Roger Williams (1603-1684)

Founder of Rhode Island & Advocate for Religious Liberty

Return of Roger Williams from England with the First Charter, 1644. From a painting by C.R. Grant. Engraving from The Providence Plantations for 250 Years, Welcome Arnold Greene, 1886.

Return of Roger Williams from England with the First Charter, 1644. From a painting by C.R. Grant. Engraving from The Providence Plantations for 250 Years, Welcome Arnold Greene, 1886.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island in 1636 as a pure democracy, ruled by the majority but with the assurance that each person’s religious conviction would be respected. Quakers, Baptists and Jews fled the restrictions of Massachusetts and England to come to Rhode Island and practice their faith freely. Native Americans were allowed to maintain their traditional religious practices. Williams formed the first Baptist church in American in Providence, though he later left the Baptists to become a seeker.

Religious Liberty For All

This visionary early-American leader was born in England in 1603 and became a minister in the Church of England. He sailed to Boston in 1631. Williams quickly got in trouble with the religious authorities for his view that church and state should be separate. He argued for soul liberty, his way of describing complete religious liberty for all. He joined the dissenting Pilgrims in Plymouth for two years, but his views were too broad for them. In 1635, the Massachusetts Bay Colony exiled Williams under pain of death for his religious convictions. Only the respect he had gained in large segments of the community saved him from hanging.

Relationship with the Narragansett Tribe

Engraved print depicting Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, meeting with the Narragansett Indians.

Engraved print depicting Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, meeting with the Narragansett Indians.
James Charles Armytage/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Williams fled south where he was befriended by the chiefs of the Narragansett tribe. Claiming that native peoples were the rightful owners of the land, rather than the King of England, Williams received a land grant land directly from the Narragansetts. There he founded Providence, Rhode Island. He learned the native languages, wrote a dictionary of the Algonquin language, and urged Europeans to enter into peaceful commerce rather than exterminating the native tribes.

The Founding of Rhode Island

He established Rhode Island as a settlement in which nobody would be turned away for their religious views or practices. In 1639, he helped to establish one of the first Baptist churches in America, which was organized around these same principles of a strict separation between church and state. Under Williams’ guidance, Rhode Island was such a welcoming place that the second Jewish synagogue in America was established there.

Defense of Native Peoples and Mediation

A statue of Roger Williams by Franklin Simmons

Public Domain/Wikipedia

His prophetic voice was far beyond the attitudes of his time. He argued against forced conversion of the Indians, comparing such acts to rape. With many conflicts developing between the European settlements and native peoples, Williams became a peacemaker, often mediating in disputes. During the King Philip’s War he went unarmed to meet the warriors threatening to burn Providence. They refused his entreaties to spare the town, but they promised not to hurt him because he was an honest man. Today we regard the communities that were formed by Williams as models of American pluralism. However, in his day, his religious detractors called Rhode Island the sewer of New England.

Influence on the Bill of Rights

Roger Williams died in 1683 having established the first governmental body on this continent to constitutionally uphold religious liberty, a right which would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. He thought that the best protection for true religion was the freedom of all religious traditions—and even non-religion—from interference by the state.

See Also

Relevant External Resources

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