Roger Williams statue by Franklin Simmons
Roger Williams was a Puritan minister, English Reformed theologian, and Reformed Baptist who founded the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. He was a staunch advocate for religious freedom, separation of church and state, and fair dealings with American Indians, and he was one of the first abolitionists.
Williams was expelled by the Puritan leaders from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “new and dangerous ideas”, and he began settling the Providence Plantations as a refuge offering what he called “liberty of conscience” in 1636. In 1638, he founded the First Baptist Church in America, also known as the First Baptist Church of Providence. He was a student of Native American languages, and he organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in any of the British American colonies.
Roger Williams was born in London (…) He had a spiritual conversion at an early age, of which his father disapproved.
He married Mary Barnard (1609–76) on 15 December 1629 at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. They ultimately had six children, all born in America: Mary, Freeborn, Providence, Mercy, Daniel, and Joseph.
Williams knew that Puritan leaders planned to migrate to the New World. He did not join the first wave, but he decided before the year ended that he could not remain in England under Archbishop William Laud’s rigorous administration. He regarded the Church of England as corrupt and false, and he had arrived at the Separatist position by the time that he and his wife boarded the Lyon in early December, 1630.
Life in America
The Boston church offered Williams a post in 1631 filling in for Rev. John Wilson while Wilson returned to England to fetch his wife. However, Williams declined the position on grounds that it was “an unseparated church”. In addition, he asserted that civil magistrates must not punish any sort of “breach of the first table” of the Ten Commandments such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy, and that individuals should be free to follow their own convictions in religious matters. These three principles became central to his teachings and writings: separatism, liberty of conscience, and separation of church and state.
As a Separatist, Williams considered the Church of England irredeemably corrupt and believed that one must completely separate from it to establish a new church for the true and pure worship of God. The Salem church was also inclined to Separatism, and they invited him to become their teacher. The leaders in Boston vigorously protested, and Salem withdrew its offer. (…)
Settlement at Providence
Williams wanted his settlement to be a haven for those “distressed of conscience”, and it soon attracted a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals. From the beginning, a majority vote of the heads of households governed the new settlement, but only in civil things. (…) Thus, Williams founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate, providing religious liberty and separation of church and state. This was combined with the principle of majoritarian democracy.
Return to England and charter matters
His first published book A Key into the Language of America (1643) proved crucial to the success of his charter, albeit indirectly. It combined a phrase-book with observations about life and culture as an aid to communicate with the Indians of New England, covering everything from salutations to death and burial. Williams also sought to correct English attitudes of superiority toward the American Indians:
Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood;
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All,
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.
Key was the first dictionary of any Indian language, and it fed the great curiosity of English people about the American Indians.
(…) Freedom of conscience was again proclaimed, and the colony became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs, including Baptists, Quakers, and Jews. Still, the divisions between the towns and powerful personalities did not bode well for the colony. (…)
In 1641, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first laws to make slavery legal in the colonies, and these laws were applied in Plymouth and Connecticut with the creation of the United Colonies in 1643. Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton both opposed slavery, and Providence Plantations (Providence and Warwick) passed a law on 18 May 1652 intended to prevent slavery in the colony during the time when Coddington’s followers had separated from Providence. (…)
(…) Instead, Newport entered the African slave trade in 1700, after Williams’ death, and became the leading port for American ships carrying slaves in the colonial American triangular trade until the American Revolutionary War.
Relations with the Baptists
John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton were co-founders of the General Baptist movement in England and had written extensively about liberty of conscience. Williams had commented on them in his Bloudy Tenent. Smyth, Helwys, and Murton were General Baptists, but a Calvinistic Baptist variety grew out of some Separatists after 1640. Williams became a Calvinist or Particular Baptist.
Ezekiel Holliman baptised Williams in late 1638. Thus began a church that still survives as the First Baptist Church in America. A few years later, John Clarke, Williams’ compatriot in the cause of religious freedom in the New World, established the First Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, which suddenly claimed to be the first Baptist church in America in 1847. If nothing else, Roger Williams had gathered and resigned from the Providence church before the town of Newport was even founded. Still, both Roger Williams and John Clarke are variously credited as being the founder of the Baptist faith in America.
Separation of church and state
Williams was a staunch advocate of separation of church and state. He was convinced that there was no scriptural basis for a state church, (…) He declared that the state should concern itself only with matters of civil order, not with religious belief, and he rejected any attempt to enforce the “first Table” of the Ten Commandments, those commandments that dealt with the relationship between God and individuals. Instead, Williams believed that the state must confine itself to the commandments dealing with the relations between people: murder, theft, adultery, lying, and honoring parents. He employed the metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state, which was later used by Thomas Jefferson in his Letter to Danbury Baptists (1801).
Williams considered it “forced worship” if the state attempted to promote any particular religious idea or practice, and he declared, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” He considered Constantine the Great to be a worse enemy to Christianity than Nero because the subsequent state support corrupted Christianity and led to the death of the Christian church. He described the attempt to compel belief as “rape of the soul” and spoke of the “oceans of blood” shed as a result of trying to command conformity. The moral principles in the Scriptures ought to inform the civil magistrates, he believed, but he observed that well-ordered, just, and civil governments existed even where Christianity was not present. Thus, all governments had to maintain civil order and justice, but Williams decided that none had a warrant to promote or repress any religion. Most of his contemporaries criticized his ideas as a prescription for chaos and anarchy, and the vast majority believed that each nation must have its national church and could require that dissenters conform.
Williams’ legacy has grown over time with changing values. His defense of Native Americans, accusations that Puritans had reproduced the “evils” of the Anglican Church, and denial that the king had authority to grant charters for colonies put him at the center of nearly every political debate during his life. By the time of American independence, however, he was considered a defender of religious freedom and has continued to be praised by generations of historians who have often altered their interpretation of his period as a whole.
The statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University