Heroes of the Faith: Roger Williams
Although he often drew epithets such as "offensive rebel" and "evill-worker" from his contemporaries, history has accorded Rhode Island founder Roger Williams his rightful place as a man of deep faith and passionate principles and as a person far ahead of his time in his views on religious freedom, separation of church and state, and fair treatment of Native Americans.
The son of a merchant-tailor, Williams was born around 1603 in London. As a teenager, Williams studied the Bible avidly, poring over the pages of the newly published King James translation. Skilled at shorthand, he gained the notice of the influential jurist Sir Edward Coke, who hired him to be his secretary. Coke was an early advocate of individual rights, and his liberal views and stirring Parliamentary speeches had a deep impact on his protégé.
The jurist arranged for Williams to attend the Charterhouse School, a newly founded preparatory academy. He went on to attend Cambridge, graduating with honors in 1627 and receiving ordination two years later. While serving as personal chaplain to a country gentleman, Williams met and married Mary Barnard. One year later, the couple set sail for the New World after reports of the young minister's liberal preaching and dissenting views drew negative attention from the Church of England.
Not surprisingly, these same reports stirred excitement among the officials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and upon arrival Williams was offered the coveted position of minister to the Boston congregation. To the consternation of the Massachusetts officials, the young minister turned the offer down on principle, saying that the Boston church was not sufficiently "separated" from the Church of England and that the colony was wrongfully turning religious matters into civil matters by seeking to enforce biblical commandments.
Roger Williams was far ahead of his time in his views on religious freedom, separation of church and state, and fair treatment of Native Americans.
Williams' criticism offended the powerful Boston congregation, and when he was subsequently offered the position of minister in nearby Salem it was strongly suggested that the Salem congregation reconsider the appointment. Roger and Mary Williams then headed to Plymouth, where the Pilgrim settlers shared their separatist views. Williams spent much time among the local native peoples, trading with them and learning their languages and ways. He wrote that it was his "soul's desire to do the natives good."
In August 1633, the Williams' first child, Mary, was born, and they returned to Salem, where one year later Williams became acting minister. Now holding his own pulpit, Williams began clashing openly with colonial leaders, avowing that all religions should be tolerated and none persecuted and condemning the Puritans for believing they had the only path to God. In July 1635 the General Court charged him with spreading "erroneous and very dangerous" opinions, particularly in his stand against the swearing of oaths in civil matters. The situation became tense, with Boston temporarily denying some choice lands to the Salem congregation unless it curbed its minister and Williams threatening to resign if Salem did not separate itself from the Boston congregation.
After a fierce public debate with famed Puritan minister Thomas Hooker, Williams was more defiant than ever and in October was sentenced to banishment. Because of his wife's pregnancy, he was given until spring to leave the colony, provided he no longer spread his radical beliefs. Standing on his principles, Williams continued his inflammatory preaching. Soldiers were dispatched to Salem to seize him and place him on a boat back to England, and Williams and a few followers fled into the wilderness in the dead of winter. Only the kindness of the local Native Americans, whom he'd earlier befriended, saved the group from starvation.
In spring, 1636, Williams' small band emerged from the forests and crossed the Seekonk River, where they obtained land from the Narragansetts and declared the establishment of a new colony. To show their thanks to God, they named the colony Providence.
The new colony offered all heads of household a voice in government, and town meetings gave everyone a chance to be heard. According to Williams' long-held views, separation of church and state was strictly upheld. There was no class consciousness or religious prejudice, and Providence and its nearby sister communities soon became a place of refuge for both the poor and those seeking asylum from religious persecution.
Massachusetts elders disdainfully referred to the new colony as the "Sewer of New England" but were nonetheless worried about its appeal to settlers and began campaigning to take it over. In the summer of 1643 Williams journeyed to England and came back with a charter for the "Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay," which incorporated Providence, Newport, and Portsmouth. During his sea voyage, he produced an authoritative volume on Native Americans, Key into the Languages of America.
Williams established an Indian trading post at North Kingstown and often served as peacemaker between the Indians and neighboring colonies. He served as governor of the colony between 1654 and 1658. Sadly he saw almost all of Providence burned during King Phillip's War (1675-1676) but lived long enough to see it rebuilt and to see the colony thrive. Until his death in 1683, he continued to preach and remained intensely involved in community affairs. He is now known as the "Father of Religious Liberty" in America.
~ Leslie Hammond