Roger Williams
Roger Williams

© 1997, Sam Behling

Roger Williams, founder of Providence, Rhode Island was born in London, England about 1603. This is an estimated date as the parish records of St. Sepulchre's Church where he was christened were destroyed in the Great London Fire in 1666. He was one of the four children of James Williams, merchant tailor, and his wife Alice, the daughter of Robert and Catherine (Stokes) Pemberton of St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England. Roger grew up in the old Holborn section of London, near the great Smithfield plain, where fairs were held and religious dissenters were burned at the stake.

Little is known of the early history of Roger Williams except that he attracted the attention of Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the King's Bench, by his skill in taking down shorthand sermons and long speeches. Years later Mrs. Sadler (daughter of Sir Edward Coke) appended the following note to one of Roger Williams' letters to herself. "This Roger Williams, when he was a youth, would in a short hand take sermons and speeches in the Star Chamber, and presented them to my dear father. He, seeing so hopeful a youth, took such liking to him that he sent him into Sutton's Hospital," etc. He was sent by the great lawyer to Sutton Hospital in 1621, now known as the Charterhouse School. According to the school's custom with capable students, he received a modest allowance which enabled him to further his education at Pembroke Hall in Cambridge University, where he received the degree of A.B. in 1627. He mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Dutch languages.

He took orders in the Church of England and in 1629 accepted the post of chaplain to Sir William Masham at his manor house at Otes in Essex. His courtship of Jane Whalley was brought to an abrupt termination by the disapproval of her aunt, Lady Barrington. Stung by the rejection, the young clergyman became ill of fever and was nursed back to health by Mary Barnard, a member of Lady Masham's household. She is believed to have been the daughter of the Rev. Richard Barnard in Nottinghamshire. Rogers Williams and Mary Barnard were married at High Laver Church in Essex on December 15 1629.

On December 1, 1630, he and his wife boarded the ship Lyon sailing for New England. After fifty-seven days of a storm-wracked voyage, they anchored off Nantasket on February 3, 1631 and arrived in Boston on the 5th. His arrival in America was duly noted by the MA Bay Colony Governor, John Winthrop, in his carefully kept diary. Winthrop described Williams as a "godly minister" and it is certain the young clergyman was welcome in the new colony in Boston. The young minister's intellect and position were perfectly combined to attract attention in the Puritan community. Even his most bitter critics in later years openly acknowledged their affection and respect for him as an individual. Two months later he was called as minister to Salem, having refused to join with the congregation at Boston. The startled Boston elders were told he would not serve a congregation that recognized the Church of England. Roger Williams had become a separatist. This enraged the Boston magistrates and pressure by them on the Salem authorities caused him to leave there in late summer and go to Plymouth. Here he was made welcome by the Separatist Pilgrims and was admitted as a member of the church. He remained with them for two years. During his stay, Williams made the most of his contact with the natives of the region. His bold respect for the Indians' dignity as men and his willingness to deal with them on a basis of equality won their lasting friendship.

Although the Pilgrims were more tolerant than the Boston Puritans, they found some of Roger Williams' thinking too advanced for them. Williams returned to Salem in 1633. He was soon in difficulties with the MA Bay authorities for publicly proclaiming that their charter was invalid, since the king had no right to give away lands belonging to the Indians. He also denounced them for forcing religious uniformity upon the colonists. He believed in what he called "soul-liberty", which meant that every man had the complete right to enjoy freedom of opinion on the subject of religion. In 1635 he was ordered by the General Court to be banished from Massachusetts and threatened with deportation to England if he did not renounce his convictions. "Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the Elders of the church of Salem, hath broached and divulged new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates, as also written letters of defamation, both of the magistrates and churches here, and that before any conviction, and yet maintaineth the same without any retraction; it is, therefore, ordered that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks now next ensuing," etc. He received permission to remain till spring, but the Court hearing that he would not refrain from uttering his opinions and that many people went to his house, "taken with an apprehension of his Godliness," and that he was preparing to form a plantation about Narragansett Bay: resolved to send him to England. Warned by John Winthrop, he hastily bade his wife and baby daughters goodbye and sought santuary with his Indian friends in the Narragansett country. A messenger was sent to Salem to apprehend him, but when the officers "came to his house, they found he had gone three days before, but whither they could not learn." He wrote, thirty-five years after his banishment, "I was sorely tossed for one fourteen weeks in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bed or bread did mean."

Roger Williams was warmly received by Massasoit and Canonicus, chiefs of Indian tribes, the former of whom gave him a tract of land on the Seekonk river. He commenced to plant, when he was advised by Governor Winslow that he was within the limits of Plymouth Colony. He accordingly embarked in the spring or early summer, with five companions, landed at Slate Rock (as since called) to exchange greetings with the Indians, and then pursued his way again by boat to the site of his new settlement on the Moshassuck River, which for the many "Providences of the Most Holy and Only Wise, I called Providence." No one was refused admittance because of his religious convictions or practice. He says of this purchase, "I spared no cost towards them in tokens and presents to Canonicus and all his, many years before I came in person to the Narragansett; and when I came I was welcome to the old prince Canonicus, who was most shy of all English to his last breath." He founded Rhode Island in the form of a pure democracy, where the will of the majority should govern the state. It became a haven for Quakers, Jews and others fleeing from persecution. In 1639 Roger Williams joined the Baptist faith and founded the first Baptist church in America. However, within a few months he withdrew from this group and became a "Seeker".

This same year his mediation at the request of MA prevented a coalition of the Pequots with the Narragansetts and Mohegans. He wrote of this service in later years: "Three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassadors, whose hands and arms methought reeked with the blood of my countrymen murdered and massacred by them on Connecticut River."

In 1643 he went to England to obtain a charter to unite Providence with the settlements of Warwick, Newport and Portsmouth, which were coveted by MA Bay, Plymouth and CT. On the voyage wrote his Key to the Indian Languages. In his dedication he says, "A little key may open a box where lies a bunch of keys." The charter he obtained proved to be very important as it was indisputable for the next 20 years. Indian troubles continued to increase in the colonies and Roger Williams was called upon to mediate these difficulties. He had established a trading post near Wickford, which he operated very successfully, living there for long periods at a time, while still maintaining his homestead in Providence.

In 1651 it was necessary for him to return to England to confirm the charter of 1644. He sold the trading post to finance the voyage. While in London, he published Experiments of Spiritual Life, and Health and their Preservation, which he dedicated : "To the truly honorable the Lady Vane." He says of this work that he wrote it "in the thickest of the naked Indians of America, in their very wild houses and by their barbarous fires."

He wrote to his wife while abroad. "My dearest love and companion in this vale of tears," congratulating himself and her upon her recovery from recent illness: "I send thee, though in winter, a handful of flowers made up in a little posy, for thy dear selft and our dear children to look and smell on, when I, as grass of the field, shall be gone and withered." 1 Apr 1653 - He wrote a letter to his friends and neighbors in Providence and Warwick, from Sir Henry Vane's at Belleau in Lincolnshire, relative to the confirmation of the charter accured by Vane's mediation, charging them to dwell in peace, etc., and in a postscript adds: "My love to all my Indian friends."

At home in Providence after an absence of nearly 3 years, he became President of the colony, which office he held from 1654 to 1658. Roger Williams was made Freeman in1655; served as Commissioner in 1658, 1659 and 1661; Deputy in 1670, 1678, 1679 and 1680; and on the Town Council. 1675-76.

Despite all his efforts to avert it, war with the Indians broke out in 1676. Known as King Philip's War, it was a tragedy alike for white men and red. Providence had for years been spared the arrow and the firebrand because of his presence there, but finally, the city was threatened with destruction. Bravely, Roger Williams went out, alone and unarmed, to met the invaders, but for once his arguments failed. He was told that because he was an honest man not a hair of his head would be harmed, but that the city should be burned. Providence was burned on Mar 26 1676.

On May 6, 1682, he wrote Governor Bradstreet, calling himself "old and weak and bruised (with rupture and colic) and lameness on both my feet." He proceeds: "By my fireside I have recollected the discourses, which (by many tedious journeys) I have had with the scattered English at Narragansett before the war and since. I have reduced them unto these twenty-two heads (enclosed) which is near thirty sheets of my writing. I would send them to the Narragansetts and others; ther is no controversy in them, only an endeavour of a particular match of each poor sinner to his maker." He asks advice as to printing it, and alludes to news of Shaftsbury and Howard's beheading and contrary news of their reprieve, etc. "But these are but sublunaries, temporaries and trivials. Eternity, O Eternity, is our business."

The precise date of his death is unknown, but it occurred sometime between January 16 and March 16 1683. He was buried in the orchard in the rear of his homestead lot. Many years later, his remains were disinterred and placed in the tomb of a descendant in the North Burial Ground. In 1936 they were sealed within a bronze container and set into the base of the monument erected to his memory on Prospect Terrace.


Roger Williams & Narragansett Indians
Roger Williams & Narragansett Indians
© Kean Archives

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