America First—100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans

The Flight of Roger Williams

[54] THERE was a young Puritan minister, named Roger Williams, who lived with his wife and two children in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. His congregation was small, but his labors, especially the comfort he gave to those who were sick or in distress, made him greatly beloved.

He at one time had preached at Plymouth, and had visited the Narragansett Indians. He slept in the wigwams, and ate the food of his Indian friends. He went fishing and hunting with them, and learned from them many secrets of Indian woodcraft. After awhile he could speak their language, and for hours would sit around their camp fires and hear them tell their stories. In this way the Indians became his firm friends, and he thus came to understand much about them he would not otherwise have known.

When Roger Williams went to Salem to preach, he became very bold in his opposition to many of the doctrines of his Puritan brethren. For instance, it was the Puritan law that everybody had to go to meeting on Sunday, whether he wished to or not. At the beating of the drum, or the ringing of the bell, or the sounding of the horn, every- [55] body, who was not sick in bed, had to march out and proceed to the meeting-house. In fact there was a captain who inspected the houses to see that nobody was in hiding.

Roger Williams thought this was wrong. "We should not compel people to go to church. If their own consciences do not urge them to attend worship, let them stay at home," he said.

When the Puritans heard of this, they were greatly shocked, and declared Roger Williams a dangerous member of society. To them it was a great crime to stay away from church.

Another rule of the Puritans was that every man had to pay a tax for the support of the Church. No matter whether he was a good man or a wicked one, he had to go to church and had to pay for the preacher.

Roger Williams thought this was wrong. "No man should pay for his religion unless he wishes to do so. His conscience and not the General Court should determine the amount," he said.

When the Puritans heard of this they were still more surprised and shocked, for by this time Roger Williams was becoming so bold that there were threats of sending him out of the community.

But this was not all, by any means. Roger Williams declared, "The King of England has no [56] right to give away the lands in America. They do not belong to him, but they belong to the Indians. The Indians alone have a title to them, and it is from the Indians alone they can be bought."

This was more than the Puritans could stand. "It is dangerous to have such a man in our colony. He must be sent back to England, or he will break up our religion," said the Puritan leaders, and they straightway ordered him before the General Court.

Little mercy did they show the brave minister. "Back you go to England in six weeks, or else you must stop preaching those dangerous doctrines," was what they told him.

"I shall not go to England. I came here to find freedom for my conscience and here I find nothing but persecution. You are trying to do in America the very thing for which we left England," replied Williams boldly.

So he went on preaching his own doctrines and the Puritans decided to seize him, put him on board a ship, and send him to England. The kind Governor Winthrop secretly sent him word that he had better escape, or else he would be arrested.

When Williams received the message, he hastily left his wife and children, and, taking a package of food and a heavy cane, committed himself to the wilderness. It was mid-winter when he started. [57] The ground was covered with snow, and he had only a small pocket compass to guide him through the forest. Fearing that the officers of the General Court would try to overtake him, he traveled only at night, hiding by day in caves or in the deep shelter of the woods.

Thus he wandered for fourteen weeks. At night he built a fire as best he could, and cooked the game he had caught in the snow. Oftentimes he had only acorns to eat. If it had not been for the wigwams of his Indian friends, which he found along his journey, he would have frozen to death; and but for their aid he would long since have starved.

At length he came to Massasoit, one of his oldest friends, "I have come to live with you. My white friends have cast me out, and I am cold, hungry, and very tired," said he to the Indian Chief.

Massasoit took him into his own wigwam, laid him down on a couch of skins, and covered him up so he might be warm. Then Williams slept long, while Massasoit wondered what this friend had done that he was cast out of Salem. When Williams awoke he was given food to eat, a pipe to smoke, and warm clothes to put on.

When Massasoit heard his story he said, "Stay here until the snow has gone, and the spring has [58] come. They shall not find you or hurt you."

Williams stayed in the wigwam of Massasoit until spring.

By this time, the Puritans decided to let him alone, provided he did not come back to them. Hearing this, Williams sent for his wife and children, and, with a few friends who joined him, journeyed to Narragansett Bay in the spring. He bought some land from Canonicus, and made a settlement.

"We shall call this place Providence, for the Lord has provided for us," said he. And so it is called to this day.


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