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Williams, Roger


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]

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