Roger Williams (theologian)

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For other men named Roger Williams, see Roger Williams.

Roger Williams (c. 16001684) was an Anglo-American theologian, a notable proponent of the separation of Church and State, an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans, founder of the City of Providence, Rhode Island and a co-founder of Rhode Island.


Early Life

Williams was born probably in London about 1600. Knowles gives the year 1599; Waters, 1599-1602; Guild, Dec. 21, 1602; and Straus, 1607. His father, James Williams, was a merchant in Smithfield, England. His mother was Alice (Pemberton) Williams.

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. He gave John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for lessons in Hebrew.

After graduating from Cambridge, Williams was chaplain to a rich family. He married Mary Barnard on December 15, 1629 at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. They had six children, all of whom were born after they migrated to America.

Some time before the end of 1630 Williams adopted a standpoint of dissent and decided that he could not labor in England under William 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.

Removal to America

In 1630 Roger and Mary Williams set sail for Boston on the Lyon. Arriving on 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 [of the Ten Commandments]," 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 first idea--that the magistrate should not punish religious infractions--meant that the civil authority should not be the same as the ecclesiastical authority. The second idea--that people should have freedom of opinion on religious matters--he called "soul-liberty." It is one the foundations for the United States Constitution's guarantees of non-establishment of an official state religion and of freedom to choose and practice one's own religion. It is also a hallmark concern of most Baptists in America today. [See "Amendment 1" under United States Bill of Rights.]

The Salem church, which through interaction 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 then received him gladly as teacher or associate pastor. Here he remained about two years, and, according to Governor Bradford, "his teaching was well approved."

Relations With Native Americans

Williams's respect for the Native Americans' dignity as men and his willingness to deal with them on a basis of equality won their lasting friendship. He insisted always that any land settled by Europeans should be purchased fairly from the local tribe.

While in Plymouth he spent much time among the Indians, his "soul's desire" being "to do the natives good." He wrote: "God was pleased to give me a painful, patient spirit, to lodge with them in their filthy, smoky holes . . . to gain their tongue." During his early years in New England, he mastered the language of the natives to a remarkable degree.

During that time his mediation at the request of Massachusetts prevented a coalition of the Pequot with the Narragansetts and Mohegans. He wrote of this service in later years: "Three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassadors, whose hands and arms methought reeked with the blood of my countrymen murdered and massacred by them on [the] Connecticut River.” Williams served other colonists as a mediator quite a lot of times. When Indian troubles would increase in the colonies, he was called to mediate these difficulties.

Life at Salem, Distinctive Views.

Toward the close of his ministry at Plymouth, according to Brewster, Williams began to "vent . . . divers of his own singular opinions" and to "seek to impose them upon others." The people of Plymouth quickly realized that they found his ways of thinking, not only concerning the Indians, too advanced and he left to go back to Salem.

Meeting with opposition, Williams removed to Salem in the summer of 1633 and became unofficial assistant to Pastor Skelton. In August, 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.


The decree of banishment (October 9, 1635, carried into effect January, 1636) was grounded on Williams's 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."

Settlement at Providence

In June Williams arrived at the present site of Providence and, having secured land from the natives (see Canonicus), 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." Thus a government unique in its day was created--a government that expressly provided for religious liberty and a separation between civil and ecclesiastical authority.

The colony was named Providence, due to Williams's belief that God had taken care of him and his followers and brought them to this place.

In 1637 some followers of Anne Hutchinson visited Williams to seek his guidance in moving away from Massachusetts. Like Williams, this group was in trouble with the Puritan theocrats. He advised them to purchase land on Aquidneck Island from the Native Americans. They settled in a place called Pocasset, which is now the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Among them were Anne Hutchinsons's husband William, William Coddington and John Clarke.

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 the colony that had been planted on Rhode Island was united with Providence under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed.

On May 18, 1652 Rhode Island passed the first law in North America making slavery illegal.

The area that is now Rhode Island became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs--Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and others went there to follow their consciences in peace and safety.

Disagreement arose between the mainland towns of Providence and Warwick on the on one side and the towns of Aquidneck Island on the other. There was also disagreement (on the island) between the followers of John Clarke and those of William Coddington. Coddington went 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 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 Katherine 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 March, 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 "Come-outer," 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.

Death and Interment

Williams died in early 1684. He was buried on his own property. Some time later his remains were moved to the tomb of a descendant in the North Burial Ground. Finally, in 1936, they were placed within a bronze container and put into the base of a monument on Prospect Terrace.


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.).

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 an anonymous pamphlet appeared in London 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).


Roger Williams is the tenth great-grandfather of Jeffrey R. Holland, an Apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

External Links

  • Article with References

  • List of Works, Bibliography, and Study Questions

  • Short Biography and Excerpts from One of His Books

  • National Memorial


  • Brockunier, Samuel. The Irrepressible Democrat, Roger Williams, The Ronald Press Company, New York, 1940.
  • Gaustad, Edwin, S., ed., Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1991.
  • Miller, Perry, Roger Williams, A Contribution to the American Tradition, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, Indianapolis and New York, 1953.
  • Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams, A Biography. The Macmillan Company, New York, Williams

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