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Roger Williams (December 21, 1603 – April 18, 1683) was an Englishmarker theologian, a notable proponent of religious toleration and the separation of church and state and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans. In 1644, he received a charter creating the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantationsmarker, named for the principal island in Narragansett Bay and the Providence settlement which provided a refuge for religious minorities. Williams is credited for originating either the first or second Baptist church established in America, which he is known to have left soon afterwards, exclaiming, "God is too large to be housed under one roof."


Early life

Williams was born into the Church of England in Londonmarker, Englandmarker, around 1603. He became a Puritan at age 12, against his father's liking. His father, James Williams (1562–1620), was a merchant in Smithfield, Englandmarker. His mother was Alice Pemberton (1564–1634).

As a teenager Williams apprenticed with Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), the famous jurist, and under Coke's patronage, Williams was educated at Charterhousemarker and also at Pembroke College, Cambridgemarker (B.A., 1627). He seemed to have had a gift for languages, and early acquired familiarity with Latin, Greek, Dutch, and French. He gave John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for lessons in Hebrew.

After graduating from Cambridge, Williams became chaplain to a rich family. He married Mary Barnard (1609–76) on December 15, 1629 at the Church of High Lavermarker, Essex, England. They had six children, all born in America. Their children are Mary, Freeborn, Providence, Mercy, Daniel and Joseph.

Some time before the end of 1630, Williams decided that he could not labor in England under Archbishop William Laud's rigorous (and High church) administration, and adopted a position of dissent. He turned aside offers of preferment in the university and in the Establishment of the Church, and instead resolved to seek in New England the liberty of conscience denied him at home.

Removal to America

In 1630, Roger and Mary Williams set sail for Bostonmarker on the Lyon. Arriving on February 5, 1631, he was almost immediately invited to replace the pastor, who was returning to England. Finding that it was "an unseparated church," Williams decided not to take the job, instead giving voice to the separatist views he had likely formed in England and became a philosophiser. Williams asserted that the magistrate may 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 every individual should be free to follow his own convictions in religious matters.

The first idea—that the magistrate should not punish religious infractions—meant that the civil authority should not be the same as the ecclesiastical authority. The second idea—that people should have freedom of opinion on religious matters—he called "soul-liberty." It is one of the foundations for the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Williams' use of the phrase "wall of separation" in describing his preferred relationship between religion and other matters is credited as the first use of that phrase, and Thomas Jefferson's source in later writing of the wall of separation between church and state in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

The Salemmarker church, which through interaction with the Plymouthmarker colonists had also adopted Separatist sentiments, invited Williams to become its teacher. His settlement was prevented by a remonstrance addressed to Governor Endicott by six of the Boston leaders. The Plymouth colony then received him gladly, where he remained for about two years. According to Governor Bradford, "his teachings were well approved."

Life at Salem, Exile

Toward the close of his ministry at Plymouth, Williams' views began to place him in conflict with other members of the colony. The people of Plymouth quickly became frustrated with his use of sermons to expound his personal opinions, such as those concerning Native Americans, and he left to go back to Salemmarker.

In the summer of 1633, Williams arrived in Salem and became unofficial assistant to Pastor Skelton. In August, 1634 (Skelton having died), he became acting pastor and entered almost immediately into controversies with the Massachusetts authorities that in a few months resulted in his exile by law from Salem after being brought before the Salem Court for spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions" that questioned the Church. The law exiling Williams was not repealed until 1936 when Bill 488 was passed by the Massachusetts House.

He was formally set apart as pastor of the church about May, 1635, against the earnest protests of the Massachusetts authorities. An outline of the issues raised by Williams and uncompromisingly pressed includes the following:

  1. He regarded the Church of England as apostate, and any kind of fellowship with it as grievous sin. He accordingly renounced communion not only with this church but with all who would not join with him in repudiating it.
  2. He denounced the charter of the Massachusetts Company because it falsely represented the king of England as a Christian, and assumed that he had the right to give to his own subjects the land of the natives. He disapproved of "the unchristian oaths swallowed down" by the colonists "at their coming forth from Old England, especially in the superstitious Laud's time and domineering." He drew up a letter addressed to the King expressing his dissatisfaction with the charter and sought to secure for it the endorsement of prominent colonists. In this letter he is said to have charged King James I with blasphemy for calling Europe "Christendom" and to have applied to the reigning king some of the most opprobrious epithets in the Apocalypse.
  3. Equally disquieting was Williams's opposition to the "citizens' oath," which magistrates sought to force upon the colonists in order to be assured of their loyalty. Williams maintained that it was Christ's sole prerogative to have his office established by oath, and that unregenerate men ought not in any case to be invited to perform any religious act. In opposing the oath Williams gained so much popular support that the measure had to be abandoned.
  4. In a dispute between the Massachusetts Bay court and the Salemmarker colony regarding the possession of a piece of land (Marbleheadmarker) claimed by the latter, the court offered to accede to the claims of Salem on condition that the Salem church make amends for its insolent conduct in installing Williams as pastor in defiance of the court and ministers. This demand involved the removal of the pastor. Williams regarded this proposal as an outrageous attempt at bribery and had the Salem church send to the other Massachusetts churches a denunciation of the proceeding and demand that the churches exclude the magistrates from membership. This act was sharply resented by magistrates and churches, and such pressure was brought to bear upon the Salem church as led a majority to consent to the removal of their pastor. He never entered the chapel again, but held religious services in his own house with his faithful adherents.

Settlement at Providence

Having secured land from the natives (see Canonicus), he established a settlement with twelve "loving friends" (several settlers had joined him from Massachusetts since the beginning of spring). Williams' settlement was based on a principle of equality. It was provided that "such others as the major part of us shall admit into the same fellowship of vote with us" from time to time should become members of their commonwealth. Obedience to the majority was promised by all, but "only in civil things." In 1640, another agreement was signed by thirty-nine freemen, expressing their determination "still to hold forth liberty of conscience." Thus a government unique in its day was created—a government expressly providing for religious liberty and a separation between civil and ecclesiastical authority (church and state)

The colony was named Providence Plantation, due to Williams's belief that God had sustained him and his followers and brought them to this place. When he acquired the other islands in the Narragansett Bay, Williams named them after other virtues: Patience Islandmarker, Prudence Islandmarker and Hope Islandmarker.

In 1637, some followers of Anne Hutchinson visited Williams to seek his guidance in moving away from Massachusetts. Like Williams, this group was in trouble with the Puritan theocrats. He advised them to purchase land on Aquidneck Islandmarker from the Native Americans. They settled in a place called Pocasset, which is now the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Islandmarker. Among them were Anne Hutchinsons's husband William, William Coddington and John Clarke.

In 1643, Williams was sent to England by his fellow citizens to secure a charter for the colony. The Puritans were then in power in England, and through the offices of Sir Henry Vane a democratic charter was obtained. While in England, Williams also had his A Key Into the Language of America (1643) published about his time amongst the Native Americans in New England. In 1644 his The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience was published about religious liberty.

In 1647, the colony on Rhode Islandmarker was united with Providence under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed. The area became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs—Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and others went there to follow their consciences in peace and safety. On May 18, 1652, Rhode Island passed the first law in North America making slavery illegal.

Disagreement arose between the mainland towns of Providence and Warwick on the one side and the towns of Aquidneck Islandmarker on the other. There was also disagreement (on the island) between the followers of John Clarke and William Coddington. Coddington went to England and, in 1651, had secured from the council of state a commission to rule the islands of Rhode Islandmarker and Conanicutmarker. This arrangement left Providence and Warwick to themselves. Coddington's scheme was strongly disapproved by Williams and Clarke and their followers, especially as it seemed to involve a federation of Coddington's domain with Massachusettsmarker and Connecticutmarker and a consequent threat to liberty of conscience, not only on the islands, but also in Providence and Warwick, which would be left unprotected.

Many of the opponents of Coddington were, by this time, Baptists. Later, in the same year, Williams and Clarke went to England on behalf of their friends to secure from Oliver Cromwell's government the annulment of Coddington's charter and the recognition of the colony as a republic, dependent only on England. They succeeded, and Williams soon returned to Providence. To the end of his life, he continued to take a deep interest in public affairs.

Relations with the Baptists

In 1638, several Massachusetts credobaptist Christians who had found themselves subject to persecution removed to Providence (see pedobaptism). Most of these had probably been under Williams' influence while he was in Massachusetts, while some may have been influenced by English antipedobaptists before they left England.

John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton were co-founders of the Baptist faith in Britain, and produced a rich literature in advocacy of liberty of conscience. Williams could have hardly avoided learning something of the Calvinistic antipedobaptist party that arose in support of this denomination.

However, Williams did not adopt antipedobaptist views before his banishment from Massachusetts, for antipedobaptism was not an accusation laid out by his opponents. Winthrop attributes Williams's "Anabaptist" views to the influence of Katherine Scott, a sister of Anne Hutchinson, the Antinomian who may have impressed upon Williams the importance of believers' baptism.

About March 1639, Williams was baptized by Holliman and immediately proceeded to baptize Holliman and eleven others. Thus was constituted a church which still survives as the First Baptist Church in Americamarker. At about the same time, John Clarke, Williams’ compatriot in the cause of religious freedom in the New World, established a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Islandmarker. "There is much debate over the centuries as to whether the Providence or Newport church deserved the place of 'first'). Therefore, both Roger Williams and John Clarke are variously credited as being the founder of the Baptist faith in America.

It should be noted that Roger Williams was only briefly a part of the Baptist faith. Williams remained with the little church in Providence only a few months. He became convinced that the ordinances having been lost in the apostasy could not be validly restored without a special divine commission, making the following statement upon his departure from the sect:

He assumed the attitude of a "Seeker" or "Come-outer," always deeply religious and active in the propagation of Christian truth, yet not feeling satisfied that any body of Christians had all of the marks of the true Church. He continued on friendly terms with the Baptists, being in agreement with them in their rejection of infant baptism as in most other matters.

Williams's religious and ecclesiastical attitude is well expressed in the following sentences (1643):

Death and interment

The "Roger Williams Root" in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society
Williams died in early 1683 and was buried on his own property. Some time later in the nineteenth century his remains were moved to the tomb of a descendant in the North Burial Ground. Finally, in 1936, they were placed within a bronze container and put into the base of a monument on Prospect Terrace Parkmarker in Providence. When his remains were discovered for reburial, they were under an apple tree. The roots of the tree had grown into the spot where Williams's skull rested and followed the path of his decomposing bones and grew roughly in the shape of his skeleton. Only a small amount of bone was found to be reburied. The "Williams Root" is now part of the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society, where it is mounted on a board in the basement of the John Brown House Museummarker.


Williams's career as an author began with A Key into the Language of America (London, 1643), written during his first voyage to England. His next publication was Mr. Cotton's Letter lately Printed, Examined and Answered (London, 1644; reprinted, with Cotton's letter, which it answered, in Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii.).

The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience soon followed (London, 1644). This is his most famous work, and was the ablest statement and defense of the principle of absolute liberty of conscience that had appeared in any language. It is in the form of a dialogue between Truth and Peace, and well illustrates the vigor of his style.

During the same year an anonymous pamphlet appeared in London which has been commonly ascribed to Williams, entitled: Queries of Highest Consideration Proposed to Mr. Tho. Goodwin, Mr. Phillip Nye, Mr. Wil. Bridges, Mr. Jer. Burroughs, Mr. Sidr. Simpson, all Independents, etc. These Independents were members of the Westminster Assembly and their Apologetical Narration, in which they plead for toleration, fell very far short of Williams's doctrine of liberty of conscience.

In 1652, during his second visit to England, Williams published The Bloody Tenent yet more Bloody: by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb; of whose precious Blood, spilt in the Bloud of his Servants; and of the Blood of Millions spilt in former and later Wars for Conscience sake, that most Bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, upon, a second Tryal is found more apparently and more notoriously guilty, etc. (London, 1652). This work traverses anew much of the ground covered by the Bloody Tenent; but it has the advantage of being written in answer to Cotton's elaborate defense of New England persecution, A Reply to Mr. Williams his Examination (Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii.).

Other works by Williams are:

  • The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's’’ (London, 1652)
  • Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and their Preservatives (London, 1652; reprinted Providence, 1863)
  • George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes (Boston, 1676).

A volume of his letters is included in the Narragansett Club edition of Williams's Works (7 vols., Providence, 1866-74), and a volume was edited by J. R. Bartlett (1882).

Tributes and memorials

Famous descendants

Famous descendants of Roger Williams include:

See also



  • Brockunier, Samuel. The Irrepressible Democrat, Roger Williams, The Ronald Press Company, New York, 1940.
  • Gaustad, Edwin, S., ed., Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1991.
  • Miller, Perry, Roger Williams, A Contribution to the American Tradition, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, Indianapolis and New York, 1953.
  • Settle, Mary Lee, I, Roger Williams: A Novel, W. W. Norton & Company, Reprint edition (September 2002).
  • Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams, A Biography. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1957.
  • Peattie, Donald Culross, Roger Williams- First Modern American. The Reader's Digest. December 1946.

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