Roger Williams (1603?-1683)

    Contributing Editor: Raymond F. Dolle

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Williams was a controversialist who used his Cambridge training in medieval disputation to compose prolix, rhetorical, erudite arguments, supported with biblical and classical allusions and quotations. This style and complex syntax (often rambling, gnarled, and incomplete) is difficult for today's undergraduate to follow. The problem is often compounded by Williams's Puritan theology, formal subject matter, and didactic religious purpose.

    The selections in this anthology avoid much of Williams's most opaque prose, such as that in his most frequently anthologized tract, The Bloody Tenent. These selections exemplify the logic and structure of Williams's thoughts, and so allow us to appreciate the radical vision and hear the distinctive voice of America's most famous religious dissenter despite our problems with his language. Once students understand that Williams represents an early expression of the American ideals of religious toleration, equal rights, and individual freedom, they are usually willing to make the effort to read his writings.

    Students admire Williams's rebellion against authority and his argument for individual liberty of conscience. Although they may not understand his religious beliefs, they respect his courage and determination to stand up for what he believed.

    The satire of so-called "Christians" and "civilization" never fails to amuse students, many of whom see themselves as virtuous pagans. They should be encouraged to speculate on what Williams would think about modern America.

    Parallels between the Indians' religious beliefs and Christian concepts often surprise students and stimulate discussion of the nature of religion.

    Williams's apparent toleration of personal religious differences often confuses students because it seems to contradict his radical and extreme Puritanism. Students must be reminded that his acceptance into his colony of such sects as the Quakers does not mean he thought that their beliefs were acceptable. Rather, he believed that the free search for Truth and the liberty to argue one's beliefs would lead the elect to God.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    In order to understand the conflict between Williams and the Puritan leaders that led to his banishment, we need to understand the three extreme positions he expounded:

    1. Civil magistrates should have no jurisdiction over religious matters, and Christian churches should be absolutely divorced from worldly concerns (i.e., separation of church and state)--a position destructive to the prevailing theocracy of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. The elect had to be free to seek God as they believed right. His letter "To the Town of Providence" refutes the reductio ad absurdum charge that this position leads ultimately to political anarchy if individuals can claim liberty of conscience to refuse civil obedience.

    2. The Puritans should all become Separatists because the Church of England was associated too closely with political authority--a position that jeopardized the charter and the relative freedom it granted.

    3. The Massachusetts Bay Company charter should be invalidated since Christian kings have no right to dispose of Indian lands--a position again based on separation of spiritual and material prerogatives. Williams was a friend of the Narragansett Indians, a defender of their legal property rights, and an admirer of their natural virtue. He devoted much of his life to understanding their language and culture so that he could teach them about Christ. An "implicit dialogue" intended to bridge cultures for their mutual benefit, A Key exploits the paradoxical contrast between barbaric civility and English degeneracy. The savages had to be Christianized, but this colonizing process often had tragic effects. The importance of bringing knowledge of Christ to the Indians, despite this dilemma, created one of the central conflicts in Williams's life.

    The banishment of Williams from the colony reflects basic conflicts and concerns in the patriarchal Puritan society of colonial New England. The community leaders felt an urgent need to maintain authority and orthodoxy in order to preserve the "city on a hill" they had founded. Any challenge to their authority undermined the Puritan mission and threatened the New Canaan they had built with such suffering. Of course, the zeal and pure devotion needed to continue the efforts of the founding fathers were too much to ask of most colonists, so their congregational social structure began to fracture almost before it was established. Not only did secular attractions, worldly concerns, and material opportunities distract immigrants, but also the strict requirements for church membership denied many full status in the community. Like Anne Hutchinson, Williams advocated attractive individualistic principles that threatened the prevailing system, and he was banished from Christ's kingdom in America in an attempt to hold the community of saints together.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    One of the most appealing rhetorical devices in these selections is Williams's use of analogy, metaphors, and emblems. The introduction to A Key (in fact, the title itself) invites attention to such figurative language, as in the proverb, "A little key may open a box, where lies a bunch of keys." The meaning and implications of such statements are fruitful points for class discussion. Other good examples are the ship metaphor in the letter to Providence and the emblematic poems at the end of the chapters in A Key.

    Throughout A Key, especially in the General Observations, the satiric contrast between true natural virtue and false Christianity creates a tension that invigorates the text and makes it a unique example of the promotional tract tradition.

    The catechism in the vocabulary lists is worth attention.

    Original Audience

    Although Williams usually wrote with particular readers in mind, his themes and subjects have universal relevance and can still reward readers today.

    Williams tells us that he intended A Key "specially for my friends residing in those parts." In other words, he wants to instruct fellow missionaries and traders how to interact with his other friends, the Indians. He is determined to dispel the stereotypes and false conceptions of them as subhuman savages current in the early colonies. Images of the Indians in writings from Williams's contemporaries and earlier explorers should provide students with a clear sense of the audience, their assumptions, and their needs. Williams has much to say still about interracial understanding, respect, and harmony. Moreover, his observations are still keen insights into human nature.

    The audience for the letter to Providence is again quite specific, with a particular misconception and need. Williams writes to settle a controversy over freedom of conscience and civil obedience. Again, this controversy is still alive, and we can consider Williams's statement in light of the writings on the subject by such men as Thoreau and Martin Luther King.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Williams's descriptions of the Indians can be compared to descriptions in many other texts, ranging from the orthodox Puritan attitudes toward the satanic savages, as in Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic tributes to the Noble Savage.

    Similarly, Williams is often seen as a forerunner of Jefferson and Jackson, but we must remember that he did not advocate liberty as an end in itself for political reasons, but rather as a means to seek God.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) What can we infer about Williams's intentions from the fact that he chose to compose A Key into the Language of America as an "implicit dialogue" rather than as a dictionary?

    (b) Characterize the persona of the first-person narrator in A Key. What kind of person does Williams present himself as?

    (c) How is Williams's book like a key?

    (d) How do the various sections of each chapter in A Key relate to one another and to the whole work?

    (e) What lessons can a Christian learn from the Indians?

    (f) Why might Williams once have objected to Europe and the rest of the West being referred to as "Christendom"?

    (g) In what ways was a colony in the New World like a ship at sea?

    (h) What did Williams gain from his treaty with the Indians besides legal ownership of some land?

    2. An anthology as innovative as the The Heath Anthology calls for innovative pedagogy and assignments. Here are some alternatives to the traditional junior-level LITCRIT papers:

    (a) Personal Response Paper: Ask the students to compare one or more of Williams's observations to their own experiences and observations.

    (b) Creative Response Paper: Ask the students to write a letter back to Williams by a spokesman for the town of Providence refuting Williams's argument and defending the right to act as one believes one's religious beliefs demand.

    (c) Creative Research Paper: Assign supplemental readings from Winslow's biography of Williams (or other sources) related to his trial and banishment. Then ask the students to compose a transcript of the trial proceedings.


    In addition to the books listed at the end of the headnote in The Heath Anthology, many useful articles on Williams are available. Here are some of the most recent:

    Brotherston, Gordon. "A Controversial Guide to the Language of America, 1643." In Literature and Power in the Seventeenth Century, edited by Francis Barker, et al. 84-100. University of Essex, 1981.

    Felker, Christopher D. "Roger Williams's Uses of Legal Discourse: Testing Authority in Early New England." New England Quarterly 63 (1990): 624-48.

    Guggisberg, Hans R. "Religious Freedom and the History of the Christian World in Roger Williams' Thought." Early American Literature 12, no. 1 (Spring 1977): 36-48.

    LaFantasie, Glenn W. "Roger Williams: The Inner and Outer Man." Canadian Review of American Studies 16 (1985): 375-94.

    Peace, Nancy E. "Roger Williams--A Historiographical Essay." Rhode Island History 35 (1976): 103-13.

    Teunissen, John J. and Evelyn J. Hinz. "Anti-Colonial Satire in Roger Williams' A Key into the Language of America." Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 7, no. 3 (1976): 5-26.

    --. "Roger Williams, Thomas More, and the Narragansett Utopia." Early American Literature 11, no. 3 (Winter 1976-1977): 281-95.

    Other sources published prior to 1974 can be located by using Wallace Coyle's Roger Williams: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977).