Born in England. Arrived in Massachusetts in 1632, subsequently settling in Rhode Island and
Born in England. Arrived in Massachusetts in 1632 and subsequently settling in Rhode Island.
There are many books available on Roger Williams and related topics. Check out my Recommended Reading List.
Roger Williams is also my paternal 11th g-grandfather through his daughter, Mary Williams.
The most dramatic opportunities for religious liberty opened up in the New World as persecuted people fled from England, and Roger Williams was the greatest pioneer. He went beyond toleration and insisted that people be free to worship according to their conscience. “It is impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by the sword,” he wrote. He established the American colony of Rhode Island, the first sanctuary for religious liberty. “The creation of Rhode Island was,” wrote historian Paul Johnson, “a critical turning point in the evolution of America. It not only introduced the principles of complete religious freedom and the separation of church and state, it also inaugurated the practice of religious competition.”
Roger Williams (born 21 Dec 1603 and died 1 Apr 1683) also founded the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence, before leaving to become a Seeker. He was a student of Native American languages and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans.
For decades, intolerant neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut schemed to seize Rhode Island’s territory, but Williams remained the most effective defender. Rhode Island people told him in 1652, Wee may not neglect any opportunity to salute you…[who] make firme the fabricke under us…
No portrait of Roger Williams survives, and we have only a vague idea what he looked like. Biographer Cyclone Covey reported that “his hair turned white by 1664 at the latest. It is almost certain that he would have been clean-shaven. Beards, goatees, and heavy mustaches were common among Puritan magistrates, but not the fashion for…Puritan preachers, who wore no more than a thin mustache, if that… But no matter how much modern commentators may wish to make him into a secular attacker of Puritan religiosity, he remained a devout Puritan preacher and his mental habits always preacher-oriented. Remembering this fact of his primarily being a preacher will more than anything else clarify his perplexing career.”
Roger Williams was respected by those who knew him best, including his adversaries. Massachusetts’ first governor William Bradford described him as “a man godly and zealous, having many precious parts.” After he was banished from Massachusetts, William Martin wrote another Massachusetts governor, John Winthrop: I am sorry to hear of Mr. Williams separation from you… He is passionate and precipitate, which may transport him into error, but I hope his integrity and good intentions will bring him at last into the way of truth…. For years after Williams’ banishment from Massachusetts, in which Winthrop played an important role, the two men carried on a warm correspondence. And Williams got along well with Winthrop’s son John who later became governor of Connecticut. Your loving lines in this cold, dead season, Williams wrote in 1660, were as a cup of your Connecticut cider, which we are glad to hear abounds with you…
Williams, who never had much money and died destitute, wrote this about his greatest achievement: It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island. Rhode Island was purchased by love.
Roger Williams was born in Cowley, Middlesex, England on 21 Dec 1603. At age 12 he had a conversion experience of which his father disapproved. His father, James Williams (1562–1620), was a merchant tailor in Smithfield, England. His mother was Alice Pemberton (1564–1634). As a teenager Roger Williams apprenticed with Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), the famous jurist, and under Coke’s patronage, Roger was educated at Charterhouse and also at Pembroke College, Cambridge (B.A., 1627). He seemed to have had a gift for languages and early acquired familiarity with Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Dutch and French. Years later he gave John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for refresher lessons in Hebrew.
Although he took Holy Orders in the Church of England, he had become a Puritan at Cambridge, forfeiting any chance at a place of preferment in the Anglican church. After graduating from Cambridge, Roger Williams became the chaplain to a Puritan lord, Sir William Macham. He married Mary Barnard (1609–76) on 15 Dec 1629 at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. They had six children, all born in America. Their children were Mary, Freeborn, Providence, Mercy, Daniel and Joseph. Roger Williams was privy to the plans of the Puritan leaders to migrate to the New World, and while he did not join the first wave in the summer of 1630, before the end of the year, he decided he could not remain in England under Archbishop William Laud’s rigorous (and High church) administration. He regarded the Church of England to be corrupt and false, and by the time he and his wife boarded the Lyon in late 1631, he had arrived at the Separatist position.
Life in America
When Roger Williams and his wife Mary arrived at Boston in early 1632, he was welcomed and almost immediately invited to become the Teacher (assistant minister) in the Boston church to officiate while Rev. John Wilson returned to England to fetch his wife. He shocked them by declining the position, saying that he found that it was “an unseparated church.” In addition he asserted that the civil magistrates may not punish any sort of “breach of the first table [of the Ten Commandments],” such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy, and that every individual should be free to follow his own convictions in religious matters. Right from the beginning, he sounded three principles which were central to his subsequent career: Separatism, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.
As a Separatist he had concluded that the Church of England was irredeemably corrupt, and that one must completely separate from it to establish a new church for the true and pure worship of God. His search for the true church eventually carried him out of Congregationalism, the Baptists, and any visible church. From 1639 forward, he waited for Christ to send a new apostle to reestablish the church, and he saw himself as a “witness” to Christianity until that time came. He believed that soul liberty freedom of conscience, was a gift from God, and that everyone had the natural right to freedom of religion. Religious freedom demanded that church and state be separated. Roger Williams was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation” to describe the relationship of the church and state. He called for a high wall of separation between the “Garden of Christ” and the “Wilderness of the World.” This idea might have been one of the foundations of the religion clauses in the US Constitution, (although the language used by the founders is quite different) and First Amendment to the US Constitution. Years later, in 1802, Thomas Jefferson, writing of the “wall of separation” echoed Roger Williams in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
The Salem church was much more inclined to Separatism, so they invited Roger Williams to become their Teacher. When the leaders in Boston learned of this, they vigorously protested, and the offer was withdrawn. By the end of the summer of 1631, Roger Williams had moved to Plymouth colony where he was welcomed, and informally assisted the minister there. He preached regularly and according to Governor Bradford, “his teachings were well approved.”
Life at Salem, Exile
After a time, Williams felt disappointed that the Plymouth church was not sufficiently separated from the Church of England, and his study of the Native Americans had caused him to doubt the validity of the colonial charters. Governor Bradford later wrote that Williams fell “into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him.” In December 1632 he wrote a lengthy tract which openly condemned the King’s charters and questioned the right of Plymouth (or Massachusetts) to the land without first buying it from the Indians. He charged that King James had uttered a “solemn lie” when he asserted that he was the first Christian monarch to have discovered the land. Subsequently, he moved back to Salem by the fall of 1633 and was welcomed by Rev. Samuel Skelton as an unofficial assistant in the church.
The Massachusetts authorities were not pleased to see Roger Williams return, and when they learned of his tract attacking the King and the charters, he was summoned in December 1633 to appear before the General Court in Boston. The issue was smoothed out, and the tract disappeared forever, probably burned. In August 1634 (Rev. Skelton having died), Roger Williams became acting pastor of the Salem church and continued to be embroiled in controversies. He had promised earlier not to raise the issue of the charter again, but he did. Again, in March 1635 was ordered to appear before the General Court to explain himself. In April he so vigorously opposed the new oath of allegiance to the colonial government that it became impossible to enforce it. He was summoned again before the Court in July to answer for “erroneous” and “dangerous opinions,” and the Court declared that he should be removed from his church position. This latest controversy welled up at just the moment that the Town of Salem had petitioned the General Court to annex some land on Marblehead Neck. The Court would not consider the request until the Salem church removed Roger Williams. The Salem church felt that this order violated the independence of the church, and a letter of protest was sent to the other churches. However, the letter was not read, and the General Court refused to seat the delegates from Salem at the next session. Support for Roger Williams began to wane under this pressure, and when he demanded that the Salem church separate itself from other churches, his support crumbled entirely. He withdrew and met in his home with a few of his most devoted followers.
Finally, in October 1635 he was tried by the General Court and convicted of sedition and heresy. The Court declared that he was spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” He was ordered to be banished. The execution of the order was delayed because Roger Williams was ill and winter was approaching, and he was allowed to stay temporarily provided he ceased his agitation. However, he did not cease, so in January 1636 the sheriff came to pick him up only to discover that Roger had slipped away three days before. He walked through the deep snow of a hard winter the 105 miles from Salem to the head of Narragansett Bay. There he was rescued by his friends, the Wampanoags, and taken to the winter camp of their chief sachem, Massasoit.
Settlement at Providence
In the spring of 1636 Roger Williams and a number of his followers from Salem began a settlement on land that Williams had bought from Massasoit, only to be told by Plymouth that he was still within their land grant. They warned that they might be forced to extradite him to Massachusetts and invited him to cross the Seekonk River to territory beyond any charter. The outcasts rowed over to Narragansett territory, and having secured land from Canonicus and Miantonomi, chief sachems of the Narragansetts, Williams established a settlement with twelve “loving friends.” He called it “Providence” because he felt that God’s Providence had brought him there. He said that his settlement was to be a haven for those “distressed of conscience,” and it soon attracted quite a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals.
From the beginning, the settlement was governed by a majority vote of the heads of households, but “only in civil things,” and newcomers could be admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote. In August of 1637 they drew up a town agreement, which again restricted the government to “civil things.” In 1640, another agreement was signed by thirty-nine “freemen,” (men who had full citizenship and voting rights), which declared their determination “still to hold forth liberty of conscience.” Thus, Roger Williams had founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separated, a place where there was religious liberty and separation of church and state.
In November 1637, the General Court of Massachusetts disarmed, disenfranchised, and forced into exile the “Antinomians”, the followers of Anne Hutchinson. One of them, John Clarke, learned from Roger Williams that Aquidneck Island might be purchased from the Narragansetts. Roger Williams facilitated the purchase by William Coddington and others, and in the spring of 1638 the Antinomians began settling at a place called Pocasset, which is now the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Some of the Antinomians, especially those described by Governor John Winthrop as “Anabaptists,” settled in Providence.
In the meantime, the Pequot War had broken out, and it was a great irony that Massachusetts Bay was forced to ask for Roger Williams‘ help. He not only became the Bay colony’s eyes and ears, he used his relationship with the Narragansetts to dissuade them from joining with the Pequots. Instead, the Narragansetts allied themselves with the English and helped to crush the Pequots in 1637-1638. When the war was over, the Narragansetts were clearly the most powerful Indian nation in southern New England, and quite soon the other New England colonies began to fear and mistrust the Narragansetts. They came to regard Roger Williams‘ colony and the Narragansetts as a common enemy. In the next three decades Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth exerted pressure to destroy both Rhode Island and the Narragansetts.
In 1643, the neighboring colonies formed a military alliance called the United Colonies and pointedly excluded the towns around Narragansett Bay. The object was to extend their power over the heretic settlements and put an end to the infection. In response Roger Williams was sent to England by his fellow citizens to secure a charter for the colony. The English Civil War was in full swing in England when Roger Williams arrived. The Puritans were then in power in London, and through the offices of Sir Henry Vane a charter was obtained despite strenuous opposition from agents from Massachusetts. Historians agree that the key that unlocked the door for Roger Williams was his first published book, A Key Into the Language of America (1643). Printed by John Milton’s publisher the book was an instant “best-seller,” and gave Roger Williams a large and favorable reputation. This little book was the first dictionary of any Indian tongue in the English language and fed the great hunger of the English about the Native Americans. Having secured his precious charter for “Providence Plantations” from Parliament, in July 1644 Roger Williams then published his most famous book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. This produced a great uproar, and Parliament responded in August by ordering the book to be burned by the public hangman. By then, Roger Williams was already on his way home to Providence Plantations. Also, by then, the settlers on Aquidneck Island had renamed their island “Rhode Island.”
Because of opposition from William Coddington on “Rhode Island,” it took Roger Williams until 1647 to get the four towns around Narragansett Bay to unite under a single government, and liberty of conscience was again proclaimed. The colony became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs including Baptists, Quakers, and Jews. Still, the divisions between the towns and powerful personalities did not bode well for the colony. Coddington, who never liked Williams, nor liked being subordinated to the new charter government, sailed to England and returned in 1651 with his own patent making him “Governor for Life” over “Rhode Island” [Aquidneck] and Conanicut. As a result, Providence and Warwick dispatched Roger Williams and Coddington’s opponents on “Rhode Island” sent John Clarke to England to get Coddington’s commission canceled. To pay for the trip, Roger Williams sold his trading post at Cocumscussec, near present-day Wickford, Rhode Island. This trading post was his main source of income. Roger Williams and John Clarke were successful in getting Coddington’s patent rescinded, but Clarke remained in England until 1664 to secure a new charter for the colony. Roger Williams returned to America in 1654 and was immediately elected the President of the colony. He would subsequently serve in many offices in the town and colonial governments, and in his 70s he was elected captain of the militia in Providence during King Philip’s War in 1676.
One notable effort by “Providence Plantations” (Providence and Warwick) during the time when Coddington had separated “Rhode Island” (Newport and Portsmouth) from the mainland came on 18 May 1652, when they passed a law which attempted to prevent slavery from taking root in the colony. In 1641 Massachusetts Bay had passed the first laws to make slavery legal in the English colonies, and these laws spread to Plymouth and Connecticut with the creation of the United Colonies in 1643. Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton both opposed slavery, and the law passed in 1652 was the attempt to stop slavery from coming to Rhode Island. Unfortunately, when the parts of the colony were reunited, the Aquidneck towns refused to accept the law and it became a dead letter. The economic and political center of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was Newport for the next 100 years, and they disregarded the anti-slavery law. Indeed, Newport entered the African slave trade in 1700 and became the leading American slave traders from then until the American Revolution.
Relations with the Baptists
By 1638, Roger Williams‘ ideas had ripened to the point that he accepted the idea of believer’s baptism, or credobaptism. Roger had been holding services in his home for some time for his neighbors, many of whom had followed him from Salem. To that point they had been like the Separatists of Plymouth, still believing in infant baptism. Roger Williams came to accept the ideas of English antipedobaptists.
John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton were co-founders of the Baptist movement in England, and produced a rich literature advocating liberty of conscience. Roger Williams certainly had read some of their writings because he commented on them in his Bloudy Tenent. While Smyth, Helwys and Murton were General Baptists, a Calvinistic Baptist variety grew out of some Separatists around 1630. Williams became a Calvinist or Particular Baptist (Reformed Baptist).
However, Roger Williams had not adopted antipedobaptist views before his banishment from Massachusetts, for antipedobaptism was not a charge levelled at him by his opponents. Winthrop attributed Roger Williams‘ “Anabaptist” views to the influence of Katherine Scott, a sister of Anne Hutchinson, who may have impressed upon Roger the importance of believers’ baptism. Historians tend to think that Williams arrived there from his own study.
Roger Williams had himself baptized by Ezekiel Holliman in late 1638. Thus was constituted a church which still survives as the First Baptist Church in America. A few years later, John Clarke, Roger’s compatriot in the cause of religious freedom in the New World, established a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1847 the Newport church suddenly maintained that it was the first Baptist church in America, but virtually all historians have dismissed this claim. If nothing else, Roger Williams had gathered and resigned from the Providence church before the town of Newport was even founded. Still, both Roger Williams and John Clarke are variously credited as being the founder of the Baptist faith in America. John Clark is the brother of my 8th g-grandfather, Joseph Clarke, and both men are discussed further under the heading of Joseph Clark (1618-1694).
It should be noted that Roger Williams was a Baptist only briefly. He remained with the little church in Providence only a few months. He became convinced that the ordinances, having been lost in the Apostasy [when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire], could not be validly restored without a special divine commission. He declared: There is no regularly constituted church of Christ on earth, nor any person qualified to administer any church ordinances; nor can there be until new apostles are sent by the Great Head of the Church for whose coming I am seeking.
He never again affiliated himself with any church, but remained deeply religious and active in preaching and praying. He looked forward to the time when Christ would send a new apostle to restore the church, but in the meantime, he would be a “witness” to Christianity. He always remained interested in the Baptists, being in agreement with them in their rejection of infant baptism as in most other matters. He has been mistakenly called a “Seeker”, both in his own time by his enemies and by his admirers in the last century. Some of his enemies in England called him a “Seeker” in an attempt to smear him by associating him with a heretical movement that accepted Socianism and universal salvation. Both of these ideas were anathema to Roger Williams. He was like a Seeker only in his rejection of any visible church as being a true church. A twentieth century biographer revived the “Seeker” label, but regarded it as a positive thing, and it caught on.
Church and state
Roger Williams had read their writings, and his own experience of persecution by Archbishop Laud and the Anglican establishment and the bloody wars of religion that raged in Europe at that very time convinced him that a state church had no basis in Scripture. Clearly he had arrived at this conclusion before he landed in Boston in 1631, because he criticized the Massachusetts Bay system immediately for mixing church and state. He declared that the state could legitimately concern itself only with matters of civil order, but not religious belief. The state had no business in trying to enforce the “first Table” of the Ten Commandments, those first commandments that dealt with the relationship between God and persons. The state must confine itself to the commandments that dealt with the relations between people: murder, theft, adultery, lying, honoring parents and so forth. He regarded any effort by the state to dictate religion or promote any particular religious idea or practice to be forced worship, and he colorfully declared that forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God. He would write that he saw no warrant in the New Testament to use the sword to promote religious belief. Indeed, he said that Constantine had been a worse enemy to true Christianity than Nero because Constantine’s support had corrupted Christianity and led to the death of the Christian church. In the strongest language he described the attempt to compel belief to be rape of the soul, and he spoke of the “oceans of blood” shed as a result of trying to command conformity. He believed that the moral principles found in the Scriptures ought to inform the civil magistrates, but he observed that well ordered, just, and civil governments existed where Christianity was not present. All governments were required to maintain civil order and justice, but none had a warrant to promote any religion.
Most of Roger Williams’ contemporaries and critics regarded his ideas as a prescription for chaos and anarchy. The vast majority believed that each nation must have its national church and that dissenters had to be compelled to conform. The establishment of Rhode Island was so threatening to its neighbors that they tried for the next hundred years to extinguish the “lively experiment” in religious freedom that had begun in 1636.
Roger Williams died on 1 Apr 1683 and was buried on his own property. Fifty years later, his house had collapsed into the cellar and the location of his grave had been forgotten. In 1860, Zachariah Allen sought to locate his remains, but found nothing. In the grave that Allen thought was that of Roger Williams, he found the apple tree root, but little else. Some dirt from the hole was placed in the Randall family mausoleum in the North Burial Ground. In anticipation of the 300th anniversary of the founding of Providence, the dirt was retrieved from the mausoleum and placed in an urn and kept at the Rhode Island Historical Society until a proper monument was erected at Prospect Terrace Park in Providence. The actual deposit of the “dust from the grave of Roger Williams” did not occur until 1939 when the WPA finished the monument. The apple tree root is now regarded as a curio and kept by the Rhode Island Historical Society at the John Brown House Museum (52 Power Street, Providence, Rhode Island). The Society feels that the House should tell John Brown’s story (of Brown University – not the famous abolitionist of the same name), and this has meant that the apple tree root has been relegated to the basement in recent decades – although visitors who asked could usually get it hauled upstairs for a peek. That changed in 2007, and today the root is displayed in the old carriage house behind the John Brown House, not in the House itself.
Roger Williams‘ career as an author began with A Key into the Language of America (London, 1643), written during his first voyage to England. His next publication was Mr. Cotton’s Letter lately Printed, Examined and Answered (London, 1644; reprinted, with Cotton’s letter, which it answered, in Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii).
The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience soon followed (London, 1644). This is his most famous work and was the ablest statement and defense of the principle of absolute liberty of conscience that had appeared in any language. It is in the form of a dialogue between Truth and Peace, and well illustrates the vigor of his style.
During the same year an anonymous pamphlet appeared in London which now is ascribed to Williams, entitled: Queries of Highest Consideration Proposed to Mr. Tho. Goodwin, Mr. Phillip Nye, Mr. Wil. Bridges, Mr. Jer. Burroughs, Mr. Sidr. Simpson, all Independents, etc. These Independents were members of the Westminster Assembly and their Apologetical Narration sought to find a way between extreme Separatism and Presbyterianism, and their prescription was the acceptance of the state church model of Massachusetts Bay. Roger Williams attacked their arguments for the very same reasons that he found that Massachusetts Bay violated liberty of conscience.
In 1652, during his second visit to England, Roger Williams published The Bloody Tenent yet more Bloody: by Mr. Cotton’s Endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb; of whose precious Blood, spilt in the Bloud of his Servants; and of the Blood of Millions spilt in former and later Wars for Conscience sake, that most Bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, upon, a second Tryal is found more apparently and more notoriously guilty, etc. (London, 1652). This work reiterated and amplified the arguments in Bloody Tenent, but it has the advantage of being written in answer to Cotton’s elaborate defense of New England persecution, A Reply to Mr. Williams his Examination (Publications of the Narragansett Club, vol. ii.).
Other works by Roger Williams are:
- The Hireling Ministry None of Christ’s (London, 1652)
- Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and their Preservatives (London, 1652; reprinted Providence, 1863)
- George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes (Boston, 1676)
- A volume of his letters is included in the Narragansett Club edition of Williams’s Works (7 vols., Providence, 1866–74), and a volume was edited by J. R. Bartlett (1882).
- The Correspondence of Roger Williams, 2 vols., Rhode Island Historical Society, 1988, edited by Glenn W. LaFantasie.
Interesting story: In 1817, Brown University acquired a mysterious book, which is now part of the John Carter Collection of the Brown library. The 234-page book is subtitled An Essay Concerning the Reconciling of Differences among Christians. The book’s author was unknown, and it had no title page. The most curious aspect of the book, however, was that almost every square inch of white space was covered in a cryptic scrawl made up of strange characters dashed off in one or two strokes. For librarians, the only clue to the origins of the handwriting came from an accompanying note, barely legible itself, which said in part: The margin is filled with Short Hand Characters, Dates, Names of places &c. &c. by Roger Williams or it appears to be his hand Writing…brot me from Widow Tweedy by Nicholas Brown Jr. (dated 11 Nov 1817). But how could historians be sure? And, more importantly, what did it say? All attempts to decipher the writing failed. The book was largely forgotten, and the mystery remained an unsolved puzzle for nearly 200 years. In 2012, the secret code was cracked by undergraduate researchers at Brown University, including a mathematics major by the name of Lucas Mason-Brown. Read the full article here.
Indian language and culture
Roger Williams intended to become a missionary to the Native Americans and set out to learn their language. He studied their language, customs, religion, family life and other aspects of their world. As a result he came to see their point of view about colonization and developed a deep appreciation of them as people. He wrote his A Key into the Language of America (1643) as a kind of phrase book coupled with observations about life and culture as an aid in communication with the Indians. In it he talked about everything from salutations in the first chapter to death and burial in chapter 32. The book also sought to instruct the English, who thought of themselves as vastly superior to the Native Americans, that they were mistaken. He repeatedly made the point that the Indians were just as good as the English, even superior in some respects.
Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood;
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee and All,
As wise, as fair, as strong, as personal.
Having learned their language and customs, Roger Williams gave up the idea of being a missionary and never baptized a single Indian. He was severely criticized by the Puritans for failing to Christianize them, but Roger had arrived at the place in his own thinking that no valid church existed. He said he could have baptized the whole country, but it would have been hypocritical and false. He formed firm friendships and developed deep trust among the Native Americans, especially the Narragansetts. He was able to keep the peace between the Indians and English in Rhode Island for nearly forty years because of his constant mediation and negotiation. He twice surrendered himself as a hostage to the Indians to guarantee the safe return of a great sachem from a summons to a court: Pessicus in 1645 and Metacomet (King Philip) in 1671. He more than any other Englishman was trusted by the Native Americans and proved to be trustworthy. In the end, King Philip’s War (1675–1676) was one of the bitterest events in his life as his efforts ended with the burning of Providence in March 1676, including his own home.
Tributes and memorials
- Roger Williams Cenotaph in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York
- Roger Williams National Memorial is a park in downtown Providence managed by the National Park Service. The Memorial was established by Congress in 1965 to commemorate Williams’s “outstanding contributions to the development of the principles of freedom in this country.” The memorial, a 4.5 acre urban greenspace located at the foot of College Hill in downtown Providence, includes a freshwater spring which was the center of the settlement of Providence Plantations founded by Williams in 1636. It is on this site that Williams, through word and action, fought for the ideal that religion must not be subject to regulation by the state but, instead, that it should be a matter of individual conscience. It was a remarkable journey that brought Williams to what is now the capital of Rhode Island and to where he put his beliefs into practice, giving “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.”
- Roger Williams Park, Providence, Rhode Island, and the Roger Williams Park Zoo within it are named in his honor.
- Roger Williams University, in Bristol, Rhode Island, is named in his honor.
- Roger Williams Dining Hall, at the University of Rhode Island, was named after the co-founder of Rhode Island. Today, it is fondly referred to as “Rojo’s.”
- The Green Lake Conference Center (American Baptists), founded in 1943, in Green Lake, Wisconsin, has dedicated its main lodge as the, “Roger Williams Inn.”
- Roger Williams was selected in 1872 to represent Rhode Island in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol.
- Roger Williams is depicted, with other prominent reformers, on the International Monument to the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland.
- An album The Bloudy Tenent, Truth & Peace by Slim Cessna’s Auto Club makes an allusion to Roger Williams’ 1644 book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience and features He, Roger Williams, a song dedicated to him as being the founder of the first Baptist church in America.
- Roger Williams is honored along with Anne Hutchinson with a feast day on the liturgical of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America on 5 February.
Roger Williams has been considered an American hero ever since the Puritans of his own day stopped dominating historical interpretations. His defense of Native Americans, accusations that Puritans had reproduced the “evils” of the Anglican Church, and denial that the king had authority to grant charters for colonies put him at the center of nearly every political debate during his life. By the time of American independence, however, he was considered a defender of religious freedom and has continued to be praised by generations of historians who have often altered their interpretation of his period as a whole. Historians have been able to appropriate Williams because he was unusual, prolific, and vague.
The children of Roger Williams and Mary Barnard are listed as follows: Mary Williams (see below), Freeborn (born 4 Oct 1635, married 1st Thomas Hart and 2nd Walter Clarke), Providence (born Sep 1638 and he died Mar 1686), Mercy (born 15 Jul 1640, married 1st Resolved Waterman and 2nd Samuel Winsor), Daniel (born Feb 1641, married Rebecca Rhodes) and Joseph Williams (see below). I am descended from their eldest and youngest:
- Joseph Williams (1643-1724)
- Mary Williams (1633-1684)
Since Roger Williams is both my paternal 10th g-grandfather through Joseph and my paternal 11th g-grandfather through Mary, the path back to me branches here and does not reconnect until Edward Dyer marries Freelove Williams in 1719, and then their lineage continues under the heading of Mary (Barrett) Dyer and William Dyer.
Descent through Joseph Williams
The son of Roger Williams and Mary Barnard is Joseph Williams, born 12 Dec 1643 and died 17 Aug 1724, both events occurring in Providence, Rhode Island. On 17 Dec 1669 in Providence, he married Lydia Olney, born 1645 and died 9 Sep 1724, also in Providence.
(Adapted from the book by Bertha Williams Anthony, Roger Williams of Providence, Vol. II, 1966): Joseph Williams was the last child of “The Founder”. After his marriage, he received from his father, a gift of land in that section of Cranston later known as Mashapaug, where he built his home and operated a large farm. Several generations later, this land was bequeathed to the City of Providence, Rhode Island by Joseph’s 2nd great granddaughter, Betsy Williams, and it became the nucleus of Roger Williams Park.
At the age of 33 he fought bravely as Captain of the Cranston troops, in King Philip’s War and subsequently rose to a position of prominence in early Providence. From 1683 to 1713 he served as a member of the House of Deputies in the General Assembly (later known as the House of Representatives). He was also on the Cranston Town Council, was a tax collector, and Justice of the Peace. Joseph’s grave is in the family plot, in Roger Willaims Park in Providence, marked with the Cross of Colonial Wars.
The inscription on his grave marker reads as follows:
Here lies the body of Joseph Williams,
son of Roger Williams, Esq.,
who was the first white man who came to Providence
He was born 1644, he died Au 17th, 1724, in the
81st year of his age
In King Philip’s War he courageously went through
and the native Indians he bravely did…
and now he’s gone down to the Grave…
… Please Almighty God his Body…
The children of Joseph Williams and Lydia Olney are listed as follows:
- Joseph (1670), died young
- Thomas (1671-1724), married Mary Blackmar (1674-1717)
- Joseph Williams (1673-1752), see below
- Mary (1676), married Obediah Brown(e)
- James (1680-1757), married Elizabeth Blackmar (1681-1761)
- Lydia (1683-1717)
- Providence (1685)
The son of Joseph Williams and Lydia Olney is Joseph Williams (Jr.), born 10 Nov 1673 and died 15 Aug 1752, both in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1700 in Providence he married Lydia Hearnden, born 1680 in Providence and died 29 Sep 1663 in Cranston, Rhode Island. Joseph Williams (Jr.) was not in public life to any great extent, and little beyond the vital statistics is known of Joseph (Jr.) and Lydia.
The daugher of Joseph Williams (Jr.) and Lydia Hearndon is Freeborn Williams, born 1701 in Kingston, Rhode Island and died 1747 in North Kingston, Rhode Island. In 1719 in Rhode Island she married Edward Dyer, born 6 Jan 1701 and died 13 Mar 1788, both in North Kingston. Both Edward Dyer and Freelove Williams are descendants of Roger Williams, who is the g-grandfather of Freelove through his son, Joseph and 2nd g-grandfather of Edward through his daughter, Mary (making Freelove and Edward 2nd cousins 1x removed).
Edward is also descended from the line of Mary (Barrett) Dyer, who was one of the three who started the first Society of Friends in Rhode Island and was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts in 1660 as a “pestilent heretic” and a Quaker. The lineage of Freeborn Williams and Edward Dyer is continued under the heading of Mary (Barrett) Dyer.
Descent through Mary Williams
The daugher of Roger Williams and Mary Barnard is Mary Williams, born August 1633 at Salem, Massachusetts and died 1684 at Middletown, Rhode Island. In 1650 she married John Sayles (Jr.). What is known of the history of John Sayles (Jr.) (son of John Sayles, who settled early in Rhode Island and died in 1681 and Phillipa Soales) is discussed under the heading of John Sayes. The age given on his grave marker near East Beach, Middletown, Rhode Island is “48 years”. This would establish his date of birth as about 1633, and it is probable he was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts. His father-in-law’s prominent position as founder of the first settlement in Rhode Island colony, founder of the First Baptist Church and as President of the Colony may account for the youthful entry of John Sayles (Jr.) into the affairs of the colony. He was listed as freeman 27 Jan 1651. During the next thirty years or thereabouts, from the time of his marriage till his death, he was at different times commissioner, town clerk, town treasurer, warden, grand juror, a member of the town council, and he was twelve times chosen assistant or deputy.
The daugher of Mary Williams and John Sayles (Jr.) is Mary Sayles, born 11 Jul 1652 in Providence, Rhode Island and died 6 May 1717 in Newport, Rhode Island. On 11 Dec 1684 she married William Greene, born 3 May 1652 in Warwick, Rhode Island and died 16 Jan 1680 in Newport, Rhode Island. William Greene died rather young, at the age of only 28, and Mary Sayles subsequently married Rev. John Holmes on 12 Oct 1680. The daughter of Mary Sayles and William Greene is Mary Sayles Greene, born 8 Jul 1677 in Warwick, Rhode Island and died 11 Aug 1761 in North Kingston, Rhode Island. On 28 Sep 1698, she married Edward Dyer (1670-1760). He is the father of Edward Dyer (1701-1788) who married Freeborn Williams (see above under the discussion of our lineage through Joseph Williams). The lineage of Mary Sayles Greene, and Edward Dyer is continued under the heading of Mary (Barrett) Dyer. We are also descended from Edward’s sister, Ann Dyer, and her husband Carew Clarke. That lineage is continued under the heading of Joseph Clarke (1618-1694).
 Roger Williams is also my paternal 11th g-grandfather through his daughter, Mary as follows: Mary Williams (1633 – 1684), 10th g-grandmother – Mary Sayles (1652 – 1717) – Mary Sayles Greene (1677 – 1761) – Edward Dyer (1701 – 1788) – John Dyer (1733 – 1791) – then continuing as above through Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom
 This order was not repealed until 1936 when Bill 488 was passed by the Massachusetts House.
 He would later name his third child, the first born in his new settlement, “Providence” as well.
 Roger Williams National Memorial is located at 282 North Main Street in Providence’s College Hill Historic District. From Interstate 95 North, take Exit 23 – State Offices. Take a left at the light to the bottom of Orms Street. At light, right onto Charles Street; continue straight through one light, then quick left into memorial parking lot. From Interstate 95 South, take Exit 23 – Charles Street. Take first left onto Ashburton Street and continue straight through three lights. After the third light, take a quick left into the memorial parking lot.
 No known relationship to my 8th g-grandfather, Joseph Clarke (1618-1694), discussed under his own heading, who was also an early settler in Rhode Island.