December 21, 2012
Roger Williams disappointed his father, a textile trader, when after a spiritual experience he embarked on a career in the Church. Williams’ career was marked by the independent decisions he made that disappointed the authorities in his life.
He was apprenticed by his father to the famous English jurist, Sir Edward Coke, in hopes of establishing Williams in a career. Coke ensured that Williams was well educated, but after graduating from Pembroke College (Cambridge) he took holy orders in the Church of England. While in school, he had become a Puritan, and Puritans were effectively blocked from significant positions in the Church by the clerical hierarchy, who fought the changes Puritans advocated. He became chaplain to Sir William Masham.
In 1630, Williams abandoned hopes that the Church would change its corrupt ways, and that he would find a good position. He and his wife, Mary Barnard, emigrated. When they arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in February 1631, Williams was offered the position of Teacher minister of the Boston church. He declined, viewing the Boston church as “un-separated.”
The Salem church was more inclined to separatism and offered him the position as Teacher. The protests from Boston caused Salem to withdraw the offer. In the summer of 1631, he moved to Plymouth colony, where the Pilgrims were more inclined to his thinking.
That relationship did not prosper, even though he became friendly with Gov. William Bradford. Williams became of the opinion that the Plymouth church was not truly “separated” and that the colony’s charter was not valid without buying the land from the natives. Bradford later wrote that Williams held “strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him."
He went back to Salem in 1633 to assist at the church, and then in 1634 to be acting pastor, but again fell afoul of the Massachusetts leaders who called him to court several times over the next 18 months for his opinions. In October 1635, he was convicted of sedition and heresy for spreading diverse, new and dangerous opinions.” He was banished, though the sentence was suspended, because winter was approaching and Williams was sick, on the condition that he cease advocating. He did not, but slipped away from Salem before the sheriff could arrest him. He sought refuge with the natives.
Williams purchased land from the Narragansett tribe on Great Salt Cove, and established a settlement, Providence Plantations. As he built his settlement, he built his relationships with the tribes in Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies. His settlement became a beacon for the more radical elements, and he helped them purchase land and establish settlements around Narragansett Bay.
When Massachusetts, Connecticut and Plymouth colonies found themselves at war with the Narragansetts and Pequot tribes, they turned to Williams to negotiate a peace, which he did several times. But within a year, colonies allied with the Narragansett to eliminate the more troublesome Pequot tribes, and the alliance saw the Narragansett Bay settlements as a common enemy.
In late 1638, Williams was baptized by Ezekiel Holliman and established the First Baptist Church in Providence, which is considered the first Baptist church in America.
In 1643, the New England colonies formed a military alliance, the United Colonies, but excluded the Narragansett Bay settlements, hoping that they could force them to bow to the colonial authority.
Williams went to London and sought a charter from Parliament for the settlements to become a colony. The ascension of Oliver Cromwell, and the rise of Williams’ popularity, based on his 1643 book, “A Key into the Language of America,” the first dictionary of Native American language, muted the opposition and a charter was granted.
Just in time. As Williams headed back to Providence Plantations, his new book, “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience,” was published. A dialogue between Truth and Peace that argued for absolute liberty of conscience, a wall of separation between church and state, for religious freedom, and against the imposition of religious uniformity that Parliament had enacted and was being promoted in Massachusetts by John Cotton. The uproar in London was fierce; the book was burned by Parliamentary order, but served as a foundation of liberal thought in America.
Williams returned to America and his new Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
He died there in 1683.