The "New and Dangerous Opinions" of Roger Williams

A statue of Roger Williams in Prospect Terrace Park in Providence, Rhode Island

On October 9, 1635, the devout Puritan minister Roger Williams was found guilty of spreading "new and dangerous opinions" and he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
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A Puritan Secularist

The son of a tailor, and pioneer for religious liberty and government humility, Roger Williams was born at the opening of the 17th century, in London. His views congealed as he witnessed the brutal oppression of Puritans, Separatists and other religious minorities at the hands of the established Church of England. Those deemed heretics were tortured, imprisoned, and even burned at the stake.

Gifted with languages, Williams attracted the attention of the distinguished jurist, Sir Edward Coke, who arranged for the young man's matriculation to Cambridge University. Graduating in 1627, Williams nevertheless objected to the university's easy submission to royal decrees and directives.

By the time this newly-minted Puritan minister married Mary Barnard--not much more than a year later--he had gained a reputation for unorthodox teachings on worship. His emphases on personal conduct and conscience over doctrines and church polity not only set him against the prevailing Anglicans, but would later antagonize the religious dissenters with whom he had identified. As political and ecclesiastical heat grew in England, Williams was heartened by the successful establishments of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies in the new world. In 1630, he and Mary set sail for New England.

The 'Troublemaker'

Roger Willams believed that the government did not have the right to inject itself between the people and God. He felt that as soon as the government and politics approached matters of faith, the religion would become corrupted. In other words, Williams was an early advocate for the separation of church and state. Because Williams' preached in support of the doctrine of 'primacy of conscience,' which denounces government coercion in religious matters, he soon ran afoul of the powers that be in Salem, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. On October 9, 1635, Williams was found guilty of spreading "new and dangerous opinions" and he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In response to his expulsion, Williams and his adherents fled to the Narragansett Bay region. There, he preached the Gospel to the native peoples--and he also heard their grievances. In a repeat of the 1620-1621 Pilgrim experience, the harsh winter climate was somewhat offset by a working relationship with indigenous neighbors. Eventually in 1636, Williams purchased some land from the Native Americans and established a new settlement that Williams called "Providence" because he believed that Divine Providence played a role in his safe deliverance to this area. This land is now Providence, Rhode Island, and on this soil, Williams also established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies.

An early map of northeast America, printed in England in 1795

After his expulsion from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams went on to establish Providence, Rhode Island, as well as the first Baptist congregation in the American colonies.
(Image credit: Bigstock/Tektite)

Indeed, Williams' aptitude with languages enabled him to gain a high degree of trust with the diverse Indian bands that lived nearby. At the same time, the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies did not recognize Providence as a sovereign political unit, thereby necessitating two trips back to England to secure a royal patent. The colony soon became a refuge for all kinds of unorthodox believers and persecuted religious dissenters. Roger Williams served as Governor from 1654 through 1658. Before his death in 1683, he published many works on religious toleration and church-state separation, arousing the ire of Presbyterian and Congregational clerics in adjacent colonies.

A Modern Founder of Liberty

The rights of native peoples, the co-existence of conflicting beliefs, and the protection of conscience against government power were three constants of Roger Williams' convictions. The irony was that, theologically, he himself was not all that different from his adversaries. He still believed deeply in Puritan ideals. Yet heresy is often treated worse than unbelief by established powers. From Socrates spreading "new and dangerous ideas" to the youth of Athens and Cicero's republican sympathies, to Galileo's support of Copernican theories and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's criticism of communism, backlash can be fierce, if not fatal.

Roger Williams was a brave and courageous man who held firm to his convictions even at great peril to his own personal security and freedom. He can be rightly called a founding father of modern liberty. While the powers that are on top of us in modern times continue to try curtail freedom of speech through censorship and other nefarious means, we should keep in mind that, as Williams believed, perhaps Divine Providence has other ideas.