American Literature Roger Williams
Jeffrey Glover
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0241


Roger Williams (b. 1603?–d. 1683) was an English colonist, religious dissenter, and the founder of Rhode Island. He was born in London, England, and embraced Puritanism as a youth, emigrating with his wife to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. Williams was an outspoken critic of the Puritan church in New England, steadfastly holding that state involvement in church affairs intruded on matters of individual religious conscience. In 1635 the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Williams and he founded Rhode Island on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians. For the next five decades, Williams was a Protestant minister, prolific writer, political leader, trader, diplomat to the Indigenous peoples of southern New England, and fluent scholar of the Narragansett language. His views on the separation of church and state seemed to foretell later conceptions of religious liberty, and his writings about the Narragansetts influenced modern anthropology and history.

General Overviews

Seventeenth-century historians of New England endorsed Massachusetts Bay’s condemnation of Williams, depicting him as a threat to society. Johnson 1654 condemned Rhode Island as a colony of apostates, while Magnalia Christi Americana described Williams as “the first rebel against the divine church-order established in the wilderness.” Later accounts took the opposite view, portraying Williams as the victim of persecution. Adams 1893 describes Williams as a critic of Puritanism and sufferer under tyranny. Examining Williams’s theological and political thought, Miller 1953, Morgan 1967, and Gaustad 1991 consider Williams as part of a tradition of religious liberty. James 1978 tracks how Williams’s thought evolved as he migrated across different worlds. Barry 2012 offers a narrative of Williams’s life and legacy, while Warren 2018 considers Williams’s religious dissent and diplomacy among the Narragansetts.

  • Adams, Charles Francis. Massachusetts: Its Historians and Its History; An Object Lesson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1893.

    In this history of Massachusetts, Adams condemns the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s treatment of Williams as an act of hypocrisy.

  • Barry, John M. Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. New York: Viking, 2012.

    Offers a compelling narrative of Williams’s theological development, conflict with colonial leaders, and leadership of Rhode Island during an era of military tension between colonists and Native Americans.

  • Gaustad, Edwin S. Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991.

    Examines Williams’s career and beliefs about state power. Argues that Williams’s insistence on the separation of church and state stemmed from separatist theology rather than modern notions of freedom.

  • James, Sydney V. “The Worlds of Roger Williams.” Rhode Island History 37 (November 1978): 99–109.

    In contrast to accounts that emphasize Williams’s dogmatic consistency, James argues that Williams’s thought evolved as he traveled across different intellectual, cultural, and geographic worlds.

  • Johnson, Edward. Wonder-Working Providence. London, 1654.

    Published at a time of theological dispute, Johnson’s early history of New England condemns Williams as a religious dissenter.

  • Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, from Its First Planting in the Year 1620 unto the Year of Our Lord 1698.

    Mather’s expansive history of New England portrays Williams as a menace to the divinely sanctioned order of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

  • Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

    Reconstructs Williams’s theology and argues for its central importance in his conflict with New England authorities and subsequent political activities. Includes selections from Williams’s writings.

  • Morgan, Edmund S. Roger Williams: The Church and the State. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967.

    Retells the story of Williams’s career with a particular emphasis on his critique of state and church authority. Emphasizes that Williams criticized not only the state but also church government. Williams emerges in this account as a precise theologian who insisted on an unyielding form of separatism.

  • Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England. New York: Scribner’s, 2018.

    Narrates how Williams and other religious dissenters became surprising partners of the Narragansett Indians in a common struggle against the dominance of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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