From Here to Forever


Roger Williams

Like the early Pilgrims, Roger Williams came to the New World to enjoy religious freedom. But, unlike them, he saw—what so few had yet seen—that this freedom was the inalienable right of all. He was an earnest seeker for truth. Williams “was the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty of conscience.”5 “The public or the magistrates may decide,” he said, “what is due from man to man; but when they attempt to prescribe a man's duties to God, they are out of place, and there can be no safety; for it is clear that if the magistrate had the power, he may decree one set of opinions or beliefs today and another tomorrow; as has been done in England by different kings and queens, and by different popes and councils in the Roman Church.”6 HF 183.3

Attendance at the established church was required under penalty of fine or imprisonment. “To compel men to unite with those of a different creed, he [Williams] regarded as an open violation of their natural rights; to drag to public worship the irreligious and the unwilling, seemed only like requiring hypocrisy. ... ‘No one should be bound to worship, or,’ he added, ‘to maintain a worship, against his own consent.’”7 HF 184.1

Roger Williams was respected, yet his demand for religious liberty could not be tolerated. To avoid arrest he was forced to flee amid the cold and storms of winter into the unbroken forest. HF 184.2

“For fourteen weeks,” he says, “I was sorely tossed in a bitter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean.” But “the ravens fed me in the wilderness,” and a hollow tree often served for a shelter.8 He continued his painful flight through snow and trackless forest until he found refuge with an Indian tribe whose confidence and affection he had won. HF 184.3

He laid the foundation of the first state of modern times that recognized the right “that every man should have liberty to worship God according to the light of his own conscience.”9 His little state, Rhode Island, increased and prospered until its foundation principles—civil and religious liberty—became the cornerstones of the American Republic. HF 184.4