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Jul 4, 2000

An Open Society: A Biography of Roger Williams

Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island and was an important advocate of freedom of religion.

The most dramatic opportunities for religious liberty opened up in the New World as persecuted people fled from England.

Roger Williams was the greatest pioneer. He went beyond toleration and insisted that people be free to worship according to their conscience. “It is impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by the sword,” he wrote.

He established the American colony of Rhode Island, the first sanctuary for religious liberty. “The creation of Rhode Island was,” wrote historian Paul Johnson, “a critical turning point in the evolution of America. It not only introduced the principles of complete religious freedom and the separation of church and state, it also inaugurated the practice of religious competition.”

Moreover, Williams got along peacefully with the Indians. He bought rather than expropriated land from them. He spent much of his career as a trusted peacemaker between Indians and whites. “Williams could treat Indian culture with respect,” observed biographer Perry Miller. “He was the only Englishman of his generation who could do so.”

Williams defied plenty of critics. One, the Scottish Presbyterian Robert Baillie, ridiculed Williams’ idea that the English government should be subject “to the free will of the promiscuous multitude.” Massachusetts minister William Hubbard called him “a man of a very self-conceited, unquiet, turbulent, and uncharitable spirit.” Plymouth historian Nathaniel Morton referred to “the great and lamentable Apostacy of Mr. Williams.” Other critics attacked Williams as “divinely mad.” Massachusetts officials derided Rhode Island as “the Sewer of New England.”

For decades, intolerant neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut schemed to seize Rhode Island’s territory, but Williams remained the most effective defender. Rhode Island people told him in 1652. “Wee may not neglect any opportunity to salute you…[who] make firme the fabricke under us…”

No portrait of Williams survives, and we have only a vague idea what he looked like. Biographer Cyclone Covey reported that “his hair turned white by 1664 at the latest. It is almost certain that he would have been clean-shaven. Beards, goatees, and heavy mustaches were common among Puritan magistrates, but not the fashion for…Puritan preachers, who wore no more than a thin mustache, if that…But no matter how much modern commentators may wish to make him into a secular attacker of Puritan religiosity, he remained a devout Puritan preacher and his mental habits always preacher-oriented. Remembering this fact of his primarily being a preacher will more than anything else clarify his perplexing career.”

Williams was respected by those who knew him best, including his adversaries. Massachusetts’ first governor William Bradford described him as “a man godly and zealous, having many precious parts.” After he was banished from Massachusetts, William Martin wrote another Massachusetts governor, John Winthrop: “I am sorry to hear of Mr. Williams separation from you…He is passionate and precipitate, which may transport him into error, but I hope his integrity and good intentions will bring him at last into the way of truth…” For years after Williams’ banishment from Massachusetts, in which Winthrop played an important role, the two men carried on a warm correspondence. And Williams got along well with Winthrop’s son John who later became governor of Connecticut. “Your loving lines in this cold, dead season,” Williams wrote in 1660, “were as a cup of your Connecticut cider, which we are glad to hear abounds with you…”

Williams, who never had much money and died destitute, wrote this about his greatest achievement: “It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island. Rhode Island was purchased by love.”

Roger Williams was born in a rented house somewhere on Long Lane, London, around 1603, the third child of James Williams who might have been a cloth importer. Roger’s mother was Alice Pemberton who came from a family of landowners, merchants and goldsmiths. It was remarkable that Roger survived infancy since that year about one in six London children died from the bubonic plague. Accordingc to biographer Ola Elizabeth Winslow, “London became a ghost city.”

Williams acquired religious zeal and became aware of religious persecution. For instance, when he was about eight, the young London cloth merchant Bartholomew Legate was convicted of being a heretic and “burned to ashes.” Roger’s home was near Austin Friars, a church attended by Dutch and French refugees who, scorned by Londoners, rejected rituals of the Church of England. Williams developed a facility with both Dutch and French languages.

Perhaps at the church where he worshipped, Williams met Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, an outspoken champion of common law against kings James I and Charles I. Apparently Coke observed that Williams took shorthand notes of the sermons and hired him as a secretary in 1617. Coke sponsored Williams for admission to Charterhouse School, which he attended for three years, and for Pembroke Hall, Cambridge University, which he entered in June 1623. At the time, Cambridge and Oxford universities offered the only higher education available in England. Williams objected to government influence there. The universities, he wrote, “changed their taste and color to the Princes eye and Palate.”

On December 15, 1629, at High Laver Church (where natural rights philosopher John Locke was later buried), Williams married Mary Barnard who worked as an aristocrat’s companion. “The poor parson and the maid settled it between themselves without benefit of protocol,” explained biographer Winslow.

Soon the government began intensifying its suppression of religious dissent. The clear signal came when, in July 1629, King Charles I named William Laud to be Bishop of London. Dissenter Alexander Leighton had his nose slit, his face branded and his ears cut off. Thomas Hooker escaped to Holland.

America loomed as a promising refuge since Presbyterian Pilgrims from East Anglia had founded the Colony of New Plymouth in 1620. They wanted to establish a purified version of the Church of England which they saw as hopelessly corrupt. The 1620 Mayflower Compact specified government by majority rule.

Then in 1629 Thomas Dudley, Richard Saltenstall and John Winthrop secured from King Charles I a charter delegating his sovereignty in New England to the Massachusetts Bay Company. The men were Congregationalists who believed each congregation should govern itself, and only church members could participate in civil government. Both Presbyterians and Congregationalists believed government should enforce their religious beliefs on everybody.

On December 10, 1630, Roger and Mary Williams boarded the Lyon for Salem, Massachusetts. Fifty-seven days later, they anchored in Boston Harbor. Williams was quickly offered the honored position of teacher at the Boston church which observed the rituals of the Church of England, but by this time he had apparently come to believe it was wrong for government to enforce religious beliefs, and he turned down the job. “The Civil Magistrate’s power,” he wrote, “extends only to the Bodies and Goods, and outward state of men.”

He became acquainted with Indians. He traded and learned their language. For a while, his primary aim was converting Indians to Christianity. He listened to the Indians, heard about their grievances — especially settlers taking their land. Williams wrote a Treatise saying that New England land belonged to the Indians unless they sold it. He objected to English settlers who justified taking land from the Indians on the ground that they didn’t have any property rights. He countered that “the Natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People.” All this was shocking to English people who were proud of explorers like John Cabot who had claimed land in the New World for their king.

On July 5, 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts charged Williams with holding “dangerous opinions.” He was told he had eight weeks to “give satisfaction to the court, or else to expect the sentence.” On October 9th, the General Court ordered him to leave the colony within six weeks.

Sometime in January 1636, he headed south into the wilderness, amidst a bitter-cold winter. Joined by a dozen friends, he reached the headwaters of Narragansett Bay and began to build a settlement and plant crops on the east bank of the Seekonk River. But Plymouth Colony governor Edward Winslow told him he was still on Plymouth territory, and he would have to start over building a settlement on the other side of the river.

Williams had little time to prepare for a harsh winter, but as biographer Edwin S. Gaustad observed, “The hardness of that first year was mitigated chiefly by the trusting relationship Williams had developed with the Narragansett Indians. He had traded with them, lived with them, respected them, and they had confidence in him. Now they came to his aid.” They agreed to sell him land, seeds and food. On March 24, 1637 or 1638, there was a ceremony at Pettaquamscutt Rock to officially confirm that Williams had properly purchased land from the Narragansetts. The resulting deed, known as The Towne Evidence, shows that Providence began as his private land purchase. He gave the land to the Town Fellowship which included 13 of his associates. Providence was officially incorporated on August 20th. Settlers who followed him established Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick.

Apparently Williams intended to retain ownership of the land, but some of his associates demanded squatter’s rights for the parcels they worked. He asked that his associates contribute toward community improvements like roads, bridges and schools, and there don’t seem to have been any objections. Williams made a living by planting crops and trading with Indians.

The colony became known as a sanctuary for religious toleration, attracting all kinds of immigrants, and Williams became uncomfortable with many. There was riotous Samuel Gorton, Ann Hutchinson with her own following and, most disturbing to Williams, the Quakers. To his credit, as John Winthrop noted, “Mr. Williams and the rest did make an order, that no man should be molested for his conscience.”

Despite the agreement with the Narragansetts, Providence was vulnerable. At any time, Massachusetts or Connecticut could have sent forces to wipe him out. If he had gone back to England, as a recent exile from Massachusetts, he wouldn’t have secured a royal patent legitimizing the settlement. So he stayed and defends his position as a squatter.

Massachusetts needed his expertise dealing with Indians, and officials there called on him a number of times. Besides the Narragansetts, reported biographer Winslow, “he knew Massasoit, chieftain of the Wampanoags, and also understood something of the long story of family feuds, inter-tribal jealousies, and lusty revenges which slumbered among the Pequots, fiercest and most unscrupulous of all the Indians in the region. An Indian to him was not just an Indian; he was a Pequot, a Cowsett, a Mohawk, a Nyantic, a Wampanoag, a Nipmuc, and a Shawomet. In his trading operations along the Cape and inland thus far, he had dealt with members of the rank and file of all these tribes, but fortunately for what was yet to come, he had seen to it that he knew them also at the top level through their chieftains. By all this previous knowledge and direct acquaintance, he had laid foundations which would serve him well as ambassador of peace between red and red, as well as between white and red.

“Among his acquired qualifications for such a role,” Winslow continued, “his ease with the Indian language was by all odds the most important…The sachems [Indian chiefs] soon discovered that they could not deceive this man, and would not be deceived by him through misinterpretation…In their personal need his friendliness knew no limits. Indians as well as English found their way to his door in confidence at all times…”

More people settled in Providence, and there were internal disputes. These, in turn, triggered disputes with Massachusetts and Connecticut. When in 1643 several men asked Massachusetts to uphold their land claims in Providence, it became clear that Providence must seek a royal patent to help secure its independence. Williams was the best bet to get it.

He sailed from New Netherlands in March of 1642 or 1643. He spent his time writing a book, A Key into the Language of America. He offered about 2,500 Indian phrases relating to greetings, food, shelter, land, weather, trading, religion and other topics. Moreover, he shared his many insights about Indians. The book was published in London, September 7, 1643, and it proved to be quite popular, because there was much interest in American Indians — especially how to make them into Christians.

This was a bad time to get action on Providence, because England was embroiled in civil war, and King Charles I was fighting to save his throne. He feared that freedom of conscience would mean chaos — a “stupendous inundation of Heresie,” as one pamphleteer put it. Williams did have some friends. One was 22-year-old Henry Vane who, after having been governor of Massachusetts, returned to Parliament and supported religious toleration. Williams also befriended John Milton whose speech, published as Areopagetica (1644), was a plea to abolish the pre-licensing of printed works. At that time, if a book were published without a government license, it could be burned. Williams helped Milton learn Dutch, while Milton helped Williams learn Greek.

On December 10, 1643, two agents for the Massachusetts colony secured what became known as the Narragansett Patent for the territory Williams had purchased from the Indians. It was a phony document without proper signatures or seals, but unless Williams secured an authentic patent, the phony document might gain acceptance, and he would lose everything. Less than 10 months after he had arrived in England, on March 14, 1644, Williams was awarded the “Free Charter of Civil Incorporation and Government for the Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay in New England.” This joined the four towns — Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick — in a single colony. The charter further empowered people in Providence Plantations to govern themselves. Williams wrote, “The form of government established in Providence Plantations is DEMOCRATICAL, that is to say, a government held by the free and voluntary consent of all, or the greater part, of the free inhabitants.” In Newport, the Court of Elections adopted Rhode Island as the name of the colony.

Meanwhile, Williams plunged into religious controversies. On February 5, 1644, he wrote Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered, venting his anger at John Cotton who had played a role in banishing him from Massachusetts. Then Williams wrote Queries of Highest Consideration in which he appealed to Parliament, saying “remember that religion is not your care. The Bodies and Goods of the Subject is your charge. Leave their Souls to the Messengers and Embasssadors sent from Heaven….”

On July 15th, Williams’ provocatively-titled The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution, for cause of Conscience was published in London. The book presented a case that religious toleration wasn’t enough; there must be unqualified religious liberty “to diverse and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile.” He continued, “God requireth not an uniformity of Religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state.” Parliament voted “for the public Burning of one Williams his Book, entitled, &c. the Tolerating of all Sorts of Religion.” Fortunately, some of Williams’ friends in Parliament had copies, and he brought copies back to America.

Williams certainly wasn’t the first to call for religious liberty. Earlier pamphlets such as The Compassionate Samaritan and Liberty of Conscience advocated religious liberty, but Williams defended it in tough times. One Robert Baillie denounced religious liberty as “so prodigious an impiety.” Richard Baxter called religious liberty “soul-murder.” Thomas Edwards attacked it as the “grand design of the devil, his masterpiece, and chief engine he works by at this time to uphold his tottering kingdom.” Nathaniel Ward couldn’t conceive a “worse Assertion than that men ought to have liberty of Conscience.”

Williams arrived back in Boston on September 17, 1644 and proceeded to Providence where he was named the “chief officer.” Three years later, in May 1647, Portsmouth and Newport agreed to join with Providence. There would be a “democratic” arrangement based on “the free and voluntary consent of all, or the greater part of the free inhabitants.”

During the next two decades, there were more efforts to destroy Rhode Island as a sanctuary for religious toleration, and fending each of them consumed Williams’ energies.

He wrote more pamphlets including The Examiner Defended which affirmed his defense of “Soul-freedom.” Not until July 18, 1663did all the challenges end as King Charles II granted Rhode Island its first royal charter. It specified that “No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called in question, for any difference of opinion in matters of religion…” Oppressed people flocked there.

During the late 1670s, Williams’ health began to fail. It didn’t help that he was destitute — he had long ago sold his trading business and his properties to help the colony. He died in 1683 sometime between January 16th (when he signed a deed) and April 25th (when William Carpenter signed a deed, referring to himself as the last survivor from the original 13 proprietors of Pawtuxet). Williams was buried behind his house which subsequently burned.

He was still considered a mortal enemy by intolerant Puritans. Massachusetts’ Cotton Mather, for instance, wrote in 1702: “There was a whole country in America like to be set on fire by the rapid motion of a windmill in the head of one particular man, Roger Williams.” Mather warned that his ideas menaced “the whole political, as well as the ecclesiastical, constitution of the country.”

During the 19th century, historian George Bancroft interpreted Williams as a Jeffersonian, and this view prevailed through the 1920s. Vernon L. Parrington, for instance, wrote, “The just renown of Roger Williams has too long been obscured by ecclesiastical historians…He was primarily a political philosopher rather than a theologian — one of the acutest and most searching of his generation of Englishmen, the teacher of Vane and Cromwell and Milton, a forerunner of Locke and the natural-rights school, one of the most notable democratic thinkers that the English race has produced.” Other historians have countered that Williams was primarily concerned with religious, not political, principles.

Modern critics like biographer Perry Miller carped at Williams’ personal failings. “Roger Williams was exiled as much because he was a nuisance as because he was subversive,” Miller wrote. He conceded, however, that “the American character has inevitably been molded by the fact that in the first years of colonization there arose this prophet of religious liberty…as a figure and a reputation he was always there to remind Americans that no other conclusion than absolute religious freedom was feasible in this society.”

Roger Williams championed religious toleration. He showed that separating church and state would bring peace. The ideas practiced in his fragile colony ultimately prevailed in the United States and inspired people around the world.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.