It’s an old story: feeling persecuted and alone, a young man leaves his country for a new and better life. A life full of liberty and possibilities. A life where freedom of speech and thought are welcome and encouraged. A new life in America. But were his expressions welcomed in Colonial Massachusetts? Not quite.
When Roger Williams left England with his wife in 1630, he considered himself a separatist. Although he took Holy Orders in the Church of England, he had become a Puritan at Cambridge, forfeiting any chance at a place of preferment in the Anglican Church. He regarded the Church of England to be corrupt and false. When he arrived in America, he was invited to replace the pastor of the church in Boston, who was returning to England. Finding that it was “an unseparated church”—Puritan yet still aligned with the Church of England—Williams declined.
Williams asserted that the civil magistrates of Boston should not punish any sort of breach of the first five of the Ten Commandments, such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy. Williams believed every individual should be free to follow his own convictions in religious matters. Right from the beginning, he sounded three principles that were central to his subsequent career: Separatism, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. Williams left Boston for Plymouth because Plymouth was not under the jurisdiction of Governor John Endicott, who blocked his initial move to Salem, a more separatist-minded colony.
After a time, Williams felt disappointed that the Plymouth church was not sufficiently separated from the Church of England, and his study of the Native Americans had caused him to doubt the validity of the colonial charters. Plymouth Governor Bradford later wrote that Williams fell “into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him.” In December 1632 Williams wrote a lengthy paper which openly condemned the King’s charters and questioned the right of Plymouth (or Massachusetts) to the land without first buying it from the Indians. Williams’ views placed him in conflict with other members of the colony, as the people of Plymouth realized that his ways of thinking, particularly concerning the Indians, were too liberal for their tastes. After two years, Williams successfully moved to Salem.
The Massachusetts authorities were not pleased to see Williams in Salem, and when they learned of his tract attacking the King and the charters, he was summoned to appear before the General Court in Boston. The issue was smoothed out, and the paper disappeared forever, probably burned. In August of 1634 Williams became acting pastor of the Salem church. He had promised not to raise the issue of the charter again, but he did, with disastrous results.