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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 684

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This is the grave of Roger Williams.

Born near London, probably in 1603, Williams was a religious dissenter from early in life. His father was a wealthy merchant tailor and was horrified when his son converted to the Puritanism challenging the Church of England in the 1620s. Williams was quite well connected. He was an apprenticed to the legendary jurist Sir Edward Coke and then went to Cambridge, where he graduated in 1627. A brilliant guy who could pick up languages seemingly overnight, Williams could have had a bright and comfortable future ahead of him in England as a minister,. When Williams became a Puritan, his chances of moving up in the hierarchy of the church ended and he was unhappy. He was the personal chaplain for Sir William Masham, a long-time member of the House of Commons, but decided to join the Puritan migration to Massachusetts, knowing he would be in trouble after William Laud became the likely next Archbishop of Canterbury, which happened in 1633.

By that time, Williams was already in Massachusetts. He wasn’t in the initial group that came over with John Winthrop and founded Boston, but he left shortly after. But he did not do well in the new colony. Winthrop respected Williams and knew he was brilliant. But Winthrop intended for his colony to be a theocracy. He didn’t believe in freedom of religion, not at all. He believed that there was one proper way to worship God and it was his. But Williams did not actually believe in a theocracy. He famously said “forced religion stinks in God’s nostrils.” He thought one could worship as one wanted and that church and state should be separate.

This made Williams a dangerous man to Winthrop. Williams was pastor at a church in Salem and Winthrop put tremendous pressure on that town to get rid of him, threatening to refuse to seat its delegates to the General Court and denying its annexation plans. This was a precursor for Winthrop to evict Williams entirely, which happened in 1635. In the middle of winter, now 1636, Williams was forcibly removed and established the ultimate hive of scum and villainy: Rhode Island.

Williams had supporters and he and his Salem friends established the town of Providence in the spring of 1636. From the beginning, Williams’ colony was a home of religious toleration, at least for Protestants. Voting rights were broader, for any head of a household. Newcomers became full citizens by a majority vote instead of the religious conversion demanded in Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. Citizenship and religion were completely disestablished, the first place in Christendom for this to happen. The colony then accepted new dissidents, especially the Antinomians led by Anne Hutchinson. They started new towns farther down the bay such as Portsmouth and Newport. John Clarke soon opened the Baptist church in America, in 1638.

Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and the new colony of Connecticut tried to squeeze out Rhode Island as the home of heretics, creating basically a mutual defense pact that did not include it. So Williams returned to England in 1643 for a royal charter. His book, A Key to the Language of America, published that year, was an account of his interactions with the Native population of southern New England. This granted him a lot of attention and helped him get that charter over the vociferous opposition from Winthrop. He nearly blew it–right after getting his charter in 1644, he published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, blasting state religion and demanding religious freedom. The book was ordered burned, but Williams already had his charter and was sailing back across the Atlantic when this all went down. Williams also attempted to prohibit Black slavery in his colony, which Massachusetts and Plymouth had already formed. Before all of what become Rhode Island united, Providence passed a 1652 law banning slavery. But Williams could not enforce it and of course Newport became rich off the slave trade.

Of course, this was all land taken from the Native populations, in this case the Narragansetts. And we should not overstate how well they were treated. In the end, the story for the Narragansetts is basically the same for all Native populations in the United States. But for a man of his time, Williams was less horrible than others toward Native America. Williams still united with Massachusetts Bay in the horrible Pequot War of 1637-38, which brought European genocidal tactics to New England Natives for the first time with the horrific massacre of their home that just burned everyone alive and killed as many survivors of that as possible, sending others into the death traps of Caribbean slavery. Williams convinced the Narragansetts to stay out of it, and for awhile this worked out for them as they became the leading Native power in southern New England. But after that, for four decades Williams did a pretty impressive job of treating the Narragansetts as, well, human beings. He kept peace between them and the growing number of whites and allowed himself to be taken hostage by them twice to ensure the safe return of their sachems when meeting other colonists. But in 1675, King Philip’s War broke out, as Natives around the region were increasingly desperate and facing growing white violence. Williams’ attempt at diplomacy failed and in fact Providence was burned, including his own house. But the war ended with the defeat of the Native alliance and white dominance over New England was assured.

Williams also started getting iffy on religious freedom late in life, publishing an attack on George Fox and Quakerism in 1676 titled George Fox Digged Out of His Burrowes. Interestingly, Williams also wrote a lot in codes. One of these was just cracked in 2012 by some undergraduate at Brown, revealing new writings on geology, medicine, and infant baptism. There are additional codes as well that maybe someone will figure out.

Williams died in the winter of 1683, at the age of 79.

Roger Williams is buried at Prospect Terrace, Providence, Rhode Island. This is obviously not his original grave. His original gravesite was lost. But then in 1939, people figured out and dug it up. There wasn’t much left. A huge tree had grown on it. But there were a few bones there. The city created a nice park for him that overlooks downtown. Of course, when I visited I forgot that you can’t actually see the front of the grave unless you exit the park and walk down the hill below. And I didn’t bother since it was a far enough walk from my house on a hot summer day. So here’s a picture of the front of the grave.

If you would like this series to visit more American religious figures, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Clarke is in Newport, Rhode Island and Richard Allen is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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