The political and religious leader Roger Williams (c. 1603?-1683) is best known for founding the state of Rhode Island and advocating separation of church and state in Colonial America. He is also the founder of the first Baptist church in America. His views on religious freedom and tolerance, coupled with his disapproval of the practice of confiscating land from Native Americans, earned him the wrath of his church and banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Roger Williams and his followers settled on Narragansett Bay, where they purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and established a new colony governed by the principles of religious liberty and separation of church and state. Rhode Island became a haven for Baptists, Quakers, Jews and other religious minorities. Nearly a century after his death, Williams’ notion of a “wall of separation” between church and state inspired the founders of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson, to consider the limits of the First Amendment. 

Roger Williams' Early Life

Roger Williams was born around 1603 in London, England. He studied with the famous jurist Sir Edward Coke before completing his studies at Pembroke College in Cambridge, where he was known for his skill with languages—a skill that would later help him rapidly learn American Indian languages in the colonies. Though he was ordained in the Church of England, his conversion to Puritanism while at Cambridge led him to feel disillusioned with the church and its power in England. He left the country with his wife, Mary Bernard, and set sail for the colonies in December of 1630.

The couple initially settled in Boston, but his controversial views led him to seek out positions first in Salem and then in the separatist colony of Plymouth. Unable to preach because of his anti-establishment views, he began trading English goods for food and furs from the Wampanoag and Narragansett Tribes, soon becoming a friend of Wampanoag Chief Massasoit.

Did you know? Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America and edited the first dictionary of Native American languages.

Roger Williams and Religious Freedom

During his fifty years in New England, Williams was a staunch advocate of religious toleration and separation of church and state. Reflecting these principles, he founded Rhode Island and he and his fellow Rhode Islanders framed a colony government devoted to protecting individual “liberty of conscience.” This “lively experiment” became Williams’s most tangible legacy, though he was best known in his own time as a radical Pietist and the author of polemical treatises defending his religious principles, condemning the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism and attacking the theological underpinnings of Quakerism.

His lifelong search for a closer personal union with God forged his beliefs and ideas. Rejecting the moderate theology of Puritanism, Williams embraced the radical tenets of separatism, turned briefly to Baptist principles, but ultimately declared that Christ’s true church could not be known among men until Christ himself returned to establish it. From his reading of the New Testament, in which Christ had commanded religious truth and error to coexist in every nation until the end of the world, Williams concluded that liberty of conscience–“soul liberty” as he called it–was necessary because no one could know for certain which form of religion was the true one God had intended.

These views, among others (like his criticism of King James I), kept him embroiled in protracted religious and political controversies throughout his life. He was banished from Massachusetts in 1636 for sedition and heresy after refusing to cease preaching what the colony deemed “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” Williams fled into the wilderness and founded the town of Providence, though this banishment was only the first of several disputes that consumed his energies. For Williams, the banishment became a kind of personal badge of courage. In his dealings with neighboring Puritans, he never missed an opportunity to remind them of the wrong they had committed against him. In numerous polemical writings, he engaged in a prodigious religious debate with John Cotton, the Boston minister, and referred often to his banishment as proof of the human injustice that resulted from intolerance.

Roger Williams in Rhode Island

In his own colony, Williams could not resolve the political conflicts that divided Rhode Islanders into contending factions. Attempting to protect Indian land from expropriation, he became involved in endless boundary disputes with neighbors and speculators from surrounding colonies. In the 1670s, as the Quakers were gaining political power in Rhode Island, Williams tried to discredit the teachings of George Fox; he succeeded only in raising public doubts about his sincere commitment to the idea of “soul liberty.”

Although his friendship with the Narragansett Indians helped sustain generally peaceful relations between the Indians and English settlers until the outbreak of King Phillip's War (1676), some Puritan leaders suspected his close ties with the Narragansetts had blurred his ability to see them objectively.

Roger Williams Death

His death at age 80 in Providence, RI went mostly unnoticed. It was the American Revolution that transformed Williams into a local hero–Rhode Islanders came to appreciate the legacy of religious freedom he had bequeathed to them. Although he has often been portrayed by biographers as a harbinger of Jeffersonian Democracy, most scholars now conclude that Williams was less a democrat than a “Puritan’s Puritan” who courageously pushed his dissenting ideas to their logical ends. In 1956, Roger Williams University opened its doors in Rhode Island, named after the founder whose ideas impact the state even today.

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Roger Williams: Rejecting The Middle Way.