Roger Williams Biography ID 76

The U.S. Constitution does not mention the word God. Nor does it not establish an official religion or impose a religious test for voting or officeholding. Indeed, the First Amendment expressly forbids Congress from enacting any law “respecting the establishment of religion.”

Among the principles that occupy a central place in the pantheon of American values are freedom of conscience, the separation of church and state, and religious toleration. One seventeenth century colonist’s life helped to dramatize those principles.

The Puritan minister Cotton Mather called Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, colonial America’s “first rebel.” Deeply devout, Williams took the position that each person should decide how best to worship God without any interference from civil authorities. Williams also argued that the English had no right to seize Indian lands or to force Indians to convert to Christianity.

Born about 1603, a tailor’s son, Williams had a knack for learning languages and a skill at shorthand, which led the English jurist Sir Edward Coke to take him on as an apprentice. Coke, who popularized the notion that a man’s home is his castle, helped lead opposition in Parliament to the efforts of kings James I and Charles I to expand royal power.

At some point early in his life, Williams became a Puritan. He was one of a growing number of English men and women who wanted to rid the Church of England of remnants of Catholicism that they believed lacked Biblical sanction, including elaborate church rituals and hierarchies. The Puritans also promoted a more direct relationship between believers and God.

Suffering intense persecution, many Puritans fled to Holland or to the New World. In 1631, when Williams was in his late twenties, he migrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony, where many Puritans hoped to establish a godly commonwealth, a “citty on a hill,” which might serve as a model of righteousness.

Williams denied that the colonial government had any right to intrude on an individual’s relationship with God. It could not, in his opinion, force an individual to observe the Sabbath or even forbid a person from taking God’s name in vain. Later in life, he went even further, and refused to participate in any organized church.

In 1635, before Massachusetts authorities could arrest him, Williams fled in a raging snowstorm. For fourteen weeks he struggled to survive in the wilderness before making his way to Narragansett Bay. There, he purchased land from Indians and founded a town he named Providence, the first English settlement in what would become Rhode Island. Williams would later convince English authorities to grant Rhode Island a royal charter, which prevented the colony from being absorbed by Massachusetts.

In Rhode Island, individuals could worship any God they wished – or none at all. Seeking religious freedom, Quakers, Jews and other religious minorities migrated to the colony. An ardent proponent of religious liberty, it is not an accident that Williams named one of his children “Freeborn.”

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