Continued from our previous post.
In March 1635, Roger Williams was ordered to appear before the General Court for the second time to explain himself. One month later, Williams so vigorously opposed the new oath of allegiance to the colonial government that it became impossible to enforce it. He was summoned again before the Court in July of 1635 to answer for “erroneous” and “dangerous opinions.” The Court declared that he should be removed from his church position.
This latest controversy welled up at just the moment that the Town of Salem had petitioned the General Court to annex some land on Marblehead Neck. The Court would not consider the request until the Salem church removed Williams. The Salem church felt that this order violated the independence of the church, and a letter of protest was sent to the other churches. However, the letter was not read, and the General Court refused to seat the delegates from Salem at the next session. Support for Williams began to wane under this pressure, and when Williams demanded that the Salem church separate itself from other churches, his support crumbled entirely. He withdrew and met in his home with a few of his most devoted followers.
Finally, in October 1635, he was tried and convicted of sedition and heresy. The Court declared that he was spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” His punishment was banishment from Massachusetts. (This order was not repealed until 1936.) The execution of the order was delayed because Williams was ill and winter was approaching. He was allowed to stay temporarily, provided he ceased his agitation. He did not cease, so in January 1636 the sheriff came to pick him up only to discover that Williams had slipped away three days before.
He walked through 105 miles of deep snow from Salem to the head of Narragansett Bay. There he was rescued by the Wampanoags.
In the spring of 1636, Williams and a number of his followers from Salem began a settlement on land that Williams had bought from the Wampanoags, only to be told by Plymouth that he was still within their land grant. They warned that they might be forced to extradite him to Massachusetts and invited him to cross the Seekonk River to territory beyond any charter. The outcasts rowed over to Narragansett territory, and having secured land from the Canonicus and Miantonomi, chief sachems of the Narragansetts.
Williams established a settlement with twelve “loving friends.” He called it “Providence” because he felt that God’s Providence had brought him there. (He would later name his third child, the first born in his new settlement, “Providence” as well.) He said that his settlement was to be a haven for those “distressed of conscience,” and it soon attracted quite a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals.
From the beginning, the settlement was governed by a majority vote of the heads of households, but “only in civil things,” and newcomers could be admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote. In August of 1637 they drew up a town agreement, which again restricted the government to “civil things.” In 1640, another agreement was signed by thirty-nine “freemen,” (men who had full citizenship and voting rights) who declared their determination “still to hold forth liberty of conscience.” Thus, Williams had founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separated, a place where there was religious liberty and separation of church and state.
In 1643, Williams was sent to England by his fellow citizens to secure a charter for the colony. The Puritans were then in power in England, and through the offices of Sir Henry Vane a democratic charter was obtained. In 1647, the colony of Rhode Island was united with Providence under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed. The area became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs. Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and others went there to follow their consciences in peace and safety. Significantly, on May 18, 1652, Rhode Island passed the first law in North America making slavery illegal.
The young exile from Salem died sometime between January 28 and March 15, 1683 and was buried on his own property. His legacy to the United States may be best represented in the names of his children: Mary, Joseph, Daniel, Freeborn, Providence, and Mercy.