Roger Williams

Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1683), Puritan clergyman in America, founded Providence, R.I. He was the first American spokesman for religious toleration and the separation of church and state.

Roger Williams's views on the relationship of church and state sprang from his religious beliefs. Like his contemporaries, Williams believed that Christ's second coming was imminent and that, in the time remaining, it was a Christian's duty to help gather the most perfect church possible. Williams's search for the spiritually pure congregation eventually led him to a conviction that the world was so deeply sinful that it would not be redeemed until Christ's return. In view of the world's unredeemable state, all a Christian could do was to keep his spiritual life uncontaminated by the world's evil. This view put Williams at odds with the Massachusetts Puritans, who, because they thought their whole society was being redeemed, maintained that civil authority must protect churches.

Born in London, educated at the Charterhouse School and Cambridge, Williams in 1629 became chaplain to Sir William Masham of Essex. That same year he married Mary Barnard. In 1630 Williams and his wife sailed for Massachusetts. Williams's discontent with the Massachusetts Church was quickly evident: he refused to serve as the first minister to the Boston Church because it had not "separated" itself from the spiritual corruption of the Anglican Church. Williams thought of joining the Salem Church, but when the authorities intervened he went to Plymouth. Finding the Plymouth Church too impure, Williams returned to Salem in 1633 as assistant minister.

In 1634 the Salem Church defied the Massachusetts authorities and chose Williams minister. Williams taught that civil authorities could not punish transgressions against the first four commandments of the decalogue, that an oath of loyalty is a religious act, and that the English had no proper title to American land because the English king was in league with antichrist.

Banished to Rhode Island

In 1635, banished from Massachusetts for his teachings, Williams went to Rhode Island, where he founded Providence. He worked as a farmer, Indian trader, and civil magistrate. When visiting the Indians, Williams worked on a dictionary, entitled A Key into the Language of America (1643), which he hoped would serve future apostles who, after Christ's return, would travel in the wilderness to convert the Indians. Williams himself did not attempt to convert the Indians. Williams's own search for spiritual perfection made him first a Baptist and, next, a Seeker rejecting adherence to any specific creed. Williams even refused to pray with his wife because he did not consider her fully regenerate. During the Pequod War, Williams did great service to the Massachusetts colony in his negotiations with the Narragansett Indians.

Believing all present societies, Indian and Puritan, to be unredeemable, Williams thought that men's propensity for evil needed tight control. Consequently he helped pass strict laws for Providence. At the same time, he also believed that, since all men are naturally evil, they have the same natural rights and should share land equally. To that end, Williams assisted in setting up a democratic land association.

Williams in England

In 1643 Williams went to England to secure a charter for Providence. The colony was torn by internal strife and threatened by the other New England colonies. With the help of Sir Henry Vane, Williams got the charter in 1644. While in England, Williams published several books and pamphlets. In Queries of Highest Consideration (1644), he urged Parliament not to establish a national church, Congregational or Presbyterian. In Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered (1644), he argued for religious toleration. A church, he proclaimed, which in Christ's name persecutes people of different faiths and denies them the right to live in the community, is anti-Christian.

In these, as in all his writings, Williams's arguments for separation of church and state are drawn from his interpretation of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Massachusetts Puritans believed that their churches were the successors to the Jewish temples; the Massachusetts governor was as responsible for the churches as David was for the Temple. Williams, on the other hand, maintained that after Christ's coming the church is spiritual only and must remain apart from the world.

Reuniting the Colony

On his return from England, Williams found that William Coddington had received a land grant from England which split the colony. In 1652 Williams again went to England and got Coddington's land title annulled. In London, Williams continued publishing his books. John Cotton had answered William's 1644 work The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution…, so, in turn, Williams in The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652) refuted Cotton's views.

Returning to Providence, Williams united the colony and served as its president. In these years Jews and Quakers came to Providence and were granted religious toleration. However, some extreme sects, like the Ranters, were excluded. In 1659 Williams began a bitter but successful struggle against William Harris, who was trying to defraud the Narragansett Indians of their land. In King Philip's War, which he had striven to prevent, Williams served as captain for Providence. Though he granted them toleration, Williams disagreed with the Quakers, and in 1672 he debated with them in Newport. In 1675 Williams published his side of the argument in George Fox Digg'd out of His Burrowes… . Williams died in providence.

Further Reading on Roger Williams

Williams's works are collected in The Complete Writings (7 vols., 1963). Biographies are Cyclone Covey, The Gentle Radical (1966), and John Garrett, Roger Williams (1970). Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (1967), is a good introduction to Williams's thought. An important study of Williams's idea of history is Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contributions to the American Tradition (1953). Irwin H. Polishook, Roger Williams, John Cotton and Religious Freedom: A Controversy in New and Old England (1967), is a short, valuable introduction to one of the most important debates in American history.

    Post a comment