Roger Williams

I. Introduction

Roger Williams, an English religious nonconformist, founded the American colony of Rhode Island in the 1630s under the principles of religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. Williams’s example contributed to the adoption of a system of religious tolerance by the framers of the Constitution of the United States.

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He is an English Puritan clergyman and founder of the American colony of Rhode Island. He was born in London and educated at the University of Cambridge, which had become a centre of religious controversy. An advocate of Calvinist theology, he was a member of the party that opposed the ecclesiastical organization of the established Church. Upon taking holy orders, he served as chaplain to a Puritan household in Essex, and his association there with the Puritan leaders Oliver Cromwell, John Winthrop, and Thomas Hooker led to his complete separation from the Anglican Church.[1]

Shortly after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World by Winthrop and others, as a refuge for the persecuted Puritans of England, Williams immigrated to New England, arriving in Boston in February 1631. He rejected an invitation to serve as temporary pastor of the Boston congregation because that church had not officially severed ties with the Church of England. He then obtained an appointment as teacher of the church in Salem, Massachusetts, but following a disagreement with the Boston authorities concerning the regulation of religious matters, he went to Plymouth Colony as assistant pastor. In 1633 he was permitted to return to Salem as an assistant teacher, and in 1634 he was appointed teacher.

Williams again found himself in conflict with the colonial government when he challenged the validity of the Massachusetts Bay charter, which gave the authorities power to appropriate Native American lands without compensation and to establish a uniform faith and worship among the colonists. He asserted that only direct purchase from the Native Americans constituted a valid title to land, and he denied the right of the government to punish what was considered religious infractions.[2]  In October 1635, the Massachusetts general court issued an order banishing Williams from the colony; in January 1636, he escaped deportation by the authorities and began a journey to Narragansett Bay.

This paper investigates the life of Roger Williams and his contributions.

II. Background

A. Who is Roger Williams?

Roger Williams was an American Puritan intellectual and founder of Rhode Island: b. London, England. He was the son of James Williams, “Citizen and Merchant Taylor of London,” and Alice Pemberton, daughter of Robert Pemberton and Catherine Stokes, both of St. Albans trading families. As a youth Williams was employed by the jurist Sir Edward Coke, who arranged for his entrance in 1621 to the Charterhouse. In 1623, Williams was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge; he took his Bachelor of Arts degree in July 1627. In late 1628, he became chaplain to Sir William Masham, in Otes, Essex Country, where on December 15, 1629; he married Mary Barnard (Bernard), the daughter, probably, of the Rev. Richard Bernard, “conformable Puritan” and author of the popular allegory, The Isle of Man.

In the summer of 1629, Williams attended the conference at Sempringham called by the Puritans, among them John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, to consider the possibility of emigration to America. On December 10, 1630, Williams sailed from Bristol on the ship Lyon and landed at Nantasket on February 5, 1631. Chosen teacher of the Salem church, he declined the appointment, charging that the congregation had not “separated” from the Church of England. He moved to Plymouth, where he preached for a year, but even in that Separatist colony his “strange opinions” caused “some controversies between the church and him.”

In 1633, Roger Williams accepted a call to the Salem pulpit, and immediately demanded that all the New England churches “separate”. He also challenged the Massachusetts government, claiming its charter was invalid because the king had no power to grant land, which could be rightly acquired only as the colonists “compounded with the natives”.[3] When Williams added that Charles I was an ally of anti-Christ and the conveyed these sentiments in letter to the king, he was called before the Massachusetts General Court.

He apologized, but on April 30, 1635, he was again summoned, charged this time with holding that the government had no right to punish violations of the first commandments and that “a magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man.” The Massachusetts leaders wondered why Roger Williams, whom Gov. John Winthrop considered a “godly minister,” should deny them powers that seemed so clearly warranted by Scripture. Cotton privately, then Hooker before the court, examined Williams, but they “could not reduce him from any of his errors.” On October 9, 1635, Roger Williams was convicted of venting “new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates” and was sentenced to banishment from the colony.[4]

In April 1636, Roger Williams and his few companions reached the spot he was to call Providence—out of his “Sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress.” He purchased land from the natives and parceled it out for use. He befriended the Indians and learned their language; during the Pequot War (1637), he served all New England as a negotiator. Yet orthodox Massachusetts remained hostile to Rhode Island, where it was ordered “that no man should be molested for his conscience.”

In 1638, Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America. He soon left the Baptists, however, and called himself a “Seeker.” He made a trip to England and in 1644 secured a charter for the colony of “providence Plantations,” which included Providence and three nearby settlements. In 1633 Williams obtained from Charles II a renewal of his charter for “Rhode Island and providence Plantations.” His colony became a haven for Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and other religious groups. Roger Williams disagreed strongly with the Quakers but did not use the power of government to persecute them. The Puritan colonies distrusted Rhode Island and would not admit it to the New England Confederation (see Kelsay, John. The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Convictions and Public Ethics).

Moreover, Roger Williams sailed to England to procure a charter. While at sea, he composed A Key into the Language of America (London 1643), a testifying to his thoughtful appreciation of Indian culture. Roger Williams received his charter on March 14, 1644, and returned to Rhode Island to become the first “chief officer” of its “democratically” government.

The stay in London provided Roger Williams an opportunity to publish his matured views on church state relationships. On February 5, 1644, appeared his Mr. Cottons Letter, sent to Roger Williams in 1636, but “providentially” first printed while Roger Williams was in London, Cotton had contended that separatism unnecessarily weakened the church. Roger Williams ignored this argument and asked instead if any government had the right to “persecute” him for religious opinions. This question he pursued in the Queries of Highest Consideration (February 9, 1644), a rejoinder to The Apologetical Narration issued by the five Independent ministers attending the Westminster Assembly.[5] The assembly had been convened by parliament to decide what ecclesiastical polity should replace the church deposed by the Puritan Revolution. Roger Williams denied Parliament’s right of a uniform “national church.”

Meanwhile, Roger Williams prepared the volume which would stand as his most imposing monument—The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. In this work (July 15, 1644) Roger Williams disclosed the premises that underlay his lifelong advocacy of religious freedom. Far from anticipating Thomas Jefferson, Roger Williams arrived at his belief in separation of church and state through “typology—that is, he read the Old Testament not literally, but as a poetic “shadow” of the New testament. More orthodox divines found in Scripture a “pattern” of civil patronage of religion, but Roger Williams insisted that in the Christian era “all nations are merely civil, without any such upon Israel.” When Williams returned to the issue in 1652 with The Bloudy Tenet Yet More Bloudy (a final critique of Cotton’s argument that government must sustain the church) and The Hireling Ministry None of Christs (an attack on civil maintenance of the clergy), his postulates were still those of a mystic “typologist”.[6]

In his last years, Roger Williams was plagued by land and boundary disputes, one of which took him to England in 1651 to seek confirmation of the charter. He was reduced to poverty when his trade was disrupted by King Philip’s War (1675-1676), during which Williams, though well over 70, bore arms in New England’s defense. He was depressed by the land hunger and raging commercialism of New England; as an old man he looked on Quaker zeal hopefully as a revival of Puritan piety. He defended the Quaker right to religious freedom, but he nonetheless sought to expose their “errors.”

Though Roger Williams had briefly joined the Baptists in 1639 and considered himself thereafter a “seeker”, his theology had remained soundly orthodox. His Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health (London 1652), written originally for his wife, carried an enduring Puritan message: “If riches, if children, if friends, if whatsoever increase, let us watch that the heart fly not loose upon them.”[7] Trader and statesman, friend of New England governors and of Oliver Cromwell, Sir Henry Vane, and John Milton, Roger Williams, who even as a shaker of nations had never been wholly of this world, was perhaps the purest of American Puritans.[8]

III. Discussion

A. Religious Toleration

Williams became friendly with the Narragansett, making a study of their language. In 1636 he purchased lands from them. Together with a few companions he established the settlement of Providence and the colony of Rhode Island, naming the settlement in gratitude “for God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress”. The government of the colony was based upon complete religious toleration and upon separation of church and state. Each household exercised a voice in the conduct of government and received an equal share in the distribution of land. Accepting the practice of adult baptism by immersion, Williams was baptized by a layman in 1639; he subsequently baptized a small group and thus founded the first Baptist Church in America.[9]Later in the same year he withdrew from the church he had founded and declared himself to be a “seeker”, that is, one who accepts the fundamental beliefs of Christianity but does not profess a particular creed.

B.  The Providence Plantations

Williams went to England in 1643 and obtained (1644) a colonial charter incorporating the settlements of Providence, Newport, Plymouth, and Warwick as “The Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay”. During his sojourn abroad he wrote A Key into the Language of America (1643) and The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), the latter treatise being a notable work on the nature and jurisdiction of civil government. He also wrote the tract Christenings Make Not Christians (1645).

Upon returning to Rhode Island, Williams found that leadership of the colony had been assumed by the opponents of his democratic system, and in 1651 he returned to England in order to confirm the rights granted by the charter. During this visit he became a friend of the English poet John Milton.[10] Williams returned to Rhode Island in 1654 and was elected president of the colony, serving until 1657. Because of his policy of complete religious toleration, the colony was a haven for refugees from bigotry. Notable among these were Quakers (the Society of Friends) forced by persecution to leave the Boston area.

Williams became involved, however, in a controversy with the Quakers, the substance of which is contained in his work George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes (1676). When the Narragansett joined the Native American revolt of 1675, known as King Philip’s War, Williams served as a captain of forces defending Providence.[11] Thereafter, he participated in the political life of the colony until the time of his death in early 1683. He is chiefly remembered as one of the notable champions of democracy and religious freedom in the American colonies.

On the other hand, in 1633, John Haynes joined the Puritan emigration to America, settling in New Towne (now Caimbridge), Massachusetts Bay Colony. As governor of the colony in 1635 and 1636, he banished the clergyman and subsequent founder of the Rhode Island colony, Roger Williams. In 1637 Haynes settled in Hartford, Connecticut, and helped frame a new governing code for the colony called the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. Known as the first written constitution in North America, this series of laws provided for the election of a governor, six assistants, and a legislative assembly and included several other democratic provisions. Haynes was elected governor in 1639 and was re-elected under the provisions of the code in alternate years until his death.

Rhode Island entered the Union on May 29, 1790, as the last of the 13 original states (although it had been the first to declare independence in 1776). One of the first non-Native American settlers in the area of Rhode Island had been the religious leader Roger Williams, who in 1636 founded Providence, now the state capital. In the late 18th century the first US textile mill driven by water-power was built in Rhode Island. In the early 1990s manufacturing was the state’s second leading economic activity, exceeded only by the service sector.[12] The origin of the state’s name is unclear; it may refer to the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea or derive from a Dutch word meaning “red”. Rhode Island is known as the “Ocean State” or “Little Rhody”.[13]

C. The Baptist Church

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, English separatists of Congregational persuasion, founded the first Baptist church, on Dutch soil, at Amsterdam in 1609. Smyth eventually joined the Mennonites and Helwys returned to an unfriendly England. There, in 1611 or 1612, he led a small group of Christians in establishing the first Baptist church on English soil, at Spitalfields, near London. As they grew in number, English Baptists came to be divided between General Baptists and Particular Baptists. The former, who were Arminians (see Arminianism), believed that the spiritual benefits of the death of Jesus applied potentially to all people; the latter believed, with the Calvinists, that those benefits applied only to the elect (see Predestination). Eventually these two groups united in the 19th century, when theological issues had changed and the need of an effective missionary advance helped to draw them more closely together.[14] From their base in England, Baptists have grown to number more than 1 million members in Europe.

It was in America, however, that Baptists experienced their greatest growth. Roger Williams, an English Puritan clergyman, founded the first Baptist church in America at Providence, Rhode Island, in 1639. About the same time, the doctor and minister John Clarke established a Baptist congregation at Newport, Rhode Island. Frequently the subject of bitter persecution, the denomination at first grew slowly, but Baptist growth accelerated in the 18th century largely as a result of the movement known as the Great Awakening. Later in the same century, the Baptists ardently supported the American War of Independence and thus became more popular. In the 19th century the Baptists, like most other Protestant denominations, split over the issue of slavery. This led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.

In 1907 the northern Baptists formed the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches in the United States). In the midst of their growth, the Baptists had a strong appeal for members of the black community. Today, seven-eighths of the black population in the United States that claims denominational affiliation belongs to either a Baptist or a Methodist Church. In Canada, Baptist congregations were first formed about 1760, and the longest continuous history of a single Baptist church is claimed by a congregation organized in Horton (now Wolfville, Nova Scotia), in 1778.

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