Roger Williams Institute

Roger Williams ... A Brief Biography

Roger Williams Family Association

ROGER WILLIAMS was born in London, circa 1603, the son of James and
Alice (Pemberton) Williams. James, the son of Mark and Agnes
(Audley) Williams was a "merchant Tailor" (an importer and trader)
and probably a man of some importance. His will, proved 19 November
1621, left, in addition to bequests to his "loving wife, Alice," to
his sons, Sydrach, Roger and Robert, and to his daughter Catherine,
money and bread to the poor in various sections of London.

The will of Alice (Pemberton) Williams was admitted to probate 26
January 1634. Among other bequests, she left the sum of Ten Pounds
yearly for twenty years to her son, Roger Williams, "now beyond the
seas." She further provided that if Roger predeceased her, "what
remaineth thereof unpaid ... shall be paid to his wife and
daughter...." Obviously, by the time of her death, Roger's mother
was aware of the birth in America in 1633 of her grandchild, Mary

Roger's youth was spent in the parish of "St. Sepulchre's, without
Newgate, London." While a young man, he must have been aware of the
numerous burnings at the stake that had taken place at nearby
Smithfield of so-called Puritans or heretics. This probably
influenced his later strong beliefs in civic and religious liberty.

During his teens, Roger Williams came to the attention of Sir Edward
Coke, a brilliant lawyer and one-time Chief Justice of England,
through whose influence he was enrolled at Sutton's Hospital, a part
of Charter House, a school in London. He next entered Pembroke
College at Cambridge University from which he graduated in 1627. All
of the literature currently available at Pembroke to prospective
students mentions Roger Williams, his part in the Reformation, and
his founding of the Colony of Rhode Island. At Pembroke, he was one
of eight granted scholarships based on excellence in Latin, Greek
and Hebrew. Pembroke College in Providence, once the women's college
of Brown University, was named after Pembroke at Cambridge in honor
of Roger Williams.

In the years after he left Cambridge, Roger Williams was Chaplain to
a wealthy family, and on 15 December 1629, he married MARY BARNARD
at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. Even at this time, he
became a controversial figure because of his ideas on freedom of
worship. And so, in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at
Plymouth, Roger thought it expedient to leave England. He arrived,
with Mary, on 5 February 1631 at Boston in the Massachusetts Bay
Colony. Their passage was aboard the ship Lyon (Lion).

He preached first at Salem, then at Plymouth, then back to Salem,
always at odds with the structured Puritans. When he was about to be
deported back to England, Roger fled southwest out of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony, was befriended by local Indians and
eventually settled at the headwaters of what is now Narragansett
Bay, after he learned that his first settlement on the east bank of
the Seekonk River was within the boundaries of the Plymouth Colony.
Roger purchased land from the Narragansett Chiefs, Canonicus and
Miantonomi and named his settlement Providence in thanks to God. The
original deed remains in the Archives of the City of Providence.

Roger Williams made two trips back to England during his lifetime.
The first in June or July 1643 was to obtain a Charter for his
colony to forestall the attempt of neighboring colonies to take over
Providence. He returned with a Charter for "the Providence
Plantations in Narragansett Bay" which incorporated Providence,
Newport and Portsmouth. During this voyage, he produced his
best-known literary work -- Key into the Languages of America ,
which when published in London in 1643, made him the authority on
American Indians.

On his return, Roger Williams started a trading post at Cocumscussoc
(now North Kingstown) where he traded with the Indians and was known
for his peacemaking between the neighboring colonists and the
Indians. But again colony affairs interfered, and in 1651 he sold
his trading post and returned to England with John Clarke (a Newport
preacher) in order to have the Charter confirmed. Because of family
responsibilities, he returned sometime before 1654. John Clarke
finally obtained the Royal Charter from Charles II on 8 July 1663,
thereby averting further trouble with William Coddington and some
colonists at Newport, who had previously obtained a charter for a
separate colony.

Roger Williams was Governor of the Colony 1654 through 1658. During
the later years of his life, he saw almost all of Providence burned
during King Philip's War, 1675-1676. He lived to see Providence
rebuilt. He continued to preach, and the Colony grew through its
acceptance of settlers of all religious persuasions. The two volumes
of the correspondence of Roger Williams recently published by the
Rhode Island Historical Society, Glenn W. LaFantasie, Editor,
present an excellent picture of his philosophy and personality.
Unfortunately, there was no known painting made of him during his
lifetime, although many artists and sculptors have portrayed him as
they envision him.

Roger and Mary (Barnard) Williams were the parents of six children,
all born in America:

1. MARY, born at Plymouth, Plymouth Colony, August 1633, died 1684;
married JOHN SAYLES in 1650; six children. John and Mary Sayles
lived on Aquidneck Island and are buried near Easton's Beach,
Middletown, Rhode Island.

2. FREEBORN, born at Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 4 October
1635, died 10 January 1710; married first THOMAS HART, died 1671;
four children. There were no children of Freeborn's second marriage
to WALTER CLARKE, a Governor of Newport.

3. PROVIDENCE, born at Providence, September 1638, died March 1686;
never married.

4. MERCY, born at Providence, 15 July 1640, died circa 1705; married
first in 1659 RESOLVED WATERMAN, born July 1638, died August 1670;
five children. Mercy married second SAMUEL WINSOR, born 1644, died
19 September 1705; three children.

5. DANIEL, born at Providence, February 1641 "counting years to
begin about ye 25 of March so yt he was borne above a year & half
after Mercy (Carpenter, Roger Williams), died 14 May 1712; married 7
December 1676 REBECCA (RHODES) POWER, died 1727, widow of Nicholas
Power; six children.

6. JOSEPH, born at Providence, 12 December 1643, died 17 August
1724; married LYDIA OLNEY, born 1645, died 9 September 1724; six

Roger Williams died at Providence between 16 January and 16 April
1683/84, his wife Mary having predeceased him in 1676. His
descendants have contributed in many ways, first to the
establishment of an independent Colony, later to the establishment
of an independent state in a united nation. The United States of
America has maintained the reality of separation of church and state
which Roger Williams envisioned, and ordained in his settlement at

Sources: Carpenter, Edmund J., Litt.D., Roger Williams, New York,
1909; Anthony, Bertha W., Roger Williams of Providence, RI, Vol. II,
Cranston, RI, 1966; Haley, John Williams, The Old Stone Bank History
of Rhode Island , Vol. IV, Providence, 1944; Hall, May Emery, Roger
Williams, Boston, 1917.


Master Roger Williams, A Biography (The Macmillan Company, New York,
1957) by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. Purchase this book.

Roger Williams, A Contribution to the American Tradition (The
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, Indianapolis and New York, 1953) by
Perry Miller. Purchase this book.

The Irrepressible Democrat, Roger Williams (The Ronald Press
Company, New York, 1940) by Samuel Brockunier.

Roger Williams, New England Firebrand (The Macmillan Company, New
York, 1932) by James Ernst.

The Correspondence of Roger Williams (Brown University Press,
Providence, 1988) by Glenn W. LaFantasie. Purchase this book.

Descendants of Roger Williams - Book I - Waterman & Winsor Lines
(Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, 1991) by Dorothy Higson White and
Kay Kirlin Moore. Purchase this book.


Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty