George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

Roger Williams, Rhode Island, and Birthplace of Religious Freedom

Roger Williams purchases land from the Narragansett tribe

Roger Williams purchases land from the Narragansett tribe. (1636)

Religious minorities suffered from social and legal discrimination, as well as persecution, from the very founding of the English colonies. In 1635, the Massachusetts Bay Colony expelled Roger Williams for opposing the Puritan church’s control over civil law. Three years later, the same magistrates expelled Anne Hutchinson for challenging their authority over worship.

After his expulsion, Roger Williams settled on Narragansett Bay, where he purchased land from the Narragansett tribe and established a new colony he called Providence. Williams proclaimed that everyone had the freedom to worship as they chose. Government would have no control over religion, and religious ministers would have no power to make or enforce laws (we now call this separation of church and state). England’s King Charles II, a Catholic sympathizer in a mostly-Protestant England, approved the colony’s promise of religious freedom by granting it a Royal Charter in 1663. Rhode Island’s Charter, which served as state constitution until 1842, includes this forward looking provision:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others.

Massachusetts colony banishes Anne Hutchinson for disobeying Puritan government's rules of worship.

Massachusetts colony banishes Anne Hutchinson for disobeying Puritan government’s rules of worship. (1637)

Rhode Island’s “lively experiment” in religious liberty became Williams’s most tangible legacy, with the colony becoming a haven for Baptists, Quakers, Jews and other religious minorities. Nearly a century after his death, Williams’ notion of “a separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” inspired the founders of the United States, who incorporated the principle we know as separation of church and state into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

For more information about Rhode Island as the Birthplace of Religious Freedom, you can explore the following:

Article on Religious Freedom in the United States, Touro Synagogue National Historic Site

Rhode Island’s Royal Charter, State of Rhode Island’s Office of Secretary of State