Roger Williams Institute

Roger Williams (1603-1683)

First Author and Founder of Rhode Island
By Susan Huetteman

I. Background

If there is one influence, one person, that sculpted the independent
attitudes of New England, it is Roger Williams, whose selfless dedication
to the spiritual and personal freedom of the individual was respected even
by his accusers. Williams was intelligent in his perceptions and devoted
to God. He was inflexible in his belief that government must never control
the soul of its subjects nor claim native lands as their own.

He honored dissenting interpretations and dissimilar heritages, protecting
them from invasive controllers and providing them with safe harbors.
Although he disagreed with the specific practices of the Quakers, he
respected their differences, openly accepting them, the Dutch Jews and
other independent thinkers. He knew no hypocrisy.

When Williams was born in London in the early 17th century, it was a time
when "heretics" were burned at the stake. He was ordained in the Anglican
Church where stringent rules for thinking and behavior were enforced. A
dissenting Reverend Williams and his family left England for the
Massachusetts Bay Colony. There the Puritans for his intellect and
devotion to God welcomed him. They too were soon to encounter his defiant
will and uncompromising belief in religious and personal freedoms.
The Puritans and Pilgrims of the "New World" were not receptive to his
ideas of separation of church and state and the rights of the Indians to
keep their land. Williams wrote, "Indians and English feare deceits,/ Yet
willing both to be/Deceiv'd and couzen'd of precious soule,/Of heaven,
Eternitie." 1

Three days before he was to be brought to trial and returned to England
for his rebellious philosophies, Williams fled south to Narragansett
Indian country. He and seven followers survived the wilderness surrounding
what is now Narragansett Bay, starving until the gentle Narragansett
Indians befriended them. "I was sorely tossed for one fourteen weeks in a
bitter winter season, not knowing what bed or bread did mean," Williams
wrote. 2

Chiefs Canonicus and Miantonomi rewarded Williams' advocacy to the
Narragansetts by selling him land at the mouth of the bay. He became their
trusted friend. He named his new home in honor of God's "Providence" that
permitted the survival of his friends and family. Church and State would
forever be separate. It would be a place of freedom of religion and
thoughta promise that is honored in our nation's First Amendment and a
tone that forever influenced the independent thinking of Rhode Islanders.
William's followers grew, quickly encroaching on the territory of Plymouth
Colony. He wanted to ensure the Rhode Island plantationsProvidence and
nearby islands, Portsmouth and Newportwere a safe haven for free thinking
colonists. He would return to England only to seek legal protection. It
was during this voyage in 1643 that he wrote A Key into the Languages of
America , "A little Key may open a Box, where lies a bunch of Keyes." 3

Williams' honesty and affection for his fellow is the basis for his
extraordinary work: "My souls [sic] desire was to do the natives good, and
to that end to have their language (understood)...God was pleased to give
me a painful Patient spirit to lodge with gain their tongue." 4

The Key opens the reader to the world of 1643, sensitively drawing us into
the customs, environment, and archeology of the Narragansettsa friendly
and generous people who trusted and befriended Williams and his small
group of followers. The natives believed their ancestors came from
"Sackmakan," the Icelandic word for "Indian Prince," but Williams also
observed customs and some words that "hold affinitie [sic] with the
Hebrew." 5

They anointed their heads, gave dowries for their wives, and practice
health customs of the Jews. He also found language similarities with
"Greeks and other Nations." The natives talked of "miracles amongst them,
and (a man who walked) upon the waters." 6 Their traditions, however, they
gained from the Southwest ("Sowaniu"), which gave them their "Corne, and
Beans" and where they would go when they die. 7

Williams' personal observations immerse us in the thirty-two categories of
native lifefamily life, travel, fishing, government, and trading, as well
as a sampling of his sense of humor: "The whole race of mankind is
generally infected with an itching desire of hearing Newes." 8

Interspersed are poems written by Williams, presenting insights of a
gentle, loving poet: "The Indians find the Sun so sweet/He is a God they
say/Giving them Light, and Heat, and Fruit,/And Guidance all the day." 9
Williams' advocacy and service continued throughout his life. "He left no
great estate of worldly goods, but this was his immortal legacy to the
freedom of loving people of all the world: separation of Church and State
and equality for all men regardless of race or creed." 10

II. Timeline of William's Life

1524: Giovanni Verrazzano first to visit what is now Rhode Island
1603-4: Born in London, England; parents: James Williams, d. 1621, Alice
Pemberton Williams, d. 1634; brothers: Sydrach and Robert; sister:
1614: John Smith charts New England coast; Adriaen Block visits and claims
Block Island
1621: Sent to Sutton Hospital (Charterhouse School)
1627: Graduated, Cambridge University, A.B. degree
1629: Church of England orders and post of Chaplain to Sir William Masham
at Otes in Essex; married Mary Barnard, December 15
1630: Sail for New England on the ship "Lyon," December 1
1631: Arrive Nantucket Island, February 3; arrive Boston, February 5
1633: In Salem, preached personal liberty and Indian rights; questioned
validity of Massachusetts Bay Colony and colony's right to take land from
the native Indians; daughter Mary born in Plymouth
1635: General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony threatens banishment;
daughter Freeborn born at Salem
1636: Escapes to friendly Narragansett territory and purchases land on
Mossahuck River; founds Providence Plantation; welcomes Quakers, Jews, and
others fleeing from persecution; is the first to understand and empathize
with the Native American culture; believes in spiritual freedom
1638: Anne and William Hutchison and William Coddington found Portsmouth;
daughter Providence born at Providence
1639: Founds the first Baptist Church in America; withdraws from Baptist
Church to become a Seeker, a separatist. "As hardly any two Rhode
Islanders shared the same beliefs," Williams foundered among a number of
sects. The only basis could be religious liberty. William Coddington
founds Newport.
1640: Daughter Mercy born at Providence
1641: Son Daniel born
1643: Returns to England; asks Cromwell to grant Charter for Providence,
joining with Warwick, Newport, and Portsmouth; writes Key to the Indian
Languages during voyage;Samuel Gorton founds Warwick; Son Joseph born at
1644: Charter, a Colonial Patent, was granted; writes The Bloudy Tenent of
Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Peace and Truth Speak
1651: Returns to England to confirm Charter; publishes Experiments of
Spiritual Life, and Health and Their Preservation
1652: Writes: The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy, after experiencing
opposition by John Cotton; argues that a government that controls religion
wants control of "all areas of human endeavor"
1653: Charter confirmed
1654-8: Elected president of the combined colonies of Providence, Newport,
Narragansett and Warwick
1655: Elected Freeman
1657: Quakers and Antinomians establish meeting house
1658: Newport Jewish congregation established
1658-61: Elected Commissioner
1660: Royal Charter necessary due to Stuart Restoration in England
1663: Royal Charter granted, serving as basic law until 1843
1670-80: Elected Deputy
1675-76: Served on Town Council
1675: Great Swamp Fight and the burning of Providence. "For Williams, who
witnessed the event, it represented the destruction of four decades of
hard-earned progress." Newport was spared.
1676: Providence burned in King Philip's War, but because Williams was "an
honest man, not a hair of his head would be harmed." Writes George Fox
Digg'd out His Burrows, attacking Quaker's "inner light"; wife Mary dies.
1683: Roger William actively served Rhode Island until his death
1686: French Huguenot Calvinists settle
1700: Religious liberty more accepted
1936: Williams grave moved twice, finally resting in the base of his
monument on Prospect Terrace in Providence
1964: Cardinal Cushing of Boston proposes "religious liberty as a

III. Footnotes

1. Williams, Roger. A Key into the Language of America, An help to the
Language of the Natives in that part of America, called New-England.
Together, with brief Observations of the Customs, Manners and Worships,
etc. of the aforesaid Natives, in Peace and War, in Life and Death. On all
which are added Spiritual Observations, General and Particular by the
Author, of chief and special use (upon all occasions) to all the English
Inhabiting those parts; yet pleasant and profitable to the view of all
men: by Roger Williams of Providence in New-England.Bedford,
Massachusetts: Applewood Books. With introduction by Howard M. Chapin
(Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Tercentenary Committee, Inc.
1936), p. 167
2. Sam Behling, ed., 1997. Biographical essay on Roger Williams's life (5
3. Op.Cit., Williams, p. A2
4. Ibid., Introduction, HMC
5. Ibid., To the Reader
6. Ibid., To the Reader
7. Ibid., To the Reader
8. Ibid., Ch. VIII, p. 61
9. Ibid., Ch. IX, p. 64
10. Essay, RI Early History, Indians And Explorers, available at
IV. Other Sources
American Heritage Magazine, ed. American Heritage New Pictorial
Encyclopedic Guide to the United States. Nevada through Wyoming,
Washington, DC, Territories. NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1965, pp.
Bradbury, Malcolm and Mottram, Eric, ed. The Avenel Companion to English &
American Literature, United States of America, vol. II. NY:Penguin Books
Ltd., 1981, p. 269, 1635-1643
Commanger, Henry Steele, ed. Documents of American History, 5th Edition.
NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1949. #17. Plantation Agreement at
Providence, August 27, 1640, (Articles of human rights and orders of
government for the settlement of Providence and lands from Massachusetts
Bay to Narragansett Bay) pp.24-26; #18., The New England Confederation,
May 19, 1643 (excluding RI from the union of New England Confederation),
pp.26-28; #104. State Replies to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,
1799, Article 1. The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to
Virginia, February, 1799, (concerns judicial powers), pp.184-5
Levy, Judith S. and Greenhall, Agnes, ed. The Concise Columbia
Encyclopedia. NY: Avon Books, 1983, p.922
Martinez, Marta V., ed. Rhode Island Boundaries, 1626-1936, Rhode Island
History, Vol.56, No.4, November, 1998. RI: The Rhode Island Historical
Society, pp.91-120
Miller, Marilyn and Faux, Marian, ed. The New York Public Library American
History Desk Reference. NY: A Stonesong Press Book, Macmillan, 1997,
Morison, Samauel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People.
NY:Oxford University Press, 1965, pp.68,110,126,129,132
V. From the Web
Essay "Life with Liberty Series, Separation of Church and State"produced
by Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs:
Roger Williams National Memorial:
Short history of Rhode Island:
Essay and biographical points covering defense of freedom of religion and
freedom of speech:
Roger Williams Family Association:
Also, try Internet searches (Williams, Roger; Narragansett Indians + Roger
Williams; Roger Williams author ) to locate additional information. Here
are some places to start:

VI. Miscellaneous

The Roger Williams National Memorial is located one block from the Rhode
Island State House, 282 North Main Street, Providence, RI 02903.
This essay was submitted by Susan Huetteman, a retired teacher in Rhode


Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty