One of the most important parts of the U.S. Constitution is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, and the most recognized of those is the first. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press and assembly, but perhaps most importantly is the prohibition of the national government from interfering with the expression of a person’s religious beliefs. This desire dates back to the early seventeenth century when English colonists emigrated from the Old World to the New. Many arrived with the expectation of worshipping God in their own way. One colonist came to America with such hopes, but he found local religious leaders just as intolerant as those in England. He quickly despaired of the persecution and desired to create a new colony where all could worship freely. His name was Roger Williams. This is the story of how his fight for religious freedom led him to found Rhode Island.
From an early age, Roger Williams learned to despise the Church of England as it cracked down on those denominations that did not fall into line. He was born in Smithfield, England, just outside of London, around 1603 to middle-class Puritans, a group of men and women wishing to “purify” the Church of any practice not found in the Bible. His early years were spent listening to his parents discuss sermons on Puritan ideology, but by age ten he had seen English officials ban Puritan books and arrest and imprison opponents, most often Baptists. As the persecution mounted, young Williams came under the tutelage of Sir Edward Coke, one of England’s most prominent jurists, and thanks to Coke’s influence, he adopted a belief that all denominations had a right to worship peacefully. After his apprenticeship ended in 1621, Roger attended Smithfield’s Charterhouse school and later Pembroke College in Cambridge, both “high church” institutions. It was at this time Williams’s criticism of the Anglican Church began as he observed the practices of the faculty and his classmates. He watched priests don “holy gowns (black and red), holy cassocks, holy caps, holy scarfs, holy rings, yea and holy boots.” For Williams, these accessories seemed to be nothing more than the “flaunting vanities of some painted harlot.” In the years following his graduation in 1627, his opposition to Anglican policies intensified and ultimately forced him to leave England.
After completing his undergraduate studies at Pembroke, Williams considered pursuing a master’s degree, but to do so, he had to accept new policies governing ministers’ conduct. Not only would he have to adhere to Anglican principles, but he would also have to wear a cope, an open cloak, over a surplice, a white tunic. These demands contradicted Roger’s Puritan beliefs, and he refused to give in to such arbitrary measures. After eighteen months of graduate work, therefore, he left school and eventually found work as Sir William Masham’s personal chaplain. It was not long, however, before oppressive church policies once again threatened his livelihood. Like other nonconformists, he knew Bishop William Laud was seeking to cleanse the Anglican faith of corruption by ridding the pulpits of “unlearned and unworthy ministers,” most of whom were Puritans. To accomplish his goal, Laud decreed in early 1629 that each minister must read from the official Prayer Book every Sunday afternoon rather than deliver sermons. At the same time, he prohibited private chaplains, like Williams, from accepting independent commissions without first securing an official church position in the same community. Less than a year later, Laud added to these demands by requiring liturgical services to precede a minister’s sermon. As word of these actions reached him, Roger condemned them as attempts to subjugate Puritans and other nonconformists. His outrage grew when he learned several chaplains had been suspended. He knew it was only a matter of time before Laud came after him, so he decided to join those Puritans who had begun migrating to the New World.
No sooner had Williams stepped foot on North American soil than he began to challenge the authority of the Puritan elite, just as he had opposed the Anglican hierarchy. He arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in early February 1631 and initially was warmly received by the colony’s leaders, including Governor John Winthrop. Quickly however, because of his outspokenness, that admiration turned to distrust, and he found himself once again on the fringe of accepted religious society. Winthrop asked him to serve as a minister, and he steadfastly refused. He had no desire to participate in the autocratic rule of the Puritan elite. He shared their religious convictions, but he rejected their hold on religious expression. The town’s ministers oversaw religious and civil affairs, and citizens were prohibited from questioning the arrangement. This was almost identical to the control exercised by William Laud and other Anglican bishops. Williams urged Winthrop and his colleagues to abolish the relationship, but his request was denied. Colonial officials feared it would not only destroy Massachusetts’ core principles but also threaten the iron grip in which they held the citizens. While the leaders refused to banish Williams for his criticisms, they made it clear he should leave Boston as soon as possible.
Although he heeded the advice and quickly departed the heart of Puritanism, it was not long before Roger once again came under fire for making controversial comments. He found solace in the Pilgrim’s colony at Plymouth where he became a popular assistant minister. By 1633, however, he was urging New Englanders to separate from the national Anglican Church. He maintained Massachusetts’ citizens should be allowed to “enjoy their conscience to God, after a particular Congregational way.” In essence, he was calling for religious freedom. His message began a lively debate within the community, but as the debate intensified, Governor William Bradford feared Roger’s sermons would bring a fundamental split in the congregation. Bradford shared his concerns with Williams, and Roger ultimately agreed to leave the community. By the fall of 1633 he was ensconced in Salem, and by early 1634 he was the town’s minister. Reports soon reached Boston that he was still lecturing on the dangers of remaining tied to a national church. No doubt under his guidance, Salem’s congregation petitioned Boston for separation, but church officials threatened to sever ties with the community if it did so. Some citizens began to distance themselves from Williams’s rhetoric, but the loss of support did not keep Roger from continuing on his self-appointed mission.
By late 1634 the government’s patience with Roger Williams was almost at the breaking point. Governor Winthrop and his supporters ordered Roger to cease using the pulpit to advocate such inflammatory positions, but he refused to obey their dictates. In November word came to Boston that Williams had condemned England’s demand that all new arrivals in the colonies must hold religious services according to traditional church practices. He labeled the Anglican Church corrupt and “anti-Christian.” For those in power, this report was the final straw. They feared William Laud would capitalize on these attacks to show Puritans were incapable of punishing dissidents. To put Roger in his place, they summoned him before the colony’s General Court and found him to be in contempt of court for violating his promise to not speak his “heretical” notions from the pulpit. Realizing he would never abandon his “erroneous and very dangerous” views, as Winthrop called them, the General Court charged Williams with sedition and ordered him to stand trial.
By the time the trial began in October 1635, Roger was such a controversial figure that he had little choice but to serve as his own advocate. Williams’s defense centered on the two positions he had espoused for the last four years — freedom of religion and separation of church and state. He believed that in Massachusetts they (church and state) operated in lockstep. Even though Puritans had rejected Anglican ceremonies and Bishops, he argued, the congregation’s leadership remained united with Anglicans when they joined “with such churches and ministers in the Ordinances of the Word and Prayer.” This union caused the colony’s authorities to remain intolerant of differing views and of those like himself who chastised them for their intransigence. When the leaders, mostly ministers, perceived themselves threatened, they used their civil power to force compliance, usually through the town’s magistrates. It was clear, therefore, that the “Commonweale and the Church is yet but one.” As John Winthrop and the rest of the General Court considered Williams’s words, they knew they could not permit Roger to remain in Massachusetts and encourage radical ideas. At the same time, however, Boston’s establishment did not want to make him a martyr. After due consideration, they decided to give Williams until the next General Court session, at which time he would either submit or face judgment. In response, Williams embarked on a letter-writing campaign outlining further injustices committed by Boston’s ministers. Ordered to appear before the Court one last time, he listened as the verdict was read — banishment.
Little did Winthrop and the other Puritans realize that Williams’s expulsion would give him the opportunity to put his views regarding religious toleration into practice. During the winter of 1635-36 he led his remaining supporters south to modern-day Rhode Island where they established Providence Plantations. In 1644 the English government granted the new colony a charter, and among the provisions, much to Williams’s exultation, was a guarantee individuals could worship as they pleased, as long as they obeyed the civil authority. He served as president of the colony’s assembly from 1654-57. During his time in office and later, Roger kept up a steady correspondence with friends in Massachusetts, including John Winthrop, and begged them to stop their harsh repression of dissidents, like Baptists and Quakers. As the persecution continued, Williams welcomed the victims to Rhode Island and defended their right to free expression. He also encouraged public debates between the denominations, the most famous being Williams’s debate with Quaker leaders in 1672. Thanks to Roger Williams’s lifelong commitment to religious freedom, the small colony of Rhode Island became the model for the entire country. The steadfast and relentless reformer, minister and statesman was laid to rest in Providence, Rhode Island in early 1683.
The United States has long prided itself as a country where all faiths are welcome. In the earliest years of the colonies, however, this was not true. One man, Roger Williams, determined to bring change, to establish religious tolerance throughout the land. It was his desire to worship without an established religion for all citizens. He wanted America to be different from those nations where one denomination reigned supreme, whether it was England’s Anglicanism or France’s Roman Catholicism. Instead, he saw a land where the religious faithful could live in harmony with one another. Just over one hundred years after his death, Roger Williams’s dream came true with the passage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and his legacy will endure as long as Americans worship as their conscience dictates.