Roger Williams

Roger Williams2018-11-28T09:54:31+00:00
Roger Williams for APUSH

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

Roger Williams

­­Rogers Williams was a Puritan minister in Massachusetts Bay whose challenges to Puritan orthodoxy led to his banishment from the colony in 1635.  After living for a time in Plymouth and with American Indian tribes, he settled near Narragansett Bay and attracted settlers from in and around Salem, Massachusetts.  Eventually, together with Anne Hutchinson and Samuel Gorton, he established the Colony of Rhode Island.  Williams is most noted for his insistence of the separation of church and state and his belief in freedom of conscience, more commonly known as freedom of religion.

The Truth About Roger

Williams was a well-respected, some say charismatic, minister in Massachusetts Bay.  He eventually accepted a church calling in Salem where his unique perspective and unorthodox views alienated many of the parishioners.  While the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay cited religious freedom as a motive for settlement, they had no intention of permitting religious freedom to groups who didn’t follow the Puritan theology in the colony. A major purpose of the government of Massachusetts Bay was to enforce church teaching through laws which imposed secular penalties for violations of church doctrine (so called “Blue Laws”).  Williams challenged those beliefs by asserting the idea of separation of church and state, contending that the state was incapable of making sound judgements in the matter of religion.

Williams challenged the mixing of Puritan theology and laws beliefs by asserting the idea of separation of church and state.

He also contended that Massachusetts’ land claims were invalid because American Indians had the same property rights as Englishmen, and that those rights had not been extinguished through purchase.  Thus, he rejected the view that the king of England had legitimated authority to grant land to settlers before Indian land titles had been extinguished.  He also rejected the Bay Colony’s assertion that the decimation of American Indian tribes through smallpox epidemics was a sign that God had determined that the land should belong to Puritans.

He also contended that Massachusetts’ land claims were invalid because American Indians had the same property rights as Englishmen, and that those rights had not been extinguished through purchase.

Challenge to the Mainstream

Eventually, he was called before the authorities in Massachusetts Bay and deemed to be dangerous to the colony.  He was banished from Massachusetts Bay and lived for a time in Plymouth and with American Indians.  Williams, who had spent some time in Plymouth when he first arrived in America before he returned to Massachusetts Bay and accepted the position in Salem, and his facility with language allowed him to establish positive relations with American Indians while there.  Williams relied heavily on American Indians for his survival during his banishment.

He was banished from Massachusetts Bay and lived for a time in Plymouth and with American Indians.

Founding Rhode Island

Ultimately, Williams purchased land from American Indians and established a settlement at Providence.  Together, with other dissenters like Anne Hutchinson and Samuel Gorton, he established Providence Plantation which grew to become Rhode Island.  The multitude of differing religious views among the founders led Rhode Island to become the standard bearer for religious freedom and separation of church and state, an idea that gained increasing acceptance (albeit slowly) in colonial society.  With wildly conflicting views, the founders of Rhode Island realized that the only way for them to protect their right to worship freely was to protect everyone’s right to worship freely.  Thus, Rhode Island became a haven for dissenting religious groups such as Quakers, Jews, and Anabaptists.  From a Massachusetts Bay, Puritan standpoint, it was a refuge for misfits at various times referred to as “the sewer of New England,” “the Licentious Republic,” “a haven for evildoers,” and “Rogues’ Island.”  Eventually, Williams was credited with founding the Baptist Church, though he eventually left that church.

The multitude of differing religious views among the founders led Rhode Island to become the standard bearer for religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Rhode Island became a haven for dissenting religious groups such as Quakers, Jews, and Anabaptists.

For a time, Roger Williams attempted to convert American Indians to Christianity, but he stopped preaching to the natives, when he realized that their form of worship also fell under his principle of religious freedom.  In Williams’ opinion, the American Indian’s religion was as acceptable in the eyes of God as any others.  At one point he asserted “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

In Williams’ opinion, the American Indian’s religion was as acceptable in the eyes of God as any others.

Friends with Indians

Despite being banished from Massachusetts Bay, Williams remained on good terms with John Winthrop, the leader of the Bay Colony who had forewarned Williams before his banishment that Massachusetts authorities were going to charge him with being a danger to the colony.  During the Pequot War in the 1830s, Winthrop asked Williams to intercede to prevent an alliance between the Pequot and Narragansett tribes.  Williams successfully won the Narragansett’s neutrality in the conflict which led in part to an overwhelming colonial victory over the Pequots.  Again, during King Philip’s War, Williams was asked to use his influence and contacts with American Indians to prevent attacks on colonial settlements.  This time, he was unsuccessful with American Indians burning Providence and Williams’ home, though they did warn him beforehand of their plans.

Roger Williams’ Legacy

Roger Williams’ legacy remains the establishment of complete religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Roger Williams’ legacy remains the establishment of complete religious freedom and separation of church and state.  To some degree, this was enhanced by colonies like Maryland and Pennsylvania that established the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state, to a degree.  However, many New England colonies persisted in a state-supported Puritan church, well into the nineteenth century.  Southern colonies generally established the Anglican Church as the state-supported religion.  The American Revolution brought a philosophical end to the idea of state-supported churches (disestablishment) with Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.  With the ratification of the Constitution, Williams’ view of separation of church and state became codified into the law of the land.

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