Rabble-rouser. Shipped back to England for spreading “dangerous” ideas. Before they could catch him he debunked to Massachusetts where he hung with the Narragansett Indians. He stood for the idea of religious freedom. Others who felt religiously restricted followed Williams to Rhode Island. In 1663 Charles II granted Rhode Island a royal charter in which freedom of conscience was guaranteed. This idea was eventually viewed as so “American” that provision was made for it in our 1791 Bill of Rights.
Williams worked upon four main ideas that others viewed as threatening.
Believed that the land was not King Charles I’s property–it belonged to the Indians.
No person that was unconverted or uncommitted to a certain religion should be required to pray in churches or to swear an oath in court.
Mass. Bay Colony ministers persuaded the King of England that they wanted to remain with the Church of England. Williams felt that not only should the ministers pull away from the mother church, they should repent that they ever supported it.
That civil authority was limited to civil matters and that magistrates had no jurisdiction over the soul.
He wanted separation of church and state so that the religion of Jesus Christ would not be tainted by worldly affairs.
He found it important to get to know the natives and learn their language. He recognized a civility in the Indians. He did not want to convert people–he felt they were outside the people of God and to force them into a different belief would be unchristian.
from A Key into the Language of America: To My Dear and Well-Beloved Friends and Countrymen, in Old and New England
Williams wanted to create a way to converse with the Natives. A “key”. He wanted to spread civility and perhaps Christianity.
The Indians see all the stuff we have which makes them think our God is greater. When you let them know that Englishmen themselves used to be without creature comforts, the Indians see that they too can evolve.
The Indians feel they are lost and wandering. As an Indian named Wequash lay dying I spoke to him of his soul. Wequash spoke of problems with God and God having problems with him until he repented. The Indian said he had a “naughty heart”, but continued to pray.
Directions for the Use of the Language
Indian language is copious and they sometimes have many words for one thing.
from An Help to the Native Language of that Part of America Called New England
These short pieces are excerpts from chapters from a larger work. They are poetic, short philosophical ponderings sharing information about the Indian way of life and sometimes comparing it to the English way of life. The “chapters” cover topics such as: salutations, eating and entertainment, family and home, travel, the sea, religion, the soul, and art. The chapter on the soul gives many examples of Indian words and their translations. In addition to the translations he sometimes combines short narrative pieces expanding upon an idea.
from Chapter I. Of Salutation
The courteous pagan shall condemn Uncourteous Englishmen, Who live like foxes, bears and wolves, Or lion in his den. The wild barbarians with no more Than nature, go so far.
from Chapter II. Of Eating and Entertainment
Of wholesome beer and wine. Sometimes God gives them Fish or Flesh, Yet they’re content without. And what comes in, they part to friends And strangers round about. Natives share what little they have. They have taken care of me when I needed it.
from Chapter VI. Of the Family and Business of the House
Both English and Native have similar day-to-day concerns.
from Chapter XI. Of Travel
In nature with none to comfort me I had God as my companion.
from Chapter XVIII. Of the Sea
While even on the dangerous sea I recognized God’s wonders.
from Chapter XXI. Of Religion, the Soul, etc.
I must acknowledge I have received in my converse with them many confirmations of those two great points, Hebrews II. 6: That God is. That He is a rewarder of all them that diligently seek Him. When Natives experience crisis they figure God is displeased. They have many gods. The Catholics also have many gods. The Natives believe in the sun god, moon god, sea and fire gods. They have a modest religious persuasion not to disturb any man. They believe that the souls of men and women go to the southwest. The souls of murderers, thieves and liars wander restless abroad. If you want to discuss God with the Natives, here are some things you can say: [gives translations].
from Christenings Make Not Christians: Or a Brief Discourse Concerning That Name Heathen, Commonly Given to the Indians [as also concerning that great point of their conversion]
I inquire into the name heathen, which the English give Native Americans. “How oft have I heard both the English and Dutch…say, These heathen dogs, better kill a thousand of them than that we Christians should be endangered or troubled with them; better they were all cut off, and then we shall be no more troubled with them…” “…this word heathen is most improperly, sinfully, and unchristianly so used in this sence. The word heathen signifieth no more than nations and gentiles…” “why nations? Because the Jews being the only people and nation of God, esteemed (and that rightly) all other people, not only those that went naked…their stately cities and citizens, inferior [to] themselves, and not partakers of their glorious privileges…” “…Christians, the followers of Jesus, are now the only people of God…Who are then the nations, heathen, or gentiles, in opposition to this people of God? I answer, All people, civilized as well as uncivilized, even the most famous states, cities, and kingdoms of the world…” “…for the hopes of conversion, and turning the people of America unto God…we are all the work of his hands…” Both Europeans and Native Americans are sinners. Natives are intelligent, ingenuous, plain-hearted and inquisitive.
Catholics are converting people the wrong way by using unethical ways on the Natives. I could have converted the whole country if we are speaking of the Natives. The conversion umbrellas change with each new leader. So, many who convert are profane themselves. “It must not be (it is not possible it should be in truth) a conversion of people to the worship of the Lord Jesus by force of arms and swords of steel…” “The will in worship, if true, is like a free vote…Jesus Christ compels by the mighty persuasions of his messengers to come in, but otherwise with earthly weapons he never did compel nor can be compelled…The not discerning of this truth hath let out the blood of thousands…”
from The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, in a Conference between Truth and Peace
This is an excerpt from The Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 3.
This piece is Williams’s side of the debate with John Cotton on freedom of religion. He asks how turning against those who do not hold your same beliefs can be holy; everyone thinks their religion is the best.
If we believe one religion to be true, what weapons do you think God wants us to use on the others. Christianity can be superstitious, bloody, oppressive, deadly, and like a “fiery furnace”. It is anti-Christian to persecute others for their beliefs. If you don’t practice the religion YOU think is best then you are sinning. You may have to try a few religions until you find one that fits. You cannot force a religion into a person’s soul.
We must not let go of this freedom for any reason. We must be ruled by truth.
A Letter to the Town of Providence
This is an excerpt from The Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 6. The topic is religious autonomy and civil restraint. He calls this “liberty of conscience”. Since there are people of all religions they should neither be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor forced to pray. We can have our own religions, but civility must reign.