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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

“Libertie of Conscience.”

"God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls."

Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, 1640

Two groups of people from England came to settle in what is now Massachusetts. The first arrivals came aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and landed at Plymouth. They called themselves pilgrims, and these Separatists believed that the Church of England was still too corrupt and tied to Catholicism. Therefore they wanted to separate themselves from it. A decade later, in 1630, another group, led by John Winthrop, arrived at what would become Boston. These settlers who came to the Massachusetts Bay colony were Puritans. They believed, unlike the Separatists, that the Church of England could still be reformed from within and returned to a state of purity. Both groups had fled England due to persecution under King James I and then Charles I. Despite this, neither the Separatists nor the Puritans were tolerant of other religious views. The Puritans saw North America as a clean slate, one given into their care by God to build a version of God’s heavenly kingdom on Earth. In John Winthrop’s own words, it would become the “city on the hill” and the new Jerusalem for the true believers, the pious, and the righteous. The church and the civil government were bound together. They would not tolerate any who strayed from this vision.

The winter of 1630/1631 was a harsh one for the colonists. Nearly a quarter of the settlers died within months, and starvation threatened the remaining population. Anticipating the severity, John Winthrop sent a ship, the Lyon, back to England to restock supplies. In an unusual and risky move, the captain of the Lyon sailed in the heart of winter. The ship arrived in Boston in January 1631. The arrival of the boat meant the survival of the settlers. It was seen as a sign that they had been tested by God and earned God’s grace. It reconfirmed their belief they were God’s chosen. Besides the needed supplies, the Lyon had on board a few passengers. One of these was a young man named Roger Williams.

Winthrop praised the young Williams, who already had a reputation for scholarship and piety. Roger Williams was born around 1603 during growing political and religious tumult in England. The kingdom was sinking into a fervent paranoia of papist plotting. The Church of England had been established in Calvinist theology with the trappings of Catholicism. Many groups, such as the Puritans and the Separatists, pushed for more significant reform and elimination of Catholic elements. Added to this was a distrust of King James I, who many feared aligned himself too closely with Catholic sympathizers, especially his ties to Spain. His insistence on ruling by divine right made many fear the kingdom drifting away from the spirit of the Magna Carta. Dissent grew, and in turn, so did the intolerance towards dissent. This forced many to flee to the Americas.

Williams attended Pembroke College at Cambridge University. Here he received his bachelors in 1627. He also showed proficiency in learning different languages. Already at a young age, he knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Dutch. Upon his arrival in the Americas, he would quickly learn the various Native American tongues. This would facilitate his relationship with them later on. But perhaps his greatest influence had been his apprenticeship with Sir Edward Coke. (Pronounced “cook”). Coke is considered one of the great jurists in English history. Under Queen Elizabeth I, he became the crown’s chief justice and Speaker of the House of Commons. Williams observed the legal mind in action during his apprenticeship in the courtroom and Parliament. This gave Williams an understanding of state power versus individual liberty. It helped define for him the law, not as it was practiced in court, but as the fabric of society. Coke firmly believed that the law ruled everyone, and even kings were subject to it. This ran counter to King James I and his supporters, who declared that the king was the law. For this, Coke would eventually be imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Roger Williams had a spiritual awakening as a young boy, but he did intend to take holy orders with the Church of England. But while at Cambridge, he became a Puritan. He witnessed the first wave of migration from England but did not join his fellow Puritans in going to America. As the situation in England worsened, he realized, perhaps thinking about Coke’s imprisonment, that it would be too dangerous to remain. In the meantime, he had adopted the Separatist position by 1630.

Upon his arrival, Williams was offered a post with the church in Boston, probably with a recommendation from Winthrop. Williams declined the position. He openly declared that the church was not committed to the proper worshiping of God. From the start, it seemed Williams would have an uneasy relationship with colonial leaders. The colony began to thrive, no longer threatened with starvation. The population grew, and the settlement expanded inland, away from the shores of the Atlantic. During this time, the colonial government, in tandem with the clergy, ensured that Winthrop’s original vision was firmly established in Massachusetts. In the meantime, Williams became a minister in Salem and attracted a passionate congregation. His sermonizing became known outside of Salem. And this worried many colonial officials. They began seeing Williams as challenging Winthrop’s “city on the hill.” They saw him as a challenge to the colony’s success. They believed him to threaten God’s very plan for the people of Massachusetts.

There was no dispute with Williams over theology. Williams adhered to the Calvinist faith. He saw God as being part of every facet of one’s life. He saw man’s purpose as advancing God’s kingdom on Earth. Disagreements arose over the role of civil government and how it should guide human society toward God’s vision. The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay colony held that the government was obliged to enforce God’s laws. To do so, the state needed to prevent errors in religious conviction. They believed their salvation and those under their charge depended upon this. Williams had seen firsthand what happened when the government utilized its power to enforce religious conformity. Humans were imperfect, so errors in applying God’s laws were inevitable. Forced worship, he felt, “stinks in God’s nostrils.” A society built in such a manner would lead to hypocrisy and corruption of both state and church.

The Banishment of Roger Williams, P.F. Rothermel, ca. 1850

Williams had not fully defined his beliefs, but the authorities decided his ideas were too dangerous. The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay colony ordered Roger Williams banished as of October 6, 1635. He had six weeks to depart the jurisdiction. If he failed to do so or he returned, then it would be at the court’s prerogative to impose further punishment ranging from imprisonment to execution. But Williams had fallen ill, and the court granted a bit of mercy. The enforcement of the banishment would wait until spring. In the meantime, Williams was to remain silent, which Williams did at least publicly. He made no public statements, nor did any preaching. His supporters did visit him at home, and here, in the privacy of his house, he spoke freely to them. This came to the attention of the authorities in Boston, and without warning, in January 1636, they sent soldiers to arrest him and deport him back to England. Williams could have found a haven in other colonies, north in New Hampshire or south in New Amsterdam. But his life would be at risk if he returned to England. Winthrop, who still saw Williams as godly, warned him of the soldiers’ arrival. Williams acted quickly and, dressed for winter, fled into the forest and a blizzard. Williams had established a good relationship with the Native Americans. These efforts paid off, and local Wampanoags gave him shelter for the winter. It was not lost on him that his civilized English people had banished him while the savage Native Americans had saved his life.

In the spring of 1636, Williams was joined by others from Salem. They purchased property from the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit along the Seekonk River near present-day Rumford, Rhode Island. This would be short-lived. Officials from the Plymouth Colony advised Williams that the settlement was within their jurisdiction. For the sake of relations with Massachusetts Bay, they suggested he cross to the other side of the river. Williams did this and was greeted by a group of Narragansett. The Narragansett welcomed them with friendly greetings and assisted in their search for a suitable site to settle on. Williams and his followers continued east along the Providence River until they reached the Great Salt Cove. A freshwater spring was discovered nearby where the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers split. The area had been used by the Narragansett and their ancestors for centuries. Fish, fowl, and seafood were abundant. Williams negotiated with the sachems Cononicus and Miantomo to purchase the land. In exchange, Williams agreed to allow them to take whatever English goods they desired. The sachems were pleased with the arrangement as they could avoid dealing with the English in Plymouth or Boston. People they distrusted. Williams believed that divine providence had led them to this site and named the new settlement Providence.

Original Providence Deed

From the start, the newly founded Providence Plantations were to be a haven for dissenters and followers of other faiths. Roger Williams declared that he “desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.” At first, the settlers came together to make decisions. It was agreed upon early that decisions made by the majority of the heads of households would be binding. Even Williams, as leader and proprietor of the land grant, deferred to this majority. As with any human interaction, problems did arise, and Williams and others recognized that a more formal plan of governance would be required. In 1637, Williams drafted a civil compact. The draft stipulated that citizens of the town would have “libertie of conscience.” He did not claim to be building God’s kingdom on Earth, advancing God’s will, or even seeking God’s blessing. Williams sent a copy of this pact to Winthrop to seek his counsel. Winthrop’s reply is lost to history, but regardless, the final compact was nearly identical to the draft. The final version, though, makes no mention of God. This was extraordinary for a man of Williams’s faith. Hardly any of his other writings fail to mention God. But Williams absolutely believed that God did not favor any state except Israel of the Bible. To assume otherwise was a sign of human arrogance. The Providence Compact of 1637 read:

Providence Compact 1637

“We whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves in active and passive obedience to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for the public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major consent of present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together in a Towne fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto them only in civil things.”

The compact created something revolutionary. For Williams, the state had no business correcting perceived errors in religion. That judgment needed to be left to God. For the first time, there is a declaration of separation between church and state. People were left to follow their conscience and practice their faith as they saw fit. There was no official church. One did not need to be a member of a church to vote, unlike other colonies like Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. Taxes were not collected to support meeting houses. Faithful congregated where convenient in private homes. Providence would be a magnet for other dissidents and people of other faiths. Roger Williams saw the relationship between the state, the individual, and the church in an entirely modern fashion. He defined our modern sense of individual liberty and acted to create a government informed by those beliefs.


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