As a young man in England, Roger Williams was a protégé of the famed Sir Edward Coke and appeared to have a promising future in the law. Instead he attended Cambridge and took Anglican orders following graduation Soon, however, he became attracted to Puritanism.
Williams’ Nonconformist leanings lured him across the Atlantic to Plymouth in 1631. He was an extremely bright and enthusiastic individual, and rarely avoided an opportunity to argue his convictions. His views on religion and government quickly embroiled him in disputes with the Massachusetts authorities in Salem and Boston. He upset the elders by denouncing the Massachusetts Bay charter, which allowed the confiscation of Native American lands without compensation and the punishment of purely religious transgressions by the civil officials. Both of those practices offended Williams’ sensibilities.
In 1635, he was expelled from the church and placed under an order of expulsion from the colony. He was granted time to tidy up his affairs, but continued his agitation. Exasperated officials decided to send him back to England, but Williams departed from Massachusetts on his own accord and spent three months living with local Indians. In 1636, he and a number of followers established the settlement of Providence on Narragansett Bay, a colony notable for the fact that the Indians were paid for the title to their lands. Williams founded the first Baptist Church in America, but soon withdrew and thereafter referred to himself as a "seeker," meaning basically a nondenominational Christian in search of spiritual truth.
One of Williams’ beliefs had caused particular grief among the authorities. He argued that an individual Christian would know when he was saved, but could not know about the salvation of others. Therefore, it was senseless to require a religious qualification for voting. In essence, Williams was calling for the complete separation of church and state, a position that undercut the authority of the church and civic leaders.
Williams obtained a royal charter for Rhode Island in 1644, an action that demonstrated a practical side to his character. He continued to believe that the king did not hold title to Indian lands, but realized that his colony would be more secure from English opponents if he held a charter.
Under Williams' influence, Rhode Island became a haven for those who suffered from religious persecution, including Jews and Quakers.
The Puritan leaders of Massachusetts were adamantly opposed to Williams’ views, but were perceptive enough to recognize that the Rhode Island colony provided an important service. Dissidents like Williams and Anne Hutchinson could be quietly dealt with through exile. If, however, they were imprisoned, executed or sent back to England, questions would be raised about the conduct of affairs in the Bay Colony. The last thing the Puritan fathers wanted was increased attention from the officials in London.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Roger Williams.
Regarding Separation of Church and State
Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.
- - - Books You May Like Include: ----
A History of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island Keepers of the Bay by Robert A. Geake.
Before Roger Williams set foot in the New World, the Narragansett farmed corn and squash, hunted beaver and deer and harvested clams and oysters throu...
American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante.
Anne Hutchinson, a forty-six- year-old midwife who was pregnant with her sixteenth child, stood before forty male judges of the Massachusetts General ...
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.
In The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell travels once again through America's past, this time to seventeenth-century New England. From the British Library...
The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State by Isaac Kramnick.
The Godless Constitution is a ringing rebuke to the religious right's attempts, fueled by misguided and inaccurate interpretations of American history...
Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.
A revelatory look at how Roger Williams shaped the nature of religion, political power, and individual rights in America. For four hundred years, Ame...
Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America by Edwin S. Gaustad.
Gaustad skillfully tells the story of Roger Williams: founder of Rhode Island, a defender of religious liberty, and a man of deep religious and politi...
John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father by Francis J. Bremer.
John Winthrop's effort to create a Puritan "City on a Hill" has had a lasting effect on American values, and many remember this phrase famously quoted...