Roger Williams’ new and dangerous ideas with Ranger John McNiff

Roger Williams and his ideas were considered dangerous in the 1600s. Not insightful, not enlightened—outright dangerous. The Rhode Island Historical Society hosted reknowned National Park Ranger John McNiff on a March 18, 2021 one-hour Zoom presentation in which he explored why and to whom Williams ideas were considered dangerous.


McNiff begins by describing the Great Chain of Being world-view in the 17th century in which Williams grew up. Under King James I, all assumed a hierarchy with God on top and man between the angels and animals, with the King above royalty and all lower classes below. It was this world-view that Williams challenged by saying that men were free to believe as they wished and could not be subject to someone else’s beliefs.


Williams was banished from Salem in January of 1636 and, after being sheltered by the Massasoit Ousamequin, took up residence in Providence, a town that he founded in which everyone was free to believe as they wished without interference from civil authorities. While no contemporaneous portraits of Williams exist, this rendering was once thought to be authentic.

Providence began with its own charter in 1637 that does not even mention God. Writing in 1644 in his Bloody Tenent of Persecution, Williams argued that the authority of government does not come from God or the king but rather from the governed.


The Rhode Island Royal Charter that Williams obtained from King Charles II in July 1663 outlined freedom of religion and was the guiding document of the colony’s government over a period of 180 years. His ideas influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution.