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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683)

[5219] Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (1643), courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum & Library.

Although we do not have written texts by Algonquian Indians from the very early contact period, we can learn about their language and culture from the way it is presented by such Europeans as Roger Williams, who lived among native communities. A Puritan whose unorthodox views alienated him from both the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth colonies, Williams has been reclaimed by some contemporary scholars as a democratic and pluralistic hero. Born in London, Williams studied at Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1627, but which he left in 1629, without having completed his M.A., to become a Puritan chaplain. He sailed to the New World on December 10, 1630; there tensions almost immediately arose between him and various members of the Puritan hierarchy (including, at different times, William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Cotton Mather—writers featured in Unit 3, “Utopian Promise”).

The primary theological and political position that distinguished Williams was his assertion that church and state should be separate entities, with neither one having jurisdiction in the matters of the other. This was the first American articulation of the separation of church and state, appearing some 150 years before Thomas Jefferson’s, and it did not sit at all well with the Puritan oligarchy (though it is worth noting that, unlike Jefferson’s, Williams’s concern was that the church not be corrupted by the state). In particular, Williams argued that the Massachusetts Bay Puritans should distance themselves from England (and therefore from English material support) by becoming Separatists, that their royal charter was invalid since Christians had no right to heathen lands, and that civil authorities should not meddle in spiritual affairs. When he was charged with subversion and spreading discord, he moved from Boston to Plymouth, where he established friendly trading relations with the Indians. Williams soon became pastor to Salem, where he continued preaching his subversive doctrines and in 1635 was indicted for heresy and divisiveness and sentenced to be banished. He escaped this fate only by fleeing to an Indian settlement, where he purchased land from the Narragansetts and founded Providence. This city became a haven for exiles and outcasts, from Anne Hutchinson to Baptists, Seekers, Antinomians, Quakers, and Jews.

Throughout his life Williams held important offices and fought for Native American rights, acting as negotiator for the Narragansetts during King Philip’s War (which did not prevent them from being all but decimated by the end of that war). Although he produced various texts, his most famous is A Key into the Language of America (1643), which is in part a promotional tract for New World settlement in the tradition of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. A Key into the Language of America, however, is much more complicated ideologically: it is also an ethnographic study of Native American culture, a grammar of Native American languages, a defense of Native American cultures in the face of European allegations of immorality, and a lament for the “false religion” of the natives. Although Williams shared the common European assumption that only Christianity could save souls, this text does reveal his interest in analyzing American Indian language and culture on its own terms rather than by Western standards alone. Williams, like many Puritans, subscribed to the theory that Indians were ancestors of one of the “lost tribes” of Israel, applying a falsely Eurocentric view of native genealogy. Still, Williams remains one of the most powerful seventeenth-century European voices of sympathy and admiration for the American Indian.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students write a natural history of, or promotional tract for, a place in which they have lived, using the standard structure of Renaissance travel literature. How does their work compare to Harriot’s or Williams’s?
  • Have your students write a first-contact narrative about meeting the Narragansetts or Wampanoags from a Puritan point of view. What is likely to have concerned them? What differences are they likely to have noticed? How is their text a bicultural production?
  • Ask your students to compare the Puritan creation stories (Genesis, for example) to those of the Native Americans in the East. What does each tell us about how they view humans? How they view the supernatural? How they view the relationship between the two?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does Williams say about the religion of the natives?
  2. Comprehension: According to Williams, why did he write A Key into the Language of America?
  3. Context: What is the effect of Williams’s constructing his book as “an implicit dialogue” that “respects the native language of it”? Keep in mind that there was a range of seventeenth-century opinion about how the Indians should be treated, with some advocating negotiation and partnership and others arguing for their elimination. Do you think Williams implies a value judgment when he describes the Narragansett language as “exceeding[ly] copious”?
  4. Context: Compare Williams’s attitude toward the Indians with Thomas Harriot’s (below). What message about Native Americans does each try to convey to his Renaissance English readers?
  5. Exploration: To what extent is Williams “ethnocentric”? That is, to what extent does he seem to assume that European culture and beliefs are true and correct and that, therefore, alternative cultures and beliefs must be inferior?
  6. Exploration: Compare Williams’s portrait of the Narragansetts to Mary Rowlandson’s (Unit 3). What, besides circumstance, seems to account for his greater sympathy?
  7. Exploration: Spanish American grammars of the New World from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tended to be organized in the same format as Latin grammars. Williams’s grammar, on the other hand, is startlingly new in that it organizes its linguistic information by situation. What impact does this structure have upon the message Williams hopes to make?

Selected Archive Items

[1210] John Underhill, The Figure of the Indians’ Fort or Palizado in New England and the Manner of the Destroying it by Captayne Underhill and Captayne Mason (1638),

courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-32055].
In 1636, the English settlers engaged in a genocidal campaign to wipe out the Pequot tribe of New England. Captain John Underhill chronicled the Pequot War in his News from America (1638), providing this sketch of the Puritans, along with their Narragansett allies, encircling and destroying a Pequot village.

[1232] Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed, in a Conference Betweene Truth and Peace (1644),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Roger Williams’s Bloudy Tenent of Persecution was a plea to the Massachusetts legislature for freedom of conscience for himself and others in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

[5219] Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (1643),
courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum & Library.
Williams held important offices and fought for Native American rights, including acting as negotiator for the Narragansetts during King Philip’s War. In 1643 he published A Key into the Language of America. A Key, which deals with Narragansett language and culture, is an unusual and sympathetic mix of ethnography, grammar, and promotional tract.

[6942] Christopher Moses, Photo of Statue of Roger Williams, Providence, Rhode Island (2002),
courtesy of Christopher Moses.
A Puritan whose unorthodox views alienated him from both the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth colonies, Roger Williams has been reclaimed by some contemporary scholars as a democratic and pluralistic hero.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6