by Karen Topakian
Three hundred and seventy four years ago today, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Roger Williams as a religious dissident. Primarily because he spoke out against punishments for religious offenses.
Roger Williams believed that the magistrate should not punish religious infractions. He did not believe that public officials had the right to enforce religious duties. That civil authority should not equal eccleastical authority. Thomas Jefferson later adopted Williams’ revolutionary belief in the “wall of separation” between church and state.
He also opposed the requirement that all male Bay Colony inhabitants of 16 years of age or older swear an oath of allegiance to the Colony and the Crown, ending with the words “so help me God.” Roger Williams said that swearing an oath to God made no sense if one was an unbeliever.
At the threat of being deported by the Boston Church back to England for his transgressions, where he would surely be persecuted for his unpopular beliefs, Williams fled south. For 14 weeks he wandered in the bitter snow and wilderness seeking a place to rest.
The Narragansett befriended him as he attempted to settle on the banks of the Seekonk River. When he learned he was still within the confines of the Plymouth Colony, he moved to the headwaters of Narragansett Bay where he founded a settlement he called Providence on land purchased from Canonicus, chief of the Narragansett. Purchased without patent or title from the king.
This settlement based on religious freedom later became the foundation of Providence Plantations and eventually Rhode Island.
Thank you Massachusetts for throwing out our founder.