Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

ROGER WILLIAMS

IN 1631 an earnest young Puritan named Roger Williams sailed from England for Massachusetts. He became a minister at Salem.

It was true that the Puritans had left England to worship God as they wished. And they had had a great deal to say about the King's trying to make people worship only as he worshiped. But once settled in America, their leaders did just the same thing. They ordered the colonists to attend the Puritan Church, and those who were not church members could not vote.

Now, Roger Williams soon saw that this was not at all the freedom the colonists should have. He believed that a man could vote just as well if he did not belong to the church. So he said, and so he preached.

Moreover, Roger Williams told the colonists that they had no real right to the land where they were living. They replied that they had, because their charter granted it to them. That made no difference, Williams insisted; the land belonged to the Indians, and no English company had a right to give it away, and no English colonists had a right to live on it until the Indians had been paid.

It was very alarming to the Puritan leaders to have Williams spreading such notions among the settlers. What was to be done about it? The good Puritan fathers held a council and told Williams to retract. Still "he stood fast in his rocky strength." The council then ordered him to leave the colony, but allowed him to remain till spring, "if he did not go about to draw others to his opinion."

Williams still preached his views. This could not go on, so a policeman was sent to arrest him. He had fled.

Thus in the dead of winter, Roger Williams became an exile in the desolate forests. For weeks he traveled through the snow, sleeping under any shelter he could find and living on parched corn, acorns, and roots. At last he reached the Indian tribe of which Massasoit was chief; and the friendly old Indian received him as a brother and fed and cared for him.

Still he was within the boundaries of Massachusetts, and the Puritans would not have him there. He was warned to leave. So, buying from the Indians a tract of land on the shore of Narragansett Bay, Williams went to live where he would no longer be bothered by his enemies. He named his new land Providence "for God's providence to him in his distress."

However, by banishing Roger Williams the Puritans did not end their troubles. There were other people left in the colony who were "like Roger Williams or worse."

One of these was Mrs. Anne Hutchinson. Her ideas were not unlike Williams's; and she, likewise, insisted on spreading them. Then she, too, must be banished; and so must her friends who agreed with her. In accord with this decision, Mrs. Hutchinson and a goodly number of her friends left their Massachusetts homes and followed Roger Williams.

The Indians gave the exiles the beautiful tract of land called Rhode Island. And there, a little later, was established a colony where, in very truth, each man could believe and worship according to his heart's desire.

For a while after this, the Puritans had no serious disturbances. Their next trouble came in a different way. A fierce war-loving Indian tribe, the Pequots, proved hostile to the Massachusetts settlers. They feared that the settlers would spread out and out and soon take all their land. This they did not mean to have, so they tried in every way to stir up the Narragansetts to join them in a massacre of the Massachusetts colonists.

Here was Roger Williams's chance to show that he was willing to practice what he preached. Although he could not agree with the Puritans, he held no grudge against them because they had refused to listen to him and had turned him out. Going to the Narragansett Indians, Williams urged them not to join the Pequots; and so great was his influence that they refused to fight.

The Pequots, nothing daunted, determined to attack the settlers without outside aid. They did not come out in open battle, but waylaid a party of whites and killed thirty of them.

This must be stopped. So a small party of English, with a large number of friendly Indians advanced on the Pequots. Before sunrise one spring morning in 1637, the English approached the Pequots' stronghold. All were asleep. Before the Indian sentries knew what had happened, the foe was in their midst. The fort was set on fire. Only five Indians escaped, while more than four hundred perished. The great Pequot tribe was crushed, and nearly forty years of peace ensued. How different might have been the result, but for the forgiving spirit of Roger Williams!