"Persons may with less sin be forced to marry whom they cannot love, than to worship when they cannot believe."
Roger Williams (1603 to 1683) was a twice-exiled trail-blazing theologian who founded the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation as well as the university which bears his name. A born rabble-rouser, Williams earned his well-to-do father's enmity at the age of 12 by deciding to dedicate his life to the divinity. His father passed away five years later. Williams supported himself at this time by learning and excelling at shorthand and frequenting the Star Chamber. There he began working for one Sir Edward Coke, a jurist of some renown who sponsored Williams's entry to the world of higher learning.
Due to his natural affinity for languages, Williams earned a scholarship to Pembroke where he completed his bachelor's degree in 1627. Despite being consecrated as a priest in the Anglican faith, Williams became a Puritan while in school. Upon graduation he took an assignment as a chaplain for a Puritan. In 1629 he married his wife, Mary Barnard.
The following year he witnessed the brutal flogging and facial mutiliation of a Dr. Leighton, who attempted to reconcile the differences between the Anglicans and Puritans through reform. When Leighton was sentenced to life imprisonment in the DREAD CHAMBER, the Puritans of England made plans to settle in the New World. Williams did not join the first wave of Puritans in the summer but waited until December to make the two month sea voyage.
Williams arrived in Boston as a Separatist and advocate of both religious freedom and the separation of church and state. He was sorely surprised to learn that these ideals were not shared by the theocractic colonial leaders of Boston, who remained close to the crown. Williams turned down an offer to preach in Boston, opting for Salem instead, where he was warmly greeted. In Salem he preached that the Native Americans should be compensated for the use of their land and that European powers could not rightfully appropriate that which was already inhabited. Predictably, pressure was soon put upon Salem by Boston for the removal of Williams.
After six months Williams fled for Plymouth to live with the Pilgrims. Finding them to be of like faith, he spent two years there as an assistant. He made friendly contact with the natives as a missionary and formed a treaty with Chief Massasoit. In 1633 he returned to Salem. He continued to preach his contrarian views for a few more years and was eventually branded as "the
first rebel against the divine church order" by Church leaders in Boston. In the midst of a terrible snowstorm in the winter of 1636, Williams was secretly scheduled for deportation to England.
Thanks to a tip by Governor John Winthrop, Williams narrowly escaped to what is now Narragansett Bay. He purchased land near the Mooshassuc River from the local chiefs Canonicus and Miantonomi and named his new home Providence.
Williams returned to England twice for the purpose of obtaining a charter from the crown to prevent others from encroaching upon his territory. During the first such voyage in 1643 he wrote A Key Into
Languages of America, one of the first New World phrasebooks to be published in London. While there he assisted London's poor with much needed firewood as the coal supply lines were circumvented by civil war. Williams returned to his new home, deciding to wait until the war had passed.
He returned to England in 1651 with Newport preacher John Clarke. Clarke remained in England until Charles II on July 8, 1663 granted a Royal Charter for the colony of Rhode Island. Williams did not remain in England long on this second trip as he served as governor of his colony from 1654 to 1658.
Williams remained an active preacher throughout his lifetime. His time with the natives only broadened his tolerance. In 1644 he wrote in the The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience that "It
is the will and command of God, that...a permission of the most
Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and
worships, be granted to all men, in all nations..." This vision of a peaceful plurality attracted many who sought succour from persecution. Williams's theology evolved from his Puritan roots to become an early Seeker—in the pre-Quaker sense.
He witnessed the burning of much of Providence during King Phillip's War from 1675 to 1676. The town was rebuilt during his lifetime.
Williams would outlive his wife. The two of them produced six children, all born in the colonies: Mary, Freeborn, Providence, Mercy, Daniel and Joseph. His progeny formed a historical society in the late 19th century. One such scion, Ian Williams Goddard carries the freethinking spirit of Roger Williams onward.
The ideals of Roger Williams strongly influenced the founding fathers of the United States of America and set an important precedent of freedom and religious tolerance which continues today. This sense of even-handedness is even evidenced here at everything.