Religion and Social Movements

Roger Williams Lands in Boston, Shocks the Puritans

The arrival of the Lyon from Bristol, England, brought joyful relief to Puritan leaders in Boston on Feb. 5, 1631. First, because the ship carried Roger Williams, a Puritan minister who could help preach. Secondly, it brought bread to feed the hungry population.

Roger Williams soon disappointed the Puritans. He came to Massachusetts Bay Colony to escape the corruption and intolerance of the Church of England. He and his wife Mary had already decided to join the Separatists, who insisted on independent local churches.

Roger Williams statue in Providence

Roger Williams

The Williamses arrived in Boston after a tempestuous 66-day voyage. Upon his arrival, Roger Williams was asked to replace the Rev. John Wilson immediately. But Wilson wanted to return to England to fetch his wife.

Williams then shocked the Puritan leaders by refusing.  The church, he said, was unseparated.

The Salem church, more inclined to Separatism, invited Williams to preach there. The Boston Puritans objected. Williams went to Plymouth, where he again fell into disfavor. He then returned to Salem.

Williams liked and trusted the Indians. In Salem, he openly questioned the validity of the colonial charter that claimed their land.  That infuriated the authorities in Boston, and they summoned him to appear before the General Court — several times. Finally they ordered him removed from his position in the church.

At the same time, the Town of Salem wanted the General Court to annex some land on Marblehead Neck. The General Court refused until the church got rid of  Williams. Williams’ support crumbled. He withdrew from his post, meeting with a few devoted supporters in his home.

On Oct. 9, 1635, the General Court ordered Roger Williams banished for spreading ‘diverse, new and dangerous opinions.’

Roger Williams lived in this house in Salem. It's now known as 'The Witch House.'

Roger Williams purportedly lived in this house in Salem. People now call it ‘The Witch House.’

Williams led a band of outcasts 105 miles over the snow and across the Seekonk River to Narragansett territory. Williams believed Indians should be paid for their land. So he bought property from two sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi.

With 12 ‘loving friends’ he established a settlement called ‘Providence,’ because he believed God’s Providence brought him there.

The Landing of Roger Williams in 1636 by Alonzo Chappel, courtesy RISD Museum


Williams based the settlement on principles of religious toleration, separation of church and state and political democracy. People persecuted for their religious beliefs came to Providence for refuge. The settlement attracted Jews, Anabaptists and Quakers.

Williams also tried to prevent slavery from taking root in Providence Plantations. That made him North America’s first abolitionist.

In Providence, Roger Williams formed the first Baptist church in America. Then he  left it. He stopped preaching to the Indians when he realized they had a right to religious freedom as well. Williams declared,

Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.

This story was updated in 2022.

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