Monday, November 4, 2013

(SMITH) Roger Williams, father of religious liberty

Roger Williams was born near London into a middle-class family in the early 17th century. He was formally educated and excelled in many subjects, including languages. Before leaving England, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch, and French1. He later learned several Native American languages.

Roger Williams thought it prudent to leave England because of his religious beliefs, and he arrived in Boston in 1631. He refused a position in the Boston church because it had not separated from the Church of England. He taught briefly in Salem, then made his way to Plymouth2. His "strange opinions,"3--such as, no kings, merely because they were Christian, had the right to "take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men," ie: Natives--made him unpopular with the Plymouth leadership, and after 2 years he returned to Salem. 

The rulers of Salem were more moderate, but Roger's ideas also got him in trouble there. In October 1635, Roger Williams was charged with "new and dangerous opinions," including "That we have not our Land by Patent from the King, but that the Natives are the true owners of it" and "That the Civil Magistrates power extends only to the...outward state of men"4. In other words, Roger Williams believed that Indians should be paid for their land, and that individuals should have the right to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience, for "God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls."5 For this, the Massachusetts court decided, "Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the elders of the church of Salem, hath broached & divulged diverse new & dangerous opinions... it is therefore ordered, that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks."4

Meanwhile, Roger Williams continued sharing these radical ideas, and the court decided to deport him to England immediately. He was warned, however, by a good friend, former governor John Winthrop, and fled Salem a few days before the sheriff arrived to arrest him.6

"The winter of 1635/6 was cold even by New England standards. That winter, Narragansett Bay froze over, an event that rarely happens. In this extreme cold, Roger Williams, a city boy from London, made his escape on foot from Salem."4 Of this event, Williams later wrote: "I was unmercifully driven from my chamber to a winter's flight, exposed to the miseries, poverties, necessities, wants, debts, hardships, of sea and land, in a banished condition. For...fourteen weeks, in a bitter winter season, I was sorely tossed and knew not what bread or bed did mean."6

Williams headed south, walking over 100 miles through deep snow. Eventually, he was given shelter among a Wampanoag tribe. After a few months, Williams negotiated with the Natives for his own land on Narragansett Bay. Then, "having made covenant of peaceable neighborhood with all the sachems [chiefs] and natives round about us, and having, in a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place PROVIDENCE, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience."4

Me at Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence, Oct. 2012.
This park marks the site where Roger Williams built his home.
Roger Williams firmly believed in "soul liberty"--that all people should be allowed freedom of conscience, provided such an exercise did not harm others. He said of his settlement, "The Most High and only Wise hath provided this country and this corner as a shelter for the poor and persecuted according to their several persuasions."4 Rhode Island quickly became a haven for those of different beliefs, including Quakers and Antinomians. The state boasts the first Baptist church in America and the oldest synagogue on the continent7, both of which were built during Williams' lifetime.

The First Baptist Church in America, founded by Roger Williams in 1638,
though he eventually left organized religion. This building was erected in 1775.
Photo taken October 2012.
That his colony might be legally recognized by the English government, Williams traveled to London. He obtained a charter with two amazing provisions. First, "that it shall not bee lawfull to or for the rest of the Collonies to invade or molest the native Indians, or any other inhabittants, inhabiting within" the colony's bounds, they "being by us taken into our speciall protection." And more incredibly, considering that English citizens in England were not given this privilege, granting a "lively experiment...that all and every person and persons all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments."4

Roger Williams is credited with the beginning of separation of church and state in the New World. Although deeply religious, he believed the government should not interfere in a person's relationship with God; government should only be concerned with community relations.

Roger was born into the Church of England, became a Puritan minister, and spent a few years as a Baptist. But "his search for the true church eventually carried him out of ... any visible church," although he continued to actively preach. "From 1639 forward, he waited for Christ to send a new apostle to reestablish the church, and he saw himself as a 'witness' to Christianity until that time came."8

Williams was convinced that authority to perform ordinances was lost in the Apostasy, and "could not be validly restored without a special divine commission."8 He declared: There is "no regularly-constituted church on earth, nor any person authorized to administer any Church ordinance; nor could there be until new apostles were sent by the great Head of the Church for whose coming he was seeking."9

Williams had several other beliefs that separated him from the churches of the time. He was opposed to infant baptism, as infants could not understand and accept the ordinance. 

He "did not believe in taking money for being a preacher. He earned his living by farming and trading blankets and knives with the Indians.”1 He wrote of ministers, "in their wages...they have always run in the way of a hire, and rendered such workmen absolute hirelings between whom and the true Shepherd, the Lord Jesus (John 10), puts so express and sharp a difference. [In John 10, the Lord declares that the true shepherd gives his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees, caring not for the sheep.]...I am bold to maintain that it is one of [the] grand designs of the Most High to break down the Hireling Ministry, that trade, faculty, calling, and living by preaching."10

His ideas on freedom of conscience continued to differ sharply from the mainstream. In 1644, Williams was in London to secure a charter for his colony. While there, he wrote the book A Bloudy Tenant, "one of the most comprehensive treatises about the freedom of religion ever written,"11 which contained the revolutionary idea that governmental authority was granted by the people, not by God. Parliament, outraged, ordered that all copies of the book be burned. I'd say it's a pretty successful revolutionary who inspires a book burning. :)

Furthermore, Williams opposed slavery. In 1652, his settlement passed a law prohibiting it. Unfortunately, when other settlements were joined together to make the colony of Rhode Island, some areas refused to accept the law and it was disregarded.8

This great man consistently lived according to his conscience, whatever the consequences. He was courageous, charismatic, and an exceptionally good human being. Even his enemies agreed on that.

Thus was the life of Roger Williams, the founder of the state officially named "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." 

***I did NOT research the genealogy for this post. I researched Roger Williams thoroughly and have cited sources below. However, I am depending on someone else's genealogic accuracy; I have NOT verified this line of descent. That being said, here is the genealogy, according to contributors on

Alice Zemp, born 1925
Lucia Scoville, born 1889
Maria Holt, born 1861
Sarah Carr, born 1838
Thomas Carr, born 1791
Benjamin Carr, born 1762
Benjamin Carr, born 1725
Caleb Carr, born 1700
Deborah Sayles, born 1656
Mary Williams, born 1620
Roger Williams, born about 1603

1 - PBS biography of Roger Williams,
2 - Roger Williams, by Henry Chupack, 1969
- History of the Pilgrims and Puritans, Joseph Dillaway Sawyer, 1922
- NPS biography of Roger Williams: and ensuing pages
- Roger Williams, A Plea for Religious Liberty,
- Voices from Colonial America: Rhode Island, 1636-1776, by Jesse McDermott
- The Thirteen Colonies: Rhode Island, by Craig & Katherine Doherty
- Picturesque America, ed. William C. Bryant, 1872, p. 496-502
10 - Roger Williams, "The Hireling Ministry," in On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams, by Roger Davis,
11 - Smithsonian Mag: [I strongly recommend this one for further reading! It's an excellent article.]

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