Roger Williams

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Roger Williams statue in Boston

Roger Williams (born April 1603 in London ; † March 1683 in Providence , Rhode Island , now the USA ) is considered the father of American Baptism and a champion of religious freedom and an early advocate of the separation of church and state .


After completing his school education (1626) Williams studied law and theology at Pembroke College . He was ordained a priest in the Church of England around 1629 . He became a chaplain in Essex and married Mary Barnard (1609–1676). At the end of 1630 he emigrated with her to America.

The Boston Conflict

In Boston he initially earned his living as an assistant teacher , but then returned to his original field of work as a pastor. From 1633 there was a conflict with the local magistrate . Williams resisted the influence of government agencies on church affairs. At the same time he denied the right of the state to grant special privileges to a particular church. The background to this protest was with Williams the insight that "no church can claim for itself to be the true church of Christ". Therefore Williams was an opponent of both the position of the Anglican state church and the puritanism prevailing in Massachusetts , although he was theologically close to this in other respects. Williams was soon seen as a liberal seeker and separatist. He was banished from Massachusetts and wanted a short time later with an arrest warrant. Williams escaped imprisonment and repatriation to England by escaping to Narragansett Bay , where he founded a branch in 1636, which became the starting point of the US state of Rhode Island. His office called Williams Providence in "memory of God's gracious providence" (Engl .: providence ) in Williams' tracking needs.

Founded the first American Baptist Church and the state of Rhode Island

The first Baptist church in America. Williams co-founded the denomination in 1638.

In 1639 Williams was found among the founding members of the first American Baptist church . In the same year he was baptized as an adult. Freedom of belief and religion were part of the basic statutes of this community and set the trend in the development of Baptism. In order to secure the independence of his settlement and freedom of religion, Williams traveled to England in 1643 and had his land acquisition there certified by means of a patent. Upon his return, he drafted a constitution for Rhode Island that for the first time in history established the complete separation of church and state. This constitution was adopted after initial difficulties. In 1644, Williams argued in The Bloody Tenent that Jesus differentiated between the political and the religious realms, in contrast to the Mosaic Law. The state must protect the individual, property and peace. The church, on the other hand, deals with spiritual matters. Williams linked the representative democracy created by the separatist Congregationalists of the Plymouth Colony and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony with freedom of belief and conscience. All adult men had the right to vote, regardless of their church affiliation.

Historic postcard of the First Baptist Meetinghouse, Providence, built 1774/75.

Williams was elected President of the new state in 1654. He was responsible for the internal development of the country and for the acceptance of the Quakers, who were persecuted mainly because of their pacifist sentiments . A special concern of Williams was the proselytizing of the Indians . Here, too, he paid attention to freedom of belief and conscience. Mission in the biblical sense for Williams was the offer of the gospel . Whether or not this offer was accepted was up to those to whom the offer was addressed. An important basis of the Indian mission that began under Williams' influence were his writings, in which he gave an introduction to the language and culture of the Indians.

Theologically Williams was the Arminian General Baptists close, which in contrast to the Particular Baptists , the predestination of Calvin rejected all people and held for redemption capable. After a few months he left the Baptist congregation he co-founded and remained a Christian and seeker who was not affiliated with the church until his death in 1683 , assuming that no existing church could claim to be the true church. But he maintained friendly relations with the Baptists until the end of his life. Alongside Baruch Spinoza, Williams is likely to have been one of the first people in the western world to be able to live outside of an organized religious community.

Despite his commitment to the church and his deep piety, Williams was probably more of an anthropologist , state philosopher and politician than a theologian. However, his thinking was deeply shaped by the biblical tradition as understood by Martin Luther and Johannes Calvin. His justification for freedom of belief and conscience was also theological. The election and redemption that took place through God in Christ precludes the influence of worldly authorities, a consequence of Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms . Williams had a strong and lasting impact on American history, particularly with regard to the development of democracy and the fundamental human right to freedom of belief and conscience. His metaphor wall of separation, with which he described the separation of state and church, was adopted in the 18th century by Thomas Jefferson , the author of the United States ' Declaration of Independence .


Williams' writing career began with a phrasebook of the Narragansett language ( A Key into the Language of America , London 1643), written during his first trip to England. His next publication was Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered , London 1644, in response to a pamphlet by John Cotton . The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience (“The bloody principle of persecution based on conscience”, London 1644) soon followed. This is his most famous work, a vehement defense of the principle of absolute freedom of conscience. It is written in the form of a dialogue between truth and peace and illustrates the power of his style. That same year an anonymous pamphlet was published in London, attributed to Williams, "Inquiries of Supreme Deliberation" to "All Independents," and theirs were members of the Synod of Westminster whose Apologetic Report sought to find a way between extreme separatism and Presbyterianism Ordinance was the adoption of the state-church model of Massachusetts Bay. Williams challenged their arguments because he found that this model violated freedom of conscience.

During his second visit to England in 1652, Williams published The Bloody Tenent yet more Bloody ("The bloody principle still bloody," London 1652). This work repeats and extends the arguments from the "Bloody Principle", but had the benefit of being written in response to Cotton's lavish New England Persecution Defense, "An Answer to Mr. William's Examination."

Brown University's John Carter Brown Library has long housed a 234-page volume called "Roger Williams' Book of Secrets". The margins of this book are filled with encoded handwritten annotations that are believed to be the work of Roger Williams. In 2012, the student Lucas Mason-Brown succeeded in deciphering this code and thereby uncovered convincing historical evidence that proves the authorship of Roger Williams. Translations reveal transcripts of a geographical text, a medical text, and about twenty pages of original notes addressing the issue of infant baptism . Mason-Brown has since discovered other Williams writings that use a separate code in the margins of a rare edition of the Eliot Indian Bible , a translation of the Bible into the Massachusetts language by John Eliot .

One volume of his letters is included in the Narragansett Club Edition, another volume was edited by JR Bartlett in 1882.

Indian language and culture

Williams intended to become a missionary to the Indians and began learning their language. He studied their language, customs, religion, family life and other aspects of their world. As a result, he learned their view of colonization and developed a deep appreciation for them as humans. He wrote his A Key Into the Language of America, a kind of phrasebook of the Narragansett language , combined with observations on life and culture, as an aid to communication with the Indians . In it, he covered everything from greetings in the first chapter to death and burial in chapter 32. The book sought to teach the English, who believed they were far superior to the indigenous people. Again and again he pointed out that the Indians are just as good as the English, in some ways even superior.

“Boast not proud English, of your birth & blood; / Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good. / Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All, / As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal. "

“Do not boast, proud Englishmen, of your birth and your blood; / Your brother, the Indian is just as good by birth. / God made him and you and all of one blood / So wise, so just, so strong, so personal. "

After learning their language and customs, Williams gave up the idea of ​​being a missionary and did not baptize a single Indian. He was severely criticized by the Puritans for failing to Christianize the natives, but Williams had come to believe that no valid church existed. He said he could have baptized the whole country, but it would have been hypocritical and wrong. Williams formed solid friendships and developed a deep trust with the indigenous people, especially the Narraganset . Because of his ongoing mediation and negotiation, he was able to secure the peace between the Indians and the English in Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He twice surrendered himself hostage to the Indians to guarantee the safe return of a great chief ( sachem ) from summons to court: Pessicus in 1645 and Metacomet in 1671. He was considered trustworthy by the Indians more than any other Englishman . Most recently, the King Philips War , the Indians' uprising of 1675–1676, became one of the bitterest events of his life that ended his efforts to burn Providence - including his own home - in March 1676.


Williams' final resting place in Prospect Terrace Park
The "Roger Williams Root" in the collection of the Rhode Islands Historical Society

Williams died between January and March 1683 and was buried on his own property. Fifty years later, his house had collapsed and the location of his grave had been forgotten. In 1860, Zachariah Allen tried to locate the remains but found nothing. At the place where Allen suspected the grave, he found, among other things, the root of an apple tree. Remains from the hole were deposited in the Randall family mausoleum on the North Burial Ground in Providence. In anticipation of the 300th anniversary of Providence's founding, the remains of the mausoleum were recovered in an urn and kept with the Rhode Island Historical Society until a memorial was erected in Prospect Terrace Park, Providence. The burial of the “dust from the grave of Roger Williams” did not take place until 1939, when the WPA had the monument completed. The apple tree root is now considered a curiosity and is kept by the Historical Society in the John Brown House .


Williams has been considered an American hero since the Puritans of his own time no longer dominated historical interpretations. His Native American defense, his accusation that the Puritans were repeating the "evils" of the Church of England, and his denial of the king's authority to grant charter to the colonies put him at the focus of almost every theological and political throughout his life Debate. Even so, he was considered a defender of religious freedom at the time of American independence and continued to be praised by generations of historians who often changed their interpretation of his period as a whole. Historians have been unable to approach Williams in an appropriate manner because he was unusual, exceedingly productive, and vague.

Moore (1963) followed the “negative” approach of orthodox Puritan writers ( William Bradford , John Winthrop , Thomas Morton , Cotton Mather , Anne Hutchinson , Winsor, and Dexter), the “romantic” approach ( George Bancroft , Vernon Parrington , Ernst, and Brockunier ), as well as the "realistic" approach (Backus, H. Richard Niebuhr , Roland Bainton and Hudson) - and considered the work of Mauro Calamandrei, followed by Perry Miller and Ola Winslow, to be decisive. The realistic writers created a synthesis of the earlier interpretations.

“The Pilgrims and the Puritans came to America seeking religious freedom for themselves. Roger Williams arrived seeking liberty of conscience for all: Protestant and Catholic, Jew and Muslim, unbeliever and pagan. "

“The Pilgrim Fathers and Puritans came to America to seek religious freedom for themselves. Roger Williams came to America and sought freedom of conscience for all of us: Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, infidels and Gentiles. "

Honors and memorials

Memorial to Roger Williams at Roger Williams University
Roger Williams, statue at the Reformation Monument in Geneva



  • A Key into the Language of America. London 1643
  • The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. London 1644
  • Queries of Highest Consideration . 1644
  • Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health. London 1652
  • The Hireling Ministry None of Christ's. London 1652
  • The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody. London 1652
  • Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and their Preservatives. London 1652
  • George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes. Boston 1676
  • Narragansett Club / Perry Miller (Eds.): The Complete Writings of Roger Williams , 7 volumes; Vol. 1-6: 1866-1874, Vol. 7: 1963
  • The Correspondence of Roger Williams. 2 vols, edited by Glenn W. LaFantasie, Rhode Island Historical Society, 1988.

Secondary literature

  • Karl Dietrich Erdmann : Roger Williams - the adventure of freedom , shepherd, Kiel 1967 (publications of the Schleswig-Holstein University Society of Kiel, No. 46).
  • Linford D. Fisher, J. Stanley Lemons, Lucas Mason-Brown: Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Islandas Founding Father. Baylor University Press, Waco 2014, ISBN 978-1-4813-0104-6 .
  • Raymond D. Irwin: A Man for all Eras: The Changing Historical Image of Roger Williams, 1630-1993. Fides Et Historia 1994 26 (3): 6-23
  • Leroy Moore, Jr .: Roger Williams and the Historians. Church History, 1963 32 (4): 432-451
  • Norman B. Springlane:  WILLIAMS, Roger. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Volume 13, Bautz, Herzberg 1998, ISBN 3-88309-072-7 , Sp. 1332-1335.
  • OE Winslow: Master Roger Williams - A biography. 1957

Individual evidence

Williams' works online
  1. ^ A b c Publications of the Narragansett Club. Vol. 2, Providence 1867. Containing full text in the Google book search:
    • Master John Cotton's Answer to Master Roger Williams. Edited by J. Lewis Diman.
    • Queries of Highest Consideration. Edited by Reuben A. Guild
  2. A Key into the Language of America: or, An help to the Language of the Natives in that part of America, called New-England, etc. Gregory Dexter, London 1643, reprint of the 5th edition with an introduction by Howard M. Chapin, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Tercentenary Committee (1936) by Applewood Books, Bedford [1997], ISBN 1-55709-464-0 . Full text in Google Book Search, online at
  3. ^ The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed: and Mr. Cotton's Letter Examined and Answered. Edited by Edward Bean Underhill, Hanserd Knollys Society, London 1848. Full text in the Google book search
  4. The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, etc. 1644, Edited by Samuel L. Caldwell (= Publications of the Narragansett Club. Vol. 3). Providence 1867, reprinted 1967. Full text in Google Book Search
  5. The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody: By Mr Cottons endevour to wash it white in the Blood of the Lambe; etc. Giles Calvert, London 1652, reprinted from Applewood Books, Bedford [2009], ISBN 978-1-4290-1941-5 . Full text in Google Book Search
  6. The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody. Edited by Samuel L. Caldwell (= Publications of the Narragansett Club. Vol. 4). Providence 1870. Full text in Google Book Search
  7. Experiments of Spiritual Life & Health, And their Preservatives etc. London 1652, reprinted by Sidney S. Rider, Providence 1863. Full text in the Google book search
  1. J. Gordon Melton: Williams, Roger (c. 1603-1683) . Puritan champion of freedom of religion. In: Encyclopedia of World Religions . Encyclopedia of Protestantism, No. 6 . Facts of File, New York 2005, ISBN 978-0-8160-5456-5 , pp. 576 (English).
  2. ^ A b Marcia Pally: The New Evangelicals. Berlin University Press, Berlin 2010, ISBN 978-3-940432-93-3 , p. 47.
  3. A. Strübind: " Right of Resistance" as an elementary topic in the free church tradition. In: E. Geldbach / M. Wehrstedt / D. Lütz (eds.): Religions-Freiheit. Festschrift for the 200th birthday of Julius Köbner. Berlin 2006, pp. 213-216.
  4. Allen Weinstein, David Rubel: The Story of America: Freedom and Crisis from Settlement to Superpower. DK Publishing, New York, NY 2002. ISBN 0-7894-8903-1 , p. 63
  5. James Ernst (1932): Roger Williams: New England Firebrand. Macmillan, p. 82
  6. ^ Edwin S. Gaustad (1999): Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Valley Forge: Judson Press, p. 28
  7. James Emanuel Ernst, Roger Williams, New England Firebrand (Macmillan Co., Rhode Island, 1932), p. 246 limited preview in Google Book search
  8. ^ Queries of Highest Consideration Proposed to Mr. Tho. Goodwin, Mr. Phillip Nye, Mr. Wil. Bridges, Mr. Jer. Burroughs, Mr. Sidr. Simpson, all Independents, etc. 1644
  9. The Bloody Tenent yet more Bloody: by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb; of whose precious Blood, split in the Bloud of his Servants; and of the Blood of Millions spilt in former and later Wars for Conscience sake, that most Bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, upon, a second Tryal is found more apparently and more notoriously guilty, etc. London 1652
  10. Lucas Mason-Brown: Cracking the Code: Infant Baptism and Roger Williams . In: JCB Books Speak . Retrieved September 16, 2012.
  11. ^ Suzanne Fischer: Personal Tech for the 17th Century . In: The Atlantic . Retrieved September 16, 2012.
  12. ^ Michael McKinney: Reading Outside the Lines . In: The Providence Journal , March 2012. Retrieved September 16, 2012. 
  13. Lucas Mason-Brown: Cracking the Code: Infant Baptism and Roger Williams . In: JCB Books Speak . Brown University. Retrieved September 16, 2012.
  14. ^ Rhode Island Historical Society, Body, Body, Who's Got the Body? Where in the World IS Roger Williams. in: New and Notes, (Spring / Winter, 2008), p. 4.
  15. Irwin (1994)
  16. ^ Documentary. (No longer available online.) Center for Liberty of Conscience, Culver City, archived from the original on February 14, 2013 ; accessed on January 1, 2013 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  17. Roger Williams in the Find a Grave database . Accessed January 1, 2013.

Web links

Commons : Roger Williams  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Author: Roger Williams  - Sources and full texts (English)