Roger Williams

Roger Williams, c.1603–1683, clergyman, advocate of religious freedom, founder of Rhode Island, b. London. A protégé of Sir Edward Coke, he graduated from Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1627 and took Anglican orders. He early espoused Puritanism and emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1631. Williams became a teacher (1632) and, after a stay at Plymouth, minister (1634) of the Salem church. However, his radical religious beliefs and political theories—he denied the validity of the Massachusetts charter, challenged the Puritans to acknowledge they had separated from the Church of England, and declared that civil magistrates had no power over matters of conscience—alarmed the Puritan oligarchy, and the General Court banished him in 1635.

In the spring of 1636 he founded Providence on land purchased from the Narragansett. To Providence, a democratic refuge from religious persecution, came settlers from England as well as Massachusetts. There were four settlements in the Narragansett Bay area by 1643, when Williams went to England. Through the influence of powerful friends such as Sir Henry Vane (1613–62), he obtained from the Long Parliament a patent (1644) uniting the Rhode Island towns of Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick with Providence. In 1651, William Coddington secured a commission annulling the patent, but Williams, with John Clarke, hastened again to England and had the patent restored. (Its grant of absolute liberty of conscience was later confirmed by the royal charter of 1663.) On his return in 1654, Williams was elected president of the colony and served three terms. Always a trusted friend of the Native Americans (he wrote Key into the Language of America, 1643), he often used his good offices in maintaining peace with them, but he was unable to prevent the outbreak of King Philip's War (1675–76), in which he served as a captain of militia.

Williams, though he remained a Christian, disassociated himself from existing churches. His writings, reprinted in the Narragansett Club Publications (1866–74), reveal the vigor with which he propounded his democratic and humanitarian ideals. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644) was condemned by John Cotton, who was answered with The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy (1652). Other works include Queries of Highest Consideration (1644), an argument for complete separation of church and state; The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's (1652); and George Fox Digg'd Out of His Burrowes (1676), a polemic against Quaker teachings. Of great personal charm and unquestioned integrity, Williams was admired even by those who, like both the elder and the younger John Winthrop, abhorred his liberal ideas.

See biographies by S. H. Brockunier (1940), P. Miller (1953, repr. 1962), O. Winslow (1957, repr. 1973), E. S. Morgan (1967), J. Garrett (1970), and E. S. Gaustad (2005); see studies by E. S. Gaustad (1991) and J. M. Barry (2012).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2016, The Columbia University Press.

Roger Williams: Selected full-text books and articles

History of Religion in the United States By Clifton E. Olmstead Prentice-Hall, 1960
Librarian’s tip: "Roger Williams: New England Liberal" begins on p. 99
Dictionary of Heresy Trials in American Christianity By George H. Shriver Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Roger Williams (C. 1603-1684)" begins on p. 449
Shapers of the Great Debate on Native Americans--Land, Spirit, and Power: A Biographical Dictionary By Bruce E. Johansen Greenwood Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Who 'Owns' the Wilderness?: Roger Williams and Metacom (King Philip)"
The Pequot War By Alfred A. Cave University of Massachusetts Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Roger Williams begins on p. 23
Roger Williams: Prophet and Pioneer By Emily Easton Houghton, Mifflin, 1930
Puritanism in America, 1620-1750 By Everett Emerson Twayne Publishers, 1977
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Crystallization of Puritanism"
A Nation Dedicated to Religious Liberty: The Constitutional Heritage of the Religion Clauses By Arlin M. Adams; Charles J. Emmerich University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Appendix One "Historical Documents on American Religious Liberty" includes letters by Roger Williams
Our Yankee Heritage: New England's Contribution to American Civilization By Carleton Beals David McKay, 1955
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Rhode Island: Cradle of Liberty"
FREE! Biographical Essays: Essays, Biographical and Critical; Or, Studies of Character By Henry T. Tuckerman Phillips, Sampson and Company, 1857
Librarian’s tip: "Roger Williams, The Tolerant Colonist" begins on p. 181
Record of the Oscar S. Straus Memorial Association By George S. Hellman; Oscar S. Straus Memorial Association Columbia University Press, 1949
Librarian’s tip: "Roger Williams" by Oscar S. Straus begins on p. 49
Gregory Dexter of London and New England, 1610-1700 By Bradford Swan F The Printing House of Leo Hart, 1949
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VIII "Printer to Roger Williams"
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