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vanced to their subsequent elevation in virtue and usefulness, or to a bad eminence in crime. The character of most men is formed early, and we can scarcely pronounce a fair judgment respecting any individual, unless we take into the account the circumstances, which shed a propitious or malignant influence on those early years, when his habits were fixed, and his principles imbibed.
It is a subject of regret, that of the early life of Roger WILLIAMS so little is known. A few facts only have been preserved, and these do not rest on very certain evidence. It is remarkable, that in his numerous writings, there are no allusions to his parents, to the place of his birth and education, and to other points relating to his early years. There are, in his letters and books, but two or three incidental references to events anterior to his arrival in this country; though his allusions to early occurrences after his emigration are very frequent.
He was about 32 years of age when he reached our shores; a period of life, when the energy of youth remains without its rashness, and the mind has acquired steadiness, without the timid caution and fixed pertinacity of old age. It is a period, however, when the character of most men is already formed. Though new situations and difficult exigencies may develope unexpected powers, and give prominence to certain traits of character, yet the mind commonly remains unchanged in its essential qualities. It was long since said by Horace, that those who cross the ocean pass under a new sky, but do not acquire a new disposition.* This was probably true of Mr. Williams; and if we could trace his early history, we should undoubtedly see an exhibition of the same principles and temper which distinguished his subsequent career.
It may, however, be said of most of the prominent men among the first settlers of New England, that their history begins at the period of their arrival here. Our accounts of their early lives are very brief. They were too busy to record their own early fortunes, and too pious to feel any pride in displaying their descent, their virtues, or their sufferings. The present and the future filled their minds;
animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt."
Ep. lib. i. 11,
and they seem to have felt, that the wide ocean which separated them from the land of their fathers had effected a similar disjunction of their history. Of Roger Williams less is known than of some others, because no efforts were made by early biographers to collect facts concerning him.
ents were more disposed to obliterate his name than to record his life. His contemporary friends were sharers in his sufferings, and were not at leisure to relate his story or their own. Even the records of the church which he founded at Providence contain no notice of him, written earlier than 1775, when the Rev. John Stanford, a venerable minister, still living in New-York, collected the fugitive traditions concerning the origin of the church.
These traditions state that Mr. Williams was born in Wales, in 1599.* The place of his birth, and the charac, ter of his parents, are not known. We may easily believe that he was a native of Wales. He possessed the Welch temperament-excitable and ardent feelings, generosity, courage, and firmness, which sometimes, perhaps, had a touch of obstinacy. It has been supposed, that he was a relative of Oliver Cromwell, one of whose ancestors was named Williams. This conjecture has not a very solid basis. Roger Williams does not claim, in his writings, any kindred to the formidable Protector, though he repeatedly alludes to his intimacy with him, and once speaks of
« close conference with Oliver," on the subject of Popery, which they both abhorred and feared. It appears, from a remark in one of his books, that he became pious in early life. “The truth is, from my childhood, now above threescore years, the Father of lights and mercies touched my soul with a love to himself, to his only begotten, the true Lord Jesus, to his holy Scriptures,” &c.
That his parents were in humble life, and that his dis
* The records of the church say 1598, (Benedict, vol. i. p. 473) but this statement appears to be a mistake. Mr. Williams, in a letter dated July 21, 1679, (Backus, vol. i. p. 421) said that he was then“ near to fourscore years of age.” This proves that he was not born in 1598, and makes it probable that the next year was the true time.
+ Baylies' History of Plymouth, vol. i. p. 284. See Appendix to this work, (A.)
George Fox digged out of his Burrowes, written in 1673.
position was pious and thoughtful, may be inferred from an incident which is related concerning him, and which, if true, had a great share in determining his future course. It is said, that the famous lawyer, Sir Edward Coke, observed him, one day, during public worship, taking notes of the discourse. His curiosity was excited, and he requested the boy to show him his notes. Sir Edward was so favorably impressed by the evidences of talent which these exhibited, that he requested the parents of young Williams to intrust their son to his care. He placed him, as the tradition runs, at the University of Oxford,* where he drank deeply at the fountains of learning. His writings testify, that his education was liberal, according to the taste of those times, when logic and the classics formed the chief objects of study at the universities.
He afterwards commenced the study of the law, at the desire and under the guidance of his generous patron, who would naturally wish to train his pupil to the honorable and useful profession which he himself adorned. The providence of God may be seen in thus leading the mind of Mr. Williams to that acquaintance with the principles of law and government, which qualified him for his duties as legislator of his little colony.
But he probably soon found that the study of the law was not congenial with his taste. Theology possessed more attractions to a mind and heart like his. To this divine science he directed his attention, and received Episcopal orders. It is stated, that he assumed, while in Eng
* Wood, in his Athene Oxonienses, after giving an account of a gentleman named Roger Williams, says, “ I find another Roger Williams, later than the former, an inhabitant of Providence, in New England, and author of (1) A Key to the Language of New-England, London, 1643, oct. (2) The Hireling Ministry none of Christ's, or a Discourse of the Propagation of the Gospel of Christ Jesus, London, 1652, qu. &c. But of what university the said Williams was, if of any, I know not, or whether a real fanatick or Jesuit." This assertion of Wood renders it doubtful whether Mr. Williams was educated at Oxford, or elsewhere. In the absence of all evidence, it might be thought more probable that he received his education at Cambridge, where a large proportion of the leading Puritans were educated. Coke himself was a graduate of Cambridge, and would probably prefer to place Williams there. Inquiries have been sent to England, for information on this point, but they have not been successful.
land, the charge of a parish; that his preaching was highly esteemed, and his private character revered.*
We have thus recited the traditions which have been current in Rhode Island. There is undoubtedly some truth in them, though the story is a little romantic, and may have received some embellishment in its progress.
Roger Williams entered on public life at an eventful period, when the national mind was strongly agitated by those political and religious causes, which had been slowly operating for many years, and which soon subverted the throne and the Episcopal Church. At these causes we can do no more than glance.
The Reformation, in England, commenced as far back as the latter part of the fourteenth century, when Wickliffe taught the pure doctrines of the Scriptures, and kindled a great light for the guidance of the people in the path to Heaven, by translating the Scriptures, for the first time, into the English language. He was, of course, denounced and persecuted by the Catholic Church, but his doctrines spread, and though many of his followers were put to death, and the utmost cruelty was practised, in various ways, to hinder the progress of the truth, yet the principles of the Reformation were extensively diffused in England, before Luther and his fellow laborers commenced their glorious ministry. But no public blow was given to the papal power in England, till Henry VIII. finding the authority of the Pope an obstacle to his favorite project of repudiating his wife Catharine and marrying Anne Boleyn, renounced, in 1534, his political allegiance to his Holiness.* The King was created, by act of Par
* Benedict, vol. i. p. 473–4.
+ The refusal of the Pope, Clement VII. to sanction the divorce, would have been honorable to him, if it had not undeniably sprung from political motives. He at first prepared a bull, granting Henry's request, but in a short time he thought it more conducive to his political interests to suppress it, and in a fit of anger against the King for a supposed insult, the Pope issued his sentence, prohibiting the divorce, and threatening the King with excommunication if he did not recognise Catharine as his wife. In six days after, he received intelligence which made him earnestly desire to annul his sentence, but it was too late. His attribute of infallibility was now found inconvenient. He could not retract. Henry was exasperated and
liament, the Head of the Church, and the powers which had previously been claimed and exercised by the Pope, were transferred to the King. But, while the papal authority was rejected, the doctrines of Popery were not discarded. The King was a strenuous believer in transubstantiation, purgatory, sprinkling of holy water, invocation of saints, and other doctrines and rites of the Catholic Church. He exacted as implicit a submission to his will as the Pope himself. Indeed, little more was yet gained, than the substitution of a Pope in England for a Pope in Rome. Henry was of a temper too despotic to permit him to be a friend of the Protestant religion. To a monarch of arbitrary principles, the spirit of Popery is more congenial than that of the Protestant faith. The Catholic system requires an unconditional submission to the authority of man. The first principle
of Protestantism is implicit obedience to God alone. The decisions of Councils and the commands of the Pope bind the Catholic ; the will of God, as it is uttered in the Holy Scriptures, is the only rule of faith and practice to the true Protestant.
After the death of Henry, his son, Edward VI. ascended the throne. He was a religious Prince, and a zealous friend of the Reformation. The Church of England was purified from many corruptions during his reign, a liturgy was compiled, and the Protestant religion made a rapid progress in the nation. But some relics of Popery were still retained, and among others, the vestments of the clergy. It was deemed indispensable, that the priests should wear the square cap, the surplice, the cope, the tippet, and other articles of apparel, which were in use among the Popish clergy. Some excellent ministers refused to wear these garments, on the ground that they were associated in the public mind with Popery; were regarded by many of the people with superstitious reverence, and ought, consequently, to be rejected with the other corruptions from which the church had purged herself. It was, unquestionably, very unwise to retain an appendage renounced his political allegiance, though, in his controversy with Luther, which won for him from the Pope the title of Defender of the Faith, he had argued that the primacy of the Pope was of divine right! Histoire du Concile de Trent, livre i. p. 65, Amsterdam edition, 1686.