Roger Williams – The Founder of Rhode Island

A statue of Roger Williams in Providence, Rhode Island.
A statue of Roger Williams in Providence, Rhode Island.

Who Was The Founder Of Rhode Island?

The founder of Rhode Island was Roger Williams, a political and religious dissenter. He was a supporter of religious freedom and separation of religion and government. Williams was born in London sometime around 1603. He went on to study at Charterhouse and Pembroke College in Cambridge after studying an apprenticeship with Sir Edward Coke, a legal scholar. He converted to the Puritan religion while still in Cambridge. In 1627, he graduated from Pembroke and became a private chaplain for Sir William Masham. Williams married Mary Barnard in 1629 and began planning a migration to North America, following in the footsteps of other Puritan leaders. Roger and Mary left shortly after marrying and arrived in America in February of 1631.

In the New World

Shortly after arrival, Roger Williams was offered a position as minister of the Boston Church. He turned down the offer because the church was not separated from the Church of England, which he believed to be corrupt. He did not believe that any practicing churches of the time were “true” churches and instead of attending services, he waited for an apostle to be delivered. He hoped this apostle would establish a worthy church. Since the Salem Church was considering a separation from the Church of England, they offered Williams a position. This offer was not supported by other religious leaders and was eventually retracted. The Massachusetts Bay Colony eventually exiled him based on his religious beliefs.

Founding Providence, Rhode Island

After running from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams was given winter shelter by the Wampanoags indigenous people. Chief Chasem Massasoit sold him some land in 1636. Williams and his religious followers began to develop the area only to be kicked off by Plymouth officials, claiming the land belonged to them. They moved across the river and once again purchased land from the Narragansett tribe. This new area became Providence, Rhode Island.

Providence gained popularity with other like-minded dissenters, and in the beginning, heads of households voted on civil matters. This settlement continued to develop based on the idea of separation of church and state, confirmed by various public documents. Providence was the first city to ensure religious freedom, provide separation of church and state, and offer citizenship regardless of religion.

Conflict In The Colonies

Between 1634 and 1638, the colonialists, Narragansett Tribe, and Mohegan tribe went to war with the Pequot tribe. During this Pequot War, Williams played an important role as a mediator and peacekeeper. He led negotiations with the Narragansett tribe that led to their alliance with the English settlers. This alliance helped defeat the Pequot tribe. Because of his actions, twice turning himself over as a hostage to secure the return of tribal chiefs, Williams became the most trusted settler among the Native Americans. He is credited for keeping the peace between natives and settlers for nearly FOUR decades. Roger Williams died in 1683.

Legacy Of Roger Williams

Williams will be remembered for his dedication to the religious freedoms enjoyed in the United States today. He courageously defended Native Americans, fought against corruption in the Church of England, and disagreed with the King’s charters on colonies. Several locations have been named after him, including Roger Williams College in Bristol, Roger Williams Park in Providence, Roger Williams National Memorial, and Roger Williams Park Zoo.


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