ROGER WILLIAMS was born in London, circa 1603, the son of James and Alice (Pemberton) Williams. James, the son of Mark and Agnes (Audley) Williams was a "merchant Tailor" (an importer and trader) and probably a man of some importance. His will, proved 19 November 1621, left, in addition to bequests to his "loving wife, Alice," to his sons, Sydrach, Roger and Robert, and to his daughter Catherine, money and bread to the poor in various sections of London.
The will of Alice (Pemberton) Williams was admitted to probate 26 January 1634. Among other bequests, she left the sum of Ten Pounds yearly for twenty years to her son, Roger Williams, "now beyond the seas." She further provided that if Roger predeceased her, "what remaineth thereof unpaid ... shall be paid to his wife and daughter...." Obviously, by the time of her death, Roger's mother was aware of the birth in America in 1633 of her grandchild, Mary Williams.
Roger's youth was spent in the parish of "St. Sepulchre's, without Newgate, London." While a young man, he must have been aware of the numerous burnings at the stake that had taken place at nearby Smithfield of so-called Puritans or heretics. This probably influenced his later strong beliefs in civic and religious liberty.
During his teens, Roger Williams came to the attention of Sir Edward Coke, a brilliant lawyer and one-time Chief Justice of England, through whose influence he was enrolled at Sutton's Hospital, a part of Charter House, a school in London. He next entered Pembroke College at Cambridge University from which he graduated in 1627. All of the literature currently available at Pembroke to prospective students mentions Roger Williams, his part in the Reformation, and his founding of the Colony of Rhode Island. At Pembroke, he was one of eight granted scholarships based on excellence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Pembroke College in Providence, once the women's college of Brown University, was named after Pembroke at Cambridge in honor of Roger Williams.
In the years after he left Cambridge, Roger Williams was Chaplain to a wealthy family, and on 15 December 1629, he married MARY BARNARD at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. Even at this time, he became a controversial figure because of his ideas on freedom of worship. And so, in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Roger thought it expedient to leave England. He arrived, with Mary, on 5 February 1631 at Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their passage was aboard the ship Lyon (Lion).
He preached first at Salem, then at Plymouth, then back to Salem, always at odds with the structured Puritans. When he was about to be deported back to England, Roger fled southwest out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was befriended by local Indians and eventually settled at the headwaters of what is now Narragansett Bay, after he learned that his first settlement on the east bank of the Seekonk River was within the boundaries of the Plymouth Colony. Roger purchased land from the Narragansett Chiefs, Canonicus and Miantonomi and named his settlement Providence in thanks to God. The original deed remains in the Archives of the City of Providence.
Roger Williams made two trips back to England during his lifetime. The first in June or July 1643 was to obtain a Charter for his colony to forestall the attempt of neighboring colonies to take over Providence. He returned with a Charter for "the Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay" which incorporated Providence, Newport and Portsmouth. During this voyage, he produced his best-known literary work -- Key into the Languages of America, which when published in London in 1643, made him the authority on American Indians.
On his return, Roger Williams started a trading post at Cocumscussoc (now North Kingstown) where he traded with the Indians and was known for his peacemaking between the neighboring colonists and the Indians. But again colony affairs interfered, and in 1651 he sold his trading post and returned to England with John Clarke (a Newport preacher) in order to have the Charter confirmed. Because of family responsibilities, he returned sometime before 1654. John Clarke finally obtained the Royal Charter from Charles II on 8 July 1663, thereby averting further trouble with William Coddington and some colonists at Newport, who had previously obtained a charter for a separate colony.
Roger Williams was Governor of the Colony 1654 through 1658. During the later years of his life, he saw almost all of Providence burned during King Philip's War, 1675-1676. He lived to see Providence rebuilt. He continued to preach, and the Colony grew through its acceptance of settlers of all religious persuasions.
The two Narragansett Indian Sachems that deeded the land for Roger Williams' colony were Canonicus and Miantonomi. No money (or equivalent) for the Providence land was exchanged - the land deed for the Providence colony was essentially a grant from the two Sachems to Roger Williams.
The Puritans were a group of people who grew discontent in the Church of England and worked towards religious, moral and societal reforms. The writings and ideas of John Calvin, a leader in the Reformation, gave rise to Protestantism and were pivotal to the Christian revolt. They contended that The Church of England had become a product of political struggles and man-made doctrines. The Puritans were one branch of dissenters who decided that the Church of England was beyond reform. Escaping persecution from church leadership and the King, they came to America.
The Puritans believed that the Bible was God's true law, and that it provided a plan for living. The established church of the day described access to God as monastic and possible only within the confines of "church authority". Puritans stripped away the traditional trappings and formalities of Christianity which had been slowly building throughout the previous 1500 years. Theirs was an attempt to "purify" the church and their own lives.
What many of us remember about the Puritans is reflective of the modern definition of the term and not of the historical account. Point one, they were not a small group of people. In England many of their persuasion sat in Parliament. So great was the struggle that England's Civil War pitted the Puritans against the Crown Forces. Though the Puritans won the fight with Oliver Cromwell's leadership, their victory was short-lived; hence their displacement to America. Point two, the witchcraft trials did not appropriately define their methods of living for the 100+ years that they formed successful communities. What it did show was the danger that their self-imposed isolation had put them in.
Most of the Puritans settled in the New England area. As they immigrated and formed individual colonies, their numbers rose from 17,800 in 1640 to 106,000 in 1700. Religious exclusiveness was the foremost principle of their society. The spiritual beliefs that they held were strong. This strength held over to include community laws and customs. Since God was at the forefront of their minds, He was to motivate all of their actions. This premise worked both for them and against them.
The common unity strengthened the community. In a foreign land surrounded with the hardships of pioneer life, their spiritual bond made them sympathetic to each other's needs. Their overall survival techniques permeated the colonies and on the whole made them more successful in several areas beyond that of the colonies established to their south.
Each church congregation was to be individually responsible to God, as was each person. The New Testament was their model and their devotion so great that it permeated their entire society. People of opposing theological views were asked to leave the community or to be converted.
Their interpretation of scriptures was a harsh one. They emphasized a redemptive piety. In principle, they emphasized conversion and not repression. Conversion was a rejection of the "worldliness" of society and a strict adherence to Biblical principles. While repression was not encouraged in principle, it was evident in their actions. God could forgive anything, but man could forgive only by seeing a change in behavior. Actions spoke louder than words, so actions had to be constantly controlled.
The doctrine of predestination kept all Puritans constantly working to do good in this life to be chosen for the next eternal one. God had already chosen who would be in heaven or hell, and each believer had no way of knowing which group they were in. Those who were wealthy were obviously blessed by God and were in good standing with Him. The Protestant work ethic was the belief that hard work was an honor to God which would lead to a prosperous reward. Any deviations from the normal way of Puritan life met with strict disapproval and discipline. Since the church elders were also political leaders, any church infraction was also a social one. There was no margin for error.
The devil was behind every evil deed. Constant watch needed to be kept in order to stay away from his clutches. Words of hell fire and brimstone flowed from the mouths of eloquent ministers as they warned of the persuasiveness of the devil's power. The sermons of Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan minister, show that delivery of these sermons became an art form. They were elegant, well formed, exegetical renditions of scriptures... with a healthy dose of fear woven throughout the fabric of the literary construction. Grammar children were quizzed on the material at school and at home. This constant subjection of the probability of an unseen danger led to a scandal of epidemic proportions.
Great pains were taken to warn their members and especially their children of the dangers of the world. Religiously motivated, they were exceptional in their time for their interest in the education of their children. Reading of the Bible was necessary to living a pious life. The education of the next generation was important to further "purify" the church and perfect social living.
Three English diversions were banned in their New England colonies; drama, religious music and erotic poetry. The first and last of these led to immorality. Music in worship created a "dreamy" state which was not conducive in listening to God. Since the people were not spending their time idly indulged in trivialities, they were left with two godly diversions.
The Bible stimulated their corporate intellect by promoting discussions of literature. Greek classics of Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Ovid were taught, as well as poetry and Latin verse. They were encouraged to create their own poetry, always religious in content.
For the first time in history, free schooling was offered for all children. Puritans formed the first formal school in 1635, called the Roxbury Latin School. Four years later, the first American College was established; Harvard in Cambridge. Children aged 6-8 attended a "Dame school" where the teacher, who was usually a widow, taught reading. "Ciphering" (math) and writing were low on the academic agenda.
In 1638, the first printing press arrived. By 1700, Boston became the second largest publishing center of the English Empire. The Puritans were the first to write books for children, and to discuss the difficulties in communicating with them. At a time when other Americans were physically blazing trails through the forests, the Puritans efforts in areas of study were advancing our country intellectually.
Religion provided a stimulus and prelude for scientific thought. Of those Americans who were admitted into the scientific "Royal Society of London," the vast majority were New England Puritans.
The large number of people who ascribed to the lifestyle of the Puritans did much to firmly establish a presence on American
soil. Bound together, they established a community that maintained a healthy economy, established a school system, and focused an efficient eye on political
concerns. The moral character of England and America were shaped in part by the words and actions of this strong group of Christian believers called the
Rhode Island: New England Colony
The Puritans of Massachusetts gained religious freedom, but it was a liberty they kept to themselves. They set up a government
that required everyone in the colony to worship in the same way
When a young minister named Roger Williams began preacching different ideas, the Puritans put him on trial. Williams believed that all the people should be able to worship in any way they chose. "Forced woship," he declared, "stinks in God's nostrils."
The Puritans ordered Williams sent back to England. Instead, on a cold winter day in 1636, he left his wife and children and fled south. After trudging through snow for days, he met a group of indians near the Narragansett Bay. The Indians cared for him until spring. When his family and a few followers joined him, Williams bought the land from the Indians for a settlement. He called it a Providence, a word meaning "the guidance and care of God."
Roger Williams welcomed people with different religious beliefs. Two years after he and his followers settled Providence, a colonist named Anne Hutchinson was also forced to leave Massachusetts for preaching against the Puritans. She and her flamily followed Williams and established a settlement called Portsmouth. In 1647, these and other settlements became the colony of Rhode Island.
Born in London in 1603, Roger Williams grew up in an era of religious conflict and persecution. By the time he had completed his university studies, Roger Williams had already embraced the dangerous idea of freedom of worship.
Williams became an outspoken and controversial Puritan minister. Like many of those who came to Plymouth Colony in the 1620s and '30s, he was a Separatist, who believed that Puritans must break with the Church of England. His Separatism as well as his unorthodox ideas on freedom of worship got him into trouble with church officials, and he fled England to avoid arrest.
Arriving in Boston in 1630, Roger Williams was warmly received as a "godly minister." But word soon spread of his radical ideas, and he moved on to Plymouth, which was more hospitable than Boston to Separatists. After only two years there, he accepted a call to a church in Salem; as soon as he was back in the Bay Colony, his troubles began to multiply.
Having been both a witness to and a victim of religious persecution, Roger Williams believed that most of the wars in the world were the result of religious conflict. He advocated total religious toleration, even as other Puritan ministers preached "Tis Satan's policy, to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration." Unlike most Massachusetts ministers, Williams did not believe that the Bible demanded punishment of religious heretics. His interpretation of scripture made him a serious threat to the authority of a colonial society that depended on the Bible as a life guide.
Although his Salem congregation embraced his teachings, the ministers and magistrates in the colonial capital did not. Williams' ideas grew even more radical. He argued that "all religious sects had the right to claim equal protection from the laws, and that the civil magistrates had no right to restrain the consciences of men or to interfere with their modes of worship or religious belief." He criticized the Massachusetts Bay clergy for intolerance and autocracy in matters of church governance. He urged his congregation to break openly with the Church of England. When the Puritan authorities in Boston condemned Williams' views as "erroneous and very dangerous," he called on his Salem church to break from all other colonial churches.
Roger Williams' religious views were not the only unusual thing about him. He was one of the few Englishmen in the New World to sympathize with and respect the native population. He proposed that the Indians were the legitimate owners of the land, and that colonists should acquire property by purchasing it from the native people. This view challenged the system under which the British king had granted land in North America to his subjects and stirred resentment among the rulers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
A few years after Roger Williams established Providence, he founded the first Baptist church in America there. Providence was open to people of all faiths, and Baptists, Quakers, and Jews found a home in the colony. Williams remained a friend to the Indians, and did not try to convert them to Christianity.
In 1644 he published a powerful defense of religious freedom. "To molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either
professing doctrines or practicing worship," he wrote, "is to persecute him . . . Having bought Truth dear we must not sell it cheap, nor the least
grain of it for the whole world."
The Challenges of Roger Williams
Religious Liberty, Violent Persecution, and the Bible
Roger Williams, the religiously persecuted, and the use of scripture.
James P. Byrd, Jr.
This book examines how biblical interpretation promoted both violent persecution and religious liberty in colonial America. Frequently, the Bible
was a violent force in Puritan New England, where ministers and magistrates used biblical passages to justify the punishment of many religious
radicals. Encouraged by the Bible, Puritans whipped and imprisoned Baptists, banished a variety of radicals from the Puritan colonies, and even sent
Quakers to the gallows. Among those banished was Roger Williams, the advocate of religious liberty who also founded the colony of Rhode Island and
established the first Baptist church in America. Williams opposed the Puritans' use of the Bible to persecute radicals who rejected the
state's established religion. In retaliation against the use of scripture for violent purposes, Williams argued that religious liberty was a
biblical concept that offered the only means of eliminating the religious wars and persecutions that plagued the seventeenth century. Empowered by
his interpretation of scripture, Williams posed a serious challenge to a colonial society in which the Bible was the paramount guide in every aspect
of life, both public and private.