Born in England, Williams studied law with the famous Sir Edward Coke, (1552-1634), who called him “my son” and educated him.
Coke, a member of parliament, chief justice, and attorney general during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I, was one of the most important jurists in England’s history. Brave and incorruptible, he fought for Common Law (as defined by Parliament) against the supremacy of the king. He was responsible for many of England’s civil laws that restricted the king’s power. James I believed in the supreme right of kings. His position was Rex est lex loguens (“the king is the law speaking”), but Coke argued that the king was under law.
Coke authored the Institutes of the Laws of England and the Petition of Right (1628). The latter set out personal liberties that the king was not allowed to infringe. Based on the Magna Carta and other ancient laws, it was a groundbreaking constitutional document. Prior to that, the king could do such things as imprison people without legal authority, raise taxes without parliamentary support, require citizens to make loans to the government, force billet soldiers, and declare martial law at will. Charles I had done all of this. Coke set precedents that include the right to silence, restriction on the declaration of martial law, “the prohibition of double jeopardy, the right of a court to void a legislative act, the use of writs of habeas corpus to limit royal power and protect individual rights” (John Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams,” Smithsonian Magazine, Jan. 2012). A writ of habeas corpus means, literally, “an order to produce the body” and refers to a court’s power to demand that an agency holding someone in custody must produce the person to the court issuing the writ and show legal authority for holding the person. It is a protection against unlawful imprisonment.
Coke’s protege, Roger Williams, was doubtless influenced by his benefactor’s zeal for Common Law over “Royal Prerogative.” It was a fundamental principle of personal liberty.
Instead of pursuing law, Williams attended Cambridge and became an Anglican priest. He could read the Bible in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and also knew French and Dutch.
As a student at Cambridge, Williams came to the following fundamental principles:
First, separation from the established church. He saw the Church of England as corrupt and unscriptural, and believed it was necessary to separate from it.
Second, freedom of religion or “soul liberty.” He believed that each individual should be free to follow his own conscience in matters of God and religion. He believed that freedom of religion was a gift from God. He said, “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God” (Stanley Lemons, Roger Williams Champion of Religious Liberty). He called forced worship the “rape of the soul.”
Third, separation of church and state. He believed that the secular government should be distinct from the church and its government, and that the secular government did not have authority to punish crimes pertaining to “the first table of the law,” i.e., false worship, idolatry, and sabbath breaking. He believed that Constantine did a great evil in joining church and state. He said that Constantine was worse than Nero, because Constantine’s actions led to the destruction of the church. He said that the joining of church and state has resulted in “oceans of blood” being shed. Williams did not believe in separation of church and state according to the humanistic view prominent today. He believed in freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. He and other religious liberty proponents of that time believed that the churches should have the freedom to influence the government but not be controlled by the government.
In those days, William Laud (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury, issued laws against all Christians who did not submit to the doctrine and practice of the Church of England. He had a persecuting spirit.
Williams and his new wife, Mary, were among those who sailed to the American colonies in search of liberty, arriving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in February 1631. They eventually had six children, all born in America.
While living in Plymouth, Williams preached to the Narragansett Indians. He learned their language and made many friends among them. Eventually he published a dictionary and guide book to the Indian culture to help the British understand their Native American neighbors. This was the first dictionary in English of an Indian language. He wanted to correct the attitude of superiority that prevailed among the settlers. He wrote,
Boast not proud English, of thy birth and blood;
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All,
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.
He came to believe that the British crown did not have the right to take the land from the Indians and grant it to colonists. This, of course, got him into trouble with the colonies as well as the British government.
On October 9, 1635, Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for preaching “new and dangerous opinions.” These included the corruption of the Anglican Church and separation of church and state. He was given six weeks to leave, and in January 1536, to escape being put on a ship to England where he would have been imprisoned, he fled into the wilderness in the midst of a brutal New England winter. He suffered greatly, but he survived due to the help of the Wampanoag Indians who received him into their winter camp.
In June he settled on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians.
He called the settlement “Providence” because he considered it God’s merciful provision, not only for himself but also as “a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.” He named his third child, the first born in the new settlement, Providence.
Roger Williams established “the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate.” The stated purpose was “to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.” Each citizen was free to follow his own conscience before God in matters of religion. The 1663 charter stated, “... no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace.”
Others who had been banished from Massachusetts sought protection at Providence. The early citizens included Jews, Quakers, and Catholics. The oldest synagogue in North America was built in Providence.
The government of Rhode Island was operated by a democratic system, with each head of household having a vote. Newcomers could be accepted as citizens on majority vote.
Though he could have owned all of the land himself, Williams gave up most of his property to a common stock. He gave up any special rights “reserving for himself only a vote equal to others” (John Barry, “God, Government, and Rogers Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian Magazine, Jan. 2012).
After Rhode Island, other colonies were established upon the principle of religious liberty and separation of church and state, including Maryland (1649), Pennsylvania (1682), and Carolina (1663). Pennsylvania’s religious liberty government was called a “holy experiment.” Carolina’s constitution was written by John Locke.
In March 1639, Roger Williams was publicly immersed in baptism by Ezekiel Holliman, and the first Baptist church in America was formed. It is still called the First Baptist Church in America, though it is liberal and apostate today. A few years later, John Clarke established a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. Historians have long debated which is the legitimate first Baptist church, though it really doesn’t matter!
After a time, Williams left the Baptist church.
He concluded that the true church was lost in the apostasy when the Roman Catholic Church was formed. He believed that all churches had become corrupt and that God must send another apostle to set things right. He wrote, “There is no regularly constituted church of Christ on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking” (Picturesque America, D. Appleton and Company, 1872).
This is contrary to Christ’s promise to keep the church (Matthew 16:18) and to be with the church until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).
Williams remained interested in and sympathetic with the Baptists, agreeing with their stand against infant baptism and their stand for freedom of religion.
In March 1644, Williams obtained a charter from the king of England to establish Rhode Island. This was re-affirmed in 1688 by King William III (William of Orange). The enemies of liberty called Rhode Island “rogues island” and “the plantation of the otherwise minded.” Anglican pastor Cotton Mather of Massachusetts, who had banished Williams, called it “the sewer of New England.” “Rhode Island was so threatening to its neighbors that they tried for the next hundred years to extinguish the ‘lively experiment’ in religious freedom that began in 1636.”
In 1644, Williams published The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, in which he boldly defended liberty of conscience. It was banned and burned in England. In 1652, Williams answered his critics in The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, Made Yet More Bloody. Not one to pull his punches, he said that persecution was a tenet against the God of peace, a tenet against the Prince of Peace, a tenet that fights against the spirit of love, a tenet loathsome and ugly in the eyes of the God of heaven. It was “a tenet lamentably guilty of his most precious blood, shed in the blood of so many hundred thousands of his poor servants by the civil powers of the world, pretending to suppress blasphemies, heresies, idolatries, superstition, etc.” Williams was following in the footsteps of British Baptists who had been writing about religious liberty for about 30 years previous. Chief among them were John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton.
Williams was not only one of the first advocates for complete religious liberty in America, he was one of the first advocates for the abolishment of slavery. He passed a law against slavery in Rhode Island in 1652, but after Williams’ death, slavery was reintroduced, and Newport, Rhode Island, became the leading port for America’s slave trade.
When King Charles II confirmed Rhode Island’s charter after the restoration of the British Crown, religious liberty continued to be part of its platform. No one was to be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion.”
Williams influenced many through his writings, and the Rhode Island “experiment” of religious liberty eventually became enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Though Roger Williams has been slandered by some historians, many learned Baptist writers (as well as others) have set the record straight. See the histories of Thomas Armitage and David Benedict, for example.
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