Who Was Roger Williams? - History & Explanation

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Roger Williams was a prominent preacher who fought for religious freedom in the 1600s in Colonial America. After being banished from the Massachusetts colony, he became one of the founding fathers of Rhode Island.


The formation of the United States was rooted in strong beliefs regarding religious freedom. These beliefs were exemplified in the lives of many early settlers, one of whom was famed Protestant theologian Roger Williams. Williams lived for 80 years from 1603 to 1683, and he left a significant mark on American colonial history.

Christian Foundation

Williams did not come from a prominent English family. At a young age, he experienced what can be considered a life-changing religious experience in which he converted to and became a Christian. Williams spent much of his teenage years apprenticing and studying various languages. He attended school at Pembroke College in England, and from there entered into the ministry.

The Anglican Church was the predominant religious institution in England in the 1600s. Thus, when Williams first entered into the Church, he was officially an Anglican. Yet, Williams leaned toward the Puritans, a particular branch of Anglicans who were stricter on matters of faith and morality than most Christians of the day. The Puritans were a sect within the Anglican Church at first, but over time Anglican disapproval pushed the Puritans further and further away from the Church of England. This growing distance between these churches eventually drove the Puritans to a new land: the British colonies in North America.

The New World

Roger Williams was a part of this migration. After marrying Mary Barnard in 1629, he and his bride journeyed to the New World in late 1630, arriving in February of 1631. Upon arriving to Boston, Williams quickly found work as a preacher and teacher, working with the legions of fellow Puritans and English settlers who had left the Old World behind for the New. In his teachings, Williams held three basic tenets: he believed that Puritans needed to be separate from the Church of England, which he saw as increasingly corrupt; Williams believed in the principle of freedom of religion; and he also believed that the official government needed to stay out of church affairs. These principles had fueled his early work in England, his move to the colonies, and they would come to define his life's work.

Williams went to Plymouth to preach for a short time before his beliefs took him in an entirely new direction. Believing that freedom of religion and separation of Church and State were bedrock principles which could not be compromised, Williams began speaking out against the Anglican Church, which was the primary reason why he and so many others had left England. Starting in 1633, Williams's outspokenness on these issues began to get him in trouble with church and government authorities. Despite being across an ocean, the British colonies were still very much a part of Great Britain. Thus, speaking out against the crown and the Church of England were serious offenses. In late 1635, after several tracts, publications, and public denunciations of the Church of England and its alleged corruption, British authorities had had enough of Williams, who was at that time a minister in Salem, Massachusetts. British authorities on the General Court convicted Williams of sedition and heresy. For punishment, Williams was banished from Massachusetts, set out into the New England wilderness to either find his way and survive or die from the elements or the Native Americans.

Banishment and Providence

After journeying well over 100 miles, Williams arrived to southern New England in what is modern day Rhode Island along the Narragansett Bay. There, he established a new town which was called Providence, as God had led Williams through the wilderness to safety. Some of his devout followers from Massachusetts joined Williams, along with his family. Over a few years' time, Williams and his small-yet-growing band of followers established Providence as a town where democracy and religious freedom were paramount. During these years, Williams established a friendly, cordial, and cooperative relationship with the Native Americans in the area, living together beneficially. Soon, more towns began appearing near Providence, all along the Narragansett Bay.

Roger Williams with the Narragansett Indians upon his arrival in Southern New England

In the 1640s, Williams returned to England to gain a colonial charter for his new settlements. Made out for Providence Plantations, Parliament granted Williams his request. Upon returning, Williams worked to bring his settlement and those neighboring it together under the charter and government. A nearby settlement on Aquidneck Island had gained a colonial charter that named their settlement Rhode Island. The Rhode Island leader was William Coddington, and for several years Williams fought with Coddington for control over the new colony that was being settled. In the 1650s, Williams was able to have Coddington's charter revoked, himself receiving a new charter for the colony. Upon returning to the colonies, Williams was elected the new colony's first president. Perhaps most remarkable at that time was Williams's effort to keep his new colony free of slavery. Becoming arguably one of the first abolitionists in the New World, Williams worked to pass laws and policies that would keep slavery out of Rhode Island forever. This was a stark contrast to the settlement of colonies in what would become the Southern United States at that time.

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