| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Banished in his time, beloved in ours, Roger Williams represents a
paradoxical early expression of the American ideals of democracy and religious
freedom. William Bradford described him as “godly and zealous...but very
unsettled in judgment” with “strange opinions.” John Winthrop said Williams
held “diverse new and dangerous opinions.” Cotton Mather vilified him as a kind
of Don Quixote, the “first rebel against the divine-church order in the
wilderness” with a “windmill” whirling so furiously in his head that “a whole
country in America [is] like to be set on fire.” Providence, Rhode Island,
which prospered under his tolerance, became a haven for heretics, runaways, and
malcontents, a “Rogue’s Island.”
Since the nineteenth
century, Americans have enshrined Roger Williams as a symbol of liberty of individual
conscience and toleration of racial and religious differences, an apostle of
civil and spiritual freedom. But Williams’s liberal inclusiveness was
paradoxical, since it was based on his own rigid adherence to the doctrine of
separatism. He was a friend of the Narragansett Indians and defender of
religious dissenters because he was a devout Separatist Puritan, whose
political ideas were founded on his belief that Christianity must be free from
the “foul embrace” of civil authority. Rather than liberalism, it was his
literalism—his literal-minded reading of Christian scripture—that led him
toward policies of religious tolerance.
Williams grew up in
the Smithfield district of London, a center of Separatist activity. In 1617 his
skill at shorthand earned him the patronage of Sir Edward Coke, who enrolled
him at Cambridge in 1623, where Williams completed a B.A. in 1627 and began an
M.A. Having “forsaken the university” for Puritanism, he became a chaplain in
1629. His religious beliefs grew increasingly radical. He met John Winthrop and
John Cotton, who would become his chief adversary. On December 10, 1630,
Williams sailed with the Great Migration.
started trouble almost as soon as the Puritans arrived in February 1631. Called
to be minister of Boston’s First Church, he told the community he “durst not
officiate to an unseparated people.” He insisted that they separate and repent
worshiping with the Church of England. Also, he denounced magistrates for
punishing violations of the Sabbath, arguing that they had no authority to
enforce the first four Commandments, thus beginning a battle with the Puritan
leaders over separation of church and state. Moving first to Plymouth and then
to Salem, he continued to preach three extreme positions: (1) the Puritans
should become Separatists (a position that endangered the Massachusetts Bay
Company charter and the relative freedom it granted); (2) the charter was
invalid because Christian kings had no right to heathen lands (a position based
on separation of spiritual and material prerogatives); and (3) the civil
magistrates had no jurisdiction over matters of conscience and soul, only
material and social matters (a position that undermined the Puritan oligarchy).
The governor and magistrates saw the dangerous implications of Williams’s
positions, and on July 8, 1635, he was indicted for heresy and divisiveness,
then sentenced to banishment on October 9. To avoid deportation, Williams fled
south to an Indian settlement in January 1636.
He purchased land from
the Narragansetts and founded Providence, where he devoted himself to creating
a heavenly city on earth. Exiles followed him, including Anne Hutchinson, and
dissenters of all kinds from Quakers to Jews. In 1643, Williams sailed for
England to incorporate Providence, Newport, and Portsmouth under a charter that
recognized separation of church and state. After the Puritan execution of King
Charles I invalidated the charter, he again voyaged to England in 1651 and
returned with a second patent in 1654 that assured political stability. As
president of the General Assembly, he guided the policies of the colony, such
as welcoming Quakers. For most of his life he held offices, continuing to fight
for Indian rights and his religious principles. His last major public role was
as negotiator for the Narragansetts during King Philip’s War. Tragically, he
failed to keep them out of the conflict; consequently, Providence was burned
and the tribe was wiped out.
His first and most
artistic work is A Key into the Language of America, which was published
in London in 1643, when Williams was getting the charter from Charles I. Each
chapter begins with an “Implicite Dialogue,” Narragansett on the left,
English on the right. This section is followed by a focused “Observation” on
the topic, followed by a “generall Observation” that draws cultural and
spiritual conclusions and offers moral instruction through meditation and
analogy. The chapters end with emblematic poems that satirize English civilized
degeneracy and sympathize with Indian barbaric virtue. These poems express
Williams’s view of the tragic effects of the colonizing process. The work is a
massive socio-linguistic project that shows sensitivity to Native American
language and admiration for their culture, while at the same time offering a
lament that these pagans are damned. The text presents a paradox: the Indians
had to be civilized before they could be Christianized, but civilizing them
often destroyed their natural virtue. Throughout the book, this paradox suggests
ironic comparisons of civilization with barbarism.
In his other important
works, polemical tracts, Williams used his Cambridge training in medieval
disputation to compose prolix, rhetorical, erudite arguments, loaded with
biblical and classical allusions and quotations. For example, Mr. Cotton’s
Letter presents Williams’s version of his banishment, defending his
Separatist position, citing intolerance in Massachusetts, and characterizing Cotton as a self-righteous
bigot. Williams’s most famous work, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, is
a refutation of Cotton’s tenet justifying persecution for personal beliefs. In
a dialogue between Truth and Peace, the first half of The Bloody Tenent
is a point-by-point rebuttal and a plea for liberty of conscience as a human
right. The second half argues that a government is granted power by the people,
most of whom are unregenerate. As delegates of the people, therefore,
magistrates could not interfere with religion, for the unregenerate have no
power in Christ’s church. His most famous letter is “To the Town of Providence”
(January 1655), written to settle a controversy that divided the town over
religious autonomy and civil restraint. While defending a government’s right to
require civil obedience, he also shows that liberty of conscience does not lead
to anarchy. As a septuagenarian he engaged in a vehement debate with the
Quakers and wrote a seemingly uncharacteristic denunciation of “the cursed
sect” and their leader, George Fox. Although opposed to their fanatic assurance
of their infallibility and “inner light,” which he felt repudiated the Bible
and Christ, he never wanted them subjected to legal persecution. He met their
threat to social peace in his heavenly city by arguing against their errors,
remaining true to his principles of religious toleration.
Raymond F. Dolle|
Indiana State University
In the Heath Anthology
To the Town of Providence
Testimony of Roger Williams relative to his first coming into the Narragansett country
A Key into the Language of America
[Preface]: "To my Deare and Welbeloved Friends and Countreymen, in old and new England"
Chapter XI: "Of Travell"
from Chapter XXI: "Of Religion, the soule, & c."
from Chapter XXII: "Of their Government and Justice"
Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed, Examined, and Answered
Queries of the Highest Consideration
The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace
Christenings Make Not Christians
Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health
The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloudy by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to Wash it White in the Blood of the Lambe
The Fourth Paper Presented by Major Butler
The Hireling Ministry None of Christs
George Fox Digg'd Out of His Burrowes
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
"A Plea for Religious Liberty"
Brief biography and the text of Williams's "Plea."
Historical information about Williams's contribution to religious freedom and scans of primary documents and photos.
Perspectives on American Literature
Selected bibliography (primary and secondary) and suggested directions for analysis.
Roger Williams National Memorial
Information about the Memorial and Williams' life and writings.
L. Raymond Camp, Roger Williams, God's Apostle of Advocacy, 1990
Henry Chupack, Roger Williams, 1969
Wallace Coyle, Roger Williams: A Reference Guide, 1977
W. Clark Gilpin, The Millenarian Piety of Roger Williams, 1979
Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition, 1953
Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 1967
Hugh Spurgin, Roger Williams and Puritan Radicalism in the English Separatist Tradition, 1989
Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Master Roger Williams: A Biography, 1957