Roger Williams


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Williams, ROGER, founder of Rhode Island; born in Wales in 1599; went to London at an early age, where he reported sermons in shorthand, and attracted the attention of Sir Edward Coke, who befriended him in his efforts to obtain a collegiate education. He was at Pembroke College in 1623, and graduated in January, 1627. He took orders in the Church of England, but imbibed dissenting ideas, and came to Boston in 1630, where he was regarded as an extreme Puritan. He was accompanied by his wife, Mary, a young English-woman, who shared in the joys and sorrows of his long life. At Boston he became obnoxious to the authorities because he denied the right of magistrates to interfere with the consciences of men, and soon went to Salem, where he became assistant pastor of the church there. He was complained of by the Bostonians because he had refused to join with the congregation there until they should make a public declaration of their repentance for having communion with the churches of England while they lived in that town. He was a thorough separatist, and because his brethren in New England were not as radical as he was he assailed the theocracy.

He did not remain long at Salem, for opposition to his views compelled him to go to Plymouth, where for two years he was assistant to the pastor, Ralph Smith. There he formed the acquaintance of leading chiefs of the tribes around him, and gained a knowledge of their language. Returning to Salem, he became pastor of the church there, and promulgated his theological views so boldly that in the autumn of 1635 the General Court of Massachusetts ordered him to quit the colony in six months. His immediate offence was his calling in question the authority of magistrates in two things—namely, relating to the right of the King to grant the land of the Indians to white settlers without purchasing it; and the other, the right of the civil power to impose faith and worship. Williams made some slight concessions, and the time for his departure was extended to the following spring. Circumstances soon made the Boston magistrates suspicious that he was preparing to found a new colony with his followers; and observing with alarm that his doctrines were spreading, it was determined to seize him and send him to England at once. A small vessel was sent to Salem to take him away; but, forewarned, he left his home and family in midwinter, and for fourteen weeks wandered in the snows of the wilderness to the region of Narraganset Bay. Five companions joined him on the eastern bank of the Seekonk River; but, finding they were within the bounds of New Plymouth, they went down the stream, and at a fine spring near the head of Narraganset Bay they planted the seed of a colony, and called the place "Providence," in grateful acknowledgment of divine favor. A form of government was established--a pure democracy—allowing no interference with the rights of consciences. See RHODE ISLAND.

When Williams went to Boston he was inclined to become an Anabaptist; now he proceeded to establish a Baptist church in Providence, when several persons from Massachusetts had joined him. In March, 1639, he was baptized by immersion by a layman—Ezekiel Holliman—and then Williams baptized Holliman and ten others, and a church was organized. Williams soon doubted the validity of his own baptism and that of the others. He withdrew from the church and never reentered it. For some years the government of the colony was a pure democracy, transacting its business by means of town-meetings, until a charter was procured in 1644 by Williams, who went to England for it. On the voyage thither he wrote A Key into the Language of America, together with an account of the manners and customs of the Indians. After the death of Charles I. trouble in the colony caused Williams to be sent to England again, where he remained some time, making the acquaintance of John Milton and other distinguished scholars, and wrote and published Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and Their Preservation.

In the autumn of 1654 Williams was elected president, or governor, of Rhode Island. There was then less toleration among the people than formerly, and they became incensed against fanatical persons calling themselves Friends, or Quakers. But Williams refused to persecute them. In 1672 he engaged in a public debate at Newport with George Fox and two other Quaker preachers, one of whom, named Burroughs, was specially pugnacious in support of his views. Afterwards Williams published a controversial work, entitled George Fox Digged Out of His Burrows.

When King Philip's War broke out the venerable founder of Rhode Island watched its progress with great anxiety; and, though he was then seventy-six years old, he accepted a captain's commission, drilled a company at Providence, and erected defenses there for women and children. But Providence shared the fate of other New England towns. Notwithstanding the bad treatment Roger Williams received from Massachusetts, he was always the active friend of the people there in preventing their destruction by the Indians, over whom he had great influence. He died at Providence in the spring of 1683.




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