Roger Williams’s America

By Rockwell Stensrud

Alonzo Chappel, The Landing of Roger Williams at Providence, Rhode Island, RISD Museum

The century and a half period between the Mayflower and the Declaration of Independence is a yawning void in the education of most Americans. How did our knowledge of history become so lopsided? Given the hundreds of books published in past decades on Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers—and the scarcity of accounts on early New England—we might be forgiven for forgetting about the men and women who shaped their communities and prepared their offspring for that inevitable break with the mother country, forgiven for forgetting that the yearning for freedom, for autonomy, for liberty of conscience, had been part of the country’s DNA from the day the first spade broke ground at Plymouth Plantation. The conflict over control within the first colonies—who could vote, who dictated one’s beliefs, who held authority over whom—was hard-fought, a prelude to the relentless skirmishes we endure today.

Stooping to suspect tactics, the Bay Colony’s lawyers obtained a charter from Charles allowing its leaders to disregard the Crown’s dictates when establishing their laws. Massachusetts might have become a visionary community, allowing individuals to choose how they would worship their God. It didn’t happen. Instead, Winthrop and Company imposed a more draconian, theocratic regime that mired the colony in strict Congregationalism. Opposition to the harsh rule invited physical punishment or banishment from what the founders called the “New Jerusalem.” The majority capitulated to the magistrates’ confining mandate, abandoning homes and homeland without gaining hoped-for autonomy. Only a few lamented the swap of one brand of tyranny for another. 

One minister in particular gave voice to his discontent, and his actions altered the New England landscape by creating a haven for fellow religious outcasts. His writings—books, letters, sermons—convinced thousands of colonists that freedom of belief was their intrinsic right. Roger Williams stood mostly alone in his battle with the Bay Colony’s elite, who hypocritically claimed allegiance to the national Church but who in fact were surreptitiously distancing themselves from London’s clutches. Williams called their bluff.

For five years, the oligarchs of Massachusetts wanted desperately to be rid of him, yet few intersections of folly and fate have had more lasting reverberation in America than this Puritan minister’s banishment—and few have been as underestimated or overlooked. One morning in January 1636, a messenger arrived at Williams’s door with a letter from John Winthrop, noting that he must flee the colony, or be placed on a ship to England, where his final destination would be the Tower of London.  Three months earlier, Williams had been found guilty of sedition by the Massachusetts General Court for his criticism of the king.  Though ordered to keep his silence or face deportation,  Williams could not hold his tongue. And when illness postponed his departure, officials discovered that scores of immigrants planned to join him in establishing a new colony around Narragansett Bay. The General Court struck back, and now Williams had no choice but to flee.      

Losing a home, founding a colony

Rhode Island Colony, courtesy of WIkimedia commons

With dark clouds roiling and winds presaging a nor’easter, the prospects for escape looked bleak. But by quitting the Bay Colony, Williams could, at last, determine his own destiny.  And so he walked out into the New England wilderness, leaving his wife, Mary, and two young daughters behind.

Heading south in what was now a full-fledged blizzard, Williams sought refuge with the sachem Massasoit who was credited with saving the Pilgrims from starvation in 1621.  Williams had befriended the Wampanoag tribe when establishing a trading post and had even learned their language.  Until spring he sheltered with the Indians, then continued his journey to Narraganssett Bay, where he founded Providence, Rhode Island.

Many families followed, building houses clustered at the bottom of a hill to protect themselves from possible raids by less friendly tribes. Though the new settlement was beyond the boundaries of the Bay Colony,  Winthrop threatened the settlers, fearing that their beliefs would taint or tempt those who remained behind.  Rhode Island evolved over the years. As thousands more colonists rejected the rigors of Congregationalism, the towns of Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick became the destination for the disaffected.  

Roger Williams was at the core of what was achieved in Rhode Island from the day he landed on a spit of land in Narragansett Bay in 1636, until his death in 1683. He insisted that the settlement honor freedom of conscience for all inhabitants—Christians, Jews, Moslems—and that functions of the state remain separate from those of any congregation, and that churches disavow any role in governing. This was radical in an age where many feared society would splinter without the lockstep dictates of monarchs and ministers. Those who followed Williams worked out their differences with words, not weapons. The process took decades, but he understood that a stronger state would result from debate rather than by fiat. Rhode Island became a bellwether, where many of the thorny struggles of democracy could be thrashed out, a sanctuary where people could worship without fear of being harassed or hanged.

In the annals of seventeenth-century America, Williams is often treated like the old family dog.  Historians pat him on the head for his ideals, then point to the Boston Brahmins, a better-behaved breed. Wrong.  Williams’s genius lay in his insistence on personal liberties, and his greatest gift was shepherding settlers in the transition from subjects to citizens.


1644. A dubious portrait of Williams, said to be an altered likeness of Benjamin Franklin, painted more than 100 years after Williams's death when his ideas became fashionable. No known portrait was painted in his lifetime.

Williams was imaginative, bold, a seeker advocating theories deemed shocking then but ones now taken for granted in America. As he became untethered from the restraints of Congregational orthodoxy, his thoughts on toleration expanded to include believers in all religions regardless of ethnicity. The Narragansett sachem Canonicus opened Williams’s eyes to the mysteries of Algonquin spiritually, and the impact of his thought was far-reaching: Williams’s writing on personal liberty informed John Locke’s philosophy, which influenced the Founding Fathers when it came their turn to confront the loss of liberty. After the Revolution, when his notion of the separation of church and state had become law, Williams was hailed as one of the most original thinkers since the Reformation and the father of religious freedom in America.

In a long life (1603-1683) Roger Williams altered the values and the direction of the New World and did so with flair. Williams was a preacher, theologian, moral philosopher, statesman, diplomat, linguist, a man equally at home in the lodges of New England Indian sachems along Narragansett Bay and the chambers of Parliament along the Thames. He was a radical Puritan who advanced concepts about the rights of the individual in sharp contrast to prevailing practices. His impact on society was profound.

Williams was well-liked, charismatic. Both the sachem Canonicus and the English lawyer Sir Edward Coke referred to him as a “son.” He was friends with influential thinkers, from the Earl of Warwick to Oliver Cromwell to John Milton; from John Winthrop to Thomas Hooker and Anne Hutchinson. He wrote pioneering books that focused on the religious controversies he so successfully stirred up and, in 1643, his study of New England natives, A Key into the Language of America, became a bestseller in London. His theological treatises, particularly The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, are central to appreciating how he provoked the enmity of the Puritan orthodoxy by condemning commonly held assumptions about the effectiveness of oppression in altering a person’s beliefs.

Yet the man was a paradox. For nearly fifty years he was a friend of native Americans and a vocal supporter of their rights within the colonial system, yet after King Philip’s War he turned against them and condoned their captivity. His notions about an individual’s “soul liberty” inspired countless colonists to question their commitment to orthodox Congregationalism, and they spurred a theological debate with Boston minister John Cotton that has divided the American Protestant church for centuries. Some historians have presented Williams as liberal because of his optimistic views on toleration, yet he was an unsentimental fire-and-brimstone Calvinist who was convinced the world was headed straight to hell for its neglect of Christ’s teachings. He founded an original New World settlement, yet his neighbors attempted to destroy it because of the perceived menace it represented. He loathed the beliefs and the behavior of Quakers, yet he never denied their right to settle without discrimination in Rhode Island. His demands provoked anxiety among those who labeled him a fanatic because he threatened their power; his allies recognized his compassion and the direction of his moral compass.

Wealth was never Williams’s focus. If his home had a roof, bookshelves, and could help repel the cold and rain, that was enough. What mattered was the spirit of place, that his family and their neighbors might live in harmony. In America he discovered the depth of holiness in a people other than his own, where he began thinking of humanity as all God’s children. By engaging in a war of words with John Cotton, Williams convinced himself that punishment for one’s beliefs was futile; he saw that by freeing the individual from constraints and saving the church from the watchful eye of the state, a greater liberty would be created. The clash over fundamental values took center stage, and has remained so ever since. And in our current fractured political climate the question is, how long can balance be maintained?

Rockwell Stensrud is a New York journalist and New England historian. He is the author of Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639 to 1969 and a forthcoming book on Roger Williams. 

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