Roger Williams was born in London, about 1603, and showed promise at an early age. He graduated from Pembroke College, Cambridge, and was ordained an Anglican clergyman in 1629. He married that same year, served briefly as a chaplain to a Puritan family in Essex, and in 1630 sailed for New England.
Originally welcomed for his piety, Williams soon became controversial. Most importantly he believed in separatism, the concept that the Anglican Church was beyond reforming, and that true Christians should separate themselves from it.
He considered serving the church at Salem, but Massachusetts authorities intervened to prevent it. He was briefly in Plymouth, an avowedly separatist colony, but returned to Salem in 1634 and served as teacher, or assistant clergyman, in defiance of the wishes of the colony’s leaders. At Salem, he preached a set of ideas that eventually led to his banishment.
In addition to separatism, he maintained that each person had the right to choose his or her own religion, and therefore neither civil nor ecclesiastical authorities had any power to enforce religious doctrine. It was an idea totally unacceptable to a people who knew they were right and were dedicated to seeing that everyone conformed to their view of God’s truth.
Williams also believed that Christian charity extended to the native population, a position that forced him to argue that the Indians were the rightful owners of the land and that the king had no right to grant it to other Englishmen. It was an unacceptable challenge to the very legitimacy and even existence of the colony. Its leaders decided he must be stilled.
In the fall of 1635, the General Court voted to banish Williams, and upon learning that he might establish a settlement on Narragansett Bay, sent troops to arrest him. Warned by a friend, possibly John Winthrop, he escaped to the south, and the following year established Providence, Rhode Island’s first settlement.
Beyond the jurisdiction of Massachusetts, Rhode Island became a haven for those driven out of Plymouth and Massachusetts and welcomed the disgruntled and unhappy in search of a freer and more tolerant environment, particularly Baptists, Jews, and Quakers.
To gain control over the inevitable unruliness of the Narragansett Bay region and thwart a possible encroachment by Massachusetts, Williams sailed to England and secured a patent for the Providence Plantations in 1644. While there, he published his most famous defense of religious liberty, The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution.
His efforts to unite the colony were challenged by William Coddington in Newport, and Williams returned to England to have Coddington’s power rescinded. Williams also continued his defense of his views with the publication of The Bloudy Tenent yet More Bloudy, a rebuttal to John Cotton’s response to his original work.
Upon his return, Williams reunited Rhode Island, served as its president, and continued to permit religious dissenters, including Anne Hutchinson, to settle there. He also continued to ally with the native population and in the 1660s successfully defeated an attempt by William Harris to defraud the Narragansetts of their land.
When King Philip’s (Metacom’s) War (1675–1676) broke out in 1676, however, the Narragansetts sided with their fellow natives, and Williams became captain of the Providence militia. He died at Providence in 1683. A tolerant and forgiving man, although one stern in his personal religious views, Williams is best remembered for his support of religious toleration and the separation of church and state, as well as his advocacy of human equality.