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Roger Williams

Roger Williams (circa 1600 - 1684) was an Anglo-American theologian, one of the earliest vocal proponents of the separation of Church and State[?], and the founder of Rhode Island.

He was born probably in London about 1600 (the date is uncertain; Knowles gives 1599; Waters, 1599-1602; Guild, Dec. 21, 1602; Straus, 1607); died at Providence, R. I., 1684.

Table of contents

Early Life; Removal to America.

Under the patronage of Sir Edward Coke, the famous jurist, he was educated at Sutton's Hospital and at the University of Cambridge (B.A., 1627). He seems to have had a gift for languages, and early acquired familiarity with Latin, Greek, Dutch, and French, and, during his early years in New England, mastered the language of the natives to a remarkable degree. At an earlier date he gave John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for lessons in Hebrew.

Some time before the end of 1630 he adopted separatist views and reached the conviction that he could not labor in England under Laud's rigorous administration. He turned aside from offers of preferment in the university and in the Church, and resolved to seek in New England the liberty of conscience denied him at home. Arriving at Boston (February 5, 1631), he was almost immediately invited to supply the place of the pastor, who was returning to England. But he had found that it was "an unseparated church" and he "durst not officiate to" it. He was prompted to give utterance to his conviction, formed no doubt before he left England, that the magistrate may not punish any sort of "breach of the first table," 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 Salem church, which through intercourse with the Plymouth[?] colonists had imbibed separatist sentiments, invited Williams to become its teacher; but his settlement was prevented by a remonstrance addressed to Governor Endicott by six of the Boston leaders. The Plymouth colony received him gladly as teacher or associate pastor. Here he remained about two years, and, according to Governor Bradford, "his teaching was well approved."

While there he spent much time among the Indians, his "soul's desire" being "to do the natives good." "God was pleased to give me a painful, patient spirit, to lodge with them in their filthy, smoky holes . . . to gain their tongue." Toward the close of his ministry at Plymouth, according to Brewster, he began to "vent . . . divers of his own singular opinions" and to "seek to impose them upon others."

Life at Salem; Distinctive Views.

Meeting with opposition, Williams removed to Salem (summer of 1633) and became unofficial assistant to Pastor Skelton. In Aug., 1634 (Skelton having died), he became acting pastor and entered almost immediately upon controversies with the Massachusetts authorities that in a few months were to lead to his banishment. He was formally set apart as pastor of the church about May, 1635, in the midst of the controversies and against the remonstrance 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 native Indians. 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' opposition to the "citizens' oath," which magistrates sought to force upon the colonists in order to be assured of their loyalty. William 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 William gained so much popular support that the measure had to be abandoned.
  4. In a dispute between the Massachusetts Bay court and the Salem colony regarding the possession of a piece of land (Marblehead) 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.

Banishment; Settlement at Providence.

The decree of banishment (Oct. 19, 1635, carried into effect Jan., 1636) was grounded on his aggressive and uncompromising hostility to the charter and the theocracy, and was the immediate result of the controversy about the Marblehead land. His radical tenets, involving complete separation of Church and State and absolute voluntaryism in matters of religion, and his refusal to have communion with any who gave countenance or support to the existing order, made his banishment seem necessary to the theocratic leaders of Massachusetts.

He had scarcely recovered from a severe illness contracted during his trial, when it was intimated to him that the authorities were arranging to send him back to England to be dealt with by the Laudian government. Accompanied or followed by a few devoted adherents, he plunged into the wilderness and made his way to his Indian friends, who gave him such entertainment as they could. "I was sorely tossed for one fourteen weeks, in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean."

In June he arrived at the present site of Providence and, having secured land from the natives, he admitted to equal rights with himself twelve "loving friends and neighbors" (several had come to him from Massachusetts since the opening of spring). 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, in which they express their determination "still to hold forth liberty of conscience."

In 1643 Williams was sent to England by his fellow citizens to secure a charter for the colony. The Puritans were then in power, and through the good offices of Sir Henry Vane a thoroughly democratic charter was readily obtained. In 1647 a somewhat similar but larger colony having been planted on Rhode Island by William Coddington, John Clarke, and others, Providence was united with the Rhode Island towns under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed.

Disagreement having arisen between Providence and Warwick on the mainland and the towns on the island and between the followers of Clarke on the island and those of Coddington, Coddington had gone to England and in 1651 had secured from the council of state a commission to rule the islands of Rhode Island and Conanicut. 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 Massachusetts and Connecticut and a consequent imperiling of 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 annulling of Coddington's charter and the recognition of the colony as a republic dependent only on England. This they succeeded in accomplishing, 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 Christians who had been led to adopt antipedobaptist views and found themselves subject to persecution removed to Providence (see also pedobaptism). Most of these had probably been under Williams' influence while he was in Massachusetts, and some of them may have been influenced by English antipedobaptists before they left England.

Williams himself probably knew of the Arminian antipedobaptist party of which John Smyth[?], Thomas Helwys[?], and John Murton[?] were founders (1609) and of the rich literature in advocacy of liberty of conscience produced by this party after its return to England. He could hardly have failed to learn something of the Calvinistic antipedobaptist party that arose in London in 1633, a short time after his departure, led by Spilsbury, Eaton, and others.

It is not likely that Williams adopted antipedobaptist views before his banishment from Massachusetts, for antipedobaptism was not laid to his account by his opponents. Winthrop attributes Williams' "Anabaptist" views to the influence of Mrs. Scott, a sister of Anne Hutchinson[?], the Antinomian. It is probable that Ezekiel Holliman came to Providence as an antipedobaptist and joined with Mrs. Scott in impressing upon Williams the importance of believers' baptism.

About Mar., 1639, Williams was baptized by Holliman and immediately proceeded to baptize Holliman and eleven others. Thus was constituted the first Baptist church in America, which still survives. Williams remained with the little church 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. He assumed the attitude of a "Seeker" or "Comeouter," 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 the most friendly terms with the Baptists, being in agreement with them in their rejection of infant baptism as in most other matters.

William' religious and ecclesiastical attitude is well expressed in the following sentences (1643): "The two first principles and foundations of true religion, or worship of the true God in Christ, are repentance from dead works and faith toward God, before the doctrines of baptism or washing and the laying on of hands, which continue the ordinances and practises of worship; the want of which I conceive is the bane of millions of souls in England and all other nations professing to be Christian nations, who are brought by public authority to baptism and fellowship with God in ordinances of worship, before the saving work of repentance and a true turning to God."


Williams' 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.).

Soon after Williams' banishment he had written to John Cotton[?] of Boston, bitterly complaining of the treatment he had received from the Massachusetts authorities. Cotton had written a long letter in reply, in which he sought to win him from the error of his way and at the same time to justify his banishment. Cotton expressed the opinion in this letter that if Williams had perished in the wilderness his blood would have been upon his own head. Williams examines minutely Cotton's argument, elaborately states his own position, and defends his attitude toward the Massachusetts authorities.

The Bloudy 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 appeared in London an anonymous pamphlet 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' 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 Blood 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 Bloudy 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' Works (7 vols., Providence, 1866-74), and a volume was edited by J. R. Bartlett (1882).


  • Gaustad, Edwin, S., ed., Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1991.

Roger Williams is also the name of an American pianist. See Roger Williams (pianist)[?]

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