WILLIAMS, ROGER (c. 1604-1684), founder of the colony of Rhode Island in America and pioneer of religious liberty, son of a merchant tailor, was born (probably) about 1604 in London. It seems reasonably certain that he was educated, under the patronage of Sir Edward Coke, at the Charter House and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he received his degree in 1627. According to tradition (probably untrue), he studied law under Sir Edward Coke; he certainly devoted himself to the study of theology, and in 1629 was chaplain to Sir William Masham of Otes, in the parish of High Laver, Essex, but from conscientious scruples, in view of the condition of ecclesiastical affairs in England at the time, refused preferment. He soon decided to emigrate to New England, and, with his wife Mary, arrived at Boston early in February 1631. In April he became teacher of the church at Salem, Mass., as assistant to the Reverend Samuel Skelton. Owing to the opposition of the ecclesiastical authorities at Boston, with whose views his own were not in accord, he removed to Plymouth in the summer, and there remained for two years as assistant pastor. In August 1633 he again became assistant teacher at Salem, and in the following year succeeded Skelton as teacher. Here he incurred the hostility of the authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by asserting, among other things, that the civil power of a state could properly have no jurisdiction over the consciences of men, that the King's patent conveyed no just title to the land of the colonists, which should be bought from its rightful owners, the Indians, and that a magistrate should not tender an oath to an unregenerate man, an oath being, in reality, a form of worship. For the expression of these opinions he was formally tried in July 1635 by the Massachusetts General Court, and at the next meeting of the General Court in October, he not having taken advantage of the opportunity given to him to recant, a sentence of banishment was passed upon him, and he was ordered to leave the jurisdiction of Massachusetts within six weeks. The time was subsequently extended, conditionally, but in January 1636 an attempt was made to seize him and transport him to England, and he, forewarned, escaped from his home at Salem and proceeded alone to Manton's Neck, on the east bank of the Seekonk river. At the instance of the authorities at Plymouth, within whose jurisdiction Manton's Neck was included, Williams, with four companions, who had joined him, founded in June 1636 the first settlement in Rhode Island, to which, in remembrance of “God's merciful providence to him in his distress,” he gave the name Providence. He immediately established friendly relations with the Indians in the vicinity, whose language he had learned, and, in accordance with his principles, bought the land upon which he had settled from the sachems Canonicus (c. 1565-1647) and Miantonomo. His influence with the Indians, and their implicit confidence in him, enabled him in 1636, soon after arriving at Providence, to induce the Narragansets to ally themselves with the Massachusetts colonists at the time of the Pequot War, and thus to render a most effective service to those who had driven him from their community. Williams and his companions founded their new settlement upon the basis of complete religious toleration, with a view to its becoming “a shelter for persons distressed for conscience” (see Rhode Island). Many settlers came from Massachusetts and elsewhere, among others some Anabaptists, by one of whom in 1639 Williams was baptized, he baptizing others in turn and thus establishing what has been considered the first Baptist church in America. Williams, however, maintained his connexion with this church for only three or four months, and then became what was known as a “Seeker,” or Independent, though he continued to preach. In June 1643 he went to England, and there in the following year obtained a charter for Providence, Newport and Portsmouth, under the title “The Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay.” He returned to Providence in the autumn of 1644, and soon afterwards was instrumental in averting an attack by the Narragansets upon the United Colonies of New England and the Mohegans. In 1646 he removed from Providence to a place now known as Wickford, R.I. He was at various times a member of the general assembly of the colony, acted as deputy president for a short time in 1649, was president, or governor, from September 1654 to May 1657, and was an assistant in 1664, 1667 and 1670. In 1651, with John Clarke (1609–1676), he went to England to secure the annulment of a commission which had been obtained by William Coddington for the government of Rhode Island (Newport and Portsmouth) and Connecticut, and the issue of a new and more explicit charter, and in the following year succeeded in having the Coddington commission vacated. He returned in the summer of 1654, having enjoyed the friendship of Cromwell, Milton and other prominent Puritans; but Clarke remained in England and in 1663 obtained from Charles II. a new charter for “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Williams died at Providence in March or April 1684; the exact date is unknown.
Though headstrong, opinionative and rigid in his theological views, he was uniformly tolerant, and he occupies a high place among those who have striven for complete liberty of conscience. He was the first and the foremost exponent in America of the theory of the absolute freedom of the individual in matters of religion; and Rhode Island, of which he was pre-eminently the founder, was the first colony consistently to apply this principle in practice.
Williams was a vigorous controversialist, and published, chiefly during his two visits to England, besides A Key into the Language of the Indians of America (written at sea on his first voyage to England (1643); reprinted in vol. i. of the Collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society (1827), and in series i. vol. iii. of the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections); Mr Cotton's Letter Examined and Answered (1644); The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience (1644); Queries of Highest Consideration (1644); The Bloudy Tenent yet more Bloudy (1652); The Hireling Ministry none of Christ's (1652); Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health (1652); and George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes (1676).
His writings have been republished in the Publications of the Narragansett Club (6 vols., Providence, 1866–1874), the last volume containing his extant letters, written between 1632 and 1682. The best biographies are those by Oscar Straus (New York, 1894) and E. J. Carpenter (ibid. 1910). Also see J. D. Knowles, Memoir of Roger Williams (Boston, 1834), and Elton, Life of Roger Williams (London, 1852; Providence, 1853); New England Hist. and Gen. Register, July and October 1889, and January 1899; and M. C. Tyler, History of American Literature, 1607–1765 (New York, 1878). For the best apology for his expulsion from Massachusetts, see Henry M. Dexter's As to Roger Williams and his “Banishment” from the Massachusetts Plantation (Boston, 1876), an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Massachusetts from revoking the order of banishment.