10 Reasons Roger Williams is the coolest American historical figure you’ve never heard of

Roger Williams (1603 – 1683)

57961_ri_seal_lg1)      Kicked out of Massachusetts for opposing an oath of allegiance to government (but still helps out Massachusetts by getting the Narragansett Tribe to ally with Bay State during Pequot War. Massachusetts, in keeping with a long tradition of being assholes, would later betray the Narragansetts.)

2)      After being convicted of sedition and heresy for spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions” the order to have him kicked out was delayed because Williams was ill and winter was approaching – as long as he ceased his agitation. Guess who went on agitating? So in January 1636 the sheriff comes to get him only to discover that Williams had slipped away three days before during a blizzard. He walked 105 miles through deep snow in the heart of winter from Salem to the head of Narragansett Bay.

3)      First abolitionist in colonies – Rhode Island is only colony to pass a law banning slavery after Massachusetts (no surprise, right?) introduced the first law legalizing slavery in the colonies.

4)      Wrote a pamphlet arguing that land belonged to Native Americans unless they were paid for it. Paid fair market value for land he bought from Native Americans to found his own settlement.

5)      Writes first dictionary Native American-English Dictionary – a best-seller in England.

6)      Because he hated Massachusetts’ courts being able to rule on people’s religious practices he creates the idea of separation of church and state. His book arguing for this was also a best-seller in England and the Parliament ordered it burned by the “Public Hangman” (which probably helped sales).

7)      Founds Providence Plantations (which would later become Rhode Island), the first government (probably in Western history ) to separate Church and State legally.

8)      Although believing his hard-core brand of Puritanism was the One True Way, created a government built around the idea of religious tolerance. He believed that you changed minds through argument not by legal coercion. As a result Rhode Island became a haven for religious and even atheist minorities. This is why Rhode Island has the oldest synagogue in North America.

9)      Seemed to know everyone in England and the Colonies. Only clerk ever to Edward Coke, jurist who is basically responsible for the English legal tradition. Taught John Milton. Good friend of Oilver Cromwell.

10)   Was hated by Cotton Mather. Mather continued to be afraid of Williams and his ideas long after Williams’ death. He wrote in 1702: “There was a whole country in America like to be set on fire by the rapid motion of a windmill in the head of one particular man, Roger Williams.” Mather warned that Williams ideas menaced “the whole political, as well as the ecclesiastical, constitution of the country.”

That ain’t the half of it. Read Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by John Barry for the whole story.


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The Ministry of Culture is a blog (duh!) about whatever interests me, a professional journalist. It looks at current events, culture -- rock & roll, literature, roller derby, opera, comedy -- military history and whatever else crosses my path. All opinions are my own.


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