Share This Article

There is perhaps no more personal issue than religion, and there are few things that Americans will defend more passionately than their right to believe as they choose. Freedom of religion is the first right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights—before freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

While Americans cherish this right, there is wide disagreement about where, exactly, the line between church and state belongs. American History looks at the origins of an issue that is central to our national character but remains divisive to this day.

Roger Williams challenged the Puritans and struck a blow for freedom of conscience Roger Williams does not stand tall among America’s Founding  Fathers. Compared with John Smith, William Bradford or John Winthrop, he is but a shadow. He receives none of the high esteem reserved for Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Yet Williams waged a one-man battle for what would become a fundamental right for all Americans: the freedom to worship without government intrusion. Especially over the past decade, religious freedom in the United States has been fiercely disputed and debated. While Americans enjoy freedom to worship as great as any other nation, many today seem willing to dispense with the separation of church and state that Williams advocated and to prefer instead a government that fully promotes Christian values and Protestant piety. For Williams, any hint of a combination of church and state was evidence of an insidious corruption that placed what he called “soul liberty” in extreme jeopardy. “Forced worship,” he wrote, “stinks in God’s nostrils.” Nothing in Williams’ background or his early life in England foretold his later experiences as one of America’s great dissenters. His origins were commonplace. He was born in London, the son of a merchant, about 1603. During his teens, Williams experienced a spiritual awakening that moved him to join the ranks of Puritan dissenters who opposed the ecclesiastical policies of the Church of England and King James I; his religious fervor, however, caused a falling out with his father, James, a stalwart supporter of the Anglican Church. Under the auspices of Sir Edward Coke, one of England’s most prominent jurists, Williams was educated at Cambridge, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in January 1627. But, for unknown reasons, he abruptly left the school sometime between December 1628 and February 1629 while studying for a master’s degree.

In the winter of 1629 he accepted employment as family chaplain in the household of Sir William Masham in the parish of High Laver, Essex. There, Williams gained the acquaintance of influential members of several landed Puritan families, including the Barringtons, Whalleys, Crom wells and Winthrops. His radical religious views, however, were already setting him apart from the beliefs of many other Puritans. On his way to an important meeting in Sempringham in the summer of 1629, Williams rode in the company of two noteworthy Puritan ministers, Thomas Hooker and John Cotton, and boldly pointed out their error in using the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Williams probably had not fully embraced separatism, but he was on his way toward rejecting the elements of religious conformity that were to be found in both the Anglican Church and among its dissenting Puritan congregations.

Although his living at the Masham estate was secure, Williams sought to chart a course that would satisfy his own ambitions. Sometime prior to the spring of 1629, he had contemplated emigrating to New England; according to his own testimony, he had received a “call” to accompany other Puritan emigrés there, but he had turned it down. Williams married Mary Barnard in December 1629, and a year later the young couple sailed from Bristol to New England. It is not certain why Roger and Mary Williams decided to quit the Old World, although Williams in later life claimed that William Laud, the archbishop of Canter bury and fierce persecutor of Puritans, “pursued me out of this Land.” It is unlikely, however, that Laud was waging a personal campaign against Williams, who was a relative unknown among the Puritan clergy; Williams probably regarded Laud’s generally harsh policies toward Puritans as threatening enough. Williams also said many years after his emigration that he had longed to deliver the gift of Christianity to the Indians, but his career as a missionary never panned out.

Williams and his wife arrived in Massachusetts Bay aboard Lyon on February 5, 1631. John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay, praised Williams as “a godly minister,” but Williams’ godliness would soon become a severe test of strength and endurance for Winthrop and the other leaders of Massachusetts Bay. In Boston Williams received an offer to teach in the church, but he declined it, saying that he dared not “officiate to an unseparated people,” by which he meant that the Boston Puritans were not as religiously pure as they might like to think, having failed to separate themselves fully from the Church of England.

Over the next five years, Williams’ separatism would be a painful thorn in the side of the colonists. Even after Williams moved from Boston to Salem, and from Salem to Plymouth, and from Plymouth back to Salem, each relocation designed to avert confrontation with the authorities in Boston, he nevertheless found himself repeatedly at the center of controversy.

In Plymouth, William Bradford observed that Williams fell “into some strange opinions, and from opinions to practice, which caused some controversy between the church and him.” As pastor of the Salem church, a position he officially occupied after the regular pastor died in the summer of 1634, Williams defiantly preached against the validity of royal land patents, oaths of submission to the colony and the right of magistrates to punish breaches of God’s first four commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or…bow down thyself to them, nor serve them….Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain….Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.”

His arguments, which rested on the very firm foundation of his own sense of personal integrity and public honesty, were unrelenting in their bitter rebuke of Puritan practices. Some writers, particularly Cotton Mather, regarded the idealistic streak in Williams to be quixotic. “There was a whole country in America,” wrote Mather years later in a condemnation of Williams, “like to be set on fire by the rapid motion of a windmill, in the head of one particular man.” While the words were meant to be uncomplimentary, the sentiment summed up Williams rather neatly: He was a man whose ideas could churn and grind until they set the world on fire.

Following several unsuccessful attempts to silence him, the General Court finally lost all patience. In October 1635, the court voted to banish him from Massachusetts, declaring: “Whereas Mr. Roger Williams…has broached and divulged divers new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates…and yet maintains the same without retraction, it is therefore ordered that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks now ensuing.” Williams fell ill, however, so the court delayed the enforcement of the sentence until the following January, when the magistrates dispatched a sheriff to arrest him and forcibly place him on board a ship bound for England. But Williams was warned of his impending arrest by Winthrop, who suggested that he flee to the Indian country near Narragansett Bay. He took Winthrop’s advice, escaped from Salem during a raging blizzard and followed the Indian trails to the village of Massasoit, a sachem of the Pokanoket (or Wampanoag) Indians. There he spent the winter.

By banishing him from the colony, the General Court defined the course of the remainder of Williams’ life. Williams suffered gladly as a persecuted witness of Christ, for he believed that faith was truly forged by such suffering, but he also bitterly resented the harshness of the sentence that had been imposed on him. For the rest of his life, Williams bore the scar of what he called “the dry pit of banishment” like a soldier’s wound, his own peculiar badge of courage. In his writings he never let his readers forget the misery he and his family had endured. Neither did he let his persecutors forget their despicable act of unkindness toward him.

As winter turned to spring in 1636, his family and several followers from Massachusetts joined Williams among the Indians. On a parcel of land along the eastern shore of the Seekonk River, Williams and the others set about planting and erecting shelters. In short order, however, the settlers were warned that they were within the jurisdiction of the Plymouth colony and must vacate the land immediately. Acquiring a gift of land from the Narragansett Indian sachems Canonicus and Miantonomo, Williams and his small party crossed to the western bank of the Seekonk and established permanent homes at the headwaters of Narragansett Bay, a place Williams named Providence in recognition of “God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress.”

Reluctantly, Williams became a political leader of the fledgling community, struggling with the uncertainties of how best to organize the settlement into a functioning government. Before much could be accomplished, however, war broke out between the Puritan colonists and the Pequot Indians of Connecticut. Williams provided invaluable assistance to the military campaign against the Pequots by persuading the Narragansett Indians not to ally with their Connecticut brethren and by supplying the Massachusetts leaders with authoritative intelligence of enemy plans and movements.

Williams became a true friend to the Narragansetts. He recognized that the survival of the English colonies required a policy of peaceful coexistence, and he firmly believed that the Indians should not be treated as savages but as members of the brotherhood of man. “Nature knows no difference,” he wrote, “between European and American [Indian] in blood, birth, bodies, etc.” His close ties with the Narragansetts, however, became another sore point in his dealings with Massachusetts. John Winthrop thought that Williams was naive about Indian treachery, and that he preferred to accept the word of an Indian over that of a fellow Englishman.

There were other factors that kept Massachusetts at odds with Williams. Providence became a haven for dissidents who sought to live beyond the jurisdictional reach of the Puritan colonies. Williams’ own brand of religious thinking, especially his belief in the utter necessity of soul liberty and separation of church and state, became the hallmark of the Providence settlement. During its first few years, the inhabitants decided that “no man should be molested for his conscience.”

Williams took personal advantage of this broad liberty. In 1639, having grown disenchanted with separatism, he embraced the Baptist faith long enough to help found the first Baptist church in America. Four months later he abandoned the Baptist congregation in Providence and left organized religion behind. For the rest of his life, he would pray with his wife, but in his heart he was a congregation of one.

He steadfastly maintained that religion was something personal, something defined by an individual’s relationship with his or her god. It could not—should not—be coerced by anyone, especially kings, magistrates or the decree of governments. Forcing someone to worship according to the Christian faith was antithetical to Christ’s own teachings. It was, he wrote, “impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by their sword, and to worship a true Christ!”

By 1643 four different communities of the religiously oppressed and the politically unwanted had been established around Narragansett Bay. Their Puritan neighbors, watching the growth of the settlements from afar, realized that these heretical denizens had built their homes on some of the richest land in southern New England. To check the heretics’ geographic spread, the Massachusetts authorities laid claim to the territory around Narragansett Bay in an effort to create a contiguous jurisdiction of Puritan colonies from Boston to Hartford. Perceiving the threat, the Narragansett Bay towns quickly dispatched Roger Williams to England to defend their sovereignty. He did better than that. With the assistance of Sir Henry Vane the Younger and other prominent Puritans in Parliament, Williams obtained a patent, dated March 14, 1644, that united the four settlements into the colony of Providence Plantations. Implicit in the patent was an endorsement of Williams’ concept of soul liberty.

In England, Williams spent a good deal of his time writing and published his two best-known works: A Key into the Language of America (1643), a dictionary of the Narragansett Indian language and a commentary on the culture and customs of the southern New England Indians; and The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), a sweeping condemnation of Massachusetts’ intolerance and a manifesto defending the right of each individual to decide, according to his own conscience, how best to worship God without interference from any civil authority. “The Christian church,” he asserted, “does not persecute; no more than a lily does scratch the thorns, or a lamb pursue and tear the wolves, or a turtle dove hunt the hawks and eagles, or a chaste and modest virgin fight and scratch like whores and harlots.”

With patent in hand, Williams returned to Providence in September 1644 to organize a central government despite the fierce political rivalries and petty jealousies among the settlers of Narragansett Bay. Williams served for more than three years as chief officer of the colony, but the internal dissension did not abate. To John Winthrop, Williams was forced to admit that “our poor colony is in civil dissension.” Winthrop privately noted, with some satisfaction, that “at Providence…the devil is not idle.” Soon William Coddington, a leader of a political faction on Aquidneck Island, received a parliamentary commission making him governor of the colony for life, much to the apparent dismay of Williams and others who believed in representative government and the use fulness of elections. In 1651 Williams again sailed for England, accompanied by Newport clergyman John Clarke, to challenge the Coddington claim and obtain a confirmation of the 1644 patent.

Williams’ second mission to England was less successful than the first, although he issued another spate of controversial writings, including The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody (1652), and debated religion and politics with Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. He saw to it that Coddington’s commission was nullified, but he could not get the affirmation of the patent that he so desperately wanted. In the spring of 1654 he returned to New England, leaving Clarke in London to carry on the colony’s work.

That autumn Williams was elected president of Providence Plantations, but the colony was in almost complete disarray, torn asunder by factions and special interests that refused to work together in the name of the commonweal. In a land of his own creation, where individualism was valued above anything else, Williams realized that the duty of each citizen to his neighbors needed to be clarified.

He did so in what has become his most famous letter, an epistle written to the town of Providence in January 1655. In the letter, Williams defended his belief that religion and conscience should not be restrained by civil supremacy, but he also recognized that individualism sometimes had to be restricted for the sake of the com mon good.

He compared society to a ship, where the captain’s authority extended only to the actions of the crew and passengers, not to their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, captain, crew and passengers all had to work together to keep the ship on course. Therefore, if any on board refused to help, “the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits.”

Williams’ letter did not stop the dissension in Providence or the rest of the colony. In fact, during the remainder of the 1650s strife over land and boundaries was added to the political conflict that already existed, in some cases grafting “land lust,” as Williams called it, onto the political factions.

When not embroiled in the flames of religious and political contention, Williams spent his time raising livestock and trading with the Indians. He set up a trading post near Narragansett Bay and made the business into a prosperous concern; according to his own report, one year he earned 100 pounds sterling, considerably more than he could have made as a vicar in England. Often he retreated to the solitude of his trading post, where he could avoid the din of controversy, cultivate his friendship with the Indians and write long letters to friend and foe alike.

In 1663 Charles II granted John Clarke a charter for the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations that explicitly extended soul liberty as a right to every inhabitant. “No person within said colony,” declared the charter, “at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.” Despite the liberality of the charter and its provisions that fostered a “lively experiment” in freedom, Rhode Island was mired in the strife that had plagued it from its beginnings.

Throughout the 1660s Williams withdrew more and more from the political scene, partly because of the political ascendancy of the Quakers, who first arrived in the colony during the mid-1650s. Even though he shrank from politics, he did not refrain from speaking his mind. The Quakers troubled him both politically and religiously, especially because he was convinced that they elevated themselves above Scripture and paid no heed to conventional manners and morality. In 1672 he debated the Quakers in Newport and Providence, and later he wrote a long account of his experience, George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes (1676). His encounter with the Quakers was not his most glorious moment. In the debate he came perilously close to abandoning his cherished principle of soul liberty, although to his lasting credit he never tried to enforce any actual limitation on the Quakers’ form of worship or personal behavior.

During the 1670s his dealings with the Narragansett Indians also took a turn for the worse. Canonicus and Miantonomo, the two sachems who had given him the Providence lands, had died in the 1640s, and their descendants—the new generation of Narragansett leaders—felt no special affinity for Williams or any other white man. Over the years, threats of war, expropriation of lands and spreading white settlements had taken their toll on the Indian way of life. When King Philip’s War broke out between the Puritan colonists and the Indians of southern New England in June 1675, Williams could not keep the Narragansetts from allying with Metacom (Philip), a Pokanoket sachem, and the other tribes that had taken up arms. Williams suffered another personal and diplomatic defeat in March 1676 when a band of Indians, including a number of Narragansetts, attacked Providence and burned his house to the ground as he was negotiating with Indian leaders on the outskirts of town. Eventually the blood that flowed in New England left an indelible stain. Williams himself joined a militia company and, after the war ended in the summer of 1676, participated with other Providence men in rounding up and selling Indian captives into slavery.

As one might expect, the last years of his life were not spent in quiet repose. Williams was an outspoken man, and he kept on writing and talking until the very end. Mostly he wrote about spiritual concerns, about matters of faith and soul, but he also became increasingly nostalgic in his later years, remembering the events and the people that had helped shape his life in New England. King Philip’s War had nearly laid waste to Rhode Island, but as his own demise approached Williams remembered mostly the early days, the happy recollections of his friendship with Canonicus and Miantonomo. His banishment from Massachusetts remained a bitter memory, an unhealed wound that he revealed time and time again. His neighbors’ opinions of him differed greatly. He was held in high esteem by some, but many regarded him as a busybody, someone who took himself far too seriously, and—in the words of William Coddington—“a mere weathercock, constant only in unconstancy.”

When Williams died in the winter of 1683, he was buried with military honors in a grave located somewhere in the boundaries of his house lot in Providence. Eventually no one could quite remember where Rhode Island’s founding father had been laid to rest, and he became a forgotten hero. Not until after the American Revolution did Williams begin to gain a historical reputation as a progenitor of religious liberty.

His faults were many, to be sure. Often he expressed himself with great modesty and pronounced deference, but he was just as frequently bold and rash. He was also argumentative, brutally honest and charitably fair. People reached startlingly opposite conclusions about him: He was a saint or the devil incarnate. He was, of course, neither. Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine, called him idealistic and dangerous, but he also admitted that Williams had in him “the root of the matter.” Nor was Williams the weathercock that Coddington had claimed, for if anything it was his belief in his role as one of Christ’s wit nesses that kept him steady and surprisingly consistent throughout most of his life. Rather, Williams was a bellwether. He showed his fellow Rhode Islanders how to prosper without the fetters of conformity or coercion, and he led them into an uncharted territory where church and state were divided by a strict “wall of separation.” Tho mas Jefferson borrowed this phrase in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, and it has become the definition of the Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Williams is not well remembered as an American hero. His greatest causes—the separation of church and state and the necessity of individual religious freedom— remain controversial and spark emotional, rather than rational, responses by Americans, just as they did in Williams’ time. Williams’ wall is not nearly as high, nor nearly as impregnable, as he always thought it should be. In the end, we are left to work out for ourselves how matters of religious conscience should be decided. Perhaps that is what Williams really was after: the individual’s freedom to decide his own mind and heart, without any one telling him that he must worship with those who hold the power in society, or those who intimidate others and, as Williams put it so well, “maintain their Christ by their sword.”


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here