Roger Williams, (born 1603?, London, England—died January 27/March 15, 1683, Providence, Rhode Island [U.S.]), English colonist in New England, founder of the colony of Rhode Island and pioneer of religious liberty.
The son of a merchant tailor, he was a protégé of the jurist Sir Edward Coke and was educated at Cambridge. In 1630 he left his post as chaplain to Sir William Masham, which had brought him into contact with such politically active Puritans as Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Hooker, to pursue his by-then completely Nonconformist religious ideals in New England.
Arriving in Boston in 1631, Williams refused to associate himself with the Anglican Puritans and in the following year moved to the separatist Plymouth Colony. In 1633 he was back in Salem after a disagreement with Plymouth in which he insisted that the king’s patent was invalid and that only direct purchase from the Indians gave a just title to the land.
The unpopularity of Williams’s views forced him to flee Massachusetts Bay for Providence in 1636. In 1639 William Coddington, another dissenter in Massachusetts settled his congregation in Newport. Four years later Samuel Gorton, yet another minister banished from Massachusetts Bay because of his differences with the ruling oligarchy, settled in Shawomet (later renamed Warwick). In 1644 these three communities joined with a fourth in Portsmouth under one charter to become one colony called Providence Plantation in Narragansett Bay.
Roger Williams, the man closely associated with the founding of Rhode Island, was banished from Massachusetts because of his unwillingness to conform to the orthodoxy established in that colony. Williams’s views conflicted with those of the ruling hierarchy of Massachusetts in several important ways. His own strict criteria for determining who was regenerate, and therefore eligible for church membership, finally led him to deny any practical way to admit anyone into the church. Once he recognized that no church could ensure the purity of its congregation, he ceased using purity as a criterion and instead opened church membership to nearly everyone in the community. Moreover, Williams showed distinctly Separatist leanings, preaching that the Puritan church could not possibly achieve purity as long as it remained within the Church of England. Finally, and perhaps most serious, he openly disputed the right of the Massachusetts leaders to occupy land without first purchasing it from the Native Americans.
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