Roger Williams

Roger Williams

(c. 1603-1683)

Roger Williams was one of the few seekers of religious freedom who was willing to grant that same liberty to people who had beliefs other than his. Williams was born in London, the son of a merchant tailor. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge College in 1 627 and took holy orders as an Anglican minister in 1629.

In the same year, he married Mary Barnard. Soon, Williams left the church and joined the ranks of the Separatists and Puritans—dissidents who came to believe the Anglican church was corrupt and retained too many Catholic practices.

In 1630, Williams and his wife decided to migrate to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where other Puritans had gone seeking religious freedom. After rejecting a minister’s position in Boston, Williams settled in Plymouth—founded by the Separatists—where his views were more accepted.

He established close ties with the Indians in the area, and soon came to believe that—since they preceded the colonists in the New World—England was unjustly giving away charters to English settlers to land it did not own. In addition, Williams’ political views held that in order to insure the purity of the church, affairs of the church and state must be totally separate, and that the state must tolerate a variety of religious sects.

Williams’ views—both concerning the Indians and the separation of church and state—greatly disturbed the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leaders. His beliefs undermined the basic principles upon which the colony had been founded. The leaders tried to get him to change his views, or to keep them to himself. When he refused, they finally banished him from the colony in 1635.

Cast out, Williams wandered through southeastern Massachusetts. He was welcomed by Chief Massasoit (see no. 33) who gave him shelter during the winter of 1635-1636. In April 1636, Williams purchased land from Indians and started the tiny town of Providence. Living right in the midst of Wampanoag and Narragansett territory, Williams found it essential to be on good terms with the natives. He learned their language and cultivated friendly relations with the Indian leaders.

Williams wanted to establish a colony in which the people would be free to worship according to their own views. In 1643, he went to England and petitioned King Charles I for a charter. Williams’s efforts were rewarded in 1 644 with a new charter for the Providence territory, which eventually became Rhode Island.

In later years, Williams continued to advocate religious liberty and democracy, notably in books he wrote such as, The Bloody Tenet Yet More Bloody (1652). He served as Rhode Island’s governor from 1654-1657, and remained active in the colony’s affairs until his death.