Williams, Roger (1603–1683)

Roger Williams, clergyman, founder of Rhode Island, and one of the first proponents of religious toleration and separation of church and state, was born sometime between 1599 and 1603. The son of a merchant tailor, he was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Although ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England, he agreed with the Puritans that the Reformation in England had not gone far enough to rid the church of its Romish errors. Shunned by the Church of England’s hierarchy, he sailed in 1631 to join John Winthrop and the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. The colony welcomed him warmly, and offered him the pastorate of the first Puritan church in Boston. Although acknowledging the honor, he declined the invitation on the grounds that he believed the Puritans should break openly with the Church of England and go their separate way. He moved from Boston to New Plymouth and later to Salem, where he farmed, traded, and preached to the Indians, all the while growing more convinced that the civil authorities lacked any power to compel religious conformity. Only God could command men’s consciences, and for the state to force people to honor the Sabbath amounted to ‘‘forced worship,’’ which ‘‘stinks in God’s nostrils.’’

These views challenged not only prevalent thought but the very legitimacy of established churches, so the Massachusetts elders put him on trial for heresy in 1635 and found him guilty. He and twenty of his followers then fled to what is now Bristol, Rhode Island, in the winter of 1636; that spring, with the gift of land from local tribes, Williams established a settlement he named Providence.

While Williams believed in freedom of individual conscience, one cannot label him as a liberal in the modern sense. He was a man of his own times, a devout Christian who, as much as John Cotton and the Puritan divines, wanted one true religion. Unlike Cotton, however, Williams did not believe that he had found that faith, and so long as he had not, then he could not impose his will on others or force them to believe and worship in a particular manner.

Williams laid out his design for Rhode Island in 1644, when he published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, For Cause of Conscience, discussed in A Conference betweene Truth and Peace. Williams envisioned a Christian commonwealth in which all religious persuasions would be allowed to practice freely, while the civil authority rested in a separate realm. No religious body would dominate the civil government, and the magistrates would act according to the dictates of their individual consciences. Such a commonwealth, Williams maintained, could tolerate a great range of individual beliefs, even those of Jews, Muslims, and the most radical Christians at the time, Quakers.

In one of his most famous idioms, in his Letter to Providence (1655), he wrote: It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked upon one ship: upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges—that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor be compelled from their own particular prayers or worship.

In fact, the charter issued to Williams for Rhode Island by Charles II in 1663 made clear that they envisioned a colony ‘‘pursuing, with peaceable and loyal minds, their sober, serious and religious intentions, of godly edifying themselves, and one another, in the holy Christian faith and worship.’’ Nonetheless, the charter did allow that no one would be molested or otherwise persecuted ‘‘for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.’’ But the charter then emphasized that the colonists had the authority to defend themselves, not only to protect their property and rights, but against ‘‘all the enemies of the Christian faith.’’ While Charles II stood prepared to allow a small number of dissidents in a faraway land relatively wide latitude in religious observances, and to forego having the Church of England established there, he and the royal government still saw Williams and Rhode Island as Christian, and commanded to stay that way.

Williams, a true Christian in his own beliefs, wanted to welcome Jews and others because, in the end, he hoped to convert them to ‘‘the principles of Christianity and civility.’’ If Jews came to Rhode Island, Williams maintained, they would not be turned away, and neither would they be molested in their religious observances. They could never be full citizens, however, until they saw the light and converted to Christianity. Williams had a similar attitude toward Quakers, who had established a small settlement on Acquidneck Island (site of present-day Newport). In a tract entitled George Foxx Digg’d Out of His Burrovves (1676), Williams equated Quaker beliefs with Judaism and Catholicism as a means of discrediting the Friends’ theology. God’s grace, he wrote, ‘‘is a mystery which neither Jews nor Turks, Atheists or Papists, or Quakers know.’’

Williams wanted to establish peace among the various Christian sects, and his references to Jews and Turks served as a simple rhetorical device. If even Jews and Muslims could live in peace, then so should the various Christian denominations be able to mute their differences for the sake of civil harmony. Governments had the right to impose and enforce rigorous standards for civil behavior, but they had no right to meddle in matters of conscience. Thus, when dealing with Catholics, whom Williams and many other Protestants believed could never be good citizens of a state because they owed their first allegiance to the Pope, the state could require that Catholics wear distinctive clothing and be prohibited from carrying arms, even while allowed to freely practice their religion. In modern terms, Jews, Muslims, Quakers, and other groups would enjoy toleration but not liberty.

Williams also articulated a basic principle that would be at the heart of the religious liberty that developed in the United States, the separation of church and state. So long as the state maintained an established church, there could be no freedom of religion for those who did not adhere to the teachings of that church. Dissenters might be tolerated, or even welcomed into the colony, but they would know that they would be taxed to support values contrary to their own, and at all times stood in peril that church aligned with state would move against their beliefs, their property, or even their lives.

In arguing for separation, Williams contributed a powerful metaphor that still carries enormous intellectual as well as constitutional significance, and which for many people is still a touchstone in their thinking about church–state relations:

When they have opened a gap in the hedge of or wall of separation between the garden of the church, and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the wall itself ... and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world.

For Williams, God’s garden—the church—had to be protected against the secular world—the wilderness— or else its unique features would be destroyed. Where some people, such as Thomas Jefferson, wanted to keep church and state separate in order to protect the state from clericalism, Williams wanted separation in order to keep the church pure from the profane nature of the state and secular society.

The importance of separating church and state has always been clear to minorities, but over time people began to understand that such an alliance worked against the interests of both church and state, as well as against individual conscience. Without separation, not only could the church demand that the state enforce its orthodoxy, but the state could—as history had shown countless times—demand that the religious authorities enforce its programs as well. This vision of separation of church and state would remain as Roger Williams’s greatest legacy.


References and Further Reading

  • Gausted, Edwin S. Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999.
  • Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953. 
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Roger Williams, the Church and the State. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967.


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