Roger Williams in Massachusetts

Arrival and Banishment

The nations of antiquity, unable to discover their real origin, found a secret gratification in tracing it to the Gods. Thus a religious sentiment was connected with the foundation of states, and the building of the city walls was consecrated by religious rites. The Christian middle ages preserved the spirit of Pagan antiquity, and every city celebrated with solemn rites the day of its patron saint.

The colonies, which, in the natural progress of their development, became the United States of America, traced their history, by authentic documents, to the first Christian cultivators of the soil; and in New England the religious idea, lay at the root of their foundation and development.

In Plymouth it took the form of separatism, or a simple severance from the Church of England. In Massachusetts Bay it aimed at the establishment of a theocracy, and the enforcement of a rigorous uniformity of creed and discipline. From the resistance to this uniformity came Rhode Island and the doctrine of soul liberty.

On the February 5, 1631, the ship Lyon, with twenty passengers and a large cargo of provisions, came to anchor in Nantaskett roads [channels]. On the 8th she reached Boston, and the 9th, which had been set apart as a day of fasting and prayer for the little Colony, sorely stricken by famine, was made a day of Thanksgiving and praise for its sudden deliverance. Among those who, on that day, first united their prayers with the prayers of the elder colonists, was the young colonist, Roger Williams.

Little is known of the early history of Roger Williams, except that he was born in Wales, about 1606; attracted, early in life, the attention of Sir Edward Coke by his skill in taking down in short hand, sermons, and speeches in the Star Chamber; was sent by the great lawyer to Sutton Hospital, now known as the Charter House, with its fresh memories of Coleridge and Charles Lamb; went [then] to Oxford; took orders in the Church of England, and finally embraced the doctrine of the Puritans. Besides Latin and Greek, which formed the principal objects of an University course, he acquired a competent knowledge of Hebrew and several modern languages, for the study of which he seemed to have had a peculiar [skill]. His industry and attainments soon won him a high place in the esteem of his religious brethren, and although described by one who knew him as "passionate and precipitate," he gained and preserved the respect of some of the most eminent among his theological opponents. The key to his life may be found in the simple fact that he possessed an active and progressive mind in an age [when] thought instantly became profession, and profession passed promptly into action.

When this "godly and zealous young minister" landed in Boston, he found the territory which has long been known as Massachusetts in the possession of two distinct colonies, the Colony of Plymouth, founded in 1620, by the followers of John Robinson, of Leyden, and known as the colony of separatists, or men who had separated from, the Church of England, but were willing to grant to others the same freedom of opinion which they claimed for themselves; and the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, founded ten years later by a band of intelligent Puritans, many of them men of position and fortune, who, alarmed by the variety of new opinions and doctrines which seemed to menace a total subversion of what they regarded as religion, had resolved to establish a new dwelling place in a new world, with the Old and New Testament for [laws] and constitution.

Building upon this foundation the clergy naturally because their guides and counselors in all things, and the control of the law, which was but another name for the control of the Bible, extended to all the acts of life, penetrating to the domestic fireside, and holding every member of the community to a rigid accountability for speech as well as action. Asking for no exemption from the rigorous application of Bible precept for themselves, they granted none to others, and looked upon the advocate of any interpretation but theirs as a rebel to God and an enemy to their peace.

It was to this iron-bound colony that Roger Williams brought his restless, vigorous and fearless spirit. Disagreements soon arose and suspicions were awakened. He claimed a freedom of speech irreconcilable with the fundamental principles of their government; and they a power over opinion irreconcilable with freedom of thought. Neither of them could look upon his own position from the other's point of view. Both were equally sincere. And much as we may now condemn the treatment which Williams received at the hands of the colonial government of Massachusetts Bay, its charter and its religious tenets justified it in treating him as an intruder.

The first public expression of the hostility he was to encounter came from the magistrates of Boston within two months after his arrival, and, on the very day on which the church of Salem had installed him as assistant to their aged pastor, Mr. Skelton. The magistrates were a powerful body, and before autumn he found his situation so uncomfortable that he removed to Plymouth, where the rights of individual opinion were held respect, if not fully acknowledged. Here, while assiduously engaged in the functions of his holy office, he was brought into direct contact with several of the most powerful chiefs of the neighboring tribes of Indians, and among them of Massasoit and Miantonomi, who were to exercise so controlling an influence over his fortunes.

His fervent spirit caught eagerly at the prospect of bringing them under Christian influences, and his natural taste for the study of languages served to lighten the labor of preparation. "God was pleased," he wrote many years afterwards, "to give me a painful, patient spirit to lodge with them in their filthy holes, even while I lived at Plymouth and Salem, to gain their tongue; my soul’s desire was to do the natives good." This was apparently the calmest period of his stormy career. It was at Plymouth that his first child, a daughter, was born. But although he soon made many friends, and had the satisfaction of knowing that his labors were successful, his thoughts still turned towards Salem, and, receiving an invitation to resume his place as assistant of Mr. Skelton, whose health was on the wane, he returned [to Salem] after an absence of two years.

Some of the members of his church had become so attached to him that they followed him to the sister colony. And now came suspicions which quickly ripened into controversies, and before another two years were over led to what he regarded as.

And now came suspicions which quickly ripened into controversies, and before another two years were over led to what he regarded as persecution, but what the rulers of the Bay Colony held to be the fulfillment of the obligation which they had assumed in adopting the whole Bible as their rule of life. In 1635 he was banished from the colony by a solemn sentence of the General Court, for teaching:

1st. That we have not our land by Pattent from the King, but that the natives are the true owners of it, and that we ought to repent of such receiving it by Pattent.

2d. That it is not lawful to call a wicked person to swear, to pray, as being actions of God's worship.

3d. That it is not lawful to heare any of the Ministers of the Parish Assemblies in England.

4th. That the civil magistrates power extends only to the Bodies and Goods and outward state of man.

For us who read these charges with the light of [three] more centuries of progress upon them, it seems strange that neither the General Court nor Williams himself should have perceived that the only one wherein civilization was interested was that to which they have assigned the least conspicuous place.

— A Short History of Rhode Island by George Greene (1877)


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