Roger Williams was born in London, circa 1603, during a period of intense religious intolerance. After finishing school in England, he traveled to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, initially to be a missionary. His radical views on religious freedom and disapproval of the practice of confiscating land from the Native Americans earned him the wrath of church leaders and he was banished from the colony. With his followers, he fled to Narragansett Bay, where he purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and established a new colony, which became a haven for Baptists, Quakers, Jews and other religious minorities. Nearly a century after his death, Williams's notion of religious freedom and the separation of church and state inspired the framers of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
The 1666 Great Fire of London destroyed his birth records, but Roger Williams is believed to have been born sometime in the first few months of 1603. His father, James, was a prosperous merchant in London. His mother, Alice, brought him up in the Anglican Church. Roger’s early exposure to King James I’s religious persecution of the Puritans might have influenced his later beliefs in civic and religious liberty.
In adolescence, Roger came to the attention of Sir Edward Coke, the brilliant English lawyer. With Coke’s support, Roger enrolled in Charter House School in London. Displaying a gift for languages, he quickly mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch and French. This earned him a scholarship to Pembroke College, in Cambridge. After graduating from the school in 1627 Williams took holy orders in the Church of England. However, before leaving Cambridge, he converted to Puritanism, alienating himself from the Anglican Church.
A Challenge to Faith and Life in a New Land
On December 15, 1629, Roger Williams married Mary Bernard. The couple would go on to have six children. After leaving Cambridge, Williams took the position of chaplain to Sir William Masham, which brought him into contact with the Puritan political leader Oliver Cromwell. By 1630, Williams regarded the Church of England as corrupt and became a Separatist, declaring that true religion could not be known until Christ himself returned to establish it. A year later, he decided to travel to America with his wife to test his faith.
When Roger Williams arrived in Boston, he intended to be a missionary to the Native Americans. He studied their language, customs and religion and grew to see them much as himself. This led him to openly question the king’s prerogative of granting charters, believing that the land could only be purchased directly from the Native Americans themselves.
Williams was an amicable person, easily liked in most circumstances, but he was also impulsive and easily excited. Over the next six years, he found himself at odds with Massachusetts Bay officials over the issue of personal faith. He did not believe the government should have power over religious matters—a strict separation of church and state—whereas the Puritans believed that religious and civil law were one and the same and that it was their duty to enforce both.
In 1635, the magistrates had had enough and banished Roger Williams from the colony for sedition and heresy. Williams and his followers fled to Narragansett Bay, where he befriended a native tribe and established the enclave he named Providence. Within a few years it had become home to other religious outcasts, such as Anne Hutchinson.
Even after he was in exile, religious purists in neighboring Massachusetts feared Roger Williams and threatened to take over Providence. Contradicting his claim that the king had no right to grant charters to land he considered Native American, Williams twice traveled to England to obtain a charter for his colony and forestall the aggression of his neighbors. When he returned to Providence, he started a successful trading post and developed good relations with Native Americans. He became a reliable peacemaker over territorial disputes and put into practice his beliefs of religious tolerance and personal conviction. Rhode Island soon became a haven for Baptists, Quakers and Jews.
Troubles in Later Life
In the 1670s, relations with Native Americans deteriorated rapidly, despite Roger Williams best efforts. In 1675, King Philip’s War broke out in various parts of New England over settlers’ land annexation and the disease that was decimating the Native American population. Though in his 70s, Williams was elected captain of the Providence militia and bitterly witnessed his efforts at reconciliation fail when the town was burned in March 1676.
But Roger Williams lived to see Providence rebuilt, and while he continued to preach he saw the Rhode Island colony grow and prosper. Williams died in the early months of 1683, almost completely unnoticed by the local people. He was buried on his property and his farm turned to decay. Nearly two centuries later, attempts were made to find his grave, but only an old tree root was discovered. It is now housed at the Rhode Island Historical Society.
However, William's legacy grew strong during the early days of the American Revolution, as people came to appreciate the value of religious freedom and the “wall of separation” embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
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