He was born in England, about 1603, to James and Alice (Pemberton) Williams. His father was a merchant tailor and probably a man of some means. The elder Williams included in his will along with bequests to his wife and children, “money and bread to the poor in various sections of London.” His mother Alice, in her will, left a sum of ten pounds, yearly, to her son, Roger Williams, “now beyond the seas…what remaineth thereof unpaid…shall be paid to his wife and daughter.” He grew up near Smithfield and historians assume he was aware of the burnings at the stake of those considered heretics which may have influenced his strong convictions.
Williams studied at Pembroke College at Cambridge and graduated from there in 1627. He excelled in languages with scholarships in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He took Holy Orders though it’s believed it was at Cambridge he was swayed by the Puritan beliefs. He married Mary Barnard in 1629 and by this time had become a controversial figure—his ideas about freedom of worship were causing some disturbance. It is thought that by the time he and his wife set sail for America, he had become a Separatist.
He and Mary arrived in New England in 1631 on the ship Lyon. Upon his arrival at Boston, he was welcomed, the Governor John Winthrop describing him as “a godly minister.” He was soon invited to be a teacher at the church at Boston. He declined the position, learning the church hadn’t separated itself from the Church of England. Salem’s church invited him to come there but as soon as the church at Boston heard of the invitation, they adamantly protested and Salem withdrew the offer.
He moved to Plymouth and was welcomed in the church, ministering there for about two years and Governor Bradford wrote, “his teachings were well approved,” but Williams began to speak against the idea of taking land from the Indians without paying for it, for he had been spending time with the Indians, developing friendships with them and he publicly denounced the legality of the king’s charter and subsequently moved back to Salem. He continued to speak against the charter and he demanded the church at Salem separate itself from the Church of England. He also contended that the church had no authority to dictate the consciences of men, being adamant that there should be a separation of church and civil government. He lost most of his support and withdrew from the church, holding meetings in his home with his followers. By October of 1635 he was tried by the General Court and found guilty of sedition and heresy and ordered banished from the colony.
“Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the Elders of the church of Salem, hath broached and divulged new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates, as also written in letters of defamation, both of the magistrates and churches here, and that before any conviction, and yet maintaineth the same without any retraction; it is therefore, ordered that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks now next ensuing.”
He faced death or at the least, removal back to England if he didn’t comply. He became sick during this time and was given space to recover before being required to leave the jurisdiction, if he would desist from his speaking, but he did not. The sheriff came to arrest him, however he had slipped away three days earlier. Some historical accounts describe that he walked through deep snow, 105 miles to Narragansett Bay. When he reached the Bay, his Indian friends (the Wampanoag) rescued him and he stayed with their Chief Sachem Massasoit at their winter camp. He wrote later of that difficult time, “I was sorely tossed for one fourteen weeks in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bed or bread did mean.”
The following spring Williams purchased land from Massasoit, the chief sachem of the Wampanoag and he and a handful of friends began a settlement, only to be told they were still in Massachusetts jurisdiction. Governor Winslow, a Mayflower passenger and a friend of Williams, encouraged him in a letter to cross the Seekonk River where they would be beyond any charter:
"I received a letter from My Ancient Friend, Mr. Winslow, the Governor of Plymouth, professing his own and others' love for me, yet Lovingly advising me, since I was fallen into the edge of their bounds, and they were loth to displease the Bay (the colony of Massachusetts, at Boston), to remove to the other side of the river, and there, he said, I had the country before me, and I might be as free as themselves, and we should be loving neighbors together."
He did, and purchased land from the chief sachems of the Narragansett Indians, Canonicus and Manitanomi and named his settlement Providence because he felt it was God’s providence that had brought him there.
Williams wrote later of Winslow:
"That great and pious soul, Mr. Winslow, melted and kindly visited me at Providence, and put a piece of gold into the hands of my wife, for our supply."
He says of this purchase, “I spared no cost towards them in tokens and presents to Canonicus and all his, many years before I came in person to the Narragansett; and when I came I was welcome to the old prince Canonicus, who was most shy of all English to his last breath.” He wrote years later, “It was not price or money that could have purchased Rhode Island, it was purchased by love.”
He freely admitted twelve “loving friends and neighbors,” to Providence: Stukely Westcott, William Arnold, Thomas James, Robert Coles, John Greene, John Throckmorton, William Harris, William Carpenter, Thomas Olney, Francis Weston, Richard Waterman and Ezekiel Holliman. Soon afterwards, “others desired to take shelter here,” and some of the earliest of those that followed were, Chad Brown, William Field, Thomas Harris, William Wickenden, Benedict Arnold, Robert Williams, Richard Scott, William Reynold, John Field, John Warner, Thomas Hopkins and Joshua Winsor.
Historians list the first church in Providence as the first Baptist Church in America. However information from the Society of Stukely Westcott Descendants reveals that the group adhered to the foundation principles in Hebrews 6:1-2 which is according to the Six Principles Sect and stated the church at Providence, for the first 150 years of its existence was a Six Principles Church. It appears Roger Williams came to the conclusion that infant baptism was not scriptural after he left Massachusetts, because that wasn’t one of the charges his accusers made against him. According to historians, Ezekiel Holliman, being the elder, baptized Roger Williams and then in turn, Roger Williams baptized the others. The little group met in groves and neighbors’ homes and as previously mentioned, endeavored to obey the scriptures as they understood them, practicing the basic foundation principles found in Hebrews 6:
1) Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God,
2) Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
Roger Williams did not remain long with the church in Providence, in a matter of months he separated himself. He has been quoted as writing:
“There is no regularly constituted church of Christ on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking.”
In one of his published writings, The Hireling Ministry, None of Christ’s (1652 London) he wrote:
“No man ever did, nor ever shall, truly go forth to convert the nations, nor to prophesy in the present state of witnesses against antichrist, but by the gracious inspiration and instigation of the Holy Spirit of God…I know no other True Sender, but the most Holy Spirit.
‘Tis true, those glorious first ministerial gifts are ceased, and that’s or should be the lamentation of all Saints…Yet I humbly conceive that without those gifts, it is no ground of imitation, and of going forth to Teach and Baptise the Nations, for, the Apostles themselves did not attempt that mighty enterprise, but waited at Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit descended on them and inabled them for that mighty work…”
…The first grand design of Christ Jesus is to destroy and consume His mortal enemy antichrist. This must be done by the breath of His mouth in His prophets and witnesses. Now, the nations of the world have impiously stopped this heavenly breath and stifled the Lord Jesus in His servants. Now, it shall please the civil state to remove the state bars set up to resist the holy spirit of God in His servants (whom yet finally to resist is not in all the powers of the world), I humbly conceive that the civil state has made a fair progress in promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He remained active in the civil affairs of the colony, continued to teach and publish his writings. When Massachusetts began to try to push their jurisdiction beyond the legal boundaries of their colony, not only for the potential wealth of those lands, but also to stamp out what the magistrates believed was heretical doctrine, Roger Williams sailed to England to obtain a patent from England for Providence Plantation. Years later he returned to England again to obtain a Royal Charter for all the settlements of Rhode Island.
From the time Williams arrived in New England he developed friendships with the Indian tribes of the area. He lived with them, observed their ways, learned their languages and found them to be more honest and trustworthy than his English countrymen. His first published book, A Key Into the Language of America (1643) became quite popular in England. Written during his first voyage to England and published in London it was the first dictionary of any Indian tongue in the English language and it helped satisfy the curiosity the English had about the Indians. He had thought to be a missionary to the Indians but after many years with them, he gave up the idea and was severely criticized for it. He was against forced conversion of the natives, calling it “monstrous and most inhumane” and a “violation of Christian principles”. In his little book about their languages he made an effort to instruct the English, who thought themselves highly superior to the natives. He wrote of the months he lived with them: “God was pleased to give me a painful, patient spirit, to lodge with them in their filthy, smoky holes…to gain their tongue.”
He wrote about the Indians:
“The natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that prince or people, even to a river, brook, etc. And I have known them make bargain and sale amongst themselves for a small piece or quantity of ground; notwithstanding a sinful opinion amongst many, that Christians have right to heathen’s land.” (Chap 16: Of the Earth and Fruits thereof)
In another chapter he wrote:
“I was persuaded and am, that God’s way is first to turn a soul from its idols, both of heart, worship, and conversation, before it is capable of worship to the true and living God…the first principles and foundation of true religion, or worship of the true God in Christ, are repentance from dead works, and faith towards God, before the doctrine of baptism or washing, and the laying on of hands, which contain the ordinances and practices of worship; the want of which I conceive is the bane of millions of souls in England and all other nations professing to be Christian nations, who are brought by public authority to baptism and fellowship with God in ordinances of worship, before the saving work of repentance and a true turning to God” (Chap 21: Of Their Religion).
He established a trading post after returning from his first trip to England at Cocumscossuc (now known as North Kingstown), which was his main source of income and the friendship and trust he had with the Indians of the area often prevented trouble between the English and the tribes. He sold his trading post to fund his return trip to England as previously mentioned, with John Clarke of Newport, to obtain a Royal Charter for Providence and the other Rhode Island settlements, although it was John Clarke who finally returned with it because Williams had to return to New England early to take care of personal affairs.
Because of his relationship with the Narragansett tribe, Plymouth called upon Williams to convince the Narragansett to not join with the Pequot tribe during the Pequot War (1634-1638); instead he enlisted them to join with the English and together they crushed the Pequot who were hostile to the colonists and the Pequots never regained prominence. For forty years, God used Roger Williams to keep the peace between the native tribes and the colonists. He surrendered himself twice to the Indians to guarantee the safe return of the great sachems from a summons to court.
The hostilities continued to increase as more settlers pressed further into the wilderness, their livestock trampling the Indians crops and their hunting grounds adversely affected. The great sachem Metacom (named King Phillip by the English) met with Williams and in reply to Williams warning that the English would destroy them, comparing the Indians to a “canoe on a stormy English sea.” Williams wrote of the conversation later, “He answered me in a consenting, considering kind of way.” “My canoe is already overturned.” Metacom felt his people had no recourse and would rather die fighting than submit to a slow death. Another sachem said to Williams, “…as for you Brother Williams, you are a good man. You have been kind to us for many years. Not one hair of your head will be touched.” The war between the colonists and the Indians became known as the King Phillips War (1675-1678), and it ended with the burning of Providence, including Williams’ house. It was one of the saddest and bitterest times in his life. Many of his country men died as did his Indian friends.
Roger and Mary Williams had six children all born in America. Notable descendants are Julia Ward Howe, author of the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Nelson Rockefeller, and Gail Borden, inventor, surveyor and publisher. Borden published the Telegraph and Texas Register during the war with Mexico, became involved in politics after the war and helped write early drafts of a Texas constitution. He was also the inventor of condensed milk.
Roger Williams died sometime in early 1683 at age 79. He was the Chief Officer of Providence and Warwick under the Patent of 1643 from 1644 – 1647 and President of the same from 1654 to 1657. His convictions in spiritual and civil matters contributed greatly to establishing the church in Providence Plantation, the founding of the state of Rhode Island and subsequently the United States. It is written, “even his most bitter critics in later years openly acknowledged their affection and respect for him as an individual.” A statue of his likeness was selected to be placed at the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol to represent Rhode Island.
Sources: Wikipedia; Wikiquote; Roger Williams -Rootsweb@ancestry.com; Roger Williams Family Assoc.; Society of Stukely Westcott Descendants;
You can watch and listen to Doyle Davidson and Paul Peters read and discuss Roger Williams here:
"Rhode Island Founders" Page
"A Nation Bringing Forth Fruit" Page