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Roger Williams

Roger Williams


Roger WilliamsrThe Puritans who settled in Salem, under Governor Winthrop, brought with them a definite creed and system of religion which they established and required all their fellow citizens to recognize and follow, but the religions liberty which now characterizes the American people was first advocated in all its fullness and applied in practice by Roger Williams, the founder of the Providence Plantation, now known as the State of Rhode Island. For this benefit to the human race his name deserves to be held in everlasting remembrance. Roger Williams was born in 1600, in an obscure country parish, amid the mountains of Wales. He was the son of William Williams, of Conwyl Cayo, near Lampeter, in the county of Carmarthen, South Wales. At the early age of fifteen he went up to London, and by his taking in shorthand some sermons and speeches in the Star Chamber, and then presenting them to Sir Edward Coke, he gained the interest of that great lawyer. Coke sent him to Sutton's Hospital, now called Charterhouse School. Williams entered Jesus College, Oxford, April 30, 1624. This college was founded by a Welshman, and has always been a favorite resort of students from that principality. He took orders in the Church of England, but soon left that communion.


Roger Williams preferred religious liberty amid the wilds of America to absolute submission to the ceremonies of the English church as then prescribed by law. Accompanied by his wife, he sailed from Bristol, England, and after a voyage of sixty-six days arrived at Boston the 5th of February, 1631. A few weeks after their arrival, Mr. Williams received a call from the church at Salem to become an assistant pastor. He accepted the invitation, but the civil authorities interfered to prevent his settlement, giving as their reason that Williams had refused to join the congregation at Boston, because they would not publicly declare their repentance for having held communion with the Church of England, and" he declared bis opinion that the magistrate might not punish a breach of the Sabbath, nor any other offence that was a breach of the first Table." Williams did not deny that multitudes of persons in national churches are to be regarded as true Christians but he maintained that "every national church is of a vicious constitution, and that a majority in such churches are unregenerate." Williams, however, settled at Salem, April 12th, 1631; but his continuance was destined to be of short duration. The authorities raised such persecution against him, that before the sum their ended he sought a residence in the more liberal colony of Plymouth, where he became assistant to the pastor, the Rev. Ralph Smith.


While in Plymouth Williams enjoyed friendly intercourse with several Indian chiefs, and by acts of kindness secured their confidence. After two years' residence at Plymouth, he was invited to return to Salem, but soon got into trouble again with the authorities. On December 27, 1633, according to Winthrop's account, the Governor and assistants met at Boston, and took into consideration a treatise which :Mr. Williams had sent to them, and which he had formerly written to the Governor and Council of Plymouth, wherein, among other things, he disputed their right to the lands they possessed here, and concluded that, claiming by the King's grant, they could have no title, nor otherwise except they compounded with the natives." They charged him with having written a quarto against the King's patent and authority. "The conduct of Williams on this occasion to the magistrates and clergy was mild and conciliating and, although he did not retract his opinions, he offered to burn the offensive book, and furnish satisfactory evidence of his loyalty.


In July, 1635, Williams was summoned to Boston to answer new charges brought against him. He held that it was wrong to compel an ungodly person to take an oath that the magistrate ought not to punish the breach of the first Table, otherwise than in such cases as did disturb the civil peace" "that a man ought not to give thanks after sacrament, nor after meat." The court found that Mr. Williams deserved to be banished from the Colony for holding such doctrine. This cruel and unjustifiable sentence was passed November 3, 1635. His opponents confess that, both at Plymouth and Salem, he was respected and beloved as a pious man and an able minister.


Finding that his enemies intended to send him back to England, Williams left his home secretly and fled to the shores of Narragansett Bay. In the latter part of June, 1636, Williams and his companions founded the first settlement in what is now Rhode Island, and called the town Providence. His success in purchasing lands, and establishing a new colony, was the result chiefly of his personal influence with the Indians. Roger Williams was the sole negotiator with the Indians, and the legal proprietor of the lands which they ceded to him. He established a purely democratic form of government. In September, 1641, Rhode Island passed all act" that the law concerning liberty of conscience in point of doctrine be perpetuated." The authorities of Massachusetts, not satisfied with having driven Williams and others from their territory, laid claim to jurisdiction over the settlements in Narragansett Bay. Roger Williams was appointed to procure a charter for Rhode Island, and in June, 1643, embarked at New York for England. He obtained the darter, dated March t7, 1644, and returning, landed in Boston on September 17th.


The Indians having threatened the Colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts, Williams mediated with the chiefs, and in August, 1645, concluded a treaty. Thus were the settlements of New England saved from a general Indian war by his personal influence. Cromwell, then Lord Protector of England, sent letters which showed his interest in the new Colony and his friendship for Williams. In 1656-8, when Massachusetts showed once more her intolerant spirit towards the Quakers, Rhode Island refused to join in this persecution. Williams retired from the office of President of the Colony in May, 1658. He engaged, in 1672, in a famous debate with the Quakers, which he afterwards published, giving it the quaint title George Fox digged out of his Burrows." The last public act of Williams was to sign a document, which bears date January 16, 1683, settling a dispute relative to the boundaries between the Providence lands and those of an adjacent township. He died in May, 1684, at the age of eighty-four, and was buried with all the solemnity the Colony was able to show. Roger Williams, in his writings, which were chiefly controversial, manifested a lively imagination and vigorous reasoning powers. Integrity, undaunted courage and prompt decision, marked all his conduct. Every man, of whatever clime, or color, or condition, he regarded as a brother. In all the relations of domestic and social life, his conduct was most exemplary; and over his whole course his piety shed a hallowed lustre. Though he was baptized by immersion in 1639, he afterwards withdrew from the Baptist church and became a "Seeker." He was the apostle of religious freedom, or as he called it It soul-liberty.




At a time when Germany was the battle-field for all Europe in the implacable wars of religion when even Holland was bleeding with the anger of vengeful factions when France was still to go through the fearful struggle with bigotry; when England was gasping under the despotism of intolerance; almost half a century before William Penn became an American proprietary; and two years before Descartes founded modern philosophy on the method of free reflection,-Roger Williams asserted the great doctrine of intellectual liberty. It became his glory to found a State upon that principle, and to stamp himself upon its rising institutions in characters so deep that the impress has remained to the present day, and call never be erased without the total destruction of the work.


The principles which he first sustained amidst the bickerings of a colonial parish, next absorted in the general court of Massachusetts, and then introduced into the wilds on Narragansett Bay, he soon found occasion to publish to the world,and to defend, as the basis of the religious freedom of man· kind; so that, borrowing the rhetoric employed by his antagonist in derision, we may compare him to the lark, the pleasant bird of the peaceful summer, that, affecting to soar aloft, springs upward from the ground, takes his rise from pale to tree," and at last, surmounting the highest hills, utters his clear carols through the skies of morning.


He was the first person in modern Christendom to assert in its plenitude the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions before the law i and in its defense he was the harbinger of Milton, the precursor and the superior of Jeremy Taylor. For Taylor limited his toleration to a few Christian sects i the philanthropy of Williams compassed the earth Taylor favored partial reform, commended lenity, argued for forbearance, and entered a special plea in behalf of each tolerable seet Williams would permit persecution of no opinion, of no religion, leaving heresy unharmed by law, and orthodoxy unprotected by the terrors of penal statutes. Taylor still clung to the necessity of positive regulations enforcing religion and eradicating error be resembled the poets, who, in their folly, first declare their hero to be invulnerable, and then clothe him in earthly armor; Williams was willing to leave Truth alone, in her own panoply of light, believing that if, in the ancient feud between Truth and Error, the employment of force could be entirely abrogated, Truth would have much the best of the bargain.


Winter was at hand; Williams suceeded in obtaining permission to remain till Spring, intending then to begin a plantation on Narragansett Bay. But the affections of the people of Salem revived, and could not be restrained; they thronged to bis house to hear him whom they were so soon to lose forever it began to be rumored that he could not safely be allowed to found a new State in the vicinity: many of the people were much taken with the apprehension of his godliness his opinions were contagious; the infection spread widely. It was therefore resolved to remove him to England in a ship that was just ready to set sail. A warrant was accordingly sent to him to come to Boston and embark. For the first time he declined the summons of the court. A pinnace was sent for him the officers repaired to his honse he was no longer there.


Three days before he had left Salem, in winter snow and inclement weather, of which he remembered the severity even in his late old age. For fourteen weeks he was sorely tost in a bitter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean." Often in the stormy night he had neither fire, nor food, nor company often he wandered without a guide, and had no house but a hollow tree. But he was not without friends. The same scrupulous respect for the rights of others which had led him to defend the freedom of conscience, had made him also the champion of the Indians. He had already been zealous to acquire their language, and knew it so well that he could debate with them ill their own dialect. During his residence at Plymouth he had often been the guest of the neighboring sachems and now when he came in winter to the cabin of the chief of Pokanoket, he was welcomed by Massasoit; and the barbarous heart of Canonicus, the chief of the Narragansetts, loved him as his son to the last gasp." "The ravens," he relates with gratitude, fed me in the wilderness. And in requital for their hospitality he was ever, through his long life, their friend and benefactor; the apostle of Christianity to them, without hire, without weariness, and without impatience at their idolatry; the guardian of their rights; the pacificator, when their rude passions were inflamed and their unflinching advocate and protector, when· ever Europeans attempted an invasion of their soil.


He first pitched, and began to build and plant at Seekonk. But Seekonk was found to be within the patent of Plymouth on the other side of the water, the country opened in its unapropriated beauty, and there he might hope to establish a community as free as the other Colonies. "That ever· honored Governor Winthrop," says Williams, "privately wrote to me to steer my course to the Narragansett Bay, encouraging me from the freeness of the place from English claims or patents. I took his prudent motion as a voice from God." It was in June that the lawgiver of Rhode Island, with five companions, embarked on the stream; a frail Indian canoe contained the founder of an independent State and its earliest citizens. Tradition has marked the spring near which they landed; it is the parent spot, the first inhabited nook of Rhode Island. To express his unbroken confidence in the mercies of God, Williams called the place PROVlDENCE. "I desired," said he, "it might be fora shelter for persons distressed for conscience."


In his new abode, Williams could have less leisure for contemplation and study. "My time," he observes of him· self,-and it is a sufficient apology for the roughness of his style, as a writer on morals,-"was not spent altogether in spiritual labors; but, day and night, at home and abroad, on the land and water, at the hoe, at the oar, for bread." In the course of two years he was joined by others, who fled to his asylum. The land which was now occupied by Williams was within the territory of the Narragansett Indians; it was not long before all Indian deed from Canonicus and Miantonomah made him the undisputed possessor of an extensive domain.GEORGE BANCROFT.


Roger Williams

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