Williams, Roger 
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Time Period
1603  - 1683
A strident advocate for the separation of church and state, Roger Williams was a former Puritan minister who would go on to found Rhode Island as part of his quest to provide a haven for religious liberty. Born and educated in England, Williams came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 to escape the Church of England. But he soon became disillusioned with a similar mingling of religion and government in his new homeland. His insistence that settlers should buy rather than just take the land from the Indians further eroded his popularity among Massachusetts authorities, who threatened to deport him. In 1636, Williams established Providence as a refuge for dissidents -- after purchasing the land from the Narragansett Indians. More than a century later, his ideals were thought to have inspired Thomas Jefferson’s phrase about erecting a "wall of separation between church and state."
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Roger Williams (1603-1683) was born in London, England, and earned a degree from Cambridge University with the support of his patron, noted jurist Sir Edward Coke, and with the help of a scholarship rewarding Williams' excellence in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. While at Cambridge, Williams became a Puritan and a critic of Church of England Archbishop William Laud's persecution of dissidents. After graduation, Williams briefly served as a chaplain to a Puritan gentleman before leaving for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 to escape the Church of England, which he believed corrupted beyond redemption.

In Massachusetts, however, Williams became dissatisfied with the colonies' lack of separation from the Church of England, in particular its mingling of civil and ecclesiastical authority. He believed it wrongheaded to use the civil government to enforce religious conformity because, as he would put it later in life, "Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils." So Williams turned down the offer of a pastorate in Boston and preached for a time in more separatist-friendly Plymouth and elsewhere (Danvers). The authorities in Massachusetts grew even more anxious when Williams disputed the right of the colonists to seize Indian land without just compensation; Massachusetts banished Williams in the winter of 1635-36 and threatened to deport him back to England, but Williams escaped to Rhode Island before they could do so, wintering with the Narragansett tribe.

In 1636, Williams founded Providence as a refuge for dissidents from Massachusetts, protecting religious liberty by law. Among the influx of refugees -- which included Anne Hutchinson -- were many Baptists who disagreed with the Puritan doctrine of infant baptism and alliance of church and state. Williams joined the Baptists in 1639, helping to found the first Baptist church in America in Providence, although he left the official church shortly thereafter while remaining an advocate of believer's baptism for the rest of his life.

During the Pequot War (1634-1638), the Massachusetts Bay Colony was forced to ask for Williams' help because of his close relationship with the Narragansett. The ad hoc alliance boosted Narragansett power in the region, alarming the Massachusetts authorities, who, led by John Cotton and John Winthrop, formed an alliance in 1643 to attempt to isolate the Williams-Narragansett power bloc.

In response, Williams traveled to London successfully to request a charter from Parliament for "Providence Plantations." While there, he published two of his most important works with the help of John Milton (whom he also tutored in Hebrew), the first of which, "A Key into the Language of America" (1643), reiterated Williams' belief in the essential equality of the Indian peoples and defended their land rights. In "The Bloody Tenent of Persecution" (1644), Williams accused John Cotton of religious tyranny, beginning a nearly decade long public feud with the Massachusetts minister.

In 1652, with the support of Williams, Providence passed an anti-slavery law, but the law quickly became dead letter because of opposition to the law's enforcement from the other Rhode Island settlements, especially Newport, which would become the largest slave-trading hub in 18th century North America. Williams also served as governor of Rhode Island from 1654-58; during his term, Williams attempted to find a middle ground for governance between the strict control of the Massachusetts colony and the incipient anarchism that he detected in Rhode Island. In the latter part of his life, Williams drew back from politics, but he continued as an advocate for a traditional, yet still dissident, Christianity. He was not a "Seeker" -- the 17th century term for those who denied the deity of Christ and believed in universal salvation -- although his critics so labeled him in an attempt to marginalize his influence. In 1672, Williams engaged several Quakers in a raucous, widely followed four-day debate, publishing a follow up apologetic in 1676 titled "George Fox Digg'd out of his Burrowes."

Roger Williams's advocacy for religious liberty inspired later generations of pastors and intellectuals, especially those like Isaac Backus and John Leland who pushed for religious disestablishment. Political theorist John Locke was likely familiar with Williams' work, indirectly transmitting Williams' ideas to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson copied Williams' language when writing of a "wall of separation" between church and state, an echo of Williams' wall between the "Garden of Christ" and the "Wilderness of the World."
Religious Groups
Baptist Family: Other ARDA Links

Roger Williams Founds Providence, Rhode Island
Rhode Island Royal Charter

Roger Williams statue- Internet Archive- from Roger Williams by May Emery Hall

The Landing of Roger Williams in Rhode Island- US History Images

Roger Williams portrait- Internet Archive- from The Romantic Story of the Puritan Fathers by Albert C. Addison

Roger Williams Going into Exile- US History Images

Roger Williams with the Indians- US History Images
Additional Resources
Book/Journal Source(s)
Larson, Timothy and David Bebbington and Mark Noll, 2003. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.
Web Page Contributor
Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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