Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, born in Wales in 1599 (and not in 1606, as supposed by Dr. Elton), died in Rhode Island in 1683. At an early age he went to London, and attracted by his shorthand notes of sermons, and of speeches in the star chamber, the attention of Sir Edward Coke, who sent him to Sutton's hospital, now the Charterhouse, of which he was elected a scholar, July 25, 1621, and obtained an exhibition July 9, 1624. According to Arnold, the historian of Rhode Island, he was admitted to Pembroke college, Cambridge, Jan. 29, 1623, and matriculated pensioner July 7, 1625. He took the degree of B. A. in January, 1627. There is a tradition that he studied law; but if so, it could have been for a short time only, for it is certain that he had been a clergyman of the church of England when at the close of 1630 he embarked for America. He became a Puritan of the extreme wing, and of that section of the wing whose tendencies toward the views of the Baptists were the immediate occasion of the rapid rise of that denomination in England. Arriving at Boston, Feb. 5, 1631, accompanied by his wife Mary, he soon incurred the hostility of the authorities, chiefly by denying that the magistrates had a right to punish for any but civil offences, and shortly went to Salem to become the assistant of Pastor Skelton. The general court remonstrated against his settlement there, and complained that he had refused " to join with the congregation at Boston, because they would not make a public declaration of their repentance for having communion with the churches of England while they lived there;" and besides this, " had declared his opinion that the magistrate might not punish a breach of the sabbath, nor any other offence as it was a breach of the first table." The objections of Williams to the church of England were, first, that it was composed of pious and worldly men indiscriminately, and second, that it assumed authority over the conscience, and was persecuting.
The first of these objections the Puritans of Boston shared theoretically with Williams. But while Williams was practically a consistent and rigid separatist from the beginning, his Puritan brethren were, in his view, chargeable with inconsistency and unseemly concession. The second objection assailed the theocracy which his brethren themselves were rearing on the shores of New England. His ministry at Salem was brief; before the close of summer persecution obliged him to retire to Plymouth, where for two years he was the assistant of the pastor, Ralph Smith. Here too he formed acquaintance with leading chiefs of the Indians, and gained a knowledge of their language. He was invited to return to Salem, and became the assistant and then the successor of Skelton; and his enemies affirm that "in one year's time he filled that place with principles of rigid separation, tending to Anabaptistry." In the autumn of 1635 the general court banished him from the colony, ordering him to depart within six weeks, because he had called in question the authority of magistrates in respect to two things, one relating to the right of the king to appropriate and grant the lands of the Indians without purchase, and the other to the right of the civil power to impose faith and worship.
On the first of these points Williams at one time made explanations that were deemed satisfactory; on the other the divergence was hopeless, the ministers who gave their advice at the request of the court declaring that opinions which would not allow the magistrate to intermeddle, even to restrain a church from heresy or apostasy, were not to be endured, and he, on the other hand, maintaining with inflexible rigor the absolute and eternal distinction between the spheres of the civil government and the Christian church. In reply to the charges and in defence of his views Williams published a pam-. phlet entitled " Mr. Cotton's Letter Examined and Answered." The period allowed him to prepare for his departure had been extended to the coming spring. But his doctrines were spreading, and his purpose of founding a colony, close at hand and embodying his principles, had become known. It was therefore determined to send him to England at once, and a small vessel was despatched to Salem to bring him away. But he was forewarned, and had left before the vessel arrived.
In midwinter, abandoning his friends and his family, "sorely tossed for 14 weeks, not knowing what bread or bed did mean," he had gone through the wilderness to the shores of the Narragansett. After purchasing lands of Ousamequin on the eastern shore of the Seekonk river, and planting his corn, he learned that he was within the bounds of Plymouth colony, and set out with five companions on new explorations. In a canoe they went down the stream, turned the extremity of the peninsula, and ascended the river which forms its western boundary, to a spot which tradition has consecrated as their landing. "I having made covenant of peaceable neighborhood with all the sachems and nations round about us," says Williams, "and having, of a sense of God's merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place Providence, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience." The fundamental article of government, establishing a pure democracy, with absolute inhibition of control over the consciences of men, which persons admitted to this corporation were required to sign, was in these words: "We, whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body, in an orderly way, by the major consent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together in a town fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto the same, only in civil things." The method of planting the first church in Providence, now known as the first Baptist church in that city, answers to views touching that matter which had been set forth by early English Baptists in Holland, fugitives from persecution in England, who had been likewise teachers of Williams in respect to the rights of conscience.
These Baptists had instituted baptism among themselves by authorizing certain of their own number to be administrators of the rite. At Providence, in March, 1639, Ezekiel Holliman, a layman, first baptized Williams, and then Williams baptized Holliman, "and some ten more." But Williams seems to have had early doubts of the validity of the proceeding; at any rate, he soon withdrew from his associates in this measure. Various explanations of his withdrawing have been given, and prominent among these the absence of " a visible succession " of authorized administrators of the" rite of baptism. The history of Roger Williams, for the succeeding half century, is the history of Providence and of Rhode Island. The colony was for some years a pure democracy, transacting its public business in town meetings; but in 1643 Williams was sent to England to procure a charter. He was successful, and returned in 1644. On his voyage to England he wrote his " Key into the Languages of America," including observations on the manners, habits, laws, and religion of the Indian tribes.
He also published there "The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace" (new ed., Providence, 1867). On the occurrence of new difficulties in the colony, he was again sent to England in 1651, and was equally successful. While abroad the second time he published " Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and their Preservatives," which he says was written " in the thickest of the native Indians of America, in their very wild houses, and by their barbarous fires;" "The Hireling Ministry none of Christ's, or a Discourse touching the Propagating the Gospel of Christ Jesus;" and "The Bloudy Tenent yet more Bloudy by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb." He also engaged in teaching, and was intimate with Milton. His employments, as well as the scope and character of his learning, are thus indicated in a letter written to Gov. Winthrop of Connecticut soon after his return: "It pleased the Lord to call me for some time, and with some persons, to practise the Hebrew, the Greek, Latin, French, and Dutch. The secretary of the council (Mr. Milton), for my Dutch I read him, read me many more languages. Grammar rules begin to be esteemed a tyranny.
I taught two young gentlemen, a parliament man's sons, as we teach Our children English, by words, phrases, and constant talk," etc. He returned to Rhode Island in 1654, and in September of the same year was elected president of the colony, an office which he held for two years and a half. He refused to persecute the Quakers, but in 1672 he met three of the most eminent preachers of the sect in public debate at Newport, and afterward published a controversial work entitled " George Fox digged out of his Burrowes." His influence with the Indians enabled him to render signal services to the colonies around him, by averting from them the calamities of savage war; but they refused to admit Rhode Island into the New England league, and even put obstacles in the way of her procuring the means of defence. He was buried in his family burying ground, near the spot where he landed. - Memoirs of the life of Roger Williams have been written by James D. Knowles (Boston, 1833), William Gammell.(Boston, 1846), and Romeo Elton (London, 1852). His works, with a volume of letters, have been reprinted as nearly as possible in facsimile by the Narragansett club (6 vols, fol., Providence, 1866-'75). A tract by Williams, recently discovered, is in the John Carter Brown library, Providence. - A monograph was published at Boston in 1876, by II. M. Dexter, D. D., entitled "As to Roger Williams and his ' Banishment' from the Massachusetts Plantation, with a few further words concerning the Baptists, Quakers, and Religious Liberty".