American Portraits

Roger Williams: Man of the Word

In this lesson, students will understand how Roger Williams’ identity drove him to found a new colony based on religious liberty. They will also learn how they can use their identity to help them make good decisions.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


Puritanism was a controversial belief to hold in England in the 1620s, a time when the Anglican Church wielded enormous power. Roger Williams faced harassment and persecution from church officials after he adopted his Puritan beliefs. He was among the reformers who believed that the Church of England was excessively ritualistic and ornamental, due to remnants of its Roman Catholic origins. Puritan Separatists like Williams wanted to simplify church services and recover what they considered a more biblical, purer Christianity. They believed that England’s church was too corrupt to even try to reform….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How does your identity affect your decisions?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will understand how Roger Williams’ identity drove him to found a new colony based on religious liberty. They will also learn how they can use their identity to help them make good decisions.


  • Students will analyze the life of Roger Williams and his founding of Providence.
  • Students will understand how their identity affects their lives and the decisions they make.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of identity towards making good decisions.


Roger Williams, born in 1603, was the son of a merchant tailor in the Smithfield District of London. His father willed him 200 pounds, leaving him comfortably well off but not wealthy. Religion was always important to Williams; as a diligent Anglican during his youth, he attended services regularly and paid close attention to the teachings of the church.

At a young age, he often would record notes on sermons in shorthand. Sir Edward Coke noticed the teen in church, and hired Williams to write for him in 1617. Coke arranged for Williams to attend the Charterhouse School in Surrey, a college preparatory school for boys of ability whose families could not afford the more prestigious schools. After completing his studies at Charterhouse, Williams attended Cambridge College. Upon graduation, he entered into graduate study to become an Anglican minister.

However, after a year and a half as a seminarian, Williams dropped out. During his studies, he had adopted Puritan theology. Thus, the young man could not become a part of the existing Anglican Church, which he came to see as corrupt. This public acknowledgment of Puritan views cost him his relationship with Coke, who was a staunch Anglican and Anti-Puritan. Coke had become almost a second father to Williams, so this loss cost him his biggest emotional and financial supporter.

It certainly would have been easy for Williams to keep his Puritan views to himself and work for change from inside the Anglican Church, preserving the respect and support of Coke that meant so much to him. Above all else, however, Williams was loyal to the Word of God, and he chose to become a Puritan no matter the consequences. This would become the defining point of his identity. He left his old life behind and became a Puritan chaplain to a wealthy family in Essex. Williams soon became a “Separatist,” a Puritan who believed the Church of England was so corrupt that the only just course was to break away completely.

An open and honest man concerning his beliefs, Williams had no fear of man when convinced of the truth in his spiritual beliefs. He wrote and spoke of them clearly in his book, The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution, where he stated, “It hath been England’s sinfull shame to fashion and change their garments and religions with wondrous ease and lightnese, as a higher power, a stronger sword hath prevailed.”

Williams eventually moved to the American colonies to serve as a minister and escape religious persecution. His singular focus was to live according to his interpretation of God’s will, a task he built his identity around. He is best known for the founding of Providence, which would eventually become Rhode Island. The colony was known for religious tolerance and a strong wall of separation between church and state.

Although Williams had strong religious beliefs, his Christianity never allowed him to forget his own fallibility; he was a man of tolerance. His acknowledgment of his own flawed humanity made him willing to listen to others and their needs, and he never dismissed the possibility that he could have gotten something wrong. Williams’ struggle to protect religious freedom was not born out of any uncertainty in the truths he believed, but in his conviction that all persons must be free to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience.


  • Puritan
  • Staunch
  • Anglican
  • Separatist
  • Persecution
  • Singular
  • Scripture
  • Providence
  • Fallibility
  • Ritual
  • Ornament
  • Reformers
  • Purer
  • Uniformity
  • Patent
  • Oath
  • Banished
  • Legitimate
  • Succession
  • Seeker

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

Visit Their Website


Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Roger Williams? What was significant about his life?
  • What was Williams’ purpose?
  • What did Williams do to promote religious liberty?
  • How did Roger Williams promote freedom for himself and others by defending religious liberty?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.