InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Roger Williams
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.

His unorthodoxy 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

Renée Bergland
Simmons College

In the Heath Anthology
To the Town of Providence (1655)
Testimony of Roger Williams relative to his first coming into the Narragansett country (1682)
A Key into the Language of America
      [Preface]: "To my Deare and Welbeloved Friends and Countreymen, in old and new England" (1643)
      Chapter XI: "Of Travell" (1643)
      from Chapter XXI: "Of Religion, the soule, & c." (1643)
      from Chapter XXII: "Of their Government and Justice" (1643)

Other Works
Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed, Examined, and Answered (1644)
Queries of the Highest Consideration (1644)
The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace (1644)
Christenings Make Not Christians (1645)
Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health (1652)
The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloudy by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to Wash it White in the Blood of the Lambe (1652)
The Fourth Paper Presented by Major Butler (1652)
The Hireling Ministry None of Christs (1652)
George Fox Digg'd Out of His Burrowes (1676)

Cultural Objects
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."

America's Story
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.

Secondary Sources

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