Roger Williams, defender of religious liberty and founder of Rhode Island, landed near Boston, Massachusetts, on February 5, 1631, aboard the ship Lyon. A radical Puritan who argued for the complete separation of church and state, within five years, Williams suffered banishment under Massachusetts law because of his drastic views. The settlement at Providence along the Narrangasett Bay, established by Williams and his followers in 1636, soon became a haven for religious dissidents. In 1644 Williams obtained a patent for the colony of Providence Plantations, later Rhode Island the same year that he published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, his most famous work.
God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any civill state…true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or Kingdome, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile.
Born in London at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Williams received an early education in Latin and shorthand, which led to his employment as the young assistant to jurist Sir Edward Coke at the infamous Star Chamber court. Benefiting from Coke’s ongoing patronage, Williams enrolled at the distinguished Charterhouse School in June 1623, continuing from there to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Like many of his classmates, Williams studied for a career in the church. Upon graduating in July 1627, he stayed on at Cambridge to pursue an advanced degree.
Records do not make clear exactly when Williams’ separatist leanings began. It is known, however, that he left Cambridge abruptly without completing his M.A. in the winter of 1628 or 1629, instead becoming the family chaplain for Sir William Masham of County Essex. It was there that Williams came to know such eminent Puritans as John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and Oliver Cromwell; men who further influenced his radical religious views. Williams soon experienced a spiritual call to join the Puritan migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in North America. Having recently married Mary Barnard, a maid in the Masham household, Williams set out with his new wife to cross the ocean in late 1630.
As a Separatist, Williams sought a complete break with the Church of England. He was disappointed to find that the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony did not favor a total severance of ties. Williams soon left Boston over these differences, accepting a position as a minister in Salem. In Salem, however, it became clear that his ideas went even beyond Separatism: Williams insisted that civil authorities were not empowered to enforce religious injunctions, calling instead for a full separation of church and state.
Now out of favor with Massachusetts, Williams sought refuge in the Separatist Plymouth Colony, but again found himself in the center of controversy, this time due to his insistence that purchasing land from the Indians was the only way for colonists to gain fair title. After only two years, Williams returned to Salem where he again was accepted as minister despite his views.
In 1635, Williams was tried by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and found guilty of holding four dangerous opinions at variance with official policy. His sentence was banishment from the colony.
Williams fled Massachusetts before prosecutors could send him back to England. He established the settlement of Providence on Narragansett Bay in June 1636, on a gift of land from the Narragansett Indians. Anne Hutchinson and her Antinomian followers, likewise banished from Massachusetts for their beliefs, started a nearby settlement at Portsmouth in 1638. Several more towns soon followed. Attempts on the part of Massachusetts to acquire rights to this land led Williams to visit England in 1643, where he obtained a patent for the colony of Providence Plantations the following March. While in England, Williams also published the first of a series of pamphlets setting forth his views on religious liberty, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience Discussed in a Conference Between Truth and Peace, of 1644.
From its earliest settlement, Rhode Island was a refuge for people persecuted for their religious beliefs. King Charles II’s 1663 charter for the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations explicitly established religious toleration for all inhabitants. Baptists and Quakers who had fled the persecutions [remove link] of New England Puritans to settle in Rhode Island were joined in 1658 by a Jewish community at Newport, seeking religious freedom. In 1686 a community of Huguenots (French Protestants) was established in the colony.
Williams continued to experience religious transformations. Increasingly uncomfortable with established Puritan practices, for a brief time Williams became a Baptist and co-founded North America’s first Baptist church in Providence in 1638. By the following year, however, his skepticism for all established churches led Williams to leave the Baptists as well. Though he remained unaffiliated, he has sometimes been labeled a Seeker because he closely shared that dissenting group’s views.
Williams also maintained close ties to the Narragansett Indians and continued to protect them from the land greed of European settlers. His respect for the Indians, his fair treatment of them, and his knowledge of their language enabled him to carry on peace negotiations between natives and Europeans, until the eventual outbreak of King Philip’s War in the 1670s. Although Williams preached to the Indians, early on he gave up the attempt to convert them, extending his principle of religious freedom even more.
Roger Williams died in the early months of 1683; he was buried in a family plot behind his house in Providence and quietly forgotten for several generations. By the time of the American Revolution and a renewed interest in Williams’ legacy, the exact location of his grave had been lost. Today, the Roger Williams National Memorial is maintained as part of Providence’s Roger Williams Park, on land originally settled by Williams in 1636 and left to the city by his descendents.
- Roger Williams has served as an icon of American religious freedom. For example, to see him evoked in Nineteenth-Century African American religious texts, do a full-text search on Roger Williams in African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907. Likewise, do a full-text search in The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals External using Roger Williams as a phrase and increasing the maximum number of documents to 350.
- See Today in History features on William Penn, Anne Hutchinson, John Carroll, and To Bigotry No Sanction to learn more about freedom of worship in early America.
- View the exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Part 2 of Section I of the exhibition, Persecution in America includes discussion of the persecution of Roger Williams, the Quakers, Anabaptists, Jews, and Roman Catholics.
- Explore Rhode Island history by searching on Rhode Island, and on place names such as Providence and Newport.