Roger Williams


Roger Williams was born in England, and as a teenager he was apprenticed to Sir Edward Coke, who provided funds for his education at Pembroke College in Cambridge. While at college, he became a Puritan, despite taking Holy Orders in the Anglican Church. Two years after his graduation, he married Mary Barnard, who later gave birth to six children. In order to escape the increasingly corrupt Church of England, the couple moved to America, arriving in Boston in 1631. Roger was immediately invited to take the position of assistant minister in the Boston church, but he refused, arguing that the parish was not a truly separated church. Instead, he proposed a policy in which neither idolatry, false worship, nor blasphemy was punishable, claiming that every individual ought to follow his own sense of right and wrong. He also preached freedom of religion and separation of church and state, two principles that would define his career.

Williams felt that the entire Christian community was corrupt, and while he waited for a new apostle to establish his ideal institution, he saw himself as a prophet to the nations. The Salem church was the most accepting of Williamsí ideas, and they invited him to be their Teacher, but leaders in Boston protested the offer until it was finally withdrawn. That summer, Williams moved to Plymouth Colony, where his teachings were more widely approved. After a while however, he began to feel that the Plymouth church was not separated enough from Anglican tradition. Additionally, his talks with the native peoples convinced him that the English government had not had any right in settling on American soil without first purchasing it from the Indians. He wrote an angry tract attacking the English king and his charters and sent it off before moving back to Salem, where he was once more welcomed as a church assistant.

When Massachusetts officials learned of his return and his tract, he was summoned before the General Court in Boston, where the letter was destroyed and the issue resolved. Williams returned to Salem, now as head pastor, but despite promises not to raise the issue of the charters again, he did so and was again ordered before the General Court in 1635. He was released only to stir up more controversy, ordering the Salem church to separate until his support disappeared altogether. Finally, in October of that same year, Roger was banished from the colony. He left in the dead of winter and was rescued by Wampanoag Indians, who took him to their winter camp. That spring, he and twelve followers established a new settlement, called Providence, on land bought from the Narragansett. His was the first colony to uphold separation between church and state, as those chosen to lead had no say in religious matters. When the followers of Anne Hutchinson were exiled from Massachusetts in 1637, Williams helped them to purchase land as well, and they settled in the future city of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the Pequot War had broken out, and Massachusetts officials were forced to ask Williams for assistance. He and the Narragansett led the settlers to victory, but afterward the two were considered a powerful threat to the colonies. Williamsí followers sent him to England, where he received a land charter in the midst of the English Civil War, despite powerful opposition.

Key events during the life of Roger Williams:

Graduated from Pembroke College in Cambridge.
Married Mary Barnard.
Emigrated to America.
  Moved from Boston to Plymouth Colony.
Wrote a tract attacking King James for his illegal acquisition of Indian lands.
Appeared before the General Court in Boston concerning his letter.
Published A Key Into the Language of America.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
New England Indians  in  Indian History for Young Folks  by  Francis S. Drake
Roger Williams  in  America First—100 Stories from Our History  by  Lawton B. Evans
Stories of Two Ministers  in  Story of the Thirteen Colonies  by  H. A. Guerber
Roger Williams  in  Heroes of Progress in America  by  Charles Morris
Religious Troubles  in  American History Stories, Volume I  by  Mara L. Pratt

Image Links

Roger Williams pleads with Canonicus
 in Massasoit

Williams welcomed by the Indians
 in Story of the Thirteen Colonies

Roger Williams Received by the Narragansett Indians
 in Builders of Our Country: Book I

Short Biography