in his studies. At Cambridge Williams met John Winthrop (see entry), who later became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

After Williams graduated from Cambridge in 1626 he apparently was ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England (the official state religion; also called the Anglican Church). Records show that in 1629 he was serving as chaplain at the estate of William Masham in Essex. Evidence also indicates that Williams was offered a higher position in the church, but declined the appointment because he did not like the Anglican liturgy (religious service). Instead, he decided to move to Massachusetts to join Winthrop and other Puritans.

Rejects established church

Shortly before leaving England, Williams married Mary Warnard. The couple arrived in Massachusetts in 1631. Williams was invited to be an interim (temporary) pastor at a church in Boston, yet again he refused to serve. He objected that the congregation had not severed ties with the Church of England, which, as a branch of the British government, controlled religious activities in the colonies. Although New England ministers had been ordained in the Anglican Church, they held Puritan beliefs and were pursuing separation from Anglicanism. Nevertheless, Williams felt they were not sufficiently free of the English church. Therefore he and his wife settled in Salem, where he took an assignment as assistant teacher or minister.

One of Williams's first acts was to demand that Salem clergymen stop officiating at meetings (religious services) with the church congregation. He claimed that such a procedure interfered with the right of the individuals to interpret the Bible (the text that is the basis of Christianity). In addition, he forbade members of the church congregation to worship or pray with anyone, even family members, who had not under-gone "regeneration." ("Regeneration" was the term for salvation, or forgiveness of sins directly from God. The Anglican Church required members to seek forgiveness through clergymen.) Soon Williams came into conflict with authorities in Boston because of his policies. He thought it best to leave Salem, so the Williamses went to Plymouth. In 1633, after their arrival at Plymouth, Mary Williams gave birth to their first child, a daughter.

Defends church-state separation

Within four months Williams had returned with his family to Salem. A year and a half later he was appointed chief teacher for the town. Magistrates (lawmakers) in Boston, the capital of the Massachusetts colony, immediately protested and called for Williams's removal. Yet the Salem congregation ignored the order, having already been well schooled by Williams on the rights of self-government. By this time Williams had been advocating the complete separation of church and state. He argued that religion was corrupted by any government interference in spiritual affairs. In his view, magistrates should have no power to use laws to enforce church doctrine (system of belief). Williams went even further by challenging the legal basis of the colony itself. He claimed that the English king, Charles I, had had no right to grant a charter (legal agreement) for the founding of Salem in 1629 because the land belonged to the Native Americans.

Massachusetts governor Winthrop and the colonial magistrates argued unsuccessfully with Williams until July 1635. At that time Williams was called before a council of judges at the general court in Boston to answer charges of holding "dangerous opinions." Specifically, officials were outraged by his statement that magistrates should not punish violation of church doctrines except in "such cases as did disturb the civil peace." This position severely undermined the authority of lawmakers, who presided over both the government and the church. The judges also required Williams to account for his equally threatening statement that "an unregenerated man" should not hold public office. According to Williams, anyone who had not achieved personal salvation—that is, gained forgiveness of sins directly from God and not through a clergyman—was not a "true" Christian. Therefore, Williams was implying that many current government officials were not true Christians.

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Banned from Massachusetts

Williams refused to reject any of his "dangerous opinions." At first the Salem congregation supported him against the Boston council. Gradually, however, Williams's followers feared being banished from (sent away and forbidden to return) the colony or ostracized (treated as outsiders) within the Salem community. On October 9, after four months of resisting pressure from the judges to change his views, Williams was banished from Massachusetts. The judges initially decreed that he must leave within six weeks, but they later relented and let him remain in Salem until spring. In the meantime, Williams was not allowed to "go about to draw others to his opinions." The council even offered to withdraw the sentence of banishment if Williams agreed to cease spreading his disruptive views. To the contrary, he ignored the council's verdict altogether and proceeded to hold meetings in his home.

In January 1636 the council called Williams back to Boston. When he refused to go the judges sent a boat to Salem, giving the captain orders to place Williams under arrest and put him on a ship to England. In the meantime, Winthrop had warned Williams about the council's plans. Winthrop advised him to flee south into Native American territory, which was outside English jurisdiction. Accompanied by four or five companions, Williams left his family behind and departed Salem in the middle of winter. He later wrote that he and the other men trekked the wilderness in bitter weather for fourteen weeks, "not knowing what bread or bed did mean." Williams and his party finally reached the region ruled by Massasoit (see entry), chief of the Wampanoag tribe, who gave them food and shelter. Williams and Massasoit reportedly became close friends, and Massasoit probably influenced Williams's understanding of Native American culture and his advocacy of their land rights. The Wampanoags sold Williams a tract of land on the Seekonk River near the Plymouth colony, where he had once lived. In April he began making preparations for a settlement. Then William Bradford (see entry), governor of Plymouth and a friend of Williams, pointed out that Williams had claimed some land that already belonged to the Plymouth colony.

Founds colony on religious freedom

The following month Williams and his friends crossed the river and started a settlement called Providence. They were later joined by Williams's wife and two children. Williams was sure to evenly distribute land to insure economic equality and institute a "democratical" government, under which "all men may walk as their consciences persuade them." Any additional land for the settlement was to be purchased from Native Americans. In 1638 the Native Americans granted the Providence settlers more land alongside Plymouth.

As soon as Williams founded the Providence colony it became a refuge for dissenters (protesters) from Massachusetts and England. Some were seeking the right to worship in their own churches, while others were drawn to a more unconventional view of Christianity. Among them was Anne Hutchinson (see entry), who was banished from Massachusetts in March 1638. She joined her husband on Aquidneck Island, which had been bought by Puritan exiles, on Narragansett Bay near Williams's settlement. Hutchinson was followed by more than eighty families of her supporters who had also been excommunicated (expelled) from the Puritan church. One of the most prominent was Mary Dyer (see entry), a Quaker dissenter who was executed for heresy (holding beliefs that violate church doctrine) in Boston two decades later. ("Quaker" is a commonly used term for the Religious Society of Friends, who believe an individual is endowed with an "inner light" that makes possible direct communication with the Holy Spirit. Quakers do not ordain clergymen or observe formal worship services.)

Starts first Baptist church

In 1639 Williams organized the first Baptist church in North America. He had long been intrigued by the views of the Anabaptists (a name later shortened to Baptists), a Christian group who believed that infants should not be baptized (a ceremony that involves being inducted into the Christian faith through immersion in water). According to Anabaptists, baptism should be administered only to adults who have accepted church doctrines. In keeping with these views, Williams became a Baptist and his friends baptized each other. Later Williams condemned adult baptism because it was not administered by an apostle (a founder of the faith) as the Scriptures specified. Then he began to have doubts about whether other members of the church had actually achieved salvation, finally reaching the conclusion that he could take communion only with his wife. (Communion is a rite involving the consumption of bread and wine, which represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity.) These same doubts eventually drove Williams to the opposite extreme, and he administered baptism and communion to anyone, since no human can be certain who has gained salvation. Finally Williams left the ministry entirely, contending that the Scriptures do not mention an organized church or official clergy. Although he remained a Christian, he considered himself a "Seeker" (one who rejects formal church doctrine without leaving the Christian faith).

Charters Rhode Island

By 1643 Williams's colony had grown to four settlements—Providence, Portsmouth, Warwick, and Newport—on Narragansett Bay. In 1644 Williams made a trip to England and secured a charter for a self-governing colony called Rhode Island, a name he chose because Aquidneck Island reminded him of the Greek island of Rhodes. After challenges to the legality of the charter in 1651, Williams served as president from 1654 to 1657 in order to guarantee the continuance of political and religious freedoms. During the first year of his presidency Jews settled in Newport, then Quakers followed in large numbers. Williams's own tolerance was eventually tested by the Quakers because they seemed to ignore the Bible and Christ in favor of the "inner light" possessed by all Christians. When George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, visited Newport in 1672, Williams was determined to confront him in a debate. Now over seventy years old, Williams dragged his frail body into a boat and rowed alone the thirty miles to meet Fox. The Quaker leader had already departed, so Williams engaged Fox's associates in a battle of published words.

Sees Native American decline

In 1675 Williams's longstanding friendship with the Native Americans was also severely tested. That same year Massasoit's son and successor, Metacom (see entry), initiated a conflict popularly known as King Philip's War (Metacom was called King Philip by the English). Metacom was seeking revenge for the execution of three Wampanoag warriors by Plymouth colonists, who had charged them with murdering an Englishman. Williams was unable to stop the war and, at the age of seventy-three, he was pressed into service as a captain of militia (colonists' army). After eighteen months the Wampanoags were completely defeated, with casualties totaling three thousand—five times the number of colonist deaths. Thus began the breakdown of trust between colonists and Native Americans that Williams had cultivated for nearly four decades.

Williams died in 1683 at the age of eighty-one. During his lifetime he had been a prolific writer. One of his earliest publications was Key into the Language of America (1643), a book on the Narragansett language. He is best known today for The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644), in which he stated his religious and political views. Williams was reportedly a charming and honorable man who was admired by everyone who knew him, including Puritans who did not agree with his free-thinking views.

For further research

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

Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition. New York: Atheneum, 1962.

Roger Williams National Memorial.http://www.nps.gov/rowi/ Available July 13, 1999.

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

Williams, Roger

views updated May 11 2018


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)

Roger Williams

views updated May 17 2018

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. □

Williams, Roger

views updated May 14 2018


American theologian and founder of the Rhode Island colony, whose writings opposed the union of church and state and argued for religious tolerance; b. London, England, c. 1603; d. Providence, R.I., c. March 1683. He was the son of a well-to-do merchant tailor of London. As the protégé of Sir Edward Coke, Williams was admitted to the Charterhouse School (1621) and entered Pembroke Hall, Cambridge (1623), on a scholarship from the Charterhouse. He received his A.B. degree in 1627, signing an acknowledgement of his belief in the thirtynine articles and the book of common prayer. He continued to study at Pembroke until 1629, when he was ordained and settled as chaplain in the household of Sir William Masham, a leader of the puritans. In 1630 Williams and his bride left England for Massachusetts. On his arrival, he refused a call to the Boston church "as he durst not officiate to an unseparated people" and, after a brief stay at Salem, was accepted as assistant pastor by the separatists at Plymouth. Difference of opinion between Williams and his congregation ended this pastorate in 1633, when he accepted a call to Salem.

During this period he was a center of controversy because of his views on separation from the Church of England, his insistence that civil magistrates could not enforce divine worship because such laws offered a false motive for religion, and his argument that only purchase from the native peoples, and not royal grants, could give valid title to colonial lands. Underlying these specific points was his rejection of New England's claim to be a new Israel and his determined effort to make the New England churches communities of the regenerate. A lengthy series of discussions in the summer of 1635 between Williams and the Massachusetts authorities clarified his own position and led directly to his banishment from the colony on Jan. 11, 1636. He fled to the Narragansett country beyond the boundaries of the Massachusetts patent, where he purchased land from the native peoples and, with a group of his followers, formed the colony of Providence Plantations (1636). Williams was a theologian rather than a political theorist. His simplistic frame of government and land tenure provided grounds for lengthy controversies in early Rhode Island history and allowed less scrupulous followers to profit at his expense. His insistence that no settler be troubled for his conscience, however, made the colony a haven for victims of Massachusetts intolerance. In 1638 the loose fellowship envisioned in the original compact was more formally organized as a township; lands were divided among a company of proprietors; and Williams renounced both property and political power. At first he had served as the spiritual leader of the group; with the coming of the baptists (1639) he attended their services for a time without formally joining them, but then he cast off all church fellowship. In this step he was perfectly consistent. Throughout his life Williams was an orthodox Calvinist, teaching the same doctrines as his opponents and firmly holding to the absolute authority of the Bible. His difficulty was to find "a true Christian church, whose matter must not only be living stones, but also separated from the rubbish of Antichristian confusions and desolations." Both his appeals for religious tolerance and disestablishment and his bitter invective against the Quakers stemmed from the same source (see friends, religious society of). He believed "that some come nearer to the first primitive churches and the institutions and appointments of Christ Jesus than others" but "among so many pretenders to be the true Christian army" he was "in doubt unto which to associate himself."

His most important writings, composed on a visit to London in 1643 to secure confirmation of the Rhode Island claims, include A Key into the Language of America (1643), a native-language word book with theological overtones, and Queries of Highest Consideration (1644), on the separation of church and state and general tolerance. He elaborated on these ideas in Mr. Cotton's Letter, Lately Printed, Examined and Answered, where he rejected New England's application of the covenant theology, and in The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience (1644) where he resumed his argument with Cotton and showed that the idea that men could be forced by law to accept Christ was in opposition to Christian teaching. Returning in 1644 with his charter, Williams found bitter opposition to his "pretended authority" in Rhode Island. The creation of a General Assembly in 1647 did little to halt the spread of disaffection. In 1651 he took his problems to Parliament, availing himself of the opportunity to publish a spirited plea for disestablishment and the abolition of tithes in England in The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's (1652). In The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1651) he answered Cotton's reply to his earlier pamphlet point by point. Cromwell's influence restored Williams's authority in Rhode Island, although opposition was by no means crushed. His policies made the colony a Quaker refuge after 1657 and Quakers became numerous enough to control the assembly in 1672. In that year, he engaged in public disputation with several Quaker preachers on doctrinal issues, publishing an account of the debate in George Fox Digg'd Out of his Burrows (1676). The Complete Writings of Roger Williams was issued in seven volumes at New York in 1963.

Bibliography: j. e. ernst, Roger Williams (New York 1932). p. miller, Roger Williams (New York 1953). o. e. winslow, Master Roger Williams (New York 1957). m. calamandrei, "Neglected Aspects of Roger Williams' Thought," Church History 21 (1952) 239258.

[r. k. macmaster]

Williams, Roger (1603-1683)

views updated May 21 2018

Roger Williams (1603-1683)

Conscientious separatist


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.


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).

Williams, Roger

views updated May 14 2018

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

Williams, Roger

views updated May 23 2018

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.

Williams, Roger

views updated May 17 2018

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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Roger Williams

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