Biography of Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode Island and Father of the Separation of Church and State
Roger Williams was a minister and politician who founded the settlement of Providence, which became the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — or Rhode Island — one of the 13 Original Colonies. He was born in London and, as a boy, he studied under Sir Edward Coke, attended Pembroke College in Cambridge, and received his degree in 1627. During his time at Cambridge, he joined the Puritan Movement. Although he was aware the Puritan Leaders planned to emigrate to America, he did not follow them right away. He tried to remain in England, but eventually joined the Separatist Movement and sailed to Boston, Massachusetts, where he arrived on February 5, 1631. Williams was very outspoken in his opinions and was critical of the Puritan churches in Massachusetts, which he believed were too closely aligned with the Church of England. He was also critical of the King for granting charters for land that had not been properly purchased from Native American Indian tribes. In October 1635, he was accused of sedition and heresy by the Massachusetts General Court. He was convicted and banished. He traveled to the Wampanoag village where he stayed for three months, as a guest of their sachem — or chief — Massasoit. In the spring of 1636, Williams and Thomas Angell found an area they thought was suitable for a settlement. Williams bought the land from the Narragansett Tribe, which became the place where Providence — and Rhode Island — was founded. Under his guidance, Rhode Island became the model for the Separation of Church and State and the idea of religious freedom, which is enshrined in the First Amendment. In 1638, Williams and 12 others started their own church, the First Baptist Church of Providence, which is the first — and oldest — Baptist congregation in America. Over time, Williams kept peace with the Indian tribes and earned their trust. However, the surrounding colonies did not trust the Narragansetts and, as a result, did not trust Rhode Island. An alliance was formed in 1643 between Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Saybrook, and New Haven called the United Colonies of New England or the New England Confederation, for the purpose of creating a military alliance. Williams decided to sail to England to secure a charter for the settlements in Rhode Island. In July 1644, Parliament granted him a charter for Providence Plantations. He returned to Providence and it took until 1647 to convince the four settlements to unite as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. By 1675, relations with the Narragansett had broken down and King Philip’s War raged in New England. Despite being in his 70s, Williams commanded the Rhode Island Militia. Williams died in 1683.
This 1850 painting by Peter F. Rothermel depicts Roger Williams leaving Massachusetts. Image Source: Wikipedia.
5 Things to Know About Roger Williams
1. Roger Williams survived the Great Fire of London.
Roger Williams was born in Smithfield, London, England around 1603. His father was James Williams and his mother was Alice Pemberton. His birth records were most likely destroyed in the Great Fire of London.
2. Roger Williams started his family after he moved to America.
In 1629, he married Mary Bernard. She was the daughter of Richard Bernard, who was a prominent Puritan preacher and author. Roger and his wife sailed to America on December 1, 1630. After they arrived, they started a family and had six children together — Mary, Freeborn, Providence, Mercy, Daniel, and Joseph.
3. Roger Williams was an advocate for the rights of Native American Indians.
Soon after he arrived in Massachusetts, he challenged authorities over their claims to land, which had been granted by the King. Williams argued the King’s grants were invalid, and the land had to be purchased from the Indians.
4. Roger Williams wrote the first book about Native American Indian languages.
In 1643, he wrote, “A Key Into the Language of America,” which described the languages spoken by the various tribes in the area. The book introduced terms such as moccasin, moose, papoose, powwow, and squaw.
5. Roger Williams was an advocate of religious freedom and the concept of the Separation of Church and State.
In 1644, he wrote a book called “The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution for Cause of Conscience.” In the book, he argued that passages in the Bible supported a limited role of government in religious matters. He believed government officials should only enforce the last seven of the Ten Commandments, which deal with doing harm to others and civic responsibility. He also argued the Bible supported religious toleration. Both concepts were in direct conflict with the ideology of Puritan leaders in New England, however, it made Rhode Island a place where Jews, Baptists, Quakers, and others were welcome.
Connection Between Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams
Williams will always be linked with Anne Hutchinson, another religious dissenter, for their views on religious freedom. Hutchinson and her followers were banished from Massachusetts in November 1637. The group purchased land from the Narragansetts and founded Portsmouth. The next year, a group left Portsmouth and founded Newport.
Roger Williams, Separation of Church and State, and the First Amendment
The legacy of Roger Williams and his beliefs serve as the basis for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Separation of Church and State in Providence
In Providence, Williams implemented the Separation of Church and State. Despite his Separatist views, he was an advocate for religious toleration and acceptance of other denominations — including Catholics — which was almost unheard of in Colonial America at the time.
The American Revolution and Religious Tolerance
Williams advocated the separation in order to retain the purity of the church and keep the influence of politics out of religious matters. In fact, Williams wrote there should be a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.”
During the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, relied on Williams’ ideas as they argued for independence from Britain.
Religious tolerance also came to the forefront in the early days of the American Revolutionary War, when the First Continental Congress made efforts to convince Quebec — and its Catholic inhabitants — to unite with the 13 Colonies as the 14th Colony.
Roger Williams and the Two Tables of the Ten Commandments
In his book, “Small Catechism,” Martin Luther divided the Ten Commandments into two sections. The first three commandments make up the First Table and deal with religious matters — the way God’s people should relate to God. The last seven commandments make up the Second Table and deal with how people should treat each other.
Williams believed the church should only enforce the First Table and not the Second Table. It was this view on the separation of the Two Tables of Law that developed the concept of the Separation of Church and State.
It is also this view that led Williams to clash with Puritan leaders in Massachusetts, who believed the church was responsible for enforcing all of the Ten Commandments.
Significance of Roger Williams
Roger Williams is important to the history of the United States because he founded the colony of Rhode Island and was an advocate of religious toleration and the Separation of Church and State, liberties which are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. He also played a role in founding the first Baptist church in America.
This illustration by Elmer Boyd Smith depicts Williams arriving with the Rhode Island Charter. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Accomplishments of Roger Williams
- Roger Williams founded Providence, which grew into the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
- Roger Williams was an early advocate of the Separation of Church and State, which is enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
- Roger Williams supported the rights of Native American Indians, and wrote the first study of their languages, which was published In 1643 — “A Key Into the Language of America.”