Baptists are indebted to Roger Williams for his leadership in religious liberty and his establishment of a congregation and colony that offered the only alternative to the provincial church/state setup that existed in other colonies in the establishment of the English colonies.
Williams was an English theologian who was an early proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In 1636 he began the colony of Providence Plantation which provided a refuge for religious minorities. Williams started the first Baptist church according to many historians in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence, before leaving to become a Seeker. He was a student of Native American languages and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans.
Williams was born in Middlesex England and was converted at age 12. As a teenager he studied law and apprenticed under the famous jurist Sir Edward Coke a famous jurist of the time. He was educated at Charterhouse and Pembroke College in Cambridge.
As a young man he took Holy Orders in the Church of England but soon became disillusioned with the measures of Archbishop Laud to enforced conforming in worship and practice through the church. With his opposition to this regulation of religion by the State, Williams and his new wife Mary migrated with the Puritans to the new world arriving in Boston on February 5, 1631.
The young preacher was asked to officiate in the First Church in Boston while the regular minister John Williams went back to England for his wife. To everyone’s surprise Williams expressed his first opposition to the church/state alliance that characterized early Plymouth Bay Colony. He turned down the offer because he believed the church was not separated enough from the control of the civil magistrates. He believed the Puritans were not separated from the Church of England who he deemed to be corrupt. He believed a new church should be established that would promote pure religion without control of civil government.
Williams based his belief of a free church in a free society on three guiding principles: Separatism, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. Williams called for a High wall of separation between the Garden of Christ and the Wilderness of the World. Thomas Jefferson used this phrase later to describe the interpretation of the establishment clause of the Constitution regarding freedom of religion as expressed in the first amendment.
Williams had a brief stay in Salem but moved to Plymouth where he assisted the minister there. His teachings were well approved according to Governor William Bradford when he preached. However he soon fell out of favor with the church and community questioning the King’s charter to the colony and the right of the Native Americans to the land the Pilgrims had claimed. His views were seen as divisive and controversial.
Williams continued to be involved in controversy for his views and was ordered and convicted by the General Council for sedition and heresy. He was jailed and ordered to be banished. He slipped away at that time finding refuge after a journey through the deep snow to the head of Narragansett Bay. He was rescued by friends of the Wampanoag’s and taken to the winter camp of the chief Massasoit.
He was threatened with extradition back to Salem but he went south and established a town with twelve loving friends called Providence. He felt God’s Providence had led him to modern day Rhode Island. The colony became a haven for dissenters and those like-minded with Williams. The great leader of religious liberty drew up an agreement in 1637 signed by thirty-nine freemen declaring liberty of conscience for the colony and amounting to the first document in the free world highlighting religious liberty in the new world.
Up until this time Williams had evolved from a churchman in the Church of England to a Puritan to a Separatist not satisfied with church/state relationship in Boston, Plymouth and Salem. Now he began to study the Baptists and was convinced by Katherine Scott, the sister of Anne Hutchinson, of believer’s baptism. He also read the English Baptist writings of Symth, Helweys and Murton. These influences and personal study led him to become a Baptist in this stage of his life. The church began in Providence was technically a Baptist church with religious liberty and believer’s baptism as their main emphasis. Williams himself was baptized by Ezekiel Holliman. A majority of scholars believe the church Williams founded was the first Baptist church in America. Others credit John Clarke who established a Baptist church in Newport as the first pure, permanent Baptist Church in the new world. Williams founded the first church based on Baptist principles although he did not remain a Baptist. He became convinced that the ordinances were lost in the apostasy of the Roman Empire joining the church and state under Constantine. He remained interested in Baptists being in agreement with the rejection of infant baptism and in most other matters.
Williams’s most famous contribution was in the area of religious liberty. He saw no warrant in the New Testament for the sword to promote religious belief. He called Constantine a greater enemy of Christianity than Nero because Constantine’s support had corrupted Christianity and led to the state enforcing religion against the conscience of the people.
Williams had his many critics and regarded his views as a dangerous. They felt the necessity of a national church and dissenters to be made to conform to it. Rhode Island was not viewed with great joy. Many continued to oppose its existence for the next hundred years although it survived as the freest colony of many in America.
Williams made two trips back to England during his lifetime. In July 1643 he went back to obtain a Charter for his colony seeking to stop the attempt of neighboring colonies to take over Providence. He returned with a Charter for “the Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay” The charter incorporated Providence, Newport and Portsmouth. He wrote his best-known literary work –on his voyage back to the new world: Key into the Languages of America, which was published in London in 1643. The work made him the authority on American Indians.
Williams traded with the Indians and was known for his peacemaking between the neighboring colonists and the Indians. Colony affairs interfered, so in 1651 he sold his trading post and returned to England with John Clarke (a Newport preacher) to have the Charter confirmed. John Clarke did obtain the Royal Charter from Charles II on July 8, 1663, stopping further trouble with William Coddington and some colonists at Newport, who had previously obtained a charter for a separate colony.
Williams was Governor of the Colony from 1654 through 1658. In the later years of his life, he saw almost all of Providence burned during King Philip’s War in 1675-1676. Providence was rebuilt however and he continued preaching as the Colony grew through its acceptance of settlers of all religious persuasions.
All Williams’s ideas cannot be accepted by everyone. The idea of separation of church and state has been perverted by secularists in our day and age. However, his view did pave the way for religious liberty for all groups and made America a safe haven for religious toleration. We learn from Williams that state religion cannot be regulated without abuse. When people are free to choose and voluntarily affiliate with a church it makes freedom of conscience a tremendous truth that leads to genuine and sincere religious practice. For this reason freedom of religion without any state control has been a cherished belief of Baptists because of men like Roger Williams who were willing to take a stand for it.