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Roger Williams Biography

roger williams standingCHILDHOOD, YOUTH AND COLLEGE YEARS: Childhood in London, 1603-1617

Roger Williams was born in the Smithfield district of London sometime between the years 1603 and 1606, on a street called Long Lane. Nobody has ever found the records of his birth or of his parents' marriage, so we don't know the exact dates of either. The parish church where the records would be kept burned in 1666, during the Great London Fire. In different years during his life Roger Williams wrote that he was "about" so many years old but the ages he gave don't come out to one birth date. Between 1603 and 1606 is as close as we can get. (We don't know what he looked like, either. No portrait was painted of him during his life and no physical description written. Any picture you see of him is the product of somebody's imagination.)

It is more interesting to think of 1603 as the year when he was born because that was a dramatic year in English history. Queen Elizabeth I died and James I became King of England. Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII, was a Tudor. James was a Stuart. The English people loved Elizabeth, who reigned for forty-five years. While she was queen England became rich and powerful, and explored the New World. The middle class, mostly city merchants and country gentry, grew larger in numbers and became more influential. The scene was set for changes when the new king came to power but as it turned out the changes led to trouble and conflict. Roger Williams grew up in a time of political and religious disagreement. He was lucky to survive infancy and grow up at all, because 1603 was a year of plague in London. People died by the thousands, and those who were able fled the city for the infection-free countryside. King James even asked Londoners to stay away from his coronation because so many had died the week before.

Roger Williams was a true city boy. London had a population of 210,000 in 1603. His neighborhood was one of busy, crowded, narrow streets. The buildings were a mixture of tenements, warehouses and taverns. Shops and homes shared the same wooden buildings. There were still open fields within walking distance of the neighborhood, but young Roger may have gone more often to the docks for excitement. There he could see tall sailing ships, listen to sailors talk, and watch cargoes from faraway places being unloaded. When he was thirteen the Indian princess Pocahontas, with her husband John Rolfe and their son, came to England from Virginia. Around the same time everyone was talking about John Smith's explorations, his maps of America and his writings.

Roger Williams' father was a Merchant Tailor, which did not then mean somebody who made clothes but a shopkeeper who sold imported cloth. The father became somewhat prosperous in his business but the best Roger could hope for in his station in life was to train as a clerk or "scrivener" (something like a secretary) and perhaps go into business himself. His education would have ended after grammar school.

PREPARATORY SCHOOL AND COLLEGE 1617-1627

As a young teenager in 1617 Roger Williams met Sir Edward Coke, a powerful lawyer who had been Chief Justice of the King's Bench. This meeting changed his life. They probably met when Sir Edward noticed Roger taking shorthand notes of the sermon in church. (Roger Williams did learn shorthand when he was very young, an unusual accomplishment at such an early age.) Sir Edward hired Roger to take shorthand for him, and a close relationship developed between them. In 1621 Sir Edward got Roger Williams admitted to the Charterhouse School, set up by a rich man especially for boys who could not afford to pay private school fees. This school prepared Roger Williams for college. In 1623 he was admitted to Cambridge University, and received his Bachelor's Degree in 1627. His university fees were paid at least partly by scholarship, but he may also have gotten some help from Sir Edward.

Roger Williams learned French and Dutch as a child, from refugees living in his neighborhood. By the time he graduated from Cambridge he could read and speak Latin, Greek and Hebrew and had also studied grammar, logic and rhetoric. All of this shows up in his writings.

PURITANISM, GRADUATE SCHOOL, AND CHAPLAIN'S POST IN ESSEX 1627-1620

The Anglican church, the national church of England, was established by Henry VIII in 1534. Before that time England was a Catholic country. All of European Christianity was Catholic until the Protestant Reformation, a religious revolution that took place in Western Europe in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was based on objections to doctrines and practices in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Two branches of Protestantism grew up, one in Germany and Scandinavia following Martin Luther, and one in other European countries following the teachings of John Calvin. The Anglican church, when established by Henry VIII, created a third Protestant branch. The Puritans, a seventeenth century movement within Protestantism, called for even greater reforms to return the churches to the early Christianity described in the New Testament. They wanted to "purify" the church, and got their name from that goal. English Puritans attacked the Anglican church for keeping Catholic rituals in the service and for keeping the same order of bishops and priests, only without the Pope.

Most English Puritans were members of the middle class that had become important while Elizabeth was queen. These issues about the church were matters of life and death to them—they lived in a time when religion was a major part of life. Almost everybody believed strongly in heaven and hell, and thought Christ would return to earth, perhaps in their own lifetime. These same Puritans had also become more powerful in government, and were well represented in Parliament (the English law-making body). They wanted to pass laws enforcing Puritan standards but King James took a strong Anglican stand. After James died in 1625 King Charles I was even more opposed to the Puritans. William Laud, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I, was the most powerful person in the Anglican church. He began a program of persecuting Puritans. By the late 1620's (when Roger Williams was at Cambridge), they were in danger of losing their political offices, their professional status and even their lands. It was more than just a religious issue; it was political because it concerned who would have power in the country. Parliament, now with many Puritan members, tried to limit the king's power and to enforce civil liberties. This struggle between the king and Parliament ended up in the 1640's as the English Civil War.

Chaplain in Essex

Roger Williams stayed in graduate school at Cambridge for a year and a half, training to be a minister. At some time during these months he became so committed to Puritan ideas that his conscience would not let him become an Anglican minister. Roger left Cambridge early in 1629 without finishing his graduate degree, to take a position as family chaplain in a private household in Essex County. It was common for well-to-do families, especially in the country, to have their own religious advisor. Essex was the home of many prominent Puritans and the place where most of the Puritan migration to America was organized in 1629. There Roger met Puritan leaders and ministers, some of whom he would later know in Massachusetts and others who later became powerful as England's rulers during the Civil War.
In December 1629 Roger Williams married Mary Barnard. They left England together for Massachusetts in December 1630. Roger was then twenty-seven and his wife was twenty-one. By that time Sir Edward Coke had become a member of Parliament and was a great fighter there for civil liberty. Roger Williams, meanwhile, had publicly expressed his own Puritan views. Sir Edward, a staunch Anglican and anti-Puritan, broke off their long and close relationship.

EARLY YEARS IN AMERICA: CONFLICT WITH MASSACHUSETTS PURITANS 1631-1635 Boston

As soon as Roger Williams arrived in Boston he was offered the post of teacher in the church there. (New England Puritan churches divided the minister's role between two people, one called the pastor and one the teacher.) To their surprise he turned the job down because the Boston church was not "separated" formally from the Anglican church, and was therefore not pure enough for his beliefs. From this time on Roger Williams forthrightly expressed his beliefs regardless of what it cost him in position, privilege or money. The Massachusetts leaders did not immediately see Roger Williams as a major threat to the community, but knowing now that he had "radical" ideas they watched him. When the town of Salem offered him the teacher position in their church the Boston leaders wrote the town a warning against hiring him. Williams moved to Plymouth, which was not then a part of the Massachusetts colony. It also had a Separatist church—that is, one that had completely withdrawn from the Anglican church.

Plymouth

Roger Williams was the assistant to the pastor in Plymouth until 1633. During this period he worked closely with the Indians, living with them and getting to know their language and their customs. It was one of his goals at this time to convert the Indians to Christianity, although some years later he gave up the idea. The native Londoner, Cambridge University graduate, chaplain to a titled family, now fell under the influence of the wilderness. It is almost impossible for us to imagine the changes this meant, but these years and the wilderness experience clearly affected how Roger Williams thought and lived for the rest of his life.

Salem

In 1633 Roger Williams moved to Salem and in 1634 did become teacher in the church. At this point troubles began between him and the Massachusetts government that led to his banishment from the colony in 1635. Roger Williams said what he thought, and what he now thought was a threat to authority in Massachusetts.

First, he was firmly set in his Separatist beliefs. He said that the Anglican church was corrupt; Massachusetts Puritans should publicly withdraw from it, denounce it, and have nothing to do with it. But these same Massachusetts Puritans hoped deep down that someday their party would come to power in England. The last thing they wanted was to separate from a church they might go back to and run on their own terms.

Second, he said that the magistrates (lawmakers and judges) could not punish offenses against the first four of the Ten Commandments. Massachusetts was then using the Bible as its lawbook. The governor and assistants regularly consulted the ministers for advice on legal and political matters. Church and state worked hand in hand in Massachusetts—and Roger Williams argued that they should be separate.

Third, Roger Williams claimed that the patent from King Charles by which the English held and governed lands in New England was invalid because England claimed the lands by "right of discovery" instead of buying them from the Indians. The Massachusetts leaders saw control of the colony as crucial to their own religious and political interests. They were already worried about a threat from the king to limit or remove their patent.

Fourth, Roger Williams objected to the use of an oath in taking evidence or swearing allegiance to the commonwealth. (Massachusetts had just adopted a residents' loyalty oath.) He said the oath, swearing before God, is an act of worship and should not be used in a non-sacred way.

Fifth, when Roger Williams was called to account by the Massachusetts authorities for these positions, the Salem church protested his threatened banishment. They wrote to other churches in the colony, but their letters were suppressed. Roger Williams and another church elder then wrote to Boston claiming their right to communicate directly with the membership of other local churches, a demand for democracy in the churches.

Banishment

Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts in October 1635. His original idea was not to found another colony himself, but to live among the Indians and preach to them. Roger Williams had earned his living in Plymouth by farming and by trading with the Indians. Ministers had to till the soil and do hard physical labor like everybody else in the primitive new world conditions. Several people from the Salem church approached him with the idea of leaving with him, though, and so the idea of a colony was formed. They planned to search for a site in the spring. Williams himself left Salem in haste in January to escape deportation to England. He survived the winter by finding shelter with the Indians. When his companions joined him they moved onto a piece of land that Roger Williams had bought from Massasoit, the Wampanoag chieftain, while he was still living in Plymouth. It turned out that the land lay within Plymouth's territory, and the authorities asked them to leave. So they paddled across the Seekonk River and had their famous meeting with the Narragansett at Slate Rock, a spot now at the corner of Williams and Gano Streets on the east side of Providence. Williams' first word of greeting to the little group of Indians he saw on the opposite shore was "What Cheer, Netop?" Guided by Indian suggestion, they continued from there to the site where Providence was founded at a spring that is now part of a national park along a portion of North Main Street.

EARLY YEARS IN RHODE ISLAND 1636-1643

Roger Williams and his few companions founded Providence in Narragansett Indian country with no authority of any kind from England. But in keeping with Roger Williams' principles, they bought the land from the Indians. His friendship with the sachems Canonicus and Miantonomu made this possible. He was later to say that Rhode Island was purchased "by love"—the Indians would not have sold to anybody else, even at a much higher price. When their families arrived, the original colony included eight households with a total of about thirty-two people.

The Colonial Covenant

Democracy is not a word many seventeenth century people used, or a concept they held up to admire. But it is the closest term we have for the way Providence was set up. They spoke of a government based on "mutual consent" which meant by majority vote of the male heads of households. The settlers formally incorporated Providence as a town in 1637. It is worth reading in full the covenant of incorporation to get an idea of how the small group saw their colony.

"We whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to submit ourselves in active or passive obedience to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major consent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a town fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto them, only in civil things”. This is not a democracy as we understand it. Only male heads of households could vote. There was also the question of how to admit other people to the colony and who should have the power to admit or reject them. Roger Williams bought the land in his own name, but from the beginning he granted admittance to anybody who came along. Later, he gave up sole proprietorship of the land in favor of group title to it. The original colonists each had a house lot, farmland, and grazing meadow. The rest of the land was held in common by the town. Roger Williams wanted newcomers to get equal shares in it that would be the same as those the first settlers got, but this became a source of conflict because not all the original colonists shared his ideals.

One thing never in question from the first day was religious freedom and church-state separation. Rhode Island never set up a state church as Massachusetts had done with Congregationalism. Rhode Island alone let people of all religions move in and stay, and the government had power to compel obedience "only in civil things." This difference is visually evident even in our own day. Towns in other New England states all have a village green with a Congregational church at the head of it—a charming sight, but a relic of religious conformity. Rhode Island towns don't have village greens because they were not laid out with the church as a central focus. (See map of early Providence.)

Events of Rhode Island's Early Years

Although the Massachusetts leaders thought Roger Williams was too dangerous to live among them, they called on him to protect their safety and to do diplomatic service with the Indians. It was no secret that he was a good friend of the Indians and a very good negotiator in all kinds of situations. He did this for years, serving Massachusetts well in spite of the hard treatment they had given him—even in spite of their frequent attempts to claim Rhode Island lands.

His first mission probably saved the Massachusetts colony altogether. He talked the Narragansett out of joining in a treaty with the Pequot Indians against the English. As a result, when the Pequot War broke out in 1637 Massachusetts destroyed the Indians rather than the other way around. Roger Williams was almost the only person to protest the wholesale slaughter of the Pequot and the enslavement of captives. In spite of this, he was the key negotiator in the treaty that distributed the Pequot captives among the Narragansetts and Mohegans who fought on the side of the English. Over the years Roger Williams mediated cases of English and Indians involved in murders, thefts, plots, and jurisdictional disputes.

1637 was also the year that Anne Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts. Her family and others leaving with her came to Aquidneck Island, where Roger Williams arranged for them to buy land from the Indians. They founded the town now known as Portsmouth. In the midst of all his negotiations for others, Roger Williams had to build his house, work his farm, and try to support his family. He also established an Indian trading post at Wickford.

In 1638 Roger Williams became a Baptist, but not for long. All his life he searched Scripture and his conscience for truth in religion. It was a search in which he could not compromise. Once he was convinced of an idea, he acted on it in his own religious practice. With other Rhode Islanders he founded the first Baptist church in America in 1639. He left it within a year, when he decided that he could not belong to any church because none of them could present good enough proof of uninterrupted succession from Christ's original apostles. He later became a Seeker, the name given to a sect that began in England. Seekers denied that there were any true churches and urged people to worship God "alone, without any church at all."

From 1638 on Rhode Island struggled to remain independent. Differences over control of land led some colonists in Warwick to offer to join Massachusetts so that they could continue to own the land. This group was in conflict with Samuel Gorton, who also settled in Warwick. They put the whole colony in jeopardy by their actions. Roger Williams was sent to England in 1643 to try to get an English patent officially recognizing Rhode Island and confirming its boundaries. He sailed from New Amsterdam (New York after the English took it over from the Dutch in 1664) because as a banished person he wasn't allowed in Massachusetts.

WRITER AND DIPLOMAT 1643-1645

While Roger Williams was on board ship he wrote his first book, A Key Into the Language of America. It is a dictionary or phrase book of the Indian language, but also much more. It explains Indian culture and customs and features poetry by the author. The knowledge and understanding contained in this book show his familiarity with the Indians, and his ability to accept their culture as having its own worth. This book was published in England and its popularity made Roger Williams well known there. While he was in England he also published several books promoting separation of church and state, opposing a national church as a violation of individual conscience, and saying that the teachings of Jesus do not allow persecution for any religious belief. One of the books, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, was publicly burned for its radical ideas of "tolerating all sorts of religion." By the time the burning took place, however, Roger had left England and was on board ship returning to Rhode Island.

When Roger Williams arrived in London in 1643, the issues that led to civil war were being fought in Parliament. Soon they would be fought on the battlefield. Roger Williams still had powerful friends in England, especially now that the Puritan party was on the rise. Ten months after he arrived, on March 14, 1644, he received a charter that established a land grant to Rhode Island and gave the colony the right to rule itself by a civil government of its own choice. He arrived back in Providence in September to a triumphant welcome from a fleet of fourteen canoes filled with his friends and neighbors.

OFFICER, TRADER, AND PREACHER 1644-1651

The next few years were a time of unrest during which Roger Williams headed the town of Providence as its chief officer. It took until 1647 for the four Rhode Island towns of Providence, Newport, Portsmouth and Warwick to agree to the terms of the charter and to join together officially. There was also a series of Indian disorders requiring his diplomatic services. When these tasks were finished Roger Williams left public life for his trading post at Wickford and his farm in Providence. He also spent much time preaching to the Indians at Wickford.

By this time Roger Williams had six children. He seems from his letters to be a loving husband and father even though his life took him away from his family often and for long periods. We do not know very much about Mary Williams except that she certainly had to manage by herself a great deal. There is a clue to Roger Williams' ideas about bringing up children in his description of Indian children. He considered them totally spoiled and on one occasion remarked to his Indian host that he would not allow such behavior from his own children.

RETURN TO COLONIAL SERVICE IN ENGLAND 1651-1654

Even after Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick agreed to join as one colony under the patent, political power struggles went on. William Coddington, a former supporter of Anne Hutchinson who had become governor of Newport, tried to separate Aquidneck from the rest of the colony and get himself declared governor of Aquidneck for life. He went to England with a false claim that he had personally bought Aquidneck from the Indians. Once again Roger Williams went to England, this time with Dr. John Clarke and William Dyer, both of whom had also come to Rhode Island with Anne Hutchinson. They both had been punished in Massachusetts for expressing their religious beliefs, and Dr. Clarke wrote an account of it that led to strong feelings in England against Massachusetts. Roger Williams, too, published more pamphlets in England discussing his religious and political ideas. One of the strong beliefs he wrote about was his opposition to ministers being paid for their work. He called this pamphlet The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's and argued in it that a minister could not preach the true word of Christ if he took money for doing so. A paid minister's motivation, Roger said, came from the income and not from the inspiration of the Bible. The argument was influential because in both old and New England everybody's taxes went to support the official church and its ministers, whether the taxpayer was a member of that church or not—except, of course, in Rhode Island.

During this time Roger Williams also wrote in support of allowing Jews to enter England and live there in peace. This was a new idea in England. A couple of years after Roger Williams returned to Rhode Island the first Jews arrived there and were admitted. The first Quakers came about the same time. As with the Jews, Rhode Island was the only New England colony that would take in the Quakers.

Roger Williams and John Clarke were able to settle their business and defeat Coddington's case by October 1652. They had proof that Roger Williams had signed the Aquidneck deed and that the majority of Aquidneck voters opposed Coddington and wanted his commission revoked. It helped that Roger Williams' friend, Sir Harry Vane, was President of the Council of State. The Council confirmed the 1644 charter. However, Williams and Clarke had been assigned to work for a new charter, because Massachusetts, Connecticut and Plymouth were all pressing claims to parts of Rhode Island territory. This would take a long time, especially since the Puritans in Parliament split among themselves. They had deposed, defeated and beheaded King Charles I but they could not govern England in peace as a Puritan commonwealth. In 1653 Oliver Cromwell, the leading Puritan general who became Lord Protector of England after the king was defeated, dissolved Parliament just as the king had done. Roger Williams' friends were on the losing side in this power shuffle. He decided to return to Rhode Island where political chaos still threatened the colony's survival. He had already been asked to return and become governor (or president of the colony as the title was then). He had put off the request to complete his business in England. But now he left John Clarke behind to work for a new charter and accepted the job at home. It took Dr. Clarke until 1663 to get the charter. By that time the Puritan government had been overthrown altogether and the English returned to monarchy under King Charles II. Rhode Island ended up with a royal charter, but one that guaranteed religious freedom.

COLONIAL PRESIDENT AND PEACEMAKER 1654-1657

Roger Williams served three terms as Rhode Island's president, from 1654 to 1657. During these years he traveled back and forth between Providence, Warwick and Aquidneck Island trying to get the colonists to resolve differences and find the strength in unity they needed to survive as an independent colony. Indian uprisings continued during these years. By the time he left office, Rhode Island was a unified colony. In 1657 Roger Williams was about fifty-four years old, and Rhode Island had reached the traditional age of majority—twenty-one.

THE LAST QUARTER CENTURY 1658-1683

The first years of Rhode Island's life were Roger Williams' prime of life years. He spent those years in ceaseless, varied activity: religion, politics, diplomacy, local government, writing, farming, trading and studying. He devoted himself to learning everything he could, asking his friends to send him books on a variety of subjects such as geography. He was equally busy in body and mind, thinking through the ideas and the words of Scripture while walking from Boston to Providence (he was finally allowed to enter Massachusetts when he traveled to and from England in the 1650's), while crossing the Atlantic, or while rowing across Narragansett Bay. The classical learning of his schooldays also stayed with him all his life.

Roger Williams continued active service to the town of Providence and to the colony of Rhode Island until the very last years of his life. In 1675 the tragic Indian war known as King Philip's War took place. When the war began, both the English and the Indians in Rhode Island were neutral; but the Narragansett gave shelter to women and children of the Wampanoags, who were fighting against Massachusetts. Because of this English troops from Massachusetts and Connecticut invaded Rhode Island and attacked the Narragansett at their shelter for the Wampanoag in North Kingstown. This is the battle known as the Great Swamp Fight. The English won at heavy cost, but the Narragansett suffered even more terrible casualties. In revenge they attacked and burned Rhode Island towns, killing many people. Providence had evacuated most of its population to safety on Aquidneck Island. Roger Williams and twenty-six other men stayed behind in fortified houses to defend the town. Roger Williams parleyed with the Indians when they came, but although they would not hurt him they still burned the town, his own house included.

After the war ended Roger Williams and his wife had to be supported by their son, with whom they lived. Roger Williams continued in various official jobs for the town and took part in organizing its rebuilding. He was lame and crippled in his later years, with aches and pains that often laid him low. But he never refused a call to service as long as he could stand and drag himself around. If we take "that wonderful year, 1603" as the date of his birth, he was eighty when he died in poverty in 1683. According to the town records, he was honored at his funeral with a parade through the town and a militia salute over his grave.

Roger Williams lived simply, with his service to the state its own reward. In his lifetime he knew no fame or wealth. The only record we have of public appreciation during his lifetime is the welcome he received when he returned to Providence with the patent from Parliament in 1644. He did know the love of family and friends, along with the loneliness and condemnation that came because he followed his ideas to the end. His children honored and protected him in his old age, never complaining or caring that their father took a path that left them without inheritance, even though Roger Williams could have chosen one that led to comfort. To do that, however, he would have had to choose conformity as well; and that is one of the few things Roger Williams would list as impossible.

SUMMARY OF ROGER WILLIAMS' MAJOR IDEAS

1. Separation of Church and State

Roger Williams is most closely associated in people's minds with the concepts of religious freedom and toleration, and with what we have come to call separation of church and state: that there be no officially recognized or mandated form of religious worship, no state-sanctioned church, and no financial support of any religious body with public funds. No particular religious point of view should be expressed as public policy in legislation. All religions should be equally free to operate without governmental limit or interference. No individual should be persecuted or penalized for a religious belief or expression. Government should deal strictly with civil affairs, and each church should deal exclusively with religious matters.

Roger Williams espoused all these precepts but it is important to note that the source of his concerns was itself religious. The freedom he cherished most was, in the oft repeated phrase, "soul liberty." Although he addressed himself to a number of secular issues in his various political roles, his advocacy of church-state separation sprang from a concern for the purity of the church itself, not for the civil rights of the populace. He was searching for a pure and uncorrupted path in the service of God and towards salvation. He felt that the church—and religion--would be contaminated by contact with worldly affairs; the church should deal only with the affairs of God. Regardless of his thinking, its effect in colonial Rhode Island was a kind of freedom unknown elsewhere. Religious persecution was endemic in Europe in his day, and in Massachusetts the state joined with the church to banish dissenters within their own flock, to jail, whip and banish Baptists and Quakers, to prohibit entry to Jews, and ultimately to hang Quakers who came back once too often.

2. Individual Rights

In Roger Williams' mind this was a corollary to church-state separation and religious freedom. He felt that nobody should be in danger of punishment or hardship "for conscience' sake." In contrast to Massachusetts, Roger Williams advocated tolerance of error in the interest of freedom of conscience. He held that God reserved unto Himself the prerogative of calling sinners to account for religious error, and that this judgment would take place after death. He believed, based on his reading of Scripture, that Christ expressly forbade persecution of any individual because of his or her religious beliefs.

3. Religious Toleration/Liberty of Conscience

This principle follows naturally upon the ideas that nobody should be persecuted for religious beliefs and the state should not meddle in or regulate religion. Roger Williams supported admittance to Rhode Island of people of all faiths, not just all Christian faiths. This does not mean that he accepted all religious ideas as having merit. He was vehemently opposed to the Quakers' beliefs, for example, and considered the Indians' religion barbaric. Nevertheless he contended that it was not the province of any human being to pass judgment on religious error. (Apparently debating religious issues in the most denunciatory terms, as he did with a group of Quakers, did not count as judgment.) The phrase "liberty of conscience" reflects his attitude more than religious toleration. The latter suggests religions coexisting by permission of the state, and Roger Williams felt that people of all religions should be able to practice their faith in peace without having to seek government permission. He even favored extending this freedom to Catholics, whose religion he despised above all as riddled with corruption. If Catholics ever came to Rhode Island, he wrote, they would have to be admitted and left in peace to worship as all others were.

4. Government by Mutual Consent of the Governed

Roger Williams believed, as did Puritans in general, that government originates in an agreement between rulers and people. In this view, government is indeed an ordinance of God established to hold in check "evil propensities of fallen man." The rulers are in fact God's agents but they do not get their power directly from God. Authority comes from God to the people, and they pass it to the rulers through a covenant. Roger Williams supported liberty of conscience for women (see reference to the Verin case in notes on the biography) but apparently never thought of woman suffrage.

5. Equality of Participation in Government

This position can be inferred from the way Rhode Island was run in Roger Williams' day. It was in effect a democracy of the voters. Although suffrage was limited to male landholders (freemen) in a system typical of the seventeenth century, Roger Williams advocated broadening the voting populace as much as possible by making land readily available on an equal basis to original settlers and newcomers alike. He also favored land distribution to single men as well as heads of households. In advocating this kind of land arrangement Roger Williams differed from the policies of other New England colonies where the original landholders limited suffrage through strict control of distribution and where only Congregational church members could vote. Roger Williams also supported what we would call equality of opportunity— everybody gets land, in those days the basis of wealth and power. In Massachusetts, besides applying a religious test to voting rights the original colonial officials voted themselves huge grants of land. In Rhode Island, with no religious test for anything, Quaker freemen were numerous enough with the support of one or two splinter groups to gain control of the colonial government in a 1670's election. (Rhode Island was not admired in other colonies for its tolerant practices. A group of New Amsterdam ministers, refusing entry to a shipload of Quakers, commented in 1657, "We suppose they went to Rhode Island, for that is the receptacle of all sorts of riff-raff people and is nothing less than the sewer...of New England. All the cranks of New England retire thither...They are not tolerated...in any other place.")

6. Pacifism or Non-violence

Roger Williams was opposed to the use of force, also on the basis that it was un-Christian. He said that Christ does not rule by the sword. Therefore no government should try to force its will on another through war, and no government can claim, in effect, "God is on our side." God is involved only in religious, not temporal affairs. Williams felt that all governments instituted by human beings were equal, should not judge each other, and should deal with each other peaceably in worldly affairs, such as trade. God approved of government but He did not favor one people or one kind of government over another. Laws and governments would vary as needs and circumstances of different people varied, and it was therefore wrong for any government to demand that another conform to its own standards. He applied this principle to his dealings with the Indians, approaching them on equal terms in spite of despising their religion and finding many of their customs barbarous. He acknowledged each tribe as a people and its government as valid and legal as English government. However, Roger Williams did not completely rule out war in self-defense. He supported the Pequot War in 1637 because he felt that the Pequots were clearly the aggressors. He opposed a proposed punitive expedition against the Niantic in 1640, writing to Governor Winthrop that "I...doubt whether any other use of war and arms be lawful to the professors of the Lord Jesus, but in execution of justice upon malefactors at home: or preserving of life and lives in defensive war, as was upon the Pequots... .Isai 2 Mic 4." (Note the Scriptural citations.)

Roger Williams believed that the purpose of government is to protect the bodies and goods of the people. In this light, to wage aggressive war is destructive of both, but to fight in defense of life and property when attacked is permissible.

7. Scope of Government in Issues of Morality and Public Welfare

Although Roger Williams denied the state's right to interfere in any way with religious freedom, he supported the state's right to enforce a community code of morality through the rule of law, and he believed that code should be based on the fifth through tenth of the Ten Commandments. He felt that the state should not address the first four commandments, as they related to purely religious matters. He gave the state wide leeway in controlling behavior that threatened the public safety. He included quarreling, disobedience, uncleanness and lasciviousness in his list of threatening behavior along with murder and theft. He thought that if Government paid due respect to people's consciences it could regulate morality without infringing on religious freedom. He believed it the duty of the civil magistrate to punish actions against public safety and welfare even if those actions were taken on the basis of conscience. He gave examples such as human sacrifice, practiced for conscience sake in Mexico and Peru (this example also shows once again how well informed and well read he was in his obscure New England "sewer"). He also gave such examples as the protection of chastity, giving the government the right to prohibit prostitution, censor books, prescribe proper dress and use the "civil sword" to cut off "the monstrous hair of women upon the heads of some men." Quaker men, for example, wore their hair long as part of their religious ordinances. Roger Williams did not specifically say so, but this logic suggests he would have supported punishing Quakers who were led by the inner light to go naked in public. Roger Williams supported compulsory militia service in Rhode Island when war threatened in the 1670's and prosecuted pacifist dissenters from military service.

8. Racial Equality

Roger Williams believed that all human beings were equal in the eyes of God. He carried out this belief throughout his life in his dealings with the Indians. His own words say it best. "Nature knows no difference between Europe and Americans in blood, birth, bodies etc. God having of one blood made all mankind... " That statement, and the following poem are from the Key Into the Language of America.

"Boast not, proud English, of thy birth and blood,
Thy brother Indian is by birth as good. Of one blood God made him, and thee and all. As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.
By nature wrath's his portion, thine no more
Till Grace his soul and thine in Christ restore.
Make sure thy second birth, else shalt thou see
Heaven open to Indians wild, but shut to thee."

Source: The Legacy of Roger Williams Study Guide: A Project Commemorating the Tercentenary of His Death, sponsored by the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, 1983.

 

Roger Williams Memorial