Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Roger Williams,
the Pioneer of Religious Liberty

The Pilgrims and Puritans, who made their homes at Plymouth and Boston and were the first settlers of New England, were pious and God-fearing people, but with all that they were hard folks to live with for people who did not think just as they did. Though they had left England in the cause of religious liberty they were not ready to give religious liberty to any one who came among them. The Quakers, who were persecuted in England, vine treated worse still in Boston, and when a young Puritan minister named Roger Williams came to Boston and began to preach in favor of liberty of thought he soon found himself in trouble.

The Puritans passed laws to punish every one who did not go to church. Williams said this was not right. He also said that the Indians were very badly treated, and that the king of England had no right to give away their land without paying them for it. These and others things which he was bold enough to say made the rulers very angry, and he was first obliged to leave Boston and afterwards ordered to leave Salem, where he had started a church.

The daring young preacher now declared that he would start a colony of his own here every one might believe what he thought right. This and other things said by him made the Puritan rulers so furious that they determined to seize him and send him back to England. They would not have any man in their colony who chose to think for himself and would not 1et them think for him.

Officers were sent to arrest him, but he was told of their coming just in time to make his escape. It was midwinter. The weather was very cold. Snow covered the ground. Wild beasts roamed the woods in search of food. But Roger Williams was determined to keep his freedom even at the risk of his life, and he fled alone into the wilderness, leaving his wife, children, and friends behind in Salem. There was danger from the elements, danger from the wolves and bears, but he cared less for them than he did for the harsh and bitter Puritans of Boston.

He had no fear of the Indians. He had lived among them, learned their speech and ways of living, listened to the story of their wrongs and spoken boldly in their favor. They looked upon him as their best friend, and he set out to find Massasoit, one of their great chiefs, whose love he had won by acts of kindness in former years.

The poor fugitive had a hard journey before him. Massasoit lived about eighty miles to the south, and a wide wilderness lay between, freezingly cold in that winter season, and with few inhabitants. Now and then he came to the hut of an Indian, w o gave him food and shelter, but at other times he had to take refuge in hollow trees, or sleep on a bed of leaves beside a woodland fire. It was a cold and miserable journey, one which even the Indians did not care to take at that season, and he was glad enough when, after long days of wandering, he reached the cabin of the friend and kind-hearted chief.

Massasoit greeted him joyfully as the friend of the red man, gave him shelter and a royal welcome till; spring, and then presented him a tract of land besides the Seekonk River. When the spring opened five of his friends from Salem joined him, and they began to build a cabin on their land and plant a field with corn. But the corn had not begun to sprout before he learned that the ground he was on was within the limits claimed by the Plymouth settlement. Governor Winthrop, who was secretly a friend of the fugitive, sent him a letter advising him to cross to the other side of the water, where he might have the whole country to himself and do as he pleased.

When this word came Williams and his friends abandoned their partly-built cabin and planted field and set off in a canoe in search of a place where they I could be safely out of the reach of the Puritans.

As they paddled along the Indians by the riverside greeted the good pastor as their friend, hailed him cheerily, and when he landed and talked with some of them they told him to go a little farther down, saying that he would fin a good place to build and a fine spring of water. The spot was soon found. It was on the west side of the Rhode Island peninsula, near the mouth of the Moshassuck River. Williams named it Providence, saying that a good Providence had helped him. On that spot stands to-day the fine city of Providence.

Roger Williams had now an opportunity to carry out the liberal ideas which had given so much offense; to the Boston Puritans. In Providence, he said, religion should be free. It should be a place of refuge: for all who wished to worship God in their own way. All he would ask of the people would be to obey the laws made for the good of the settlement. But this was to be "only in civil things." In religion conscience was to be the only law. No one had the right to try and force any man to think in his way, or to punish him for not doing so.

We of to-day, who are accustomed to full liberty in religion, may not understand how great a thing this was at that time. Then no such thing had been thought of. Every country in Europe had its own religion and bitterly persecuted all who set up other creeds. And there was no liberty of thought in America, among either the Spanish, French, or English Even the Puritans, who had come to America to escape persecution, began, as we have seen, by persecuting the first man who taught new doctrines. Roger Williams was the pioneer in setting up a colony that had no fixed form of religion. Afterwards Lord Baltimore and William Penn wisely did the same.

No one can say that Roger Williams was not a good Christian, a better one than those who drove him from his home, for he soon risked his own life to save them from danger. The fierce and warlike Indians of the Pequot tribe had made an attack on the settlers and were trying to get the large and powerful tribe of the Narragansetts to join them. They wished to kill all the white people of the Plymouth colony and drive; the pale-faces from the country.

The people of Plymouth, and of Boston too, were in a great fright when they heard of this. They knew that Roger Williams was the only white man in that region who had any influence with the Indians, and they sent to him, begging him to go to the Narragansett camp and ask them not to join the Pequots.

Many men would have refused to go into a horde of raging savages for the safety of their enemies, but Roger Williams was too noble to refuse, though he knew that his life would be in the utmost danger, for some of the bloodthirsty Pequots were then with the Narragansetts. He promptly went to the Indian camp and spent three days in the wigwams of the sachems, though he expected every night to have the treacherous Pequots "put their bloody knives to his throat."

But the Narragansetts were strong friends of the honest pastor; they listened to his counsel, and in the end they and another tribe, the Mohicans, joined the English against the Pequots. Thus it was chiefly due to Roger Williams that the colonists were saved from the scalping-knives of the Indians. Yet when Governor Winthrop asked that the fugitive should be called back from banishment and rewarded in some way for his services the rulers at Boston refused to do so. A hard-hearted and stiff-necked people were those old Puritans. They had made laws for heaven and earth and would have no man among them who did not yield to these laws.

When, later on, the other colonies of New England joined in a league for defence, they would have nothing to do with the little colony at Providence. This band of rebels must take care of themselves. Their only friends were the Indians, and they had hard work to keep on good terms with these when the other colonies were treating them with injustice. To many of the savages all white men were alike.

In the end the people of the Providence settlement, to which had come all those who did not like the hard rule of the Puritans, sent Roger Williams to England to get them a charter that would protect them from the despots of Boston, who were not willing to let them alone. Williams set sail in 1643, and was soon back with his charter. He had been kindly greeted in the home country and brought back many good wishes for his little colony of religious rebels.

But the charter did not say enough; trouble with the other colonies did not end. They treated the people of Rhode Island with contempt and injustice. Three men from Newport, who went to visit an old friend at Lynn, were fined and imprisoned. So Williams was begged to go to London again to get a better charter.

But the people were too poor to pay his way. He went on their business, but they could not raise the money for his expenses, and to get the necessary funds he had to sell the trading house he had started. When he got to England he found that country in such disorder from its civil war that nothing could be done. He was a good scholar and he taught languages to a number of young men to pay the cost of his journey, but after three years he had to go back without his charter. But he had met and become the friend of Cromwell, Milton, and other great men.

Trouble had broken out among the towns of Rhode Island. Some wanted one thing and some another, and they quarrelled and wrangled until it seemed as if nothing could settle their dispute. It was this that brought Williams home to his colony, but it took even him a number of years to make peace among them. At length he succeeded. The towns formed a union, he was chosen for their president, and all went well. But it was ten years after he left England before the new charter was received.

After that for twelve years peace and prosperity existed in Rhode Island. The colony grew. No man interfered with another man's religion. All those who did not want to be forced to go to church or to accept a special creed came to the colony of Roger Williams. He was their principal pastor, and was so kind, gentle, and good that everybody respected and loved him. They were his children. He had brought them together and spent his time in working for their good, and they looked on him as their best friend.

When Williams grew quite old he was still strong and able, attending to his public duties and his private business, writing religious tracts, and preaching to the people and the Indians. But now a terrible Indian war began. The natives of the country, furious at the bad treatment they had received, rose in arms and tried to kill all the whites or drive them from the country. This was what is known as King Philip's War. There were many terrible scenes while it lasted. In this war the Narragansetts joined the other Indians, and the savage warriors marched towards Providence.

Williams, then over seventy years old, went out once more to meet them, as boldly as he had done years before. The old chiefs of the Narragansetts knew him well and told him that they were still his friends, but that the young warriors were so furious against all the white men that it would not be safe for him to go among them. They were determined and nothing could be done to stop the war.

Roger Williams went sorrowfully home again and told the people they would have to fight for their lives. The war ended after a year, King Philip and most of the Indians being destroyed. The good old pastor lived seven years longer, and died in 1683, loved by all who knew him.