The Story of Roger Williams
Can you imagine life under the rule of a civil government controlled by the church? A look at Roger Williams’ life can help us see what it would be like.
Roger Williams was born in England around the year 1603. He grew up at a time when religious issues and strong religious feelings rocked the country. In those days, it was costly, even dangerous, to hold opinions that were contrary to the creed of the established church. It didn’t matter how clearly those opinions could be supported by the word of God — if they were contrary to the creed, they were dangerous heresies. In fact, the more evidence found in the Word of God to prove them, the more dangerous they were.
Those were the days of the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Separatists, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans — groups which would not conform to the church in England and who were persecuted by it. Thus, Roger Williams grew up seeing the oppression that resulted when the church and state were combined. He came to believe that men should have the freedom to follow their conscience in religious matters. This opinion made him an undesirable citizen in the eyes of the establishment and he was forced to flee England. At that time another man, named Alexander Leighton, was punished for publishing a book written against the church. For that act he was committed to prison for life, fined ten thousand pounds, degraded from his ministry, whipped, pilloried, his ears cut off, his nose slit and his face branded with a hot iron.[fn]Guild, R. A., in the “Biographical Introduction” to The Complete Works of Roger Williams, Vol. 1 (Russell and Russell, 1963), p. 10, says Archbishop Laud, England's Inquisitor, “pulled off his cap while this merciless sentence was pronouncing [by the High Commission], and gave God thanks for it.”[/fn]
It was from such tyranny that Williams, along with many others, was determined to flee to America. Such a church could by no means be a true church that any sincere believer could have fellowship with.
In the New World
In 1631, Roger Williams landed in Boston. He had come to America to find freedom of belief and worship. Shockingly, he found the church here still connected to the church in England. Nor was this, as Williams was to find, merely a formal or sentimental connection. The Church of New England was just as oppressive as that in old England. Although Williams had been “unanimously chosen teacher at Boston” by the congregation there, he “conscientiously refused” to join because it still held communion with the Church of England, from which he had just fled.[fn]Roger Williams letter of March 25, 1671 to John Cotton Jr. of Plymouth in The Letters of Roger Williams, p. 356 (Narragansett Club, 1894).[/fn] He thought it his duty to renounce all connection with any church that would stain its hands in the blood of the Lord’s people.
Obviously it greatly troubled Roger Williams to find in the New World the same terrible persecution, the same soul-quenching oppression, that had caused him and all of them – all the Puritans leaving England – to flee from the Old. His indignation at such hypocrisy was honest and true. Without delay or concern for his own life, he began to speak out boldly against the established church’s persecution of those who dissented for the sake of conscience.
Williams was elected pastor of the congregation in Salem, but later left it to live in the Plymouth Colony where a greater degree of toleration existed. There he continued to preach and teach in the church. A few years later he was again invited to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to become the pastor of the Salem church. Such Separatist views as he held were held by the congregation in Salem. So he accepted the invitation even though the magistrates and ministers of the Bay Colony strongly objected. At once his opponents began to denounce his teachings. Summoned to appear before the Court to answer charges brought against his “heretical” opinions, they now had the power of the state behind them to make good on their threats.
Roger Williams was called to answer for his belief that no civil magistrate had the right to enforce religion or religious practices. Such a teaching, of course, was diametrically opposed to the principles on which the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded. Sabbath breakers were severely punished there and everyone was forced to attend church and pay taxes to support it. Williams’ views were regarded by the officials as a very serious matter. Several times he had been warned to be quiet or face the consequences. Finally in October of 1635, Williams was charged with ‘new and dangerous opinions against the authority of the magistrates.” The charges were that:
Mr. Williams holds forth these 4 particulars:
- First, That we have not our Land by Patent from the King, but that the Natives are the true owners of it, and that we ought to repent of such a receiving it by Patent.
- Secondly, That it is not lawful to call a wicked person to Swear, to Pray, as being actions of God’s worship.
- Thirdly, That it is not lawful to hear any of the Ministers of the Parish Assemblies in England.
- Fourthly, That the Civil Magistrates power extends only to the Bodies and Goods, and outward state of men, &c.[fn]Roger Williams, “Mr. Cotton's Letter Examined and Answered,” (Narragansett Club, Vol. II) p. 40-41. However, “Roger Williams – Rejecting the Middle Way” on the National Parks website: http://www.nps.gov/rowi/historyculture/departure.htm is illustrated and easier to follow.[/fn]
Clearly, they had put the dearest matter to their hearts first. Roger Williams was sentenced to banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 9, 1635. Because no ships could sail for England at that season, his time was extended. During those months, Roger Williams made no attempt to preach or teach in public. Many people, however, who sympathized with him would gather at his house each Sunday to listen to him share his views in private. This, of course, meant they were not in their accustomed places of worship on that day, which didn’t please the officials of the established church. It was also against the law.
“Denied the Common Air to Breathe”
For some time, Roger Williams had envisioned founding a state in which its inhabitants should enjoy the fullest liberty in matters of conscience. He also wanted to recognize the rights of the Indians, the original inhabitants of the land. Roger Williams’ intention to establish a new state based upon the principles of freedom of conscience and the rights of the Indians greatly alarmed the Puritan leaders. Without further delay they made plans to banish him from their colony. A ship at anchor in Boston harbor was about to set sail, and they decided to send Williams to England on board. A warrant issued by the court at Boston summoned Williams to appear. He replied that he believed his life to be in danger and did not obey the summons. An officer was sent to bring him, but discovered that he had been gone three days. No one knew where he had fled.
Leaving his wife and three children, the youngest less than three months old, and having mortgaged his property at Salem to provide his needs, Roger Williams escaped into the wilderness to find refuge among the Indians. There he found the freedom which he could not find in Massachusetts. In later writings, Williams recalls how he was “denied the common air to breathe in ... and almost without mercy and human compassion, exposed to winter miseries in a howling wilderness.”[fn]Roger Williams, “Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed,” (1644) Complete Works (Narragansett), Vol. I, p. 319.[/fn] For fourteen weeks he endured these miseries of the wilderness “not knowing what bread or bed did mean.”[fn]J. Bartlett, ed. The Letters of Roger Williams, “Letter to Major Mason of June 22, 1670” (Narragansett Club, Vol. VI, 1874), p. 336.[/fn] During this time, whatever shelter he found was in the dingy, smoky lodges of the Indians. Their hospitality to him in his time of need was something he sought to repay with kindness all the rest of his life.
At Seekonk, on the east bank of the Pawtucket River, Williams broke ground for a habitation and began to plant and build; but before his crop had time to mature, the Plymouth officials learned of his whereabouts and warned him that he was a trespasser on their lands and must move on. With five companions he embarked in a frail canoe and traveled further down the river. At the mouth of the Moshassuck River they landed near a spring and founded a settlement which they called Providence. Williams intended it as a refuge for those distressed of conscience.
As soon as it was known that Roger Williams had started a settlement, men of various beliefs who had also been oppressed by the hierarchy of New England began to gather around him. Unlike the Boston settlement, Williams would have purchased the lands that became Providence —if the Indians had let him. Such was the mutual affection and trust between the two, Williams and the Narragansett Indians, that the great sachems, Cononicus and Miantonomi, gave him the land. Before leaving Salem, Williams already had arranged with Canonicus for a tract of land large enough to support a colony. Canonicus would not accept money in payment for the land. “It was not price or money that could have purchased Rhode Island,” Williams wrote later. “Rhode Island was purchased by love.”[fn]Testimony of Roger Williams relative to the deed to Rhode Island, dated Providence 25, 6. [25th August,] 1658.” In The Letters of Roger Williams, p. 305, ed. J. R. Bartlett (Narragansett Club, 1874).[/fn]
The Indians of New England were fully as capable, if not much more so, of keeping the golden rule – of treating others as you would want to be treated – than their new and largely unwanted English neighbors. Such human decency and fairness was exactly what his “Christian brethren” in Boston and Hartford refused to give anyone they differed with in matters of doctrine.
These settlements were finally brought into one colony under the title of the Providence Plantations. But before these settlements had time to unify under a common government, news reached them that the Indians of New England were beginning to join together to exterminate all the English in New England. The powerful Pequots proposed to unite with the Mohegans and the Narragansetts to accomplish this purpose. It was a critical time for the small colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth and Connecticut. Rhode Island was in no immediate danger since the Rhode Islanders had paid for their lands and were on good terms with the neighboring Indians.
At that time, the governor and council of Massachusetts wrote an urgent plea to Roger Williams. They recognized him as the only man in New England who could prevent the Indian conspiracy. With the memory of his persecution by Massachusetts still fresh in his mind, he did not hesitate to throw himself between “his own persecutors and their relentless foes,” though he knew that in doing so he was risking his own life.
Concerning this dangerous expedition Williams himself says:
The Lord helped me immediately to put my life into my hand, and scarce acquainting my wife, to ship myself alone, in a poor canoe, and to cut through a stormy wind, with great seas, every minute in hazard of life, to the sachem’s house. 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, and from whom I could not but look for their bloody knives at my own throat also. God wondrously preserved me and helped me to break to pieces the Pequot’s negotiations and design; and to make and finish, by many travels and charges, the English league with the Narragansetts and Mohegans against the Pequots.[fn]Bartlett, ed. The Letters of Roger Williams, “Letter to Major Mason of June 22, 1670” (Narragansett Club, Vol. VI, 1874), p. 338-339.[/fn]
Thus New England was saved from probable extinction by the very one whom she would not permit to come within her borders.
Returning evil for good, a mere six years after Roger Williams’s great service against the Pequot conspiracy, the Massachusetts government tried to annex the small colony of Rhode Island. They did so by sending emissaries to England to obtain a patent covering the very same territory. Roger Williams arrived in England just in time to prevent them and was granted the patent in 1643. This patent protected Rhode Island from being swallowed up by Massachusetts and insured a republican form of government. Strangely enough, it made no mention of anything to do with matters of faith and religion. Many have wondered at this omission and why it happened. But Roger Williams, who was instrumental in obtaining that patent, recognized that the faith and religion of Rhode Island’s inhabitants was something entirely outside the jurisdiction of the state. Therefore, he concluded, it was unnecessary to make any reference to it.
Freedom of Conscience
Upon the basis of that patent, the code of laws for the Providence Plantations was framed (1647). The last sentence reads:
These are the laws that concern all men, and these are the penalties for the transgression thereof, which, by common consent, are ratified and established throughout the whole colony; and, otherwise than what is thus therein forbidden, all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, every one in the name of his God. And let the saints of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation, in the name of Jehovah their God, forever and ever.[fn]Samuel Arnold, “History of Rhode Island,” (D. Appleton and Company, 1859) Vol. I, p. 210.[/fn]
After the death of Oliver Cromwell in England, the Rhode Islanders began to fear that their patent might not be honored by King Charles, or that the enemies of their colony might in some way rob them of the rights which they had obtained through so much toil and opposition. They had good reason to fear for their liberties. At that time Connecticut was applying for a charter which included all of Rhode Island in its territory. Through the help of friends in England, Roger Williams was successful and received a second charter in 1663. In his application, he had written:
Your petitioners have it much on their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a livelie experiment, [so] that a flourishing civil state may stand ... with a full liberty in religious concernments.
His language seems to have made a favorable impression upon the king, for the very wording of the above quotation is woven into the charter granted two years later. As it is written in the charter of 1663:
No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion ... but that all persons may ... enjoy their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments.[fn]Poore, B. P., compiler, under an order of the United States Senate: “Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States,” (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1877) Part II, p. 1596-1597.[/fn]
That “livelie experiment” in the separation of church and state has come down to us as the most precious gift from these early colonial days. Like every good thing that has come to this world, it came into being through great labor and pain.
Foundation of Liberty
What is most significant about the royal charter is that it acknowledges at the foundation of Rhode Island’s government two important principles: republicanism (democratic governments made up of representatives elected by its citizens) and religious liberty. These principles characterize our American government and are later expressed in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Neither republicanism nor religious liberty can be found in any of the charters of the other colonies where church and state were united. It is therefore easy to determine the original source of those principles which have protected our religious freedom and made America a refuge for the oppressed of every land. The nation’s debt to Roger Williams is a debt that can never be canceled.