Last month, we considered the framework of intolerance and persecution of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We need to keep this in mind, because it catalyzed one of our early American Baptist forebears, Roger Williams, to found the first colony that guaranteed religious freedom. Williams later established the First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, Rhode Island. But let’s look at Williams’ formative years, to understand how they forged Williams to take such bold steps in his adult life.
Roger Williams was born around the year 1603, to his parents James and Alice. His father was a successful tailor and merchant, always eager to get ahead. He provided well for his family and saw to it that they were faithful attenders at their Church of England congregation. Roger showed a lot of zeal for spiritual things early on, having a powerful religious experience at age 12. His zeal, though, would later develop along lines that his father wouldn’t anticipate.
Roger was quite serious about his education and became adept at writing shorthand. This skill was noticed by another man attending church, a prominent judge named Sir Edward Coke. He observed Roger swiftly jotting down every word of the sermon. He was so impressed with the boy’s skill that he gave him a job at his office. Coke turned out to be a valued mentor in Roger’s life. Being steeped in legal matters gave him important knowledge he’d use later, in requesting a charter for the colony of Providence Plantations (Rhode Island). Coke’s associates also provided Williams with a network of political influencers who would smooth the way for the charter’s approval.
As a law clerk, however, Williams witnessed first-hand the persecution endured by any who dissented from the teachings of the Church of England. It increasingly struck him as unjust that anyone should be oppressed for their convictions. Sir Edward Coke sponsored much of Williams’ education, even arranging for him to study at Cambridge University. Williams completed his Bachelor’s degree, but dropped out before completing his Masters. It seems that the corruption he saw in the Anglican Church (the principles of the Church would have been a foundational component of his studies) ate at him until he couldn’t take it anymore. His dissatisfaction was a big part of his withdrawal from the school.
Williams became a chaplain to a private estate upon leaving school. He continued to show a great deal of zeal in his beliefs, and tended to show a lack of tact at times. That zeal definitely foreshadowed the future. After a failed romance and long illness, he formed a special relationship with his nurse, Mary Barnard, who was herself a minister’s daughter. They were married in 1629.
By that point, Williams’ beliefs had progressed beyond Puritanism to hardline Separatism. He was convinced that the Church of England was false and irredeemable. Only total separation from the Church would please God. Williams wanted to read the Bible for himself and come to his own convictions about what it required. But in the legal climate of England at the time, these beliefs set up Williams and his wife for almost certain persecution. Roger and Mary booked passage on a ship sailing from England to America at the end of 1630. It was a long, rough and stormy voyage getting to their new home. But not long after they arrived, Williams found that there were more storms ahead. Religious intolerance had already taken root in the New World. He would be required to take more bold stands, and more risks, until he and his family truly felt at home. We’ll turn to that story next month.