Williams was born into the Church of England family in London, England, around 1603. He became a Puritan at age 11, against his father's liking. His father, James Williams (1562-1620), was a merchant in Smithfield, England. His mother was Alice Pemberton (1564-1634).
Under the patronage of Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), the famous jurist, Williams was educated at Charterhouse and at the University of Cambridge, Pembroke College (B.A., 1627). He seems to have had a gift for languages, and early acquired familiarity with Latin, Greek, Dutch, and French. He gave John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for lessons in Hebrew.
After graduating from Cambridge, Williams became chaplain to a rich family. He married Mary Barnard (1609-1676) on December 15, 1629 at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. They had six children, all born in America.
Some time before the end of 1630, Williams decided that he could not labor in England under Archbishop William Laud's rigorous (and High church) administration, and adopted a position of dissent. He turned aside offers of preferment in the university and in the Establishment of the Church, and instead resolved to seek in New England the liberty of conscience denied him at home.
The first idea—that the magistrate should not punish religious infractions—meant that the civil authority should not be the same as the ecclesiastical authority. The second idea—that people should have freedom of opinion on religious matters—he called "soul-liberty." It is one of the foundations for the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Williams' use of the phrase "wall of separation" in describing his preferred relationship between religion and other matters is credited as the first use of that phrase, and potentially Thomas Jefferson's source in later speaking of the wall of separation between church and state.
The Salem church, which through interaction with the Plymouth colonists had also adopted Separatist sentiments, invited Williams to become its teacher. His settlement was prevented by a remonstrance addressed to Governor Endicott by six of the Boston leaders. The Plymouth colony then received him gladly, where he remained for about two years. According to Governor Bradford, "his teachings were well approved."
Toward the close of his ministry at Plymouth, Williams's views began to place him in conflict with other members of the colony. The people of Plymouth quickly became frustrated with his use of sermons to expound his personal opinions, such as those concerning aboriginals, and he left to go back to Salem.
In the summer of 1633, Williams arrived in Salem and became unofficial assistant to Pastor Skelton. In August, 1634, (Skelton having died), he became acting pastor and entered almost immediately into controversies with the Massachusetts authorities that in a few months resulted in his exile by law from Salem after being brought before the Salem Court for spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions" that questioned the Church. The law exiling Williams was not repealed until 1936 when Bill 488 was passed by the Massachusetts House.
He was formally set apart as pastor of the church about May, 1635, against the earnest protests of the Massachusetts authorities. An outline of the issues raised by Williams and uncompromisingly pressed includes the following:
The colony was named Providence, due to Williams's belief that God had sustained him and his followers and brought them to this place. When he acquired the other islands in the Narragansett Bay, Williams named them after other virtues: Patience Island, Prudence Island and Hope Island.
In 1637, some followers of Anne Hutchinson visited Williams to seek his guidance in moving away from Massachusetts. Like Williams, this group was in trouble with the Puritan theocrats. He advised them to purchase land on Aquidneck Island from the Native Americans. They settled in a place called Pocasset, which is now the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Among them were Anne Hutchinsons's husband William, William Coddington and John Clarke.
In 1643, Williams was sent to England by his fellow citizens to secure a charter for the colony. The Puritans were then in power in England, and through the offices of Sir Henry Vane a democratic charter was obtained.
In 1647, the colony on Rhode Island was united with Providence under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed. The area became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs—Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and others went there to follow their consciences in peace and safety. On May 18, 1652, Rhode Island passed the first law in North America making slavery illegal.
Disagreement arose between the mainland towns of Providence and Warwick on the one side and the towns of Aquidneck Island on the other. There was also disagreement (on the island) between the followers of John Clarke and William Coddington. Coddington went to England and, in 1651, had secured from the council of state a commission to rule the islands of Rhode Island and Conanicut. This arrangement left Providence and Warwick to themselves. Coddington's scheme was strongly disapproved by Williams and Clarke and their followers, especially as it seemed to involve a federation of Coddington's domain with Massachusetts and Connecticut and a consequent threat to liberty of conscience, not only on the islands, but also in Providence and Warwick, which would be left unprotected.
Many of the opponents of Coddington were, by this time, Baptists. Later, in the same year, Williams and Clarke went to England on behalf of their friends to secure from Oliver Cromwell's government the annulment of Coddington's charter and the recognition of the colony as a republic, dependent only on England. They succeeded, and Williams soon returned to Providence. To the end of his life, he continued to take a deep interest in public affairs.
In 1638, several Massachusetts credobaptist Christians who had found themselves subject to persecution removed to Providence (see pedobaptism). Most of these had probably been under Williams' influence while he was in Massachusetts, while some may have been influenced by English antipedobaptists before they left England.
John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton were founders (1609) and of the rich literature in advocacy of liberty of conscience produced by this party after its return to England. He could have hardly avoided learning something of the Calvinistic antipedobaptist party that arose in London in 1633, a short time after his departure, led by Spilsbury, Eaton, and others.
However, Williams did not adopt antipedobaptist views before his banishment from Massachusetts, for antipedobaptism was not laid to his account by his opponents. Winthrop attributes Williams's "Anabaptist" views to the influence of Katherine Scott, a sister of Anne Hutchinson, the Antinomian. It is probable that Ezekiel Holliman came to Providence as an antipedobaptist and joined with Mrs. Scott in impressing upon Williams the importance of believers' baptism. About March 1639, Williams was baptized by Holliman and immediately proceeded to baptize Holliman and eleven others. Thus was constituted a Baptist church which still survives as the First Baptist Church in America. At about the same time, John Clarke, Williams’ compatriot in the cause of religious freedom in the New World, established a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. "There is much debate over the centuries as to whether the Providence or Newport church deserved the place of 'first' Baptist congregation in America. Exact records for both congregations are lacking. Therefore, both Roger Williams and John Clarke are variously credited as being the founder of the Baptist faith in America.
It should be noted that Roger Williams was only briefly a part of the Baptist faith. Williams remained with the little church in Providence only a few months. He became convinced that the ordinances having been lost in the apostasy could not be validly restored without a special divine commission, making the following statement upon his departure from the sect:
He assumed the attitude of a "Seeker" or "Come-outer," always deeply religious and active in the propagation of Christian truth, yet not feeling satisfied that any body of Christians had all of the marks of the true Church. He continued on friendly terms with the Baptists, being in agreement with them in their rejection of infant baptism as in most other matters. Williams's religious and ecclesiastical attitude is well expressed in the following sentences (1643):
Williams died in early 1683 and was buried on his own property. Some time later in the nineteenth century his remains were moved to the tomb of a descendant in the North Burial Ground. Finally, in 1936, they were placed within a bronze container and put into the base of a monument on Prospect Terrace Park in Providence. When his remains were discovered for reburial, they were under an apple tree. The roots of the tree had grown into the spot where Williams's skull rested and followed the path of his decomposing bones and grew roughly in the shape of his skeleton. Only a small amount of bone was found to be reburied. The "Williams Root" is now part of the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society, where it is mounted on a board in the basement of the John Brown House Museum.
Roger Williams National Memorial, established in 1965, is a park in downtown Providence. Roger Williams Park is a city park on the southern edge of Providence. Williams was selected in 1872 to represent Rhode Island in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol.
The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience soon followed (London, 1644). This is his most famous work, and was the ablest statement and defense of the principle of absolute liberty of conscience that had appeared in any language. It is in the form of a dialogue between Truth and Peace, and well illustrates the vigor of his style.
During the same year an anonymous pamphlet appeared in London which has been commonly ascribed to Williams, entitled: Queries of Highest Consideration Proposed to Mr. Tho. Goodwin, Mr. Phillip Nye, Mr. Wil. Bridges, Mr. Jer. Burroughs, Mr. Sidr. Simpson, all Independents, etc. These Independents were members of the Westminster Assembly and their Apologetical Narration, in which they plead for toleration, fell very far short of Williams's doctrine of liberty of conscience.
In 1652, during his second visit to England, Williams published The Bloudy Tenent yet more Bloudy: by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to wash it white in the Bloud of the Lamb; of whose precious Bloud, spilt in the Bloud of his Servants; and of the Bloud of Millions spilt in former and later Wars for Conscience sake, that most Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, upon, a second Tryal is found more apparently and more notoriously guilty, etc. (London, 1652). This work traverses anew much of the ground covered by the Bloudy Tenent; but it has the advantage of being written in answer to Cotton's elaborate defense of New England persecution, A Reply to Mr. Williams his Examination (Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii.).
Other works by Williams are:
A volume of his letters is included in the Narragansett Club edition of Williams's Works (7 vols., Providence, 1866-74), and a volume was edited by J. R. Bartlett (1882).