Rare Roger Williams Book Found In Rhode Island Library

A librarian in Rhode Island stumbled across a rare find recently: an intact copy of a 361-year-old book by religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams.

Librarian Phoebe Simpson at the Rhode Island Historical Society found the first-edition copy of The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution tucked among some other historical writings on a shelf of rare documents, reported the Associated Press.

“I just broke out in goose bumps,” Simpson said. “It was the pure excitement of touching something that Roger Williams touched.”

Williams, an iconoclastic preacher, was an early advocate for the separation of church and state and the founder of Rhode Island. In The Bloudy Tenent, Wil­liams outlined his ideas on religious liberty, criticizing government officials who persecuted people for their religious beliefs.

Prior to Simpson’s find, only five first-edition copies of the book were known to exist. Two are at Brown University, one at the New York Public Library and two others are held by colleges in England and Ireland.

Few copies of the first edition, printed in England, survived because that country’s parliament considered the work dangerous and ordered it burned. Williams managed to smuggle a few books into the colonies, and a second edition soon followed.

Karen Eberhart, the society’s library director, noted that the Williams work remained in good shape despite its age because it was printed on paper with heavy cotton content.

In the book, Williams employed a metaphor similar to Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state. Williams warned against creating an opening “in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

For more on Williams, see “Roger Williams: Soul Man” in the July-August 2005 Church & State.