III. Roger Williams Flees Massachusetts; His Contributions to Religious Liberty

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Jerald Finney
Copyright © February 26, 2018

After the Massachusetts court banished Roger Williams from the colony and ordered him to board ship for England, he went instead, in the dead of winter, to what was to become Rhode Island. There he was supported by the Indians whom he, throughout his long life, unceasingly tried to benefit and befriend.[1] He bought land from the Indians and founded the town of Providence where persecution has never “sullied its annals.”[2] “[T]he harsh treatment and cruel exile of Mr. Williams seem designed by his brethren for the same evil end [as that of the brethren of Joseph when they sold him into slavery], but was, by the goodness of the same overruling hand [of divine providence] turned to the most beneficent purposes.”[3] In 1638, “[m]any Massachusetts Christians who had adopted Baptist views, and finding themselves subjected to persecution on that account, moved to Providence.”[4]

“[W]hat human heart can be unaffected with the thought that a people who had been sorely persecuted in their own country, so as to flee three thousand miles into a wilderness for religious liberty, yet should have that imposing temper cleaving so fast to them, as not to be willing to let a godly minister, who testified against it, stay even in any neighboring part of this wilderness, but it moved them to attempt to take him by force, to send him back into the land of their persecutors!”[5]

Thirty-five years later Mr. Williams wrote, “Here, all over this colony, a great number of weak and distressed souls, scattered, are flying hither from Old and New England, the Most High and Only Wise hath, in his infinite wisdom, provided this country and this corner as a shelter for the poor and persecuted, according to their several persuasions.”[6] By 1838 in Rhode Island, there were no less than thirty-two distinct societies or worshipping assemblies of Christians of varying denominations, including eight of the Quaker persuasion, eight Baptist churches, four Episcopal, and three Presbyterian or Congregationalist.[7]

Notable historians have praised Roger Williams for his contributions in the quest for religious freedom. For example:

  • Isaac Backus wrote that Rhode Island “was laid upon such principles as no other civil government had ever been, as we know of, since antichrist’s first appearance; “and ROGER WILLIAMS justly claims the honor of having been the first legislator in the world, in its latter ages, that fully and effectually provided for and established a free, full and absolute LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE.”[8]
  • “We cannot forbear to add the oft-quoted tribute paid to Roger Williams by the historian Bancroft:—‘He was the first person in modern Christendom to assert in its plentitude the doctrine of liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions before the law; and in its defence he was the harbinger of Milton, the precursor and the superior of Jeremy Taylor. For Taylor limited his toleration to a few Christian sects; the philanthropy of Williams compassed the earth. Taylor favored partial reform, commended lenity, argued for forbearance, and entered a special plea in behalf of each tolerable sect; Williams would permit persecution of no opinion, of no religion, leaving heresy unharmed by law, and orthodoxy unprotected by the terrors of penal statutes…. If Copernicus is held in perpetual reverence, because, on his deathbed, he published to the world that the sun is the centre of our system; if the name of Kepler is preserved in the annals of human excellence for his sagacity in detecting the laws of the planetary motion; if the genius of Newton has been almost adored for dissecting a ray of light, and weighing heavenly bodies in a balance,—let there be for the name of Roger Williams, at least some humble place among those who have advanced moral science and made themselves the benefactors of mankind.’”[9]

In 1638, others driven from Massachusetts by the ruling clerical power settled in Rhode Island. Massachusetts had such great hate for Rhode Island that it passed a law prohibiting the inhabitants of Providence from coming within its bounds.


[1] 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. xxiii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 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. 59.

[4] John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, Volume II, (Texarkana, Ark.-Tex.: Bogard Press, 1922), p p. 370-371, citing Winthrop, A History of New England, I. 269.

[5] Backus, Volume 1, p. 56.

[6] Williams and Underhill, p. xxv, citing in fn. 5: Letter to Mason. Knowles, p. 398.

[7] John Callender, The Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode-Island (Providence: Knowles, Vose & Company, 1838), pp. 121-122.

[8] Backus, Volume 1, pp. 75-76.

[9] Ibid., p. 76, fn. 1; Thomas Armitage, The History of the Baptists, Volumes 2 (Springfield, Mo.: Baptist Bible College, 1977 Reprint), p. 644; Christian, Volume I, p. 377. Christian also includes comments of Judge Story, Straus, and the German Philosopher Gervinus.

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