Roger Williams Institute

The Reader's Companion to American History

Houghton Mifflin Company


(1603?-1683), religious dissenter and founder of Rhode Island
(1636). During his fifty years in New England, Williams was a
staunch advocate of religious toleration and separation of
church and state. Reflecting these principles, he and his
fellow Rhode Islanders framed a colony government devoted to
protecting individual "liberty of conscience." This "lively
experiment" became Williams's most tangible legacy, though he
was best known in his own time as a radical Pietist and the
author of polemical treatises defending his religious
principles, condemning the orthodoxy of New England
Puritanism, and attacking the theological underpinnings of

His lifelong search for a closer personal union with God
forged his beliefs and ideas. Rejecting the moderate theology
of Puritanism, Williams embraced the radical tenets of
separatism, turned briefly to Baptist principles, but
ultimately declared that Christ's true church could not be
known among men until Christ himself returned to establish it.
From his reading of the New Testament, in which Christ had
commanded religious truth and error to coexist in every nation
until the end of the world, Williams concluded that liberty of
conscience"soul liberty" as he called itwas necessary
because no one could know for certain which form of religion
was the true one God had intended.

These views, among others, kept him embroiled in protracted
religious and political controversies throughout his life. His
banishment from Massachusetts in 1636, when he fled into the
wilderness and founded the town of Providence, was only the
first of several disputes that consumed his energies. For
Williams, the banishment became a kind of personal badge of
courage. In his dealings with neighboring Puritans, he never
missed an opportunity to remind them of the wrong they had
committed against him. In numerous polemical writings, he
engaged in a prodigious religious debate with John Cotton, the
Boston minister, and referred often to his banishment as proof
of the human injustice that resulted from intolerance.
In his own colony, Williams could not resolve the political
conflicts that divided Rhode Islanders into contending
factions. Attempting to protect Indian land from
expropriation, he became involved in endless boundary disputes
with neighbors and speculators from surrounding colonies. In
the 1670s, as the Quakers were gaining political power in
Rhode Island, Williams tried to discredit the teachings of
George Fox; he succeeded only in raising public doubts about
his sincere commitment to the idea of "soul liberty." Although
his friendship with the Narragansett Indians helped sustain
generally peaceful relations between the Indians and English
settlers until the outbreak of King Philip's War (1676), some
Puritan leaders suspected his close ties with the
Narragansetts had blurred his ability to see them objectively.
His death went mostly unnoticed. It was the American
Revolution that transformed Williams into a local heroRhode
Islanders came to appreciate the legacy of religious freedom
he had bequeathed to them. Although he has often been
portrayed by biographers as a harbinger of Jeffersonian
Democracy, most scholars now conclude that Williams was less a
democrat than a "Puritan's Puritan" who courageously pushed
his dissenting ideas to their logical ends.

Glenn W. LaFantasie, ed., The Correspondence of Roger
Williams, 2 vols. (1988); Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams:
The Church and the State (1967).
Glenn W. LaFantasie


Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty