II. Roger Williams Flees English Tyranny and Comes to Massachusetts; His Banishment by the Massachusetts Court


A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry.



Jerald Finney
Copyright © February 26, 2018


Roger Williams, like the Puritans, fled tyranny over thought and conscience and sought refuge for conscience amid the wilds of America. He arrived in Boston on February 5, 1631. He was highly educated and well acquainted with the classics and original languages of the Scriptures, and had been in charge of a parish in England. In England, he had attended the preaching of Samuel Howe, a Baptist minister in London who practiced immersion. He was very intimate with Baptists in London; they uniformly pleaded liberty of conscience. By the time he arrived in Massachusetts, “[i]t is probable that Williams already believed in immersion and rejected infant baptism,” and, in “1633 he was ‘already inclined to the opinions of the Anabaptists.’”[1] “He was sorely persecuted by Archbishop Laud, and on that account he fled to America.”[2]

Upon arrival, he was invited to become pastor of the church in Boston but declined because he found that it was “an unseparated church,” and he “durst not officiate to” it.[3] Mr. Williams, not being a man who could hide his views and principles, declared, “the magistrate might not punish a breach of the Sabbath, nor any other offence, as it was a breach of the first table.”[4] He also, contrary to the practice of the church at Boston, hesitated to hold communion with any church who held communion with the Church of England. “He could not regard the cruelties and severities, and oppression, exercised by the Church of England, with any feelings but those of indignation.”[5]

BanishedFleesMr. Williams remained at odds with the established church and government ministers in Massachusetts. He was accepted by the church at Salem, but that was blocked by the General Court of the Colony. Plymouth warmly received him into the ministry where he labored two years. Exercising their right under congregational governance, the church at Salem called him, over the objections of the magistrates and ministers, to be their settled teacher. At Salem, he filled the place with principles of rigid separation tending to anabaptism.[6] In spite of the fact that “Mr. Williams appears, by the whole course and tenor of his life and conduct [], to have been one of the most disinterested men that ever lived, a most pious and heavenly minded soul,”[7] the Court soon summoned him “for teaching publicly ‘against the king’s patent, and our great sin in claiming right thereby to this country’” by taking the land of the natives without payment;[8] “and for terming the churches of England antichristian.”[9] Charges were brought. “He was accused of maintaining:

  1. “That the magistrate ought not to punish the breach of the first table of the law, otherwise in such cases as did disturb the civil peace.
  2. “That he ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man.
  3. “That a man ought not to pray with the unregenerate, though wife or child.
  4. “That a man ought not to give thanks after the sacrament nor after meat.”[10]

The ministers of the Court, when Mr. Williams appeared before them, “had already decided ‘that any one was worthy of banishment who should obstinately assert, that the civil magistrate might not intermeddle even to stop a church from apostasy and heresy.’”[11] The “grand difficulty they had with Mr. Williams was, his denying the civil magistrate’s right to govern in ecclesiastical affairs.”[12] The court banished him from the colony and ordered him to board a ship for England. He did not obey the order, but went to Rhode Island—the subject of the next lesson.


Endnotes

[1] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, Volume II, (Texarkana, Ark.-Tex.: Bogard Press, 1922), p. 360; see also Christian, Volume II, pp. 28-45.

[2] Ibid., p. 370.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Isaac Backus, A History of New England With Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists, Volume 1 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, Previously published by Backus Historical Society, 1871), p. 41; Williams and Underhill, p. ix, noting in fn. 1, “Such is Governor Winthrop’s testimony. Knowles, p. 46.”

[5] Roger Williams and Edward Bean Underhill, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered (London: Printed for the Society, by J. Haddon, Castle Street, Finsbury, 1848), p. x.

[6] Backus, A History of New England, Volume 1, p. 44.

[7] Callender, p. 72.

[8] Backus, A History of New England, Volume 1, pp. 44-46. Williams and Underhill, p. xiii. The colonies held their land under the royal patent. Under the royal right of patent, Christian kings (so called) were given the right to take and give away the lands and countries of other men. Armitage, The History of the Baptists, Volume 2, pp. 638-639.

[9] Williams and Underhill, pp. xiii-xiv.

[10] Ibid, p. xiv; Callender, p. 72; Backus, A History of New England…, Volume I, p. 53 (Backus adds item 2, as, according to footnote 1, p. 53, his is from Governor Winthrop’s Journal, Vol. 1, pp. [162, 163]).

[11] Williams and Underhill, pp. xv, 387-389.

[12] Backus, A History of New England…, Volume 1, p. 53; Armitage, The History of the Baptists, Volume 2, pp. 627-640.

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