- Williams, Roger
- (c. 1603-1683)Puritan champion of freedom of religionRoger Williams was born in London around 1603. His father, James Williams, was a well-to-do tailor. Williams studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, where he received a scholarship based on his facility with the classical languages. He graduated in 1627.After leaving Cambridge, Williams was ordained in the Church of England and became the chaplain to a wealthy family. By this time, he had become alienated from the Church of England and increasingly identified with the Puritan independents. He left England with his wife and arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, early in 1631. He worked as a Puritan (Congregational) minister in Salem and Plymouth, but soon ran into conflict with fellow ministers, both on theological issues and on his advocacy of Free Church ideals.He was brought before the Salem Court on several occasions for his "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions." Among his most controversial ideas was his suggestion that the land now occupied by the British colonists belonged to the Native Americans, not the king. He also refused to serve any congregation that recognized the Church of England (a touchy issue as most Puritans still wanted to reform the Church of England, rather than separate from it). Possibly the ultimate heresy was his opposition to enforced religious uniformity in New England in favor of what he termed "soul-liberty," by which he would grant each colonist a liberal freedom of opinion on religious matters. in 1635, he was deported from Massachusetts. Rather than return to England, he headed south and found refuge among native people. He purchased land from the Narragansett people and in 1636 founded the colony of Rhode island and the future city of Providence.in the summer of 1643, Williams traveled to England to obtain a charter for Rhode island, so as to keep the Puritans from taking over the settlement. The charter provided corporate status for Providence, Newport, and Portsmouth. Because of the political turmoil in England and the change in regimes, Williams had to return to England in 1651 to renew the charter; after the restoration of the monarchy, his colleague John Clarke (1609-76) finally obtained a royal charter for Rhode island in 1663. in the meantime, Williams worked on his first important book, Key into the Languages of America, published in London in 1643. With its appearance, he was recognized as an authority on the native peoples.While in England in 1643, Williams published the first of a series of pamphlets concerning religious liberty and related issues of church-state relations, The Bloody Tenant of Persecution. His belief that true religion had to be freely adopted and conversion should never be coerced led him to invite Jewish refugees to settle in peace in Newport. His ideas on the separation of church and state were the seed for the First Amendment religious freedoms enshrined in the United States Constitution.Williams is generally looked upon as the founder of the first Baptist Church in America. He had been rebaptized in 1639 and became the leader of a small group, but withdrew from the church after only a few months and afterward considered himself a "Seeker." He remained a dedicated Christian, but had doubts about how the church should be organized. The group he formed, however, continues to this day as the First Baptist Church of Providence.Roger Williams died at Providence in 1683.Further reading:■ Samuel Brockunier, The Irrepressible Democrat, Roger Williams (New York: Ronald Press, 1940)■ Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1991)■ Glenn W. LaFantasie, ed., The Correspondence of Roger Williams (Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1988)■ Perry Miller, Roger Williams, A Contribution to the American Tradition (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953)■ Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenant of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Richard Groves, ed. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2001).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.