Roger was born circa 1599-1606 in London, England. The parish records of St. Sepulchre's Church where he was christened were destroyed in the Great London Fire in 1666. Little is known of the early history of Roger Williams. He grew up in the old Holborn section of London, near the great Smithfield plain, where fairs were held and religious dissenters were burned at the stake. While still a young, impressionable boy, he probably witnessed the last of these gruesome spectacles in 1611/12. His sympathies with the Puritan religion may well have been aroused at that time. His study of shorthand and his proficiency in transcribing long sermons and speeches in this medium brought him to the notice of Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the King's Bench, whose patronage gained the boy admittance to Sutton Hospital, now known as the Charter House School, in 1621.
According to the school's custom with capable students, he received a modest allowance which enabled him to further his education at Pembroke Hall in Cambridge University, where he received the degree of B.A. in 1627. Pembroke College in Providence, once the women's college of Brown University, was named after Pembroke at Cambridge in honor of Roger Williams. At Pembroke, Roger mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Dutch languages. He took orders in the Church of England and in 1629 accepted the post of chaplain to Sir William Masham at his manor house at Otes in Essex.
His courtship of Jane Whalley was brought to an abrupt termination by the disapproval of her aunt, Lady Barrington. Stung by the rejection, the young clergyman became ill of fever and was nursed back to health by Mary Barnard, a member of Lady Masham's household. Mary, daughter of Rev. Richard Barnard, was baptized September 24, 1609 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England.
Mary Barnard was a gentle waiting woman to Joan Altham at Otes. Sir William Masham's wife, Elizabeth, was a daughter of Sir Francis Barrington by his wife, the redoubtable Puritan, Lady Joan Barrington. She was the daughter of Sir Henry Crowmell, "the Golden Knight", of Hinchinbrook, and an aunt of the great Oliver. Prior to her marriage with Sir William, Lady Masham had been the wife of Sir James Altham, by whom she had a daughter, Joan, known in the family as "Jug" who in 1629 was living with her mother at Otes. (Frances Cromwell, sister of Lady Barrington, had married a Nottinghamshire gentlemen, Richard Whalley, and they were the parents of Col. Richard Whalley, the Regicide who died in hiding in New England after the Restoration. Thus, Mrs. Whalley was aunt to Lady Masham and the relations of the two families were close.) Lady Masham, writing to her mother, Lady Barrington in 1629, said "Mr. Williams is to marry Mary Barnard, Jug Altham's maid." The term "maid" as used in the seventeenth century, did not have the same connotation as today. Girls of gentle families taking employment in the families of friends or relatives, were described as "servants" or "maids"; today they would rather be described as "companions". Such persons were then described as "maids" or "gentle waiting women". At this period the daughters of clergymen frequently took such service in the families of friends. The Rev. Richard Barnard had been inducted into the living of Worksop by Richard Whalley, and, as a result, was well-known to the Mashams, so it would be not unlikely that his daughter would take a position as a "waiting woman" in the Masham family.
Roger and Mary were married at High Laver Chuch in Essex, England on December 15, 1629. On December 1, 1630, they boarded the ship Lyon and sailed for America. After 57 days of storm wracked voyage, they anchored off Nantasket on February 3, 1631. Roger's arrival was duly noted by the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, in his carefully kept diary. Winthrop described Roger as a "godly minister" and it is certain the young clergyman was welcome in the new colony in Boston. The young minister's intellect and position were perfectly combined to attract attention in the Puritan community. Of special interest also were Williams' striking qualities as a person and his intense dedication to the service of God. Nearly all those who knew him were willing to testify to his magnetic qualities. Even his most bitter critics in later years openly acknowledged their affection and respect for him as an individual.
Two months later he was called as minister to Salem, having refused to join with the congregation at Boston. The startled Boston elders were told he would not serve a congregation that recognized the Church of England. Roger Williams had become a separatist. This enraged the Boston magistrates and pressure by them on the Salem authorities caused him to leave there in late summer and go to Plymouth. Here he was made welcome by the Separatist Pilgrims and was admitted as a member of the church. He remained with them for two years as assistant to the pastor, Mr. Ralph Smith.
In his account of the year 1632 William Bradford spoke of "Mr. Roger Williams, a man godly and zealous, having many precious parts but very unsettled in judgment, came over first to the MA; but upon some discontent left that place and came hither, where he was friendly entertained according to their poor ability, and exercised his gifts amongst them and after some time was admitted a member of the church...He this year began to fall into some strange opinions, and from opinion to practice, which caused some controversy between the church and him. And in the end some discontent on his part, by occasion whereof he left them something abruptly. Yet afterwards sued for his dismission to the church of Salem, which was granted, with some caution by them concerning him and what care they out to have of him."
Roger was probably the Mr. Williams who was allotted meadow land for hay in Plymouth on July 1, 1633. Samuel Fuller in his will dated July 30, 1633 gave two acres of land in Plymouth to his son Samuel "if Mr. Roger Williams refuse to accept of them as formerly he hath done".
During his stay in Plymouth, Roger made the most of his contact with the natives of the region. His bold respect for the Indians' dignity as men and his willingness to deal with them on a basis of equality won their lasting friendship. Although the Pilgrims were more tolerant than the Boston Puritans, they found some of Roger Williams' thinking too advanced for them. Roger returned to Salem in 1633 where he became assistant to the Rev. Mr. Skelton. On Rev. Skelton's death (the next year), Roger became pastor.
Roger was soon in difficulties with the Massachusetts Bay authorities for publicly proclaiming that their charter was invalid, since the king had no right to give away lands belonging to the Indians. He also denounced them for forcing religious uniformity upon the colonists. He believed in what he called "soul-liberty", which meant that every man had the complete right to enjoy freedom of opinion on the subject of religion.
Roger Williams deals with the Narragansett Indians
In April 1635, Roger was summoned before the court at Boston, his offence being that he had taught publicly that a magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man, etc., and "he was heard before all the ministers and very clearly confuted," as Governor Winthrop relates. On October 9, 1635 the General Court sentenced him to banishment. "Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the Elders of the church of Salem, hath broached and divulged new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates, as also written letters of defamation, both of the magistrates and churches here, and that before any conviction, and yet maintaineth the same without any retraction; it is, therefore, ordered that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks now next ensuing." Through the efforts of his friends, Roger received permission to remain till spring, but the Court hearing that he would not refrain from uttering his opinions and that many people went to his house, "taken with an apprehension of his Godliness," and that he was preparing to form a plantation about Narragansett Bay: resolved to send him to England.
Warned by his friends of this impending deportation, Roger hastily bade his wife and children goodbye and fled into exile to the Narragansett country of what would later become Rhode Island. In January, 1636, a messenger was sent to Salem to apprehend him, but when the officers "came to his house, they found he had gone three days before, but whither they could not learn." He wrote, thirty-five years after his banishment, "I was sorely tossed for one fourteen weeks in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bed or bread did mean." Roger was warmly received by Massasoit and Canonicus, chiefs of Indian tribes, the former of whom gave him a tract of land on the Seekonk river. As Roger began to plant, he was advised by Governor Winslow of Plymouth Colony that he was within the limits of that colony. Accordingly, he embarked in the spring or early summer, with five companions, landed at Slate Rock (as it's now called) to exchange greetings with the Indians, and then pursued his way again by boat to the site of his new settlement on the Moshassuck River, which for the many "Providences of the Most Holy and Only Wise, I called Providence."
The government of Providence Plantation was established upon complete religious freedom. No one was refused admittance because of his religious convictions or practice. Providence was founded in the form of a pure democracy, where the will of the majority should govern the state. It became a haven for Quakers, Jews and others feeling from persecution.
This same year, 1636, his mediation at the request of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, prevented a coalition of the Pequots with the Narragansetts and Mohegans. He wrote of this service in later years: "Three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequot ambassadors, whose hands and arms methought reeked with the blood of my countrymen murdered and massacred by them on Connecticut River."
On March 24, 1638, Roger took a deed from Canonicus and Miantonomi of the lands already purchased and settled upon, being "the lands and meadows upon the two fresh rivers called Moashausick and Wanaskatucket," etc. He says of this purchase, "I spared no cost towards them in tokens and presents to Canonicus and all his, many years before I came in person to the Narragansett; and when I came I was welcome to the old prince Canonicus, who was most shy of all English to his last breath." Here, all over the colony, a great number of weak and distressed souls, scattered and flying hither from Old England and New England, the Most High and Only Wise hath, in his infinite wisdom, provided this country and this corner as a shelter for the poor and persecuted according to their several persuasions." (Those words were written years after his coming, when the settlement was an assured one.) On October 9, 1638, Roger deeded to his loving friends and neighbors an equal privilege with himself in his recent purchase, the consideration named being £30.
In 1639 Roger Williams joined the Baptist faith and founded the first Baptist church in America. He was baptized by Ezekiel Holliman, and then baptized him and others. For a few years he acted as pastor of First Baptist church. However, within a few years he withdrew from this group and became a "Seeker".
In 1642, Roger was appointed agent to England to secure a charter for the colony to unite Providence with the settlements of Warwick, Newport and Portsmouth, which were coveted by Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Connecticut colonies. In June 1643 he embarked by way of New York and on the voyage wrote his Key to the Indian Languages. In his dedication he says, "A little key may open a box where lies a bunch of keys."
On August 15, 1644, while on his first visit to England, Roger Williams, clerk, and Sidrach Williams, merchant, both of London, brought suite in chancery to recover certain real estate, which had belonged to their mother Alice Williams, which their brother Robert Williams, "then beyond seas," had improperly alienated. The bill states that Sidrach had been absent for seven years in Italy and that Roger had also been beyond seas.
On September 17, 1644, Roger landed at Boston on his return, having secured the charter as well as a safe conduct through MA. He was met by his neighbors on his way to Providence, they coming in fourteen canoes on the Seekonk. This charter proved to be very important as it was indisputable for the next 20 years. Indian troubles continued to increase in the colonies and Roger Williams was called upon to mediate these difficulties. Roger had established a trading post near Wickford, which he operated very successfully, living there for long periods at a time, while still maintaining his homestead in Providence. 1651 it was necessary for him to return to England to confirm the charter of 1644. He sold the trading post to Richard Smith to finance the voyage.
At home in Providence after an absence of nearly 3 years, he became President of the colony, which office he held from 1654 to 1658. He also served as an Assistant to the General Court in 1647, 1648, 1664, 1665, 1670 1671 and 1672. 1655 - Freeman. 1658-59-61 - Commissioner. 1667 - Deputy. 1670-78-79-80 - Town Council. 1675-76 - Town Clerk. Roger held many other lesser colony and town offices. In 1655 he was made a Freeman in Providence. He served as Commissioner in 1658-59-61. In 1667 he was a Deputy. In 1670-78-79-80 Roger served on the Town Council, and he was Town Clerk in 1675-76.
In November 1651 Roger went again to England with John Clarke to confirm the charter of 1644. While there in 1652 he published in London Experiments of Spiritual Life, and Health and their Preservation which he dedicated : "To the truly honorable the Lady Vane." [The wife of Sir Henry Vane with whom he stayed in England.] He says of this work that he wrote it "in the thickest of the naked Indians of America, in their very wild houses and by their barbarous fires."
He wrote to his wife while abroad. "My dearest love and companion in this vale of tears," congratulating himself and her upon her recovery from recent illness: "I send thee, though in winter, a handful of flowers made up in a little posy, for thy dear self and our dear children to look and smell on, when I, as grass of the field, shall be gone and withered."
He wrote a letter to his friends and neighbors in Providence and Warwick, from Sir Henry Vane's at Belleau in Lincolnshire, relative to the confirmation of the charter accrued by Vane's mediation, charging them to dwell in peace, etc., and in a postscript adds: "My love to all my Indian friends." He returned from England early in the summer of 1654.
Despite all his efforts to avert it, war with the Indians broke out in 1676. Known as King Philip's War, it was a tragedy alike for white men and red. Providence had for years been spared the arrow and the firebrand because of his presence there, but finally, the city was threatened with destruction. Bravely, Roger Williams went out, alone and unarmed, to met the invaders, but for once his arguments failed. He was told that because he was an honest man not a hair of his head would be harmed, but that the city should be burned. Providence was burned on March 26, 1676. At Court on August 14, 1676, Roger, one of those "who staid and went not away" in King Philip's War, had a share in the disposition of the Indian captives whose services were sold for a term of years.
On May 6, 1682, Roger wrote Governor Bradstreet, calling himself "old and weak and bruised (with rupture and colic) and lameness on both my feet." He proceeds: "By my fireside I have recollected the discourses, which (by many tedious journeys) I have had with the scattered English at Narragansett before the war and since. I have reduced them unto these twenty-two heads (enclosed) which is near thirty sheets of my writing. I would send them to the Narragansetts and others; ther is no controversy in them, only an endeavour of a particular match of each poor sinner to his maker." He asks advice as to printing it, and alludes to news of Shaftsbury and Howard's beheading and contrary news of their reprieve, etc. "But these are but sublunaries, temporaries and trivials. Eternity, O Eternity, is our business."
The precise date of Roger's death is unknown, but it occurred sometime between January 16 and March 16 1683. He was buried in the orchard in the rear of his homestead lot. Many years later, his remains were disinterred by the Rhode Island Historical Society for a more elaborate burial and found the body gone, bones and all. Apple tree roots had entered the coffin. A large root curved where his head should have been and entered the chest cavity, growing down the spine. It branched at the two legs, and then upturned into feet! The coffin and the root have been kept in the Society's basement ever since. Mary's precise death date is also unknown.
Statue of Roger Williams, Providence, Rhode Island
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See lineage of Williams Family
Read the Biography of Roger's grandfather Mark Williams
Read the Biography of Rogers's father, James Williams
Read the Biography Roger's son Daniel Williams
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