Today tolerance wasn’t tolerated.
Roger Williams was a Puritan, which meant he’d joined an activist movement within mainstream Protestantism that challenged the authority and practices of the Church of England and, in the face of persecution, was among the tens of thousands of believers who emigrated to America in the 17th century. As their name suggests, Puritans believed in a minimum of religious rituals and personal ornamentation (their black outfits and buckled hats and shoes are a staple of Thanksgiving illustrations). They didn’t like to celebrate holidays with much more than thoughtful contemplation. The most fervent believers who settled in Massachusetts imposed rules as strict as those they defied in the old country; for instance, they were the most zealous persecutors of Quakers, even hanging them if caught. Catholics were also harassed and shunned, when not punished outright.
Williams thought differently, and from the moment he and his wife arrived in Boston in 1631, he was an advocate for freedom of religion. He’d seen the effects of centuries of religiously-inspired warfare in Europe, and his Puritanism made him question how civil authorities could claim to do the work of God (when they had no such authority). On this day in 1635, Williams was found guilty of sedition and heresy, and a delay in arresting him due to bad weather allowed him to escape the colony and find refuge with the Wampanoag Indians 105 miles away at the head of Narragansett Bay. A year later he purchased land from them (and the Massasoit) to found Providence, a community where church and state would be strictly separated, and all residents allowed to worship in their own way. The neighboring colonies of true believers did their best to see Providence destroyed — by denying them protection in battles with indians, for instance — but Williams went to England and got a formal charter, which gave it protection of the Crown. He’d go on to allow the creation of the Baptist movement, even joining it briefly, though otherwise remaining independent of any organized church until his death in 1683. Rhode Island would be the first state to declare independence from Britain in the American Revolution.
Williams wrote, “The state of the Land of Israel, the kings and people thereof in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.”