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Roger Williams and `soul liberty'

I've known them to leave their house and mat
      To lodge a friend or stranger
When Jews and Christians oft have sent
      Jesus Christ to the Manger

Oft have I heard these Indians say
      These English will deliver us
Of all that's ours, our lands and lives
      In the end, they'll bereave us.

           --Roger Williams[1]

Roger Williams: "First rebel against the divine church-order."[2] "Morning star in the galaxy of the American great."[3] During his life, Williams was excoriated as a spreader of intellectual infections. Afterwards, he was hailed as the first flower of Enlightenment's spring. Roger Williams: the first North American revolutionary, or at least the first of European extraction.

Although they were couched mainly in a religious context, Williams' ideas also engaged debates regarding political liberty that would fire the American Revolution more than a century later. Like many of the United States' founders, Williams also often used his perceptions of American Indians and their societies as a reference point by which to hone his pre-existing desires for an alternative to the European status quo. As the founder of Providence Plantations (Rhode Island), Williams tried to implement his ideas of "soul liberty," political freedom and economic equality. His experiment presaged the later revolution of continental scope.

Educated at London's Charterhouse School and Cambridge University, Williams was one of the Puritans' best and brightest when he emigrated to America. Having asserted the soul-liberty among the native peoples of America, as well as dissident colonists, Williams was cast out of Puritania, to found Providence Plantations, which became Rhode Island, a refuge for free-thinkers, at least at its inception.

Like many another Puritan, Williams originally came to America "longing after the natives' soules."[4] More than most, his errand in the wilderness helped shape Williams' predispositions toward freedom. He engendered a passionate debate on both sides of the Atlantic that began to hone the definitions of political and religious liberty that would frame the ideology of the American Revolution.

Within a few months of Williams' arrival in Boston during 1631, he was learning the Algonquian language. He would master the dialects of the Showatuck, Nipmuck, Narragansett, and others. Williams' oratorical flourish and compassion won him esteem with congregations at Plymouth and Salem, as well as among native peoples of the area, all of whom sought his "love and counsel."[5]

Williams' quick mastery of native languages did not alarm the soul-soldiers of Puritania. What landed him in hot ecclesiastical water was what he learned from the native peoples as he picked up their languages. Asked by William Bradford to compose a paper on the compact which established the Puritan colony in America, Williams declared it invalid. How, he asked, could the Puritans claim the land by "right of discovery," when it was already inhabited? Futhermore, Williams argued that the Puritans had no right to deny the Indians their own religions, divine or secular. Soon, the authorities were transferring Williams from pulpit to pulpit, fretting over how easily he won friends not only among colonists, but the native peoples of the area.

Those friendships would be used to advantage a few years later when Williams founded Providence Plantations. Williams became friendly with Massasoit, a sachem among the Wampanoags (also called Pokanokets), a man described by Bradford in 1621 as "lustie . . . in his best years, an able body grave of countenance, spare of speech, strong [and] tall."[6] Williams met Massasoit when the latter was about 30 years of age and, in Williams words, became "great friends" with the sachem.[7] Williams also became close to Canonicus, elderly leader of the Narragansetts. With both, Williams traveled in the forest for days at a time, learning what he could of their languages, societies, and opinions, drinking in experiences that, along with prior European experience, would provide the intellectual groundwork for the model commonwealth Williams sought to establish in Providence Plantations.

Massasoit, father of Metacom (called King Philip by the English), favored friendly relations with the English colonists when he became the Wampanoags' most influential leader about 1632. Canonicus, born about 1560, regarded Williams nearly as a son. At their height, the Narragansetts, with Canonicus as their most influential leader, held sway over the area from Narragansett Bay on the east to the Pawcatuck River on the west (see figure 9). The Narragansetts were rarely warlike, but their large numbers (about 4,000 men of warrior age in the early seventeenth century) usually prevented other native nations from attacking them.

Figure 7

Figure 7. Massachusetts Bay: 1630-1642

William Wood, in New England's Prospect, characterized the Narragansetts as "the most numerous people in those parts, and the most rich also, and the most industrious, being a storehouse of all kinds . . . of merchandise."[8] The Narragansetts fashioned wampum in bracelets and pendants for many other Indian nations. They also made smoking pipes "much desired by our English tobacconists for their rarity, strength, handsomeness, and coolness."[9] According to Wood's account, the Narragansetts had never desired "to take part in any martial enterprise. But being incapable of a jeer, they rest secure under the conceit of their popularity, and seek rather to grow rich by industry than famous by deeds of chivalry."[10] In this fashion, the Narragansetts built a confederacy in which they supervised the affairs of Indian peoples throughout most of present-day Rhode Island and eastern Long Island, about 30,000 native people in the early seventeenth century.[11]

By 1635, Williams was arguing that the church had no right to compel membership, or contributions, by force of law, the kernel of church-state separation. With such an argument, Williams struck at the assumption that the Puritan church subsumed the state. Taxes were levied to pay ministers; a law passed in 1631 required church membership to hold public office. Magistrates enforced the first four of the Ten Commandments. Williams contended that the church had no such right. Furthermore, Williams believed that civil authorities could not make an oath of allegiance to the church part of an oath of citizenship in the colony. He was defending the rights of the area's original inhabitants as well as those of Europeans who did not wish to conform to Puritan doctrine. "Natural men," as Williams called the native peoples, should not, and could not, be forced "to the exercise of those holy Ordinances of Prayers, Oathes, &c."[12]

Williams argued for a more personal religion much resembling the conceptions of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others, who reacted to the state-church power alliances in Europe by seeking to separate ecclesiastical and secular authority in their designs for the United States. Williams argued for a religion that also was closer to native conceptions of faith than the Puritanism under which he was raised. As early as 1624, Joseph Le Caron had reminded his Recollect brethren that no "savage" had ever killed a Christian for religious reasons.[13] Native Americans held no Star Chambers, no Inquisitions to compel obedience to any particular sachem's version of the Great Spirit's wisdom. Indians fought with each other for many reasons, but none of them were religious. To Williams, there was nothing more absurd than killing in the name of eternal peace and love. Williams likened society to a ship carrying many kinds of people, each of whom valued his or her own opinions enough to debate, but not to fight. In this spirit, Williams argued against coercion of the soul, for beauty in diversity.

By January, 1635, the Puritans' more orthodox magistrates had decided Williams must be exiled to England, jailed if possible, and shut up. They opposed exiling Williams in the wilderness, fearing that he would begin his own settlement, from which his "infections" would leak back into Puritania. Not all Puritans wanted Williams shut up so quickly. Governor Winthrop, for one, secretly aided plans by Williams and his confederates to establish a new colony. Winthrop's reasons were many: to begin with, the colony needed accurate intelligence about and diplomatic liason with the Indians, both of which Williams could provide. On a more theoretical level, Winthrop was among those Puritans who wished to find out whether a colony established on principles of soul liberty and political democracy could work, or whether it would dissolve into atheistic anarchy. Later in his life, Williams recalled that "upon the express advice of your ever-honored Mr. Winthrop, deceased, I first adventured to begin a plantation among the thickest of these barbarians."[14]

Figure 8

Figure 8. Rhode Island & Providence Plantations: 1636-1665

Even so, a summons was issued for Williams' arrest, but he stalled the authorities by contending he was too ill to withstand an ocean voyage. At the same time, Williams and his associates were rushing ahead with plans for their new colony, from which the worst fears of the orthodox magistrates would be realized. Williams already had arranged with Canonicus for a tract of land large enough to support a colony. Canonicus would not accept money in payment for the land. "It was not price or money that could have purchased Rhode Island," Williams wrote later. "Rhode Island was purchased by love."[15] Williams was allowed to remain in Salem until the spring of 1636, provided he refrained from preaching.

The magistrates learned that Williams was holding meetings of more than twenty people at a time in his house and so, about January 15, 1636, Captain Underhill was dispatched from Boston to arrest Williams and place him on board ship for England. Arriving at Williams' home, Underhill and his deputies found that Williams had escaped. No one in the neighborhood would admit to having seen him leave.

Aware of his impending arrest, Williams had set out three days earlier during a blinding blizzard, walking south by west to the lodge of Massasoit, at Mount Hope. Walking eighty to ninety miles during the worst of a New England winter, Williams suffered immensely, and likely would have died without Indian aid. Nearly half a century later, nearing death, Williams wrote: "I bear to this day in my body the effects of that winter's exposure."[16] Near the end of his trek, Williams lodged with Canonicus and his family. He then scouted the land that had been set aide for the new colony.

Week by week, month by month, Williams' family and friends filtered south from Plymouth and Salem. By spring, houses were being erected, and fields were being turned. The growing group also began to erect an experimental government very novel by European (or Puritan) standards of the time. For the first time among English-speaking people in America, they were trying to establish a social order based on liberty of conscience and other natural rights.

Very quickly, Williams' house became a transcultural meeting place. He lodged as many as fifty Indians at a time -- travelers, traders, sachems on their way to or from treaty conferences. If a Puritan needed to contact an Indian, or vice versa, he more than likely did so with Williams' aid. Among Indian nations at odds with each other, Williams became "a quencher of our fires."[17] When citizens of Portsmouth needed an Indian agent, they approached Williams. The Dutch did the same thing after 1636. Williams often traveled with Canonicus, Massasoit, and their warriors, lodging with them in the forest. The Narragansetts' council sometimes used Williams' house for its meetings.

Williams seemed happiest when he was making friends of old enemies, and unhappiest when former friends fought. On a cold, rainy Monday, September 16, 1638, he set out on a hundred-mile walk from Narragansett Bay to Hartford with Massasoit, to cement an alliance with the Mohegans. A man who often lived on the run, Williams hardly ever detailed the events of his daily life. How fascinating it would have been to read what Williams saw, heard, and said during that hundred-mile walk, camping three nights in woods thick with scrub, burnished by the rich colors of early autumn.

For all the time Williams spent with his native American friends, and all that he learned from them, he retained his English physical habits and tastes. Unlike Thomas Morton before him, or William Johnson after him, Williams never dressed the part -- his adoption of native ideas was carried on an intellectual plane. He never donned war paint, nor danced ceremonially. While Williams would lodge with Indian people and eat their food when called upon to do so, he did not seem to enjoy forsaking his English mattress for a bed of straw and blankets in what he once called "a smoky hole." Williams did not court Indian women. To his last, Williams, this spreader of so many intellectual infections, was a Puritan Englishman in his manners, even as his mind wove the examples he saw before him with earlier, European experience.

Figure 9

Figure 9. Native Nations & Confederacies of New England: 1640

Even though he did not keep a personal journal, Williams did a great deal of writing: years of letters to Winthrop and others, tracts, several books ranging in subject matter from descriptions of Indian languages to debates over fine points of theology. Williams only rarely injected himself into the rushing stream of events that propelled him through history, seeming to have trouble finding time to write all that he felt he ought to commit to paper. His writing often rushes on, full of grammar and spelling errors that stand out even in a time when English was not standardized. Williams' style seems to bespeak a man being carried along by events so quickly that he rarely had time to sit, much less consciously summon the muse.

Although he was never at home in war paint, Williams often was quick to defend the native inhabitants' rights to live, and worship, as they saw fit. Williams did his best, as well, to act as he thought everyone should, according every person equal respect no matter what they wore, or what manner of deity (if any) they believed in. Williams more than once pointed out that he personally detested professing Quakers, but they still were free to live and work in Providence Plantations at a time when the same people would have at least have been locked in Boston's stocks, or possibly sent into exile, or hanged. Providence and nearby settlements soon became a haven for dissenters from all of New England.

When word reached Boston that the Pequots were rallying other Indian nations to drive the Massachusetts Bay settlements into the sea, the Massachusetts Council sent urgent pleas to Williams to use his "utmost and speediest Endeavors" to keep the Narragansetts out of it. Within hours after the appeal arrived in the hands an Indian runner, "scarce acquainting my wife," Williams boarded "a poor Canow & . . . cut through a stormie Wind and with great seas, euery [sic] minute in hazard of life to the Sachim's [Canonicus'] howse."[18] After traveling thirty miles in the storm, Williams put into port in a Narragansett town larger than most of the English settlements of his day, knowing that the success or failure of the Pequot initiative might rest on whether he could dissuade his friends from joining them in the uprising.

Canonicus listened to Williams with Mixanno at his side. The younger sachem was assuming the duties of leadership piecemeal as his father aged. The three men decided to seal an alliance, and within a few days, officials from Boston were double-timing through the forest to complete the necessary paperwork. Later, Williams also won alliances with the Mohegan and Massachusetts nations, swinging the balance of power against the Pequots and their allies. The Indians welcomed the Puritan deputies with a feast of white chestnuts and cornmeal with blackberries ("hasty pudding," later a New England tradition), as Williams translated for both sides, sealing the alliance.

The Puritan deputies were awed at the size of the Narragansett town, as well as the size of the hall in which they negotiated the alliance. The structure, about fifty feet wide, was likened to a statehouse by the men from Boston. Canonicus, so old that he had to lay on his side during the proceedings, surprised the Puritans with his direct questions and shrewd answers. The treaty was finally sealed much to the relief of the Puritans, who thought the Narragansetts capable of fielding 30,000 fighting men. Although they had only a sixth that number, the Narragansetts still were capable of swinging the balance of power for or against the immigrants, who had been in America only sixteen years at the time.[19]

The outcome of the Pequot War during the summer of 1636 radically altered the demographic balance in New England. Before it, the English colonists were a tiny minority. After it, they were unquestionably dominant. The atrocities of the war stunned Williams' conscience. He had been able to prevent a rout of the English, but at a profound moral cost. He could not prevent the war itself. Nor could be prevent the cruel retribution the Puritans took on the Pequots and their allies. Williams had put himself in the position of aiding those with whom he shared a birthright, although he disagreed with the rationale of their conquest. All during the war, Williams gleaned intelligence from Narragansett runners and traders, who knew far more about Pequot movements than any European. He was doubtless deeply grieved by their deaths.

In some of his letters to Winthrop, Williams seems to be trying to answer repeated charges that he was "soft" on Indians. He seems a man straddling a knife-edged conscience, an extremely painful act when one has sympathies on both sides in a war. The very talents that made Williams' diplomacy effective produced an especially agonizing hell for him in times of war.

Williams was revolted by the Puritans' slaughter of the Pequots. The war reached its climax with the burning of a thatch fort, trapping as many as 600 Indian men, women and children in a raging inferno. The few who managed to crawl out of this roaring furnace jumped back into it when they faced a wall of Puritan swords. Puritan soldiers and their Indian allies waded through pools of Pequot blood, holding their noses against the stench of burning flesh. The wind-driven fire consumed the entire structure in half an hour. A few Pequot bowmen stood their ground amid the flames, until their bows singed and they fell backward into the fire, sizzling to death. The massacre even frightened some Puritans. Bradford recalled: "It was a fearfull sight to see them thus frying."[20] While a few Puritans remonstrated, many put the war in the category of God's necessary business, along with all sorts of other things, from smallpox epidemics to late frosts and early freezes.

Beginning about 1640, continuing for most of his remaining years, Williams engaged major Puritan thinkers (especially John Cotton) in a series of published theological and political sparring matches. In these debates, Williams' image of American Indians and their societies played a provocative intellectual role. To twentieth-century eyes, these arguments may seem unceasingly windy and irrelevant, full of the sort of biblical hairsplitting that today eludes all but a covey of religious scholars and a few stump preachers. In the Puritan world of the mid-seventeenth century, however, what might seem to us as so many angels sliding across so many pins was a vitally important debate that defined issues of secular and religious authority that also would animate the American Revolution.

Williams had collected material for an Indian grammar much of his adult life, but the press of events left him little time to write. It was not until 1643, on a solitary sea voyage to England, that Williams composed his Key Into the Languages of America, the first Indian grammar in English, as well as a small encyclopedia of Williams' observations among native Americans. In the Key, Williams also began to formulate a critique of European religion and politics that would be a subject of intense debate on both sides of the Atlantic for decades to come.

In the Key, Williams makes it obvious that the word "barbarian" had a more positive connotation to him than the same word would wear three centuries later. Like Peter Martyr before him and Benjamin Franklin after him (among many other observers), Williams used the Indian as counterpoint to Europe, in words very similar to those of Montaigne:

They [Indians] were hospitable to everybody, whomsoever cometh in when they are eating, they offer them to eat of what they have, though but little enough [is] prepared for themselves. If any provision of fish or flesh comes in, they presently give . . . to eat of what they have. . . . It is a strange truth that a man can generally find more free entertainment and refreshing amongst these Barbarians than amongst the thousands that call themselves Christians. [21]

Some of Williams' American lessons were offered in verse:

I've known them to leave their house and mat
        To lodge a friend or stranger
When Jews and Christians oft have sent
        Jesus Christ to the Manger

Oft have I heard these Indians say
        These English will deliver us
Of all that's ours, our lands and lives
        In the end, they'll bereave us. [22]

Williams disputed notions that Europeans were intellectually superior to native Americans:

For the temper of the braine in quick apprehensions and accurate judgements . . . the most high and sovereign God and Creator hath not made them inferior to Europeans. . . . Nature knows no difference between Europeans and Americans in blood, birth, bodies, &c. God having of one blood made all mankind, Acts 17. . . . The same Sun shines on a Wilderness that doth on a garden. [23]

Thus, by implication, the Puritans had no right to take land and resources from native Americans by "divine right." Williams' was the first expression in English on American soil of a belief that would power the American Revolution a century and a half later: "All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."

In some ways, Williams found what Europeans called "Christian values" better embodied in native American societies: "There are no beggars amongst them, nor fatherless children unprovided for."[24] The Key was not only a grammar. It also was a lesson in humility directed at the most pompous and ethnocentric of the English:

When Indians heare the horrid filths,
        Of Irish, English men
The horrid Oaths and Murthurs late
        Thus say these Indians then:

We weare no Cloathes, have many Gods,
        And yet our sinnes are lesse:
You are Barbarians, Pagans wild,
        Your land's the wildernesse. [25]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Boast not, proud English, of thy birth and blood;
Thy brother Indian is by birth as good. [26]

The Key became a standard text for English-speaking people wishing to learn the languages of New England's native people. The small book was printed in England, and widely distributed there, but not in Puritania. Despite diplomatic aid that might have saved the Massachusetts Bay colony, Williams still was regarded as a dangerous radical by orthodox Puritans. Addressing Christian hypocrisy, using his image of the Indian as counterpoint, Williams minced no words:

How often have I heard both the English and the Dutch[,] not only the civil, but the most debauched and profane say: "These Heathen Doggs, better kill a thousand of them than we Christians should be endangered or troubled with them; they have spilt our Christian blood, the best way to make riddance of them is to cut them all off and make way for Christians. [27]

To Williams, the natives of America were just as godly , even if not as Christian, as Europeans:

He that questions whether God made the World, the Indians will teach him. I must acknowledge I have received in my converse with them many confirmations of these two great points, Heb. II.6,
1. That God is[.]
2. That hee is a rewarder of all that diligently seek him. [28]

As Indians provided Williams perspective in matters of religion, he often learned from them in political matters as well. Williams called Indian governmental organizations "monarchies" (as did many Europeans in the earliest colonial days), then contradicted himself by catching the scent of popular opinion in them. In his Key, Williams described the workings of Indian government in ways similar to the structure he was erecting in the new colony: "The sachims . . . will not conclude of ought that concerns all, either Lawes, or Subsidies, or warres, unto which people are averse, or by gentle perswasion cannot be brought."[29]

When some Puritans asked whether a society based on individual choice instead of coerced consent would degenerate into anarchy, Williams found the Indians' example instructive:

Although they have not so much to restraine them (both in respect of knowledge of God and lawes of Men) as the English have, yet a man shall never heare of such crimes amongst them [as] robberies, murthurs, adultries &c., as among the English. [30]

Williams' reports of Indian attitudes toward liberty in New England resembled those of French Jesuits in the Saint Lawrence Valley at about the same time. The Jesuit Bressani refuted arguments that liberty would lead to anarchy by describing the Hurons' governance as "quite as effective as our own, since very few disorders appear in the midst of extreme liberty." He described Huron leaders as "neither king nor absolute prince . . . certain as if [they] were heads of a republic". Bressani wrote that Huron leaders managed villages and tribes as fathers ought to manage their families, by power of persuasion, "obtaining everything precario with eloquence [and] exhortation," and (would a Jesuit dare forget), "prayer."[31]

Among the colonists of Providence Plantations, as among the Indians he knew, Williams envisioned a society where "all men may walk as their consciences perswade them."[32] Williams ideal society also shared with the Indian societies he knew a relatively egalitarian distribution of property, with political rights based on natural law: "All civil liberty is founded in the consent of the People;" "Natural and civil Right and Privilege due . . . as a Man, a Subject, a Citizen."[33]

Establishing such a utopian society was easier said than done. As Williams watched, some of his co-settlers set up land companies similar to those in other colonies, in an attempt to hoard land set aside for future arrivals. The land had been set aside to prevent the growth of a landless underclass in the colony. In 1654, in a letter to the town of Providence, Williams showed how isolated he sometimes felt in his quest for a new way of life: "I have been charged with folly for that freedom and liberty which have always stood for -- I say, liberty and equality in both land and government.[34]

Arriving in England during 1643, Williams was doing more than taking his Key Into the Languages of America to be printed. He also was seeking a charter for his colony, and meeting with people who shared his opinions. Williams' observations and arguments provided raw observational material for the philosophers of Europe and, through them, to the authors of the Declaration of Independence and France's revolutionary rhetoric. Edwin Poteat commented:

The enthusiasm and much of the political idealism of John Milton and Oliver Cromwell were derived from their personal contacts with Williams . . . in so far as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Sir Henry Vane, and others were inspired by Milton and Cromwell, they too are intellectual heirs of Williams. [35]

Williams' The Bloudy Tenent [1644] became a virtual textbook among the Secretarians and Levellers during the English revolution of 1648.[36] Even before its publication, Williams met during his visit in 1643 with Seekers and other radical thinkers who spread his ideas across England, into Wales. On August 9, 1644, the House of Commons ordered the public hangman to execute a public burning of Williams' Bloudy Tenent. A few weeks later another unauthorized edition appeared, along with a host of other tracts by other writers who picked up Williams' refrain of secular government and popular sovereignty.

Williams' ideas did not spread without opposition, of course. In the Massachusetts colony, as in England, tract writers busied presses with arguments against Williams' "contamination." In "The Shield Single Against the Sword Doubled," [1654] Henry Niccols of South Wales decried "that seed that sprouts in this wild and bitter fruit, and that in such a season when the spirit of error is let loose to deceive many a thousand souls in the Nation, whose hearts are become tinder or gunpowder ready to catch and kindle at every spark of false light."[37] Niccols accused Williams and his associates of seeking to "take away all the Gospel . . . all instituted worship of God."[38] He embraced John Cotton's description of Williams as "the Prodigious Minister of Exorbitant Novelties."[39]

The debate became an impassioned one on both sides. "Forcing of conscience is soul-rape," Williams wrote, pointing out that even Jesus Christ "commands tolerance of anti-Christians." After citing Christ, Williams added his observations of the Narragansetts, among whom the "civil commonwealth" and the "spiritual commonwealth . . . are independent the one of the other. . . . The very Indians abhor to disturb any conscience at worship."[40] Later in his life, Williams expanded on this theme:

God requirth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil wars. . . . It is the will and command of God that . . . a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries. [41]

To Williams, the only way to prevent wars based on religion was to actively sanction tolerance. He argued vehemently against assertions that one had to be Christian to have a conscience, and a soul. If all peoples were religiously equal, Crusades made less than little sense -- this, Williams took to be God's word and, like many preachers, he often spoke for himself by invoking a deity. To Williams, religion seemed to mean less a professed doctrine than possession of an innate sense of justice and morality, and he saw that capacity in all people, Christian and not. From observing the Indians, he learned that such morality was endowed in humankind naturally, not by membership in a church or adherence to a doctrine: "It is granted, that nature's light discovers a God, some sins a judgement, as we see in the Indians."[42, emphasis added] In his extensive travels with the Narragansetts, Williams sensed "the conscience of good and evil which every savage Indian in the world hath."[43]

Williams was a peacemaker between races as well as religions, and he often expressed amazement at people in authority whose horizons were narrower and whose self-interest was more evident. When Williams returned again to England in the early 1650s, one of the items of his agenda was a petition from the native peoples of New England requesting the aid of the British government to preserve their religions against the Puritans:

I humbly pray your consideration, whether or not it be only possible, but very easy, to live and die in peace with all the natives of this country. . . . Are not the English of this land, generally, a persecuted people from their native soil? And hath not the God of peace and father of mercies made these natives more friendly in this, than our native countrymen in our own land to us? . . . Are not our families grown up in peace amongst them? Upon which I humbly ask, how can it suit with Christian ingenuity to take hold of some seeming occasions for their destruction? [44]

Where Puritans often saw heathens and devils, Williams saw people, usually friends, with intelligence, moral sense, and a workable political system based on consensus. Such people had the intelligence and the right, Williams reasoned, to judge Christianity for themselves, and to decide, without coercion, whether they preferred the Christian doctrine to their own traditions, making the decision "according to their Indian and American consciences, for other consciences it is not supposed they should have."[45]

Like the American Indians, societies in Arabia, the Far East, and elsewhere had managed to sustain themselves, and even flourish, without knowledge of, nor devotion to "a true Church of Jesus Christ," Williams argued.[46] It was this notion of a common moral sense among all peoples that would play a role in arguments by Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, and others, that the state should not prescribe religion. Williams' beliefs, based in part on his observations of native societies, came into the United States Constitution a century and a half later as separation of church and state.

Perhaps the greatest backhanded tribute of Williams' life was paid him by his master antagonist John Cotton, who wrote that Williams' "dangerous opinions subverted the state and government of this country, and tended to unsettle the kingdoms and commonwealths of Europe."[47]

While Cotton and other Puritan polemicists could have done without Williams' ideas, they needed his frontier diplomacy. Williams' yeoman efforts did much to maintain a shaky peace along the frontiers of New England for nearly two generations after the Pequot war. In 1645, Williams' efforts barely averted another native uprising against encroaching settlements. By the 1660s, however, the aging Williams was watching his life-long pursuit of peace unravel yet again. This time, he felt more impotent than before: his English ancestry seemed to drive him to protect English interests, as wave after wave of colonists provided native peoples with plentiful grievances by usurping their land without permission or compensation. In this matter, Williams had never changed his mind: the Puritans, nor any other Europeans, had any right, divine or otherwise, to take Indian land, "that we have not our land by Patent of the King, but that the Natives are the true owners of it; and that we ought to repent of such receiving it by Pattent."[48] The final years of Williams' life were profoundly painful for a sensitive man who prized peace and harmony above all.

Entering his sixties, Williams' body grew old quickly. In 1663, he complained often of "old pains, lameness, so th't sometimes I have not been able to rise, nor goe, or stand."[49] Williams found himself using his pastoral staff as more than a ministerial ornament. Mixanno, Massasoit's son, had been assassinated in 1643, and his murder never had been avenged. Rumors circulated that the English had plotted the murder, and were harboring the assailant. When Alexander, another of Massasoit's sons, visited Boston in 1662, he fell gravely ill, and died as a party of Wampanoag warriors rushed him into the wilderness. When Alexander died, the warriors beached their canoes, buried his body in a knoll, and returned home with rumors that he, too, had been a victim of the English.

The mantle of leadership then fell to Metacom, called King Philip by the English. Aged about 25 in 1662, Metacom distrusted nearly all whites, Williams being one of few exceptions. He also was known as a man who did not forgive insults easily. It was once said that he chased a white man named John Gibbs from Mount Hope to Nantucket Island after Gibbs had insulted his father. Throughout his childhood, Metacom had watched his people dwindle before the English advance. By 1671, about 40,000 people of European descent lived in New England. The native population, double that of the Europeans before the Pequot war, was now about 20,000. European farms and pastures were crawling toward Mount Hope, driving away game, creating friction over land that the Indians had used without question for so many generations they had lost count of them. By 1675, the Wampanoags held only a small strip of land at Mount Hope, and settlers wanted it.

Metacom grew more bitter by the day. He could see his nation being destroyed before his eyes. English cattle trampled Indian corn fields; farming forced game animals further into the wilderness. He was summoned to Plymouth to answer questions, while other people in his nation were interrogated by Puritan officials. Traders fleeced Indians, exchanging furs for liquor. The devastation of alcohol and disease and the loss of land destroyed families and tradition. These were Metacom's thoughts as he prepared to go to war against the English.

As rumors of war reached Williams, he again tried to keep the Narragansetts out of it. This time, he failed. Nananawtunu, son of Mixanno, told his close friend Williams that while he opposed going to war, his people could not be restrained. They had decided the time had come to die fighting, rather than to expire slowly. Williams' letters of this time were pervaded with sadness, as he watched the two groups he knew so well slide toward war.

Shortly after hostilities began in June 1675, Williams met with Metacom, riding with the sachem and his family in a canoe not far from Providence. Williams warned Metacom that he was leading his people to extermination. He compared the Wampanoags to a canoe on a stormy sea of English fury. "He answered me in a consenting, considering kind of way," Williams wrote. "My canoe is already overturned."[50]

When Indians painted for war appeared on the heights above Providence, Williams picked up his staff, climbed the bluffs, and told the war parties that if they attacked the town, England would send thousands of armed men to crush them. "Well," one of the sachems leading the attack told Williams, "Let them come. We are ready for them, but as for you, brother Williams, you are a good man. You have been kind to us for many years. Not a hair on your head shall be touched."[51]

Williams was not injured, but his house was torched as he met with the Indians on the bluffs. Williams watched flames spread throughout the town. "This house of mine now burning before mine eyes hath lodged kindly some thousands of you these ten years," Williams told the attacking Indians.[52] The date was March 29, 1676.

If the colony was to survive, Williams, for the first time in his life, had to become a military commander. With a grave heart, Williams sent his neighbors out to do battle with the sons and daughters of native people who had sheltered him during his winter trek from Massachusetts forty years earlier. As Williams and others watched from inside a hastily erected fort, nearly all of Providence burned. Fields were laid waste and cattle slaughtered, or driven into the woods.[53]

Colonists, seething with anger, caught an Indian, and Williams was put in the agonizing position of ordering him killed, rather than watching him tortured. The war was irrefutably brutal on both sides, as the English fought with their backs literally to the sea for a year and a half before going on the offensive. At Northfield, Indians hung two Englishmen on chains, placing hooks under their jaws. At Springfield, colonists arrested an Indian woman, then offered her body to dogs which tore her to pieces.[54]

By August, 1676 the war ended, as the Mohawks and Mohegans opted out of their alliance with the Wampanoags, leaving after the English had exterminated the Narragansetts. Nearly all of Metacom's warriors, their families, and friends had been killed or driven into hiding. Metacom himself fled toward Mount Hope, then hid in a swamp. When English soldiers found him they dragged Metacom out of the mire, then had him drawn and quartered. His head was sent to Plymouth on a giblet, where it was displayed much as criminals' severed heads were shown off on the railings of London Bridge. Metacom's hands were sent to Boston, where a local showman charged admission for a glimpse of one of them. The remainder of Metacom's body was hung from four separate trees.[55]

In terms of deaths in proportion to total population, "King Philip's War" was among the deadliest in American history. About 1,000 colonists died in the war; many more died of starvation and war-related diseases.[56] Every native nation bordering the Puritan settlements was reduced to ruin -- those whose members, in happier days, had offered the earliest colonists their first Thanksgiving dinner. Many of the survivors were sold into slavery in the West Indies, by which the colonists served two purposes: removing them from the area, and raising money to help pay their enormous war debts.[57] Philip's son was auctioned off with about 500 other slaves, following a brief, but intense, biblical debate over whether a son should be forced to atone for the sins of his father.[58]

Williams died January 27/March 15, 1683 in Providence, with the pain of the world bowing his creaking shoulders, likely realizing just how out of step he was with the temper of his time. He was a peacemaker in time of war, a tolerant man in a world full of ideologues; a democrat in a time of ecclesiastical and secular sovereigns, a dissenter wherever self-interest masqueraded as divinity. Williams had planted seeds in American soil which would not fully flower for more than another century. He would have relished the company of Thomas Jefferson, for example, at a time when his ideas were the common currency of revolution.

Williams also would have enjoyed meeting two Creek sachems who visited England in 1791, "where, as usual, they attracted great attention, and many flocked around them, as well to learn their ideas of certain things as to behold `the savages.'" Asked their opinion of European religion, one said that the Creeks had no priests, or established religion, and that people were not expected all to agree on mere matters of opinion. "It is best that everyone should paddle his own canoe in his own way," the two Creeks told the assembled English -- a simple American notion that had engaged the public hangman a century and a half earlier when he burned Williams' The Bloudy Tenent.[59, emphasis added]


  1. Roger Williams, cited in Sidney S. Rider, The Lands of Rhode Island as They Were Known to Caunonicus and Miantunnomu When Roger Williams Came in 1626, (Providence: the author, 1904), p. 22.

  2. Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1927), I, p. 6.

  3. Max Savelle, "Roger Williams: A Minority of One," in Earl S. Miers, ed., The American Story, (Great Neck, N.Y.: Channel Press, 1956), p. 51.

  4. Henry Chupack, Roger Williams, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969), p. 63.

  5. James Ernst, Roger Williams: New England Firebrand, (New York: MacMillan, 1932), p. 179.

  6. Cyclone Covey, The Gentle Radical: A Biography of Roger Williams, (New York: MacMillan, 1966), p. 125.

  7. Samuel H. Brockunier, The Irrepressible Democrat: Roger Williams, (New York: Ronald Press, 1940), p. 47.

  8. William Wood, New England's Prospect, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977), pp. 80-81.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Howard H. Chapin, Sachems of the Narragansetts, (Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1931), p. 7.

  12. James L. Giddings, "Roger Williams and the Indians," typescript [1957], Rhode Island Historical Society, p. 21.

  13. James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnology of Colonial North America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 78-80).

  14. Henry Crawford Dorr, The Narragansetts, Rhode Island Hist. Soc. Collections (1885), Vol. 7, pp. 187-88. See also: "Letter to the General Court of Massachusetts," October 5, 1654, Narraganssett Club Pubs., VI, p. 269. By its nature, this chapter concentrates on Williams' associations and ideas relating to Native Americans. For a broader intellectual history of Williams with an emphasis that differs with ours, see Edmund Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and State (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967).

  15. Elizabeth Ola Winslow, Master Roger Williams, (New York: MacMillan, 1957), p. 133.

  16. Reuben Aldridge Guild, Footprints of Roger Williams, (Providence: Tibbetts & Preston, 1886), p. 20.

  17. Ernst, Roger Williams, p. 252.

  18. Covey, Gentle Radical, p. 162.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p. 200.

  21. Sidney S. Rider, The Lands of Rhode Island as They Were Known to Caunonicus and Miantunnomu When Roger Williams Came in 1636, (Providence: the author, 1904), p. 22.

  22. Ibid., p. 44.

  23. Ibid., pp. 49, 53, 78.

  24. Ibid., p. 29.

  25. Ibid., p. 9.

  26. Brockunier, Irrepressible Democrat, p. 141.

  27. Ernst, Roger Williams, p. 251.

  28. Roger Williams, A Key Into the Languages of America [1643], (Providence: Tercentenary Committee, 1936), p. 123.

  29. Roger Williams, The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), I , p. 224.

  30. Ibid., p. 225.

  31. "Breve Relaziones," XXXVIII, p. 264, cited in J.H. Kennedy, Jesuit and Savage in New France, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 161.

  32. Ibid., pp. 42-43.

  33. Cited in Ernst, Roger Williams, pp. 276-77.

  34. Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1953), pp. 221-222,

  35. Edwin M. Poteat, "Roger Williams Redivivus," speech at the Northern Baptist Convention, Atlantic City, N. J., May, 1940, Archives of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

  36. James Ernst, "Roger Williams and the English Revolution," R. I. Hist. Soc. Collections XXIV, 1 (January 1931), p. 2.

  37. Ibid., p. 8

  38. Ibid., p. 9.

  39. Ibid.

  40. Oscar S. Strauss, Roger Williams: The Pioneer of Religious Liberty, (New York: The Century Co., 1894), p. 139.

  41. Jack L. Davis, "Roger Williams Among the Narragansett Indians," New England Quarterly Vol. 43, 4 (December 1970), p. 603.

  42. Williams, Writings, IV, p. 441.

  43. Ibid., IV, p. 443.

  44. Ibid., VI, p. 269-271.

  45. Ibid., III, p. 250.

  46. Ibid., III, p. 331.

  47. Ernst, Roger Williams, p. 445.

  48. Williams, Writings, II, p. 4.

  49. Winslow, Roger Williams, p. 267.

  50. Giddings, Indians and Williams, p. 33.

  51. Straus, Pioneer of Religious Liberty, pp. 220-224; see also: Baylie, History of Plymouth, III, p. 314.

  52. Bradford F. Swan, "New Light on Roger Williams and the Indians," Providence Sunday Journal Magazine, November 23, 1969, p. 14.

  53. Ernst, Roger Williams, p. 500.

  54. George Howe, Mount Hope: A New England Chronicle, (New York: Viking Press, 1959), p. 40.

  55. Straus, Pioneer of Religious Liberty, p. 222 says the head of Metacom was sent to Boston and the hands to Plymouth. The version used in the text is adapted from Ernst, Roger Williams, p. 501.

  56. Richared Slotkin and James K. Folsom, eds., So Dreadful a Judgement: Puritan Responses to King Philip's War 1676-1677, (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978), pp. 3-4. See also Sherburne F. Cook, "Interracial Warfare and Population Decline Among the New England Indians," Ethnohistory, 20:1 (Winter, 1973), pp. 1-24.

  57. Benjamin L. Labaree, America's Nation-Time: 1607-1789, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1972), p. 53.

  58. Straus, Pioneer of Religious Liberty, p. 222.

  59. Samuel G. Drake, Biography and History of the Indians of North America, (Boston: Sanborn, Carter & Bazin, 1857), pp. 37-38.

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