This isn't only part 5, the final of a long winded blog series, it's the longest blog post I've ever written.
Roger and Mary Williams arrived in Boston in 1631 where an established community of more than a thousand lived under Puritan rule.
The governor of the Boston settlement was John Winthrop who had arrived the previous year with 700 pilgrims aboard a fleet of eleven ships. The royal charter for the colony established all freemen would vote for a governor and a General Court to run the colony’s affairs. Winthrop and a small number of cronies corrupted the process by holding the election among them alone, excluding the vast majority of freemen. This would be corrected years later when new arrivals demanded to see the charter, but the fix was in, Winthrop and his allies had already established strict Puritan policies for the settlements.
Upon his arrival in Boston Roger Williams was offered a teaching position in a Boston church but he declined, citing his differences with the church’s positions. As a separatist, Williams held firm his conviction of freedom of religion which included the separation of church and state. This clearly did not exist in the young colony. He was vocal in his objections to the established theocratic puritanical rule.
Williams never swayed from his base belief that men should be free to practice any religion and the state should have no say in these personal choices. He carried this doctrine across the Atlantic hoping to find religious freedom in the new world. It would not be the case. Wherever he landed Williams would have issue with the practices of the ruling government.
He was offered a post in Salem but the Boston church objected. He had offended Winthrop and his allies. Williams moved on, finding welcome in the Plymouth colony where he held his first teaching post in the new world.
Even when not in office John Winthrop used his power and influence to block democratic change and the codifying of civil law to maintain the Puritan theocracy he had established and envisioned for the future. It was in this totalitarian environment that Roger Williams and other liberals who sought freedom of faith would be dogged by intolerance and persecution.
In Plymouth Williams came in close contact with local Indians, learned their language and became suspicious of the land rights granted by the throne to colonists. Not only did he have serious religious differences with his fellow white men, he had extremely liberal views toward the natives. For example, he thought land should be purchased from the indigenous and did not agree with missionary work to convert them to Christianity.
After writing a tract questioning the validity of colonial charters he fell out of favor in the Plymouth Colony and in 1633 returned to the Massachusetts Colony. The Bostonians were not happy to see him. He was forced to appear before the General Court to explain his writings. He eventually found work as a pastor in the more agreeable Salem church. It did not last long.
One of the traits of my home state I am proudest of is the fierce independent streak evident throughout history. Roger William is the spring that independence flows from. I truly love this man for his insatiable quest for freedom, human rights and fairness. He was hundreds of years ahead of his time.
Williams had promised the General Court to not raise the issue of the colonial charters, he failed. From his pulpit in Salem he repeatedly questioned the authority of the Governor, the court and church elders. He was called before the court again in March of 1635. His controversies began to cause serious problems between the powerful Boston governors and his church in Salem. He preached his liberal views on separation of church and state and religious freedom. Boston protested. Williams demanded the Salem church separate from the Boston churches. His supporters in Salem who admired his leadership eventually caved to pressure from Winthrop, Williams was removed from his post.
In October of 1535 Roger the rabble rouser was tried by the General Court for sedition and heresy. He was convicted and banished from the colony. He was not expelled during the winter under the condition he did not continue spreading his dangerous ideas of religious freedom and separation. Of course he couldn’t abstain from preaching his core beliefs. In January 1636 a court order for William’s arrest was issued. Upon arriving at his home colonial authorities found Williams has fled south during a severe snowstorm.
Salem is 67 miles from the head of Narragansett Bay in southern New England. Williams trekked the entire distance in the dead of winter, sick with few provisions. He was found in poor health by Wampanoag Indians and taken in by their chief, Massasoit.
This is the point where Roger William’s liberal views on Indians would serve him. He knew the language, respected their culture, and after three months in the care of the Wampanoags had reached an agreement to purchase land from Massasoit to start his own settlement based entirely on religious independence.
He was not the only pilgrim butting heads with the likes of John Winthrop and his Puritan dictators in Massachusetts. Anne Hutchinson is one of the great women of colonial history, maybe a little too zealous for my liking, but unique for her time. She and husband William had immigrated to Boston in 1634 with wealth earned in his London fabric business. He soon established himself in the new world, building a home in Boston and purchasing tracts of land outside the city.
Anne had become a follower of James Cotton, a reverend who preached a version of faith far different from the established Church of England or their fellow Puritan dissidents. Cotton believed in the power of self, thinking men and women could attain salvation through their own free grace and devotion to God. This was considered dangerous to church authority.
The independent views of Cotton and his disciples were spread through convecticles, informal meetings in the homes of parishioners where sermons were discussed further and the individual views of the flock were considered, including women. This is hardly a practice authoritarian Puritans would welcome, the church having no say in your soul’s salvation … empowering women!?
While Roger Williams was at odds with the Boston church the Hutchinson’s became members of that church. Somehow James Cotton’s controversial views were undetected and he was given a position in the Boston church. Anne held convecticles for women in her home. They became so popular dozens of women would attend, some dragging their husbands along. The idea of women openly discussing matters of God was indeed a radical practice, a threat to a church ruled by men.
In addition to her extreme beliefs and holding her own meetings, Hutchinson and her Free Grace friends questioned the worthiness of pastors, most notably the Reverend John Wilson. They began to walk out of his sermons. These public protests lead to open debate and division in the church. Ministers in support of the Free Grace faction waged war from the pulpit with traditional purists.
Hutchinson’s belief of Free Grace was not aligned with William’s religious beliefs but they shared the opinion that men and women should be free to follow their own path in faith without interference from church or government. Williams was aware of and supported Hutchinson’s Free Grace group, even if they didn’t see eye to eye on matters of God.
It wasn’t long before the magistrate John Winthrop and the General Court caught wind of her ‘unauthorized’ religious meetings and protest. In October 1536 Winthrop wrote opinions against Hutchinson which lead to the Antinomian Controversy.
Roger Williams had spent the spring and summer of 1536 establishing his colony 50+ miles south of Boston. His wife, young children and families from Salem who believed in his vision of freedom of faith joined him to begin a new life. They barely broke ground when the Plymouth Colony protested the land he bought from the Wampanoags was within their charter granted by King James I. After threats of extradition Williams and his tiny group of followers, twelve families, crossed the Seekonk River and purchased more land, this time from the Narragansett Indian tribe lead by Canonicus. He named this settlement Providence.
In Providence there would be no established religion, no connection between a man’s faith and civil affairs, and each head of household had a vote in governance. They would rule by majority, including the addition of new citizens who arrived in droves as news of a truly free society attracted dissenters from other colonies. Matters of religion were not included in public discourse.
That same spring the Connecticut Colony was being established about 100 miles west of Narragansett Bay at the mouth of what would be the Connecticut River. Like Boston and Plymouth it was a haven for Puritans migrating from England or those who chose to relocate from the eastern colonies. From the beginning the colonists in the river colony had problems with Dutch colonists in New Netherlands (New York).
Meanwhile in Boston, Anne Hutchinson was accused of heresy by the General Court as the works of James Cotton caused a theological schism in the church that tested the unity of the colony. The Free Grace faction had supporters, including Governor Henry Vane, a long time friend and in-law of Hutchinson. Ministers from both sides exchanged heated sermons through the winter of 1636-37.
In the spring of 1637 elections turned the tide against Free Grace. John Winthrop defeated Henry Vane reclaiming his office of governor and men who supported Hutchinson were voted out. With her allies removed, Anne Hutchison was naked before the wrath of Puritan dictator John Winthrop.
Her civil trial began in the fall of 1537 but because she never spoke openly in public, never wrote her dissenting views, and her followers would not testify against her, Winthrop’s case was largely based on hearsay. She was basically being tried for being a troublemaker and conspiring with ministers, like Cotton, who did speak publically against the church. The quick witted and articulate Hutchinson out smarted her accusers and remained stoic while being harassed on the stand by Winthrop and his legal allies.
Hutchinson’s trial has been written about extensively by historians. Her conduct during the trail was the antithesis of how women behaved in her time. She openly challenged the authority of the court and the church. In the end she was convicted of sedition and banished from the colony. Like Williams she was held under house arrest through the winter. During that time her family and 23 allied men had formed a compact to resettle with their families. Roger Williams convinced them to colonize Aquidneck Island 25 miles south of Providence.
Williams had become more than a friendly white man to the Indians. Chief Massasoit, the same chief who greeted the Pilgrims as friends when they arrived in Plymouth, gifted Williams the islands of Aquidneck and Wappewassick as a token of his friendship with the Indians.
Hutchison, her 15 children and the band of ‘compact’ families left Boston on foot for Providence. Some men had departed earlier to begin construction of their new settlement. The families arrived in April 1538 and were ferried across the bay to their new home on Aquidneck Island.
Rhode Island now had two major settlements of religious dissenters with more refugees arriving each season, Anabaptists, Quakers and various sects fleeing persecution in England or other colonies. In the settlements around Narragansett Bay they could freely practice their personal religious belief without interference from civic leaders while taking equal part in community business with one vote per household. This was the model drafted by Roger Williams, long before Thomas Jefferson and our founding fathers were born.
Besides Hutchinson and Williams there were a dozen dissenters I could have focused on, but he was clearly the leader of men and she the leader of women, in a time when women were not leaders. While several of the men in theses settlement would go on to be governors of the future colony, none were as influential as Roger and Anne in the founding spirit of Rhode Island.
While the Providence and Aquidneck colonists had good relations with indigenous people, the same could not be said of the Plymouth, Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies. The Pequot Indians had long been a threat to the Connecticut River colony. Allied with the Dutch, the Pequot raided settlements along the river, including present day Hartford. Disputes over fur trade lead to the massacre of traders in Connecticut and Massachusetts. This would result in the Pequot War of 1637-38.
The Boston Puritans feared the Indians may unite against the English colonies. They approached Roger Williams, friend of the Narragansetts and Wampanoags, to mediate. Williams convinced Chief Miantonomi to ally with the English, providing scouts and spies along the south shore. Over a two year period dozens of raids and battles took place between the United Colonies and the Pequot, aided by the Dutch. Intelligence provided by the Narragansetts helped the colonists defeat the Pequot, nearly to the point of extinction. Providence and Aquidneck did not participate in the war.
By 1640 the Providence settlement had 39 voting heads of households. Due to political differences between leaders the camp on Aquidneck Island had split in two, the original Hutchinson settlement of Portsmouth, and the newly formed Newport settlement on the southern tip of the island chosen for its useful harbor. In 1642 a fourth settlement, Warwick, would be established by Samuel Gorton ten miles south of Providence.
Gorton, like the other leaders, purchased his land from local Indians and had good relations with the natives, but his purchase was disputed by other sachems. This dispute between Indian sachems lead to an incident where the Massachusetts colony would intervene, arrest the Warwick colonists and prompt the four Narragansett Bay settlements to unite. Because they had no Royal Charter, no legal right recognized by the crown, they would be harassed by neighboring colonies who viewed their independence as a threat.
Even after Williams helped the Massachusetts colony during the war with the Pequots, his heretic settlements on Narragansett Bay were thorns in John Winthrop’s side. Banishment did not satisfy the Puritans of Boston as long as the exiles were flourishing in their new settlements, growing, and living free of Puritan morals, all without that Royal Charter.
The Massachusetts, Plymouth and Connecticut Colonies remained united against the heretics lead by Williams, made claim to their territory and threatened to seize land and property. The United Colonies gathered a force to invade the Narragansett Bay settlements.
William Hutchinson died during this time leaving Anne with 15 children. Fearful of the upcoming war with Massachusetts she left Aquidneck for New Netherlands on the Hudson River with most of her children and house staff. Roger Williams sailed to England in 1643 in hopes of obtaining a Royal Charter that would legally recognize his people and thwart this aggression.
Roger Williams is the author of two important books in this period A Key Into the Language of America (1643 became a best seller in England. It was an account of William’s dealing with the indigenous, their customs, society and language. At the time people in England were fascinated by the natives of America. This book provided Williams popularity in London that would help him gain a charter his colony needed to survive.
His second book The Bloody Tenent o Persecution for Cause of Conscience was not received well in England. This account of his religious dissent and legal troubles was publicly burned. Fortunately, Williams was safely sailing home, charter in hand, at the time of his second book’s distribution and controversy.
In the summer of 1643 Anne Hutchinson met an untimely and gruesome death. The Dutch did not have good relations with local Indians. Anne, knowing nothing but peace with Indians, did not fear for her family’s safety. Siwanoy Indians did not approve of her new homestead. The house was attacked; Anne Hutchinson and her family were massacred. The only survivor was her nine year-old daughter who was away from the house. She was taken captive.
Puritans in Boston celebrated Anne’s death.
in 1644 Aquidneck Island was renamed Rhode Island, the four towns on Narragansett Bay would be united as one colony, recognized by English authority but governed by the principles of their founding father Roger Williams.
Unlike other charters, the Rhode Island colony maintained separation of church and state. A law was passed outlawing slavery as Williams and his people opposed the enslavement of Indians, a practice of neighboring colonies since the Pequot War.
Roger and Mary Williams were finally free to raise and educate their six children in Providence without fear of a church. Roger established the First Baptist Church in America, which still stands, but left a short time after because, as always, he found disagreement with its eventual direction. Yes, I’ve considered the possibility Williams was a dick, always opposing the prevailing wind, too independent for his own good.
By the mid 1650’s Puritan rule in Massachusetts had become brutal. Crimes that were previously punished with banishment were now punishable by death. Quakers had long been persecuted by colonial purists, especially in Boston where they were banned from the colony. Over a three year span many Quakers were sentenced to death. Mary Dyer and three fellow Quakers were hanged for ignoring this law. Others were ‘whipped from the colony’, being beaten town to town as they marched.
In 1661 King Charles II ordered the persecution of Quakers in the colonies to stop. This would mark the final chapter for the purist theocracy. Two decades later, in 1684, Charles II revoked the Massachusetts charter sending a governor to enforce his bans on persecution. I find it ironic the English crown had to end the crimes against humanity committed by people who fled his nation because they were being persecuted.
Roger Williams died in 1683 but his ideas and independence would live on in Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1692 when witches were being tried and hanged in Salem, the Rhode Island colony passed laws abolishing witch trials and capital punishment. The Salem Witch Trials are viewed as the final act of theocratic rule by the Puritans in Massachusetts. As if the inhumanity and atrocities committed in the name of God and church over the past 300 years weren't enough, the witch trials gave American colonists a new example of how religious zealotry threatens freedom and the basic rights of men.
Jefferson’s birth was still 50 years away. The recent history of religious bigotry, intolerance, persecution and barbarism were well documented. The first model of religious freedom and separation of church and state was also established, in Providence.
The injustice and crimes in the name of God I have written about in this five part blog, centuries of abuse, are more than enough evidence for this atheist that a state church should never be established, that religion and government should be forever separate. In my opinion, Rhode Island and the father of these American ideals, Roger Williams, does not get enough credit for the founding principles this nation was built on, our liberties and assured rights we often take for granted.
Maybe this oversight will someday be corrected. For now my blog will do.