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The First Baptist in America: Roger Williams


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The earliest Baptists in America stemmed from a group of like-minded individuals who surrounded Roger Williams. It was on Feb. 5, 1631, that Roger Williams (1603-1683) and his wife sailed from Bristol on the ship Lyon and landed at Nantasket, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Roger Williams was born in London in 1603, the son of James and Alice Pemberton Williams. James was an importer and trader. He and his wife had a daughter Catherine and sons Sydrach, Roger and Robert. Roger studied at the Charterhouse and later at Pembroke College (B.A., 1627), a school in the Cambridge University system. Williams became an Anglican minister and on Dec. 15, 1629, married Mary Barnard, the daughter of a Puritan clergyman. While at Pembroke, Williams was one of eight students granted a scholarship based on his excellence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. This in-depth study of the biblical languages brought some questions to the mind of Williams about such issues as infant baptism, believer’s baptism, religious freedom, and separation of church and state.

It was during his years at Cambridge that Williams became a Puritan. Then during intensive study of the New Testament while on his voyage to America in 1631 he concluded that to be truly biblical the Puritans in New England needed to separate from the Church of England.

Williams preached first at Salem, then at Plymouth and then back at Salem. His newfound desire to separate from the Church of England brought serious conflict between him and the Massachusetts authorities. Williams not only argued for church separation from England he also argued for religious liberty, land rights for the Indians and a separation of church and state. Williams believed in a free church in a free state and felt that neither should rule the other.

Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his radical views and nearly deported. His deliverance came at the hands of the Narragansett chiefs, Canonicus and Miantonomi, who sold to him land outside the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1636, the purchased land was named Providence by Williams in thanks to God. This was the nucleus of the future state of Rhode Island and the original deed for this land remains in the archives of the City of Providence.

Williams was determined to establish a haven for persecuted people of every religious persuasion under a government that claimed authority only in civil matters. Freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression was Williams’ contribution to the American experiment. Most say that it was upon the March 1638 baptism of Roger Williams and about 20 others that the Baptist Church in America was begun. This affirmation by public baptism brought a separation of these believers from others in the area. Roger Williams served as Governor of Rhode Island Colony 1654-1658. Williams continued to preach all of his life but remained a Baptist only about four months. He became a “seeker” but never lost his zeal for religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

Jerry Windsor is executive secretary of the Florida Baptist Historical Society and retired professor of preaching at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.