Roger Williams left England in 1630 because of religious intolerance, but didn’t find quite what he was looking for in Massachusetts. He advocated total religious toleration, even for those whom most ministers there considered religious heretics. He argued that:
…all religious sects had the right to claim equal protection from the laws, and that the civil magistrates had no right to restrain the consciences of men or to interfere with their modes of worship or religious belief.”
As if that weren’t radical enough, he also believed in sympathy and respect toward Native Americans, not only calling them the legitimate owners of the land, but going so far as to suggest that colonists should pay for whatever land they acquired from the natives.
He was denounced, forced out of the colony, and took refuge with the Narragansett Indians, whose chiefs then sold land to him and his followers. On this land, he established a settlement near the Narragansett Bay, located in present day Rhode Island. He declared the settlement welcome to anyone seeking freedom of religion and the absence of the church in civil matters.
This is not to say he dismissed religion altogether. He named the community Providence, in thanksgiving to God, and held religious meetings in his own house for any who wanted to attend.
Williams died at the age of 81 in 1683, a member of no church, almost 50 years after his banishment from the Bay Colony.
You can read an excellent account of Roger Williams and his impact on American thought in this “Smithsonian Magazine” article adapted from the book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, copyright © 2012 by John M. Barry.