Searching for Religious Freedom

Many of the early colonists came to America seeking religious freedom. “The Pilgrims” might come to mind (more on them and what they were really seeking next month) or maybe the Quakers of Pennsylvania. Yet one man was so troubled by the religious oppression in the colony of Massachusetts that he set off into the wilderness and founded the colony of Rhode Island.

Trouble in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Bay Company was controlled by the Puritans, a fine religious group of folks who felt they had the only right way of doing things. The Puritans were very influential in early American history and laid many good foundations for our country, but they were pretty legalistic about their faith…and their religion was part of their colonial government. Strong faith and government with moral laws and understanding is a good thing, but when religion is controlling the state (the government) that’s not so great.

The Puritans had determined that their colony was going to be “a light on a hill.” They were going to show the world how to do it. The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, but did not actually separate from that establishment; thus, if their colony was successful, maybe it would actually change religion in England.

Sketch of a statue of Roger Williams

Sketch of a statue of Roger Williams

Roger Williams: The Preacher Who Would Not Conform

Roger Williams came to Massachusetts in 1631, but there was a problem. He wasn’t a Puritan; his religious beliefs and theology were more Congregationalist…and there was trouble.

There were three major points of contention between Williams and the leaders of Massachusetts:

1). Williams believed it was best to break-away from the Church of England entirely. This would allow for better interpretation of Scripture and stronger theology.

2). Williams wanted the church and the state separate. While he acknowledged that religious influence and morality is important for good government, he didn’t not believe government leaders should be using “the power of the church” to run a colony. Civil and religious duties needed to be separate.

3). Williams felt the colonists were taking advantage of the Native Americans and stealing their land.

Roger Williams was friendly with the Native Americans.

Roger Williams was friendly with the Native Americans.

Although highly respected as a minister, Roger Williams was outspoken in his beliefs and gained the disapproval of the Massachusetts leaders. Four years after his arrival, he was banished from the colony. A difference of opinion would not be allowed to tarnish this “city on the hill.”


Banished in the winter, Williams left his family and home. Native Americans he had befriended with his genuine kindness and concern welcomed him to their settlements and there he spent the winter. When the spring of 1636 came, he travelled south and came to Narragansett Bay (in modern-day Rhode Island). There, he started a new settlement, calling it “Providence” because “of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress.”

Foundational Ideas

In Providence, Roger Williams established and practiced some new, foundational ideas which would later have great impact on America.

1). He separated the church and the state. Realizing that faith could not be forced, he removed the requisites of church membership for serving in government and kept the colonial government from meddling in church affairs and vice versa. Williams did believe that faith and government could exist side by side and would promote and assist each other, but they could not be connected and controlling each other.

2). He promoted freedom of religion. While the Puritans only allowed the Puritan Church, Roger Williams allowed religious freedom in his colony. Thus, Rhode Island became a religious refuge for other Puritan dissenters. Particularly, the Baptists played a large role in the settlement of this area.

The Providence Gazette in 1762 - newspapers were an important form of information sharing in Colonial America. (I just love the word "gazette"!)

The Providence Gazette in 1762 – newspapers were an important form of information sharing in Colonial America. (I just love the word “gazette”!)

The Colony

Roger Williams established Providence and outlined many governmental changes. Anne Hutchinson – another Puritan dissenter who was banished – founded Portsmouth in 1637. Two other settlements were started.

By 1644, the British Parliament prepared to grant a charter, combining the four settlements into one colony. And Roger Williams made a request. He asked that the separation of church and state be clearly stated in the charter.

Puritan controlled Parliament refused. England was firmly in Puritan grasp, but, after the monarchy was restored, King Charles II granted Rhode Island a charter in 1663 guaranteeing religious freedom.

The Legacy

The opening phrase of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Hmm…Roger William’s principles regarding religion and government became a cornerstone of America. We have no official church of the nation. The government is not supposed to limit religious freedom.

Rhode Island was a colony founded out of religious conflict. Roger Williams and other settlers could not go against their conscience and conform to Puritan law – thus they were exiled. Exiled to build a new colony where religious freedom was welcomed. Exiled to build a new colony where the church did not control the government, but neither did the government control the church. Exiled to lay foundations that would become part of the American Constitution.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you think it is a wise government principle to not have an official church of the nation? Why or why not?