Inspirational Readings for Your Daily Walk with God:

Christian Mediation

 "These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." Acts 17:11

"Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15

4. His Banishment, Flight, and

 Subsequent Founding of Rhode Island


After the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony had sentenced Roger Williams to banishment, the court granted him six weeks’ grace before the sentence was to become effective. The inquisitorial court, in pronouncing sentence of banishment, charged:

"Mr. Roger Williams ... hath broached and divulged divers new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates . . . and churches, ... and yet maintaineth the same without retraction : it is therefore ordered that the same Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks next ensuing, . . . not to return any more without license from the court."

Cotton Mather, a prominent Puritan clergyman of Massachusetts, denounced Williams as the "first rebel against the divine church order established in the wilderness." But the gallant defense which Roger Williams made before the court in behalf of the rights of the people and of the fundamental principles of religious freedom under a complete separation of church and state, awakened public sympathy in his behalf, and made him more popular than ever among the common people. His popularity excited the envy and jealousy of the theocratic court leaders.

What added fuel to the fire was the arrival in New England, two days after the famous trial, of Henry Vane, Jr., the twenty-three-year-old son of Sir Henry Vane. This liberal and cultured gentleman, who afterward became one of England’s illustrious statesmen, immediately sought the companionship of Roger Williams, and was captivated by the gracious, charm and noble sentiments of this champion of religious liberty, who was ten years’ his senior. They began an association of friendship and mutual helpfulness which meant much to the development of the little republic Williams was about to establish. Other people visited the home of Roger Williams, and he, being of a friendly and hospitable spirit, welcomed all his guests and talked with them. This exercise of freedom of speech the General Court declared was unlawful. According to governor Haynes and his court assistants, on January 11, 1636, decided to act immediately, before the time set for Williams’ banishment matured.

They ordered Captain Underhill, with fourteen men, to take Roger Williams by surprise in the night, and place him on board a waiting ship to be sent into exile in England, where he could give them no more trouble. Governor Winthrop, who was his secret friend, sent a timely warning to Williams, and before the heretic hunters reached Salem, Mr. Williams, at the hour of midnight, bade his wife and newborn babe a loving farewell, and through a blinding snow, facing a frigid blast, fled into the wilderness. What he had to endure and suffer as he was driven, unexpectedly, from his home, in midwinter, by his persecutors, is best described in the few fragmentary references he made later to this perilous journey to the camp of friendly Indians along the Narragansett Bay. Briefly, Williams wrote:

"I was unmercifully driven from my chamber to a winter’s flight, exposed to the miseries, poverties, necessities, wants, debts, hardships of sea and land in a banished condition. . . . I was sorely tossed for one fourteen weeks in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bread and bed did mean."

Not only did he wander through the deep snow of the wilderness without bread or bed, but without bow or arrow, spear or club, hatchet or gun, where no white man had ever trod, eating roots nuts, and acorns as he searched for them under the deep snows, until he finally reached the wigwams along the Narragansett Bay, where he found shelter among the red-skinned barbarians. Be it said to the everlasting shame of his Christian persecutors that the savage Indians of North America became the conservators of American liberty, instead of the white man.

Roger Williams’ great love and kindness for all men conquered the wild, savage element in the bosoms of the untutored Indians, and awakened their sympathies for his sufferings at the hands of his own race. Massasoit and Canonicus, two Narraganset chiefs, took him to their own cabins and showed him the same hospitality they would have shown a brother.

Shortly after his arrival in the camp of Canonicus, trouble broke out between the two rival chiefs, and Canonicus was about to make war upon Massasoit. But Roger Williams, who had gained the confidence and friendship of both these Indian chiefs, traveled back and forth between the tribes, earnestly seeking an agreement of peace between them. . He succeeded so well as a peacemaker that Massasoit in gratitude gave him a grant, of land for a settlement on the cast bank of the Seekonk River.

Roger Williams, in writing of this first venture, says:

"I first pitched and began to build and plant at Seekonk, ... but I received a letter from my ancient friend Mr. Winslow, then governor of Plymouth, ... advising me since I was fallen into the edge of their bounds and they were loath to displease the Bay, to remove but to the other side of the water and then, he said, I had the country free before me and might be as free as themselves and we should be loving neighbors together."

By this time some of his persecuted friends in Salem had joined him, and again he pulled up stakes and set out, with a handful of men of kindred spirit, and landed at a spot on the Mooshassuc River, now known as Providence, Rhode Island. He established his permanent home here, and founded, not a colony, but in reality a republic which was to demonstrate that civil government under a complete separation of church and state, granting freedom of conscience in religious matters to each individual, would prosper more than under a church-and-state union. He also sought to establish a popular democratic form of government as the surest basis for the security of human rights.

Roger Williams states that his first and chief concern was to make this new settlement "a shelter to persons distressed for conscience," and to establish "a civil government" which exercised authority "only in civil things." He avowed that "the sovereign power of all civil authority is founded in the consent of the people," and that the majority had no control over the conscience of the individual in religious matters, or over "inalienable rights."

As Bancroft, the great American historian, says:

"He was the first person in modern Christendom to assert in its plenitude the doctrine of the liberty of conscience,–the equality of opinions before the law.... Williams would permit persecution of no opinion, of no religion, leaving heresy unharmed by law, and orthodoxy unprotected by the terrors of penal statutes."–"History of the United States," Fol. I, p. 282.

The persecuted, not only of America, but of Europe, found perfect freedom in this utopia of republics. The dissenters of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were at first banished to Rhode Island. But later on they fled of their own accord, and Roger Williams received them all with open arms. In a short time four separate settlements were established in Rhode Island, which were formed into a confederation, or, rather, a republic, with Roger Williams as its elected president.

The Puritan colonies of New England formed a confederation from which they excluded Rhode Island, or the Providence Plantations. The Puritans assumed a hostile attitude toward Rhode Island, and Roger Williams was sent to England in 1643 to seek from the English Parliament a charter for their newly founded republic, and protection against the aggressive and intolerant Puritans of the Massachusetts confederation. With the assistance of Sir Henry Vane, a charter was obtained in 1644, wherein the most complete liberty in the matter of religion was assured to all the settlers in Rhode Island, and to all those who might unite with them in the future.

In May, 1647, the General Assembly of Rhode Island adopted a code of laws which closed with the declaration, "All men may walk as their consciences persuade them, without molestation–every one in the name of his God." Thus Rhode Island became the first province in America which officially proclaimed full and complete religious liberty to "all men" of every persuasion and of no persuasion It was not an "act of toleration," which granted a permission to a particular group of professed Christians, as was granted in Maryland in 1649, but a proclamation of religious liberty by natural right to believers and nonbelievers alike.

How sweeping and all-inclusive was the proclamation of universal freedom–"all men." No one was excluded from the provision of religious freedom in Rhode Island. In Maryland religious freedom was granted only to those "professing to believe in Jesus Christ" and to those who believe "God’s holy and true Christian religion," and the Maryland Act of Toleration of 1649 expressly provided that "whatsoever person shall blaspheme God, or shall deny or reproach the Holy Trinity, or any of the three Persons thereof, shall be punished with death," and the same Act of Toleration further provided:

"Whatsoever person or persons shall from henceforth use or utter any reproachful words, or speeches, concerning the blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Saviour, or the holy apostles, or evangelists, or any of them, shall in such case for the first offense forfeit to thee said Lord Proprietary and his heirs, the sum of five pounds sterling." "Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland, 1637-1664," p. 244.

But those who signed the compact to qualify as citizens in Rhode Island were not asked to conform to any religious beliefs or practices, but were asked to sign the following civil covenant, the last phrase of which reveals unequivocally Roger Williams’ fundamental doctrine of a complete separation of church and state, and draws a distinct and separating line between civil and religious matters as follows

"We whose names are hereunder written, being desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to submit ourselves in active or passive obedience to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for the public good of the body, in an orderly way, by the major consent of the present inhabitants, masters of families incorporated together into a township, and such others when they shall admit into the same only in civil things."

The last phrase, "only in civil things," was a clause of such tremendous significance that in the course of time it revolutionized the ideas of civil government, not only in America, but in many other countries of the world. Apparently it was an innocent and harmless-looking phrase with which to qualify a covenant for citizenship and the operation of a government. Most people would have read and signed such a covenant without noticing anything unusual about it, but such a doctrine in Massachusetts Bay Colony caused the banishment of Roger Williams. That doctrine was denounced as "the most damnable of heresies." Even today the advocacy of such a doctrine in some European countries still means exile or imprisonment.

Roger Williams not only wrote guaranties of religious liberty into the fundamental law of Rhode Island, but he saw that those guaranties were carried out in practice. He insisted that the civil magistrates should not sit in judgment on, or punish any man for his spiritual sins. He especially emphasized that the legislature should not enact any laws relating to the duties which a man owed to God, exclusively, nor should any man be penalized for "a breach of the first table" embodying the "first four commandments of the decalogue."

No compulsory Sunday-observance law was ever enacted in Rhode Island as long as Roger Williams was alive. The Seventh Day Baptists, who were persecuted everywhere else because they worked the first six days of the week and rested upon the seventh, were welcomed to Rhode Island, and large numbers flocked there. One of their faith finally became governor of Rhode Island. No one was barred from a civil office because of his peculiar religious faith. All citizens enjoyed equal privileges and immunities under the law. Rhode Island became the cradle of liberty in which was nurtured a model republic on democratic principles, which bloomed into full maturity in 1776 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Of all men who came to America and left a lasting memorial of their work, Roger Williams holds first rank, and is often called "the first American." When the marble statue of Williams was placed in the Hall of Fame in the national Capitol building, Senator Anthony, at the dedicatory service, paid the following well-deserved tribute to this noble man "In all our history no name shines with a purer light than his whose memorial we have lately placed in the Capitol. In the history of all the world there is no more striking example of a man grasping a grand idea, at once, in its full proportions, in all its completeness, and carrying it out, unflinchingly, to its remotest legitimate results.

"Roger Williams did not merely lay the foundations of religious freedom, he constructed the whole edifice, in all its impregnable strength, and in all its imperishable beauty. Those who have followed him in the same spirit have not been able to add anything to the grand and simple words in which he enunciated the principle, nor to surpass him in the exact fidelity with which he reduced it to the practical business of government.

"Religious freedom, which now, by general consent, underlies the foundation principles of civilized government, was, at that time, looked upon as a wilder theory than any proposition, moral, political, or religious, that has since engaged the serious attention of mankind. It was regarded as impracticable, disorganizing, impious, and if not utterly subversive of social order, it was not so only because its manifest absurdity would prevent any serious effort to enforce it. The lightest punishment deemed due to its confessor was to drive him out into the howling wilderness. Had he not met with more Christian treatment from the savage children of the forest than he had found from ‘the Lord’s anointed,’ he would have perished in the beginning of his experiment. . . . In his vision of the future, he saw mankind emancipated from the thralldom of priest-craft, from the blindness of bigotry, and from the cruelties of intolerance."

Roger Williams built for the future greatness of America and for the freedom of the race of mankind, and he succeeded, as few men have ever done, in his noble undertaking.