Roger Williams

Excerpts from A Key into the Language of America;  “Letter to the Town of Providence,” and “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution”

Roger Williams Statue in the United States Capital National Statuary Hall

Roger Williams Statue in the United States Capital National Statuary Hall


In 1864, the National Statuary Hall became law; its purpose was to

invite each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration.

For its contribution to the Statuary Hall, Rhode Island donated a statue of Roger Williams. While this choice might make perfect sense to us, it might have puzzled his contemporaries. We typically interpret Williams as synonymous with religious liberty, but that reputation made him a controversial figure during his own time.

Today, we typically view religious freedom and the separation of church and state as foundational American rights, but this was not necessarily the case for the early American settlers. Texts like John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation emphasize the Puritan “covenant” with God, which combines civic, legal, and religious obligations under one umbrella. Williams strongly resisted that idea, but we shouldn’t take that to mean that his primary interest is in protecting the state. Rather, Williams argues that church and state must be separated in order to protect the church from being sullied by political influences.

Williams also cultivated relationships with several Native American tribes and advocated for their rights. His perspectives frequently put him at odds with Puritan authorities like Winthrop, and Williams was eventually banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Soon after, he purchased land from the Narragansets and established a colony in Rhode Island.

Discussion Questions

  • What are the particulars of Williams’s argument regarding the separation of church and state? What is his point when he talks about “cause of conscience”?
  • How does Williams describe the Native American communities he has engaged with? How does his description compare with those of writers like William Bradford or Thomas Morton?
  • In some respects, A Key into the Language might be seen as a translator’s dictionary, but Williams indicates it is more than that. How else might we describe the text and its potential?
  • Consider “A Bloody Tenet” and the Providence letter: how do the ideas presented in these texts correlate with contemporary ideas about religious liberty? To what extent do you think his words are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them?

A Letter to the Town of Providence (1655)

[Providence, January, 1654-5.]

That ever I should speak or write a tittle, that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience, is a mistake, and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case: There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true pićture of a commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges–that none of the papists, protesants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help, in person or purse, towards the common charges or defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or write that there ought to be no commanders or officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor orders, nor corrections nor punishments;–I say, I never denied, but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. This if seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the Father of lights, let in some light to such as willingly shut not their eyes.

I remain studious of your common peace and liberty.

The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, in a Conference between Truth and Peace.


WHILE I plead the cause of truth and innocency against the bloody doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience, I judge it not unfit to give alarm to myself, and to [all] men, to prepare to be persecuted or hunted for cause of conscience.

Whether thou standest charged with ten or but two talents, if thou huntest any for cause of conscience, how canst thou say thou followest the Lamb of God, who so abhorred that practice?

If Paul, if Jesus Christ, were present here at London, and the question were proposed, what religion would they approve of- the papists, prelatists, Presbyterians, Independents, &c., would each say, Of mine, Of mine?

But put the second question: if one of the several sorts should by major vote attain the sword of steel, what weapons doth Christ Jesus authorize them to fight with in his cause? Do not all men hate the persecutor, and every conscience, true or false, complain of cruelty, tyranny, &c.?

Two mountains of crying guilt lie heavy upon the backs of all men that name the name of Christ, in the eyes of Jews, Turks, and Pagans.

First. The blasphemies of their idolatrous inventions, superstitions, and most unchristian conversations.

Secondly. The bloody, irreligious, and inhuman oppressions and destructions under the mask or veil of the name of Christ, &c.

Oh! how likely is the jealous Jehovah, the consuming fire, to end these present slaughters of the holy witnesses in a greater slaughter | Rev. v.

Six years preaching of so much truth of Christ as that time afforded in K[ing] Edward’s days, kindles the flames of Q[ueen] Mary’s bloody persecutions.

Who can now but expect that after so many scores of years preaching and professing of more truth, and amongst so many great contentions amongst the very best of protestants, a fiery furnace should be heat, and who sees not now the fires kindling ?

I confess I have little hopes, till those flames are over, that this discourse against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience should pass current, I say not amongst the wolves and lions, but even amongst the sheep of Christ themselves. Yet, liberavi animam mean, I have not hid within my breast my soul’s belief. And, although sleeping on the bed either of the pleasures or profits of sin, thinkest thou thy conscience bound to smite at him that dares to waken thee ? Yet in the midst of all these civil and spiritual wars, I hope we shall agree in these particulars,

First. However the proud (upon the advantage of a higher earth or ground) overlook the poor, and cry out schismatics, heretics, &c., shall blasphemers and seducers escape unpunished? Yet there is a sorer punishment in the gospel for despising of Christ than Moses, even when the despiser of Moses was put to death without mercy, Heb. x. 28, 29. He that believeth shall not be damned, Mark xvi. 16.

Secondly. Whatever worship, ministry, ministration, the best and purest, are practiced without faith and true persuasion that they are the true institutions of God, they are sin, sinful worships, ministries, &c. And how ever in civil things we may be servants unto men, yet in divine and spiritual things the poorest peasant must disdain the service of the highest prince. Be ye not, the servants of men, 1 Cor. vii. [23].

Thirdly. Without search and trial no man attains this faith and right persuasion. 1 Thes, v. [21], Try all things.

In vain have English parliaments permitted English bibles in the poorest English houses, and the simplest man or woman to search the scriptures, if yet against their soul’s persuasion from the scripture, they should be forced, as if they lived in Spain or Rome itself without the sight of a bible, to believe as the church believes.

Fourthly. Having tried, we must hold fast, 1 Thes. v. [21], upon the loss of a crown, Rev. iii. [11]; we must not let go for all the fleabitings of the present afflictions, &c. Having bought truth dear, we must not sell it cheap, not the least grain of it for the whole world; no, not for the saving of souls, though our own most precious; least of all for the bitter sweetening of a little vanishing pleasure:

—For a little puff of credit and reputation from the changeable breath of uncertain sons of men: for the broken bags of riches on eagles’ wings: for a dream of these—any or all of these, which on our death-bed vanish and leave tormenting stings behind them. Oh! how much better is it from the love of truth, from the love of the Father of lights from whence it comes, from the love of the Son of God, who is the way and the truth, to say as he, John xviii. 37: For this end was I born, and for this end came I into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth.

A Key into the Language of America

To my Dear and Well-beloved Friends and Country-men, in old and new England,

I Present you with a Key; I have not heard of the like, yet framed, since it pleased God to bring that mighty Continent of America to light: Others of my Countrymen, have often, and excellently, and lately written of the Country (and none that I know beyond the goodness and worth of it.)

This Key, respects the Native Language of it, and happily may unlock some Rarities concerning the Natives themselves, not yet discovered.

I drew the Materials in a rude lump at Sea, as a private help to my own memory, that I might not by my present absence lightly lose what I had so dearly bought in some few years hardship and charges among the Barbarians; yet being reminded by some, what pity it were to bury those Materials in my Grave at land or Sea; and withall, remembering how oft I have been importun’d by worthy friends of all sorts, to afford them some helps this way.

I resolved (by the assistance of the most High) to cast those Materials into this Key, pleasant and profitable for All, but specially for my friends residing in those parts:

A little Key may open a Box, where lies a bunch of Keys.

With this I have entered into the secrets of those Countries, where ever English dwell about two hundred miles, between the French and Dutch Plantations; for want of this, I know what gross mistakes my self and others have run into.

There is a mixture of this Language North and South, from the place of my abode, about six hundred miles; yet within the two hundred miles (aforementioned) their Dialects doe exceedingly differ; yet not so, but (within that compass) a man may by this help, converse with thousands of Natives all over the Country: and by such converse it may please the Father of Mercies to spread civility (and in his own most holy season) Christianity; for one Candle will light ten thousand, and it may please God to bless a little Leaven to season the mighty lump of those Peoples and Territories.

It is expected, that having had so much converse with these Natives, I should write some little of them.

Concerning them (a little to gratify expectation) I shall touch upon four Heads :

First, by what Names they are distinguished.

Secondly, Their Original and Descent.

Thirdly, their Religion, Manners, Customs, &c.

Fourthly, That great Point of their Conversion.

To the first, their Names are of two Sorts:

First, those of the English giving: as Natives, Savages, Lidians, Wild-men, (so the Dutch call them Wildcn) Abcrgeny men, Pagans, Barbarians, Heathen.

Secondly, their names, which they give themselves. I cannot observe, that they ever had (before the coming of the English, French, or Dutch amongst them) any Names to difference themselves from strangers, for they knew none; but two sorts of names they had, and have amongst themselves.

First, general, belonging to all Natives, as Ninnuock, Ninnimissinuwock, Eniskeetompauwog, which signifies Men, Folk or People.

Secondly, particular names, peculiar to several! Nations of them amongst themselves, as Nanhigganeuck, Massachuseuck, Cawasumseuck, Cowweseuck, Quintikoock, Quinnipieuck, Pequttoog, &c.

They have often asked me, why wee call them Indians, Natives, &c. and understanding the reason, they will call themselves Indians in opposition to English &c.

For the second Head proposed, their Original and Descent.

From Adam and Noah that they spring, it is granted on all hands.

But for their later Descent and whence they came into those parts, it seems as hard to find, as to find the well head of some fresh Stream, which running many miles out of the Country to the salt Ocean, hath met with many mixing Streams by the way. They say themselves, that they have sprung and grown up in that very place, like the very trees of the wilderness.

They say that their Great God Cautantoawit created those parts, as I observed in the Chapter of their Religion. They have no Clothes, Books, nor Letters, and conceive their Fathers never had; and therefore they are easily persuaded that the God that made Englishmen is a greater God, because He hath so richly endowed the English above themselves: But when they hear that about sixteen hundred years ago, England and the Inhabitants thereof were like unto themselves, and since have received from God, Clothes, Books, &c. they are greatly affected with a secret hope concerning themselves.

Wise and judicious men with whom I have discoursed, maintain their original to be Northward from Tartaria: and at my now taking ship, at the Dutch Plantation, it pleased the Dutch Governor (in some discourse with me about the natives) to draw their Line from Iceland, because the name Sackmakan (the name for an Indian Prince, about the Dutch) is the name for a Prince in Iceland.

Other opinions I could number up: under favor I shall present (not mine opinion, but) my observations to the judgement of the wise.

First, others (and myself) have conceived some of their words to hold affinity with the Hebrew.

Secondly, they constantly anoint their heads as the Jews did.

Thirdly, they give Dowries for their wives as the Jews did.

Fourthly (and which I have not so observed amongst other nations as amongst the Jews, and these) they constantly separate their women (during the time of their monthly sickness) in a little house alone by themselves four or five days, and hold it an Irreligious thing for either Father or Husband or any Male to come near them.

They have often asked me if it be so with women of other nations, and whether they are so separated: and for their practice they plead Nature and Tradition. Yet again I have found a greater affinity of their language with the Greek tongue.

2. As the Greeks and other nations, and our selves call the seven starres (or Charles Waine, the bear,) so doe they IVIosk, or Paukunnawaw the bear.

3. They have many strange Relations of one Wetucks, a man that wrought great Miracles amongst them, and walking upon the waters, &c. with some kind of broken resemblance to the Son of God.

Lastly, it is famous that the Sowwest (Sowaniu) is the great subject of their discourse. From thence their Traditions. There they say (at the South west) is the Court of their Great God Cautantoawit: at the South-west are their forefathers souls: to the South west they go themselves when they die; From the South west came their Corn, and Beans out of their great God Cautantoawit’s field: and indeed the further Northward and Westward from us their Corn will not grow, but to the Southward better and better. I dare not conjecture in these uncertainties, I believe they are lost, and yet hope (in the Lord’s holy season) some of the wildest of them shall be found to share in the blood of the Son of God. To the third head, concerning their Religion, Customs, Manners &c. I shall here say nothing, because in those 32 chapters of the whole book, I have briefly touched those of all sorts, from their birth to their burials, and have endeavored (as the nature of the work would give way) to bring some short observations and applications home to Europe from America.

Therefore fourthly, to that great point of their conversion so much to bee longed for, and by all New-English so much pretended, and I hope in Truth.

For my self I have uprightly labored to suite my endeavours to my pretences: and of later times (out of desire to attain their Language) I have run through varieties of intercourses with them Day and Night, Summer and Winter, by Land and Sea, particular passages tending to this, I have related divers, in the Chapter of their Religion.

Many solemn discourses I have had with all sorts of nations of them, from one end of the Country to another (so far as opportunity, and the little language I have could reach.

I know there is no small preparations in the hearts of multitudes of them. I know their many solemn confessions to my self, and one to another of their lost wandering conditions.

I know strong Convictions upon the Consciences of many of them, and their desires uttered that way. I know not with how little Knowledge and Grace of Christ the Lord may save, and therefore neither will despair or report much.

But since it hath pleased some of my worthy Countrymen to mention (of late in print) Wequash, the Pequot Captain, I shall be bold so far to second their relations, as to relate mine own hopes of him (though I dare not be so confident as others.)

Two days before his death, as I past up to Quinnihticut [Connecticut] River it pleased my worthy friend Mr. Fenwick whom I visited at his house in Say-Brook Fort at the mouth of that River, to tell me that my old friend Wequash lay very sick: I desired to see him, and Himselfe was pleased to be my Guide two mile where Wequash lay.

Amongst other discourse concerning his sickness and Death in which he freely bequeathed his son to Mr. Fenwick) I closed with him concerning his Soul: He told me that some two or three year before he had lodged at my House, where I acquainted him with the Condition of all mankind, and his own in particular, how God created Man and All things: how Man fell from God, and of his present Enmity against God, and the wrath of God against Him until Repentance: said he, “your words were never out of my heart to this present;” and said he “me much pray to Jesus Christ.” I told him so did many English, French and Dutch, who had never turned to God, nor loved Him: He replied in broken English: “me so big naughtyHeart, me heart all one stone!” Savory expressions using to breath from compunct and broken Hearts, and a sence of inward hardnesse and unbrokennesse. I had many discourses with him in his Life, but this was the summe of our last parting until our general meeting. Now because this is the great Inquiry of all men what Indians have been converted? what have the English done in those parts? what hopes of the Indians receiving the knowledge of Christ!

And because to this Question some put an edge from the boast of the Jesuits in Canada and Maryland, and especially from the wonderful conversions made by the Spaniards and Portugals in the West-Indies, besides what I have here written, as also, besides what I have observed in the Chapter of their Religion; I shall further present you with a brief additional discourse concerning this Great Point, being comfortably persuaded that that Father of Spirits, who was graciously pleased to perswade Japhet (the Gentiles) to dwell in the Tents of Shem (the Jews) willin his holy season (I hope approaching) persuade these Gentiles of America to partake of the mercies of Europe, and then shall bee fulfilled what is written by the Prophet Malachi, from the rising of the Sunne (in Europe) to the going down of the same (in America) my name shall be great among the Gentiles. So I desire to hope and pray,

Your unworthy Country-man,



The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience by Rodger Williams is produced by The Internet Archive and released under a public domain license.

Letters of Roger Williams by Roger Williams is produced by the Narragansett Club and released in the public domain.

A Key into Language of America by Roger Williams is produced by The Internet Archive and released under a public domain license.


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Open Anthology of American Literature Copyright © 2021 by Farrah Cato is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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