Small State, Huge Hero

On a recent trip to Rhode Island, I was reminded about the inadequacies of our public school system when we were introduced to Roger Williams. The Roger Williams Memorial Garden in Providence was on our list of things to see in the state and, on this rare occasion, we came almost wholly unaware.

We arrived late in the day, around 4:30, and walked into the 20th smallest National Park office in the United States on the edge of one of the city’s beautifully landscaped park. We were quickly directed to the movie screening area where we were amazed to learn about colonist and theologian Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.

Roger Williams was originally trained as an Anglican minister but broke from the Church of England and joined the Puritans. He decided to come with them to the states to seek what they had sought – religious freedom.

Soon he realized that the Puritan Church and the Massachusetts government were in fact no different in governance than the oppressive English Church. You were free to choose your own religion as long as that religion was Puritanism. From this moment on, his life would be spent defending three specific principles – separatism, freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

Yes, you read that right. This soon to be founder of our tiniest state had effectively outlined the first amendment to our nation’s constitution more than a century before Thomas Jefferson penned the first line. In fact, Williams was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation” to describe the relationship of the church and state, calling for a “high wall of separation between the Garden of Christ and the Wilderness of the World,” and is directly credited by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson for this contribution to the most beautiful document ever established.

Of course, this was not a popular position among the specifically Puritan colonists and his outspoken separatism ruffled more than a few feathers. He was convicted and in lieu of deportation; he was forced to flee to a place that would allow him to practice true religious freedom – free from government control and interpretation.

He fled the town of Salem in the middle of winter, ahead of his arrest warrant; and in the spring of 1636, he and a number of his followers established a settlement he called “Providence,” because he felt that God’s Providence had brought him there. He announced that this settlement would be a safehaven for anyone seeking religious freedom, no matter their faith. Soon, many were flocking to his town.

The settlement was founded on true democratic standards with each household getting a vote on all civil matters and even on those requesting citizenship. But, the votes were ALWAYS to be restricted to what he called “civil things.”

He soon received a charter for the land and established what would become Rhode Island on the principles of independence and true freedom. Thanks to the leadership of Roger Williams, Rhode Island is still home to the First Baptist congregation in the US (1636) and the oldest synagogue (Touro Synagogue, 1763) in the United States.

Roger Williams was a man far ahead of his time. In addition to his views on religion, he also was against the “forced Christianity” of the native people, which led him to be an outspoken proponent of Indian land ownership and peaceful relations. His relationship with the Indians was well known and he was called on by the state of Massachusetts to negotiate treaties with his Native American friends.

A man who established our smallest state should be heralded as one of our greatest heroes. Instead, he is relegated to the pages of Rhode Island history books. For more about Roger Williams, and Rhode Island, we suggest the following books:

  • Roger Williams: The Church and the State
  • Roger Williams (Lives & Legacies (Oxford))
  • Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America