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Roger Williams

founder of Rhode Island

Roger Williams

Roger Williams was born in London, England, in 1603, the son of a shopkeeper. While in his teens he came to the attention of Sir Edward Coke, a respected lawyer and one-time Chief Justice of England, who secured for him a position at Sutton's Hospital, a part of Charter House, a school in London. From there he went on to study at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, from which he graduated in 1627.

Although he had been trained for the ministry by the Church of England, Williams found it difficult to abide by the church's doctrines. To avoid persecution, he and his wife Mary (whom he had married in 1629) obtained passage aboard a ship bound for America, and arrived in Boston on February 5, 1631. After refusing an invitation to become the minister of a Boston church because that church had not officially severed its ties with the Church of England, he accepted the ministry of the church at Salem. After a brief period in Salem, he went to Plymouth, and then returned to Salem.

Always the nonconformist, Williams frequently found himself at odds with the Puritan authorities who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He asserted that the colony's royal charter did not justify taking land from the Indians, and declared that people should not be punished for religious differences. In October 1635, the Massachusetts General Court issued an order banishing him from the colony. In January 1636, after spending a few months "in the wilderness," Williams purchased land on Narragansett Bay from the Narragansett Indians, and established the colony of Providence.

At Providence, Williams established a government based on consent of the settlers. It provided for frequent elections, a flexible constitution, and local home rule. Each household in the colony had a voice in the government, and each received an equal share in the distribution of land. And, most importantly, he guaranteed each settler the absolute right to freedom of religion and a complete separation of state affairs from those of any church. In 1643 he went to England and secured the "Charter for the Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay," which incorporated the settlements of Providence, Newport and Portsmouth into one colony. Williams served as president of the Rhode Island Colony from 1654 to 1657, and served in various other governmental positions for most of the rest of his life.

From the moment Williams set foot in what is now Rhode Island he was known as a good and trusted friend of the Indians. He had purposefully negotiated a fair price for the land on which he established Providence, rather than simply taking it as other colonial founders had done, and as a trader he was known for treating the Indians with respect and fairness, and their trust in him helped preserve the peace for all of New England for many years. An excellent student of languages in college, he was able to learn the languages of some of the area Indian tribes, and in 1643 he published Key into the Languages of America, which can rightfully be called the first dictionary of the Narragansett language. He died in 1683.

Other works by Williams include: The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), Christenings Make Not Christians (1645), and George Foxx Digg's Out of His Burrowes (1676).

A statue of Roger Williams represents Rhode Island in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.

SEE ALSO
Massachusetts Bay Colony

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> New England >> Rhode Island

This page was last updated on October 08, 2017.