Historical Precedents
> Biblical Reference > Historical Precedents > Quotations & Writings > Commentary
> Home > Historical Precedents > Government > Church & State > "Roger Williams, Neglected Defender of Religious Liberty" -- [1651]
> Category

Roger Williams, Neglected Defender of Religious Liberty

John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and John Crandall will forever be remembered as the three men who, in 1651, defied Massachusetts law and baptized an adult in the town of Lynn. After being arrested for opposing state-enforced infant baptism, they had the option of paying a fine or being publicly whipped. Clarke and Randall were released when someone paid their fine, but Holmes, who faced the steepest penalty, accepted the whipping instead. Though John Clarke memorialized the event the next year in the little tract Ill Newes from New-England; Or, a Narrative of New Englands Persecution, the incident incited a much more well-known defender of religious liberty to take action: the founder of Providence, Rhode Island, Roger Williams.

A few weeks after Holmes’s public humiliation, Williams wrote a letter to the governor of Massachusetts protesting the state’s action. Williams defended the right of every man to worship God according to his conscience, “. . . a persuasion fixed in the mind and heart of a man, which enforceth him to judge (as Paul said of himself a persecutor) and to do so and so, with respect to God, his worship, etc.” Williams provocatively highlighted the hypocrisy of defending Christian practices with violence: “Sir, I must be humbly bold to say, that ‘tis impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by the sword, and to worship a true Christ!”1

Williams is best understood as a separatist among Puritans. His contemporaries, men such as John Winthrop and John Cotton, wanted the purest church possible, but they also wanted to remain part of the state church. Williams did not. They hoped their allegiance to the established church could lead to its ultimate reform.2 Furthermore, they considered Williams’s call to separate as an act of anarchy. Williams’s fate was sealed when he argued that the state lacked the authority to enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments. His opinion drove a dagger between the union of church and state, and the Colony’s leaders ordered him back to England. Before the order could be enforced, Williams fled to Rhode Island. There, he reached new heights of radicalism.3

Though he is credited with founding the first Baptist church in America, he remained a member for only a few months. He soon “sought a faith untainted by clerical corruption, and to this end he separated himself from all institutionalized religion, including even that of his fellow Separatists.”4

In 1876 the General Court of Massachusetts had the opportunity to overturn Williams’ banishment. They refused. Not until the twentieth century, when state legislators no longer cared about theology (or Williams), was his name cleared. By then, it was too late. Though Williams fanned the flames of religious liberty in the seventeenth century, the radical course he followed the rest of his life made him a hard man for future generations to embrace.

It would take more persecution, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution before religious liberty finally came to America and, even then, it did not reach Massachusetts until 1833. But, long before the Founding Fathers discussed “inalienable rights” and the First Amendment, and long before Thomas Jefferson wrote of a “wall of separation between church and state,” Roger Williams helped prepare America’s conscience for religious liberty.

There is much to wince at in Roger Williams’s legacy, but there is also much to appreciate. He refused to simply follow the crowd, and many of his most important ideas have proved correct. Though it is nearly impossible to pinpoint any direct influence Williams had on the founders of the United States, he nonetheless showed early on that America could sustain an advocate for religious liberty.5 After all, John Locke was only twelve years old when many of the ideas that would surface in his A Letter Concerning Toleration had already been practiced by Roger Williams on American soil.6


Roger Williams, “To the Governor of Massachusetts Protesting the Baptists’ Treatment,” in Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology, ed. David D. Hall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 232-233, 234.


Perry Miller, “Roger Williams: An Essay in Interpretation,” in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 7 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), 7-8.


For a brief summary of the events of Williams life see Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 75-78; for a detailed biography see Reuben Aldridge Guild, “Biographical Introduction,” in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), 1-60.


Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 50.


Miller, 10.


Edwin S. Gaustad, Roger Williams: Prophet of Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 115.