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Williams, Rogerlocked

  • Glenn W. LaFantasie

Roger Williams.

From a charcoal drawing by H. Halit.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-94043).

Williams, Roger (1603?–1683), clergyman and founder of Rhode Island, was born in London, England, the son of James Williams, a merchant, and Alice Pemberton. His precise birth date is unknown, and his own references to his age throughout his lifetime are contradictory. During his teens, Williams experienced a spiritual awakening that moved him to join the ranks of Puritan dissenters who were voicing opposition to the ecclesiastical policies of the Church of England and King James I; his religious fervor, however, caused a falling out with his father, a stalwart supporter of the Anglican church.

Outside his family, he received attention and approval from one of England’s most prominent jurists, Sir Edward Coke, who employed Williams by having him sit in the Star Chamber and take down sermons and speeches in shorthand. Recognizing Williams’s capabilities, Coke obtained a scholarship for him and placed him in the Charterhouse school in 1621. Two years later Williams was admitted to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, although his formal matriculation did not occur until after he had spent nearly a full year at the school. He received a bachelor of arts degree in January 1627, and he stayed at the college for about eighteen months longer, studying toward a master’s degree. For reasons that are not known, he abruptly left the school without obtaining a graduate diploma sometime between December 1628 and February 1629.

In the winter of 1629 he accepted employment as family chaplain in the household of Sir William Masham in the parish of High Laver, Essex. Living at Masham’s manor, Williams gained the acquaintance of influential members of several Puritan gentry families, including the Barringtons, Whalleys, Cromwells, and Winthrops. His radical religious views, however, were already setting him apart from the beliefs of many other Puritans. On his way to an important Puritan meeting in Sempringham in the summer of 1629, Williams rode in the company of two noteworthy ministers, Thomas Hooker and John Cotton, and boldly informed them of their error in using the Book of Common Prayer. Williams probably had not fully embraced the views of separatism, but he was on his way toward rejecting the elements of religious conformity that were to be found in both the Anglican church and among the church’s dissenting Puritan congregations.

Although his living at the Masham estate was secure, Williams worried about the future and sought to chart a course that would satisfy his own ambitions. Sometime prior to the spring of 1629, he had thought about emigrating to New England; according to his own testimony, he had received a “call” to accompany other Puritan emigrés there, but he had turned it down. For a while, he saw his future in Essex, where he wooed Jane Whalley, the niece of the formidable Puritan matron Lady Joan Barrington. Lady Joan put an end to Williams’s fantasy of marrying above his station, so he turned his attention to another young lady, Mary Barnard, a maid in the Masham household and a daughter of a Nottinghamshire minister. The courtship did not last long. Williams and Mary Barnard were married at the small stone church at High Laver on 15 December 1629. During their long life together, they brought six children into the world, all of whom survived into adulthood. Despite numerous occasions of hardship and privation, they overcame their adversities and enjoyed a very close and loving relationship.

A year after they were married, the young couple took ship from Bristol en route to New England. It is not certain why Roger and Mary Williams decided to quit the Old World and take their chances in the new, although Williams in later life claimed that William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury and fierce persecutor of Puritans, “pursued me out of this Land.” It is unlikely, however, that Laud was waging a personal campaign against Williams, who was a relative unknown among the Puritan clergy; probably Williams regarded Laud’s generally harsh policies toward Puritans as threatening enough. Williams also said many years after his emigration that he had longed to deliver the gift of Christianity to the Indians, but his career as a missionary never panned out because he personally lacked Christ’s commission or any apostolic authority to perform conversions among heathens.

Williams and his wife arrived in Massachusetts Bay aboard the ship Lyon on 5 February 1631. John Winthrop (1588–1649), governor of Massachusetts Bay, praised Williams as “a godly minister,” but Williams’s godliness would soon become a severe test of strength and endurance to Winthrop and the other leaders of Massachusetts Bay. In Boston Williams was offered the position of teacher in the church, but he declined it, saying that he dared not “officiate to an unseparated people,” by which he meant that the Boston Puritans were not as religiously pure as they might like to think, for they had failed to separate themselves fully from the Church of England.

Over the next five years, Williams’s separatism would be a painful thorn in the side of the bay colonists. Even after Williams moved from Boston to Salem, and from Salem to Plymouth, and from Plymouth back to Salem, each relocation designed to avert confrontation with the authorities in Boston, he nevertheless found himself repeatedly at the center of controversy. As pastor of the Salem church, a position he officially occupied after the regular pastor died in the summer of 1634, Williams preached defiantly against the validity of royal land patents, oaths of submission to the colony, and the right of magistrates to punish breaches of God’s first four commandments. After several unsuccessful attempts to silence him, the General Court finally lost all patience with him. In October 1635 the court voted to banish him from the colony. Williams fell ill, however, so the court delayed the enforcement of the sentence until the following January, when the magistrates dispatched a sheriff to arrest him and forcibly place him on board a ship bound for England. The court’s plan failed, however, when Williams was warned of his arrest by Winthrop, who suggested that he flee to the Indian country near Narragansett Bay. He took Winthrop’s advice, escaped from Salem during a raging blizzard, and followed the Indian trails to the village of Massasoit, a sachem of the Pokanoket Indians. There he spent the winter.

By banishing him from the colony, the General Court defined the course of the remainder of Williams’s life. Actually Williams suffered gladly as a persecuted witness of Christ, for he believed that faith was truly forged by such suffering, but he also bitterly resented the harshness of the sentence that had been imposed on him. For the rest of his life, Williams bore the scar of the banishment like a soldier’s wound, his own peculiar badge of courage. In his writings he never let his readers forget the misery he and his family had endured as a result of the banishment. Neither did he let his persecutors forget their despicable act of unkindness toward him.

As winter turned to spring in the year 1636, Williams was joined by several followers from Massachusetts and by his own family. On a parcel of land along the eastern shore of the Seekonk River, Williams and the others set about planting and erecting shelters. In short order, however, word arrived from Plymouth Colony warning the settlers that they were within the jurisdiction of the colony and must vacate the land immediately. Acquiring a gift of land from the Narragansett Indian sachems Canonicus and Miantonomo, Williams and his small party of friends crossed to the western bank of the Seekonk and established permanent homes at the headwaters of Narragansett Bay, a place Williams named Providence in recognition of “God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress.”

Reluctantly, Williams became a political leader of the fledgling community, struggling with the uncertainties of how best to organize the settlement into a functioning government. Before much could be accomplished, however, war broke out between the Puritan colonists and the Pequot Indians of Connecticut. Williams provided invaluable assistance to the military campaign against the Pequots by persuading the Narragansett Indians not to ally with their Connecticut brethren and by supplying the Massachusetts leaders with the authoritative intelligence of enemy plans and movements.

His relationship with the Narragansetts was built on an understanding of the important role that reciprocity plays in Indian culture. Williams became a true friend to the Narragansetts for two other reasons as well: he recognized that the survival of the English colonies required a policy of peaceful coexistence, and he firmly believed that the Indians should not be treated as savages but as members of the brotherhood of man. “Nature knows no difference,” he wrote, “between European and American [Indian] in blood, birth, bodies, etc.” His close ties with the Narragansetts, however, became another sore point in his dealings with Massachusetts. John Winthrop thought that Williams was naive about Indian treachery and that he preferred to accept the word of an Indian over that of a fellow Englishman. Sometimes Williams was the unwary victim of Indian deceit, but mostly he was a keen observer who could readily discern truth from falsehood.

There were other factors besides Williams’s friendship with the Indians that kept Massachusetts at odds with him. Providence became a haven for other dissidents who sought to live beyond the jurisdictional reach of the Puritan colonies. Williams’s own brand of religious thinking, especially his belief in the utter necessity of religious freedom (or “soul liberty,” as he called it) and separation of church and state, became the hallmark of the Providence settlement. During the first few years of the community, the inhabitants decided that “no man should be molested for his conscience.” Williams took personal advantage of this broad liberty. In 1639, having grown disenchanted with separatism, he embraced the Baptist faith long enough to help found the first Baptist church in America. Four months later he abandoned the Baptist congregation in Providence and left organized religion behind. For the rest of his life, he would pray with his wife, but in his heart he was a congregation of one.

By 1643 four different communities had been established around Narragansett Bay, all sharing similar origins as havens for the religiously oppressed and the politically unwanted. Their Puritan neighbors, watching the growth of the settlements from afar, realized that these heretical denizens built their homes on some of the richest land in southern New England. As a result, the Massachusetts authorities laid claim to the territory around Narragansett Bay in an effort to create a contiguous jurisdiction of Puritan colonies from Boston to Hartford. Perceiving the threat, the Narragansett Bay towns quickly dispatched Roger Williams to England to defend the sovereignty of the four disunited settlements. He did better than that. With the assistance of Sir Henry Vane the Younger and other prominent Roundheads, Williams obtained from Parliament a patent, dated 14 March 1644, that united the four settlements into the colony of Providence Plantations. Implicit in the patent was an endorsement of Williams’s concept of soul liberty.

In England, Williams visited family and renewed old friendships with prominent Puritans. He spent a good deal of his time writing and seeing through press a number of publications, including his two most famous works; A Key into the Language of America (1643), a dictionary of the Narragansett Indian language and a commentary on the culture and customs of the southern New England Indians, and The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), a sweeping condemnation of Massachusetts’s intolerance and a manifesto defending the right of each individual to decide, according to his own conscience, how best to worship God without interference from any civil authority. With another, a smaller publication, Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered (1644), Williams initiated a protracted debate in print with prominent Massachusetts clergyman John Cotton over the issues that had led to his banishment; he did so, however, in the context of the much wider religious debate transpiring in England over the question of individual sanctification.

With patent in hand, Williams returned to Providence in September 1644, hoping that fierce political rivalries and petty jealousies among the settlers of Narragansett Bay could be put aside so that the towns could organize a colony government. A central government was established, and Williams served for more than three years as chief officer of the colony, but the internal dissension within and among the four towns did not abate. Soon William Coddington, a leader of a political faction on Aquidneck Island, received a parliamentary commission making him governor of the colony for life. In 1651 Williams sailed for England, accompanied by John Clarke (1609–1676), to challenge the Coddington claim and obtain a confirmation of the 1644 patent.

Williams’s second mission to England was less successful than the first, although he was able to renew his pamphlet war with Cotton by publishing another spate of controversial writings, including The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody (1652), and to pass his time discoursing religion and politics with Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. He saw to it that Coddington’s commission was nullified, but he could not get the affirmation of the patent that he so desperately wanted. In the spring of 1654 he returned to New England, leaving Clarke in London to carry on the colony’s work.

Later that autumn Williams was elected president of Providence Plantations, but the colony was in almost complete disarray, torn asunder by factions and special interests that refused to work together in the name of the commonweal. In a land of his own creation, where individualism was valued above anything else, Williams realized that the duty of each citizen to his neighbors needed to be clarified. He did so in what has become his most famous letter, an epistle written to the town of Providence in January 1655. In the letter, Williams defended his belief that religion and conscience should not be restrained by civil supremacy, but he also recognized that individualism sometimes had to be restricted for the sake of the common good. In it, he compared society to a ship, where the captain’s authority extended only to the actions of the crew and passengers, not to their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, captain, crew, and passengers all had to work together to keep the ship on course. Therefore, if any on board refused to help, “the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits.”

Williams’s letter did not stop the dissension in Providence or the colony as a whole. In fact, during the remainder of the 1650s strife over land and boundaries was added to the political conflict that already existed, in some cases grafting “land lust,” as Williams called it, onto the contending political factions. Leading one particularly land-hungry group in Providence was William Harris, who believed that the boundaries granted to Williams by the Indians should be extended beyond their original limits. Williams refused. The dispute, which was personal as well as political, lasted until Harris’s death in 1681, but the land controversy itself dragged on until 1712.

While not embroiled in the flames of religious and political contention, Williams spent his time raising livestock and trading with the Indians. He set up a trading post near Narragansett Bay and made the business into a prosperous concern; according to his own report, one year he earned £100, considerably more than he could have made as a vicar in England. Often he retreated to the solitude of his post, where he could avoid the din of controversy, cultivate his friendship with the Indians, and write windy letters to friend and foe alike. Although his friendship with John Winthrop foundered prior to the elder statesman’s death in 1649, Williams enjoyed a very close friendship with Winthrop’s eldest son, John Winthrop, Jr.(1606–1676), governor of Connecticut and a man with whom Williams shared many interests, religious and secular.

In 1663 Charles II granted John Clarke a charter for the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations that explicitly extended “soul liberty” as a right to every inhabitant. Despite the liberality of the charter and its provisions that fostered a “lively experiment” in freedom, Rhode Island was mired in the strife that had plagued it from its earliest beginnings. Throughout the 1660s Williams withdrew more and more from the political scene, although he continued to hold minor offices in the colony and town governments. His withdrawal was partly caused by the political ascendancy of the Quakers, who first arrived in the colony during the mid-1650s. Even though he shrank from politics, he did not refrain from speaking his mind. The Quakers troubled him both politically and religiously, especially because he was convinced that they elevated themselves over Scripture and paid no heed to conventional manners and morality. In 1672 he debated the Quakers in Newport and Providence, and later he wrote a long account of his experience, George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes (1676). His encounter with the Quakers was not his most glorious moment. In the debate he came perilously close to abandoning his cherished principle of soul liberty, although to his lasting credit he never tried to enforce any actual limitation on the Quakers’ form of worship or personal behavior.

During the 1670s his dealings with the Narragansett Indians also took a turn for the worse. Canonicus and Miantonomo, the two sachems who had given him the Providence lands, had died in the 1640s, and their descendants—the new generation of Narragansett leaders—felt no special affinity for Williams or any white man. Over the years threats of war, expropriation of lands, and spreading white settlements had taken their toll on the Indian way of life. When King Philip’s War broke out between the Puritan colonists and the Indians of southern New England in June 1675, Williams could not keep the Narragansetts from allying with Metacom (Philip), a Pokanoket sachem, and the other tribes that had taken up arms. Williams suffered another personal and diplomatic defeat in March 1676 when a band of Indians, including some Narragansetts, attacked Providence and burned his house to the ground as he was negotiating with Indian leaders on the outskirts of town. Eventually the blood that flowed in New England left an indelible stain. Williams himself joined a militia company and, after the war ended in the summer of 1676, participated with other Providence men in rounding up and selling Indian captives into slavery.

As one might expect, the last years of his life were not spent in quiet repose. Williams was an outspoken man, and he kept on writing and talking until the very end. Mostly he wrote about spiritual concerns, about matters of faith and soul, but he also became increasingly nostalgic in his later years, remembering the events and the people that had helped shape his life in New England. King Philip’s War had nearly laid waste to Rhode Island, but as his own demise approached Williams remembered mostly the early days, the happy memories of his friendship with Canonicus and Miantonomo. His banishment from Massachusetts remained a bitter memory, an unhealed wound that he revealed time and time again. His neighbors had greatly different opinions of him. He was held in high esteem by some, but many regarded him as a busybody, a man who took himself far too seriously, and—in the words of William Coddington—“a mere weathercock, constant only in unconstancy.” When Williams died between January and March 1683, he was buried with military honors in a grave located somewhere in the boundaries of his house lot in Providence. Eventually no one could quite remember where Rhode Island’s founding father had been laid to rest, and he became a forgotten hero. Not until after the American Revolution did Williams begin to gain a historical reputation as a progenitor of religious liberty.

His faults were many, to be sure. Often he expressed himself with great modesty and pronounced deference, but he was just as frequently bold and rash. He was also argumentative, brutally honest, and charitably fair. The different sides of his personality made people reach startlingly opposite conclusions about him: he was a saint or the devil incarnate. He was, of course, neither of those things. Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine, called him quixotic and dangerous, but he also admitted that Williams had “the root of the matter” in him. Nor was Williams the weathercock that Coddington had claimed, for if anything it was his belief in his role as one of Christ’s witnesses that kept him steady and surprisingly consistent throughout most of his life. Rather, Williams was a bellwether. He led his fellow Rhode Islanders into an uncharted territory where a strict “wall of separation” (the Jeffersonian phrase was Williams’s own) divided church from state, and he showed them how to prosper without the fetters of conformity or coercion.


Few of Williams’s papers survive today; most can be found in Providence at the Rhode Island Historical Society, the Rhode Island State Archives, and Brown University. The largest collection of his extant letters is contained among the Winthrop Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. His surviving papers and polemical works have been published among several different primary works: The Publications of the Narragansett Club (6 vols., 1866–1874), reprinted with an additional volume as The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (7 vols., 1963); John Russell Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England (10 vols., 1856–1865); Horatio Rogers et al., eds., The Early Records of the Town of Providence (21 vols., 1892–1951); Howard M. Chapin, ed., Documentary History of Rhode Island (2 vols., 1916); and Glenn W. LaFantasie, ed., The Correspondence of Roger Williams (2 vols., 1988). More books have been written about Williams than about any other American colonial figure born before Benjamin Franklin. The best modern biography is Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (1991), although two older works, by Samuel Hugh Brockunier, The Irrepressible Democrat: Roger Williams (1940), and Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Master Roger Williams: A Biography (1957), also should be consulted. Williams’s theology and ideology are analyzed by two brilliant scholars of Puritanism in Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition (1953), and Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (1967). A perceptive essay by Sydney V. James captures the essence of the man and his times, “The Worlds of Roger Williams,” Rhode Island History 37 (1978): 99–109.