Meeting Roger Williams (again)

I have long known that one of my distant ancestors is Roger Williams, the seventeenth century founder of Rhode Island. (For you genealogists: Roger, Daniel, Peleg, Daniel, Thomas, Mary (Hoag), Louisa (Hill), Flora (Lains), Ruby (Jackson), Elizabeth (Everett), and yours truly.)

But it was not until my graduate school days that I actually read any of his writings, primarily the Bloody Tenent of Persecution (1644). There I found more than particles of my DNA. These were threads of my own thought and religious sensibilities. Aside from “Baptist founder” and “religious freedom,” I don’t think a single word of instruction mediated these deep commitments to me.

He was evidently a complicated and often cantankerous man, but with all that a seeker of peaceful relations among natives and settlers. He was theologian, lawyer, interpreter, diplomat, politician, trader, husband, and father. In all these roles and relationships I could discern some threads that have also coursed in my own life. Such a discovery fascinates people who flock to or Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s, popular show, Finding Your Roots (PBS).

Born in England around 1603, Williams became the secretary and protégé of Edward Coke, the advocate of the common law and legal rationality over against the arbitrary rule of sovereigns. As a Puritan cleric who was only able to be a private chaplain, he increasingly dissented from the church establishment of England, leading him to move to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But there he soon fell into dispute with the Puritan orthodoxy of John Winthrop, John Cotton, and Thomas Hooker. In the face of imminent banishment back to England he escaped into the wilderness in the midst of a snowstorm (thanks to a warning from Winthrop), and found refuge with the Naragansetts, among whom he became very knowledgeable in the Algonquin languages of the New England tribes.

Already known (and despised) for insisting that the settlers had to pay the Natives for their land, he immersed himself in their culture, although never losing his commitment to Christianity and “civilization” as he understood it. His A Key into the Language of America (1643) was the first publication opening up this language and culture for the English settlers. It was his facility with the language and customs of Naragansetts, Wampanoags, Pequots, and others that put him at the intersection between English expansionism and Native resistance.

It was a perilous position, in which he lost his entire house and belongings to fire in “King Philip’s War” (1675-76). In spite of his great esteem for the people who had sheltered and befriended him, he joined with other colonists at the end of that war to sell some of the Native survivors into slavery. It was one of the great contradictions of his life.

Through all of this his wife, Mary Bernard, would bear six children and manage their often tumultuous (and much-visited) household. And he founded the first Baptist church in the colonies, a signal testimony to the religious toleration he secured from the Parliament of King Charles I in the charter for Rhode Island. He himself was a firm defender of a kind of Evangelical orthodoxy that he hoped to spread among his Native compatriots, though without much success. His Evangelical commitments led to his fierce disputes with Puritan theologians and Quakers alike. In all of this heated disputation he laid down tracks toward the freedom and disestablishment of religion embodied in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

My knowledge of Williams has been greatly enriched by an earlier reading of John Barry’s expansive biography, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Viking, 2012). Now, I have just spent many hours with a wide selection of his writings put together and richly annotated by Linford Fisher, Sheila McIntyre, and Julie Fisher in Reading Roger Williams: Rogue Puritans, Indigenous Nations, and the Founding of America: A Documentary History (Pickwick, 2024). Here we find all the traces of Williams’s complex life at the contentious intersection of religion, politics, warfare, commerce, and even slavery.

We are deeply indebted to these historians for re-introducing us to an almost mythical figure while we struggle in the midst of conflicts over the relation of religion to the republic, of settlers to original inhabitants, of  public liberty and personal faith. Reading Williams and studying his life bring into strong relief the issues that still embroil us.

For me, this study of Williams’s life, writings, and activities arouses a special conversation in my own mind as I seek to make some sense of my life in these latter years. For other Americans, it can unlock a deeper journey into the struggles and aspirations that have constituted our common history.

2 thoughts on “Meeting Roger Williams (again)”

  1. Thanks, Bill, for this very interesting and informative post. Motivates me to delve more deeply into Williams!

  2. Bill, Thanks for your essay posting – providing a snapshot of the character-essence of Roger Williams….eye-opening enough nudging me to learn more.

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