Last updated: October 3, 2023
“‘having, of a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress, [I] called the place PROVIDENCE, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.”
More than a century before the ratification of the United Sates Constitution, an English colonist named Roger Williams was experimenting with ideas of religious equality, civil participation, democracy, free speech, and personal liberty. In 1636, Williams founded the city of Providence based on those guiding principles.
Born in London around 1603, Roger Williams was a deeply faithful man and an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. However, Roger Williams was deeply dissatisfied with the hierarchy, political power, wealth, and ornamentation of the Church of England. He also developed the belief that the State should not enforce moral or religious beliefs, and that civic life should be separate from individuals’ spiritual lives. Escaping the environment of religious persecution in England, Williams arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, which was settled by English Puritans—other Anglican dissidents who wanted to “purify” the Church from excess.
In the Massachusetts colony, all aspects of daily life were regulated by Puritan religious belief and enforced by the government. While building a new life in Massachusetts, Williams began preaching “new and dangerous ideas:” religious freedom and spiritual equality. These concepts were deeply threatening to the Puritan way of life and authority of the town officials. As a result, Williams was banished from the colony, and rather than face the journey back to England where he may have been put to death, he fled.
Williams survived the harsh winter thanks to a recuse from the Narragansett people. He had built a relationship with the Narragansett in the years prior by trading with them and learning their language. Unlike most English, Williams believed that Indigenous people were equals under English law and that they rightfully owned the land upon which colonists settled. Thanks to Narragansett aid and supplies, the radical minister traveled by canoe until he arrived at a freshwater spring at what is now the site of Roger Williams National Memorial.
Crediting his survival and success to "God's merciful providence unto me,” Williams settled the area with the permission of the Narragansett, who called the place Moshassuck.
long with other colonists, Williams built a community where religious beliefs and civil laws were clearly separated. In colonial Rhode Island, Anglicans, Puritans, Quakers, Catholics, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths lived as neighbors with equal rights.
The written articles of the city, and the later Royal Charter, made Providence the first explicitly documented secular government in world history. Here, the earliest foundations of American democracy and equality flourished.
The War for New England
By the 1670s, longstanding conflicts between the New England colonists and native people boiled over. The War for New England (also called Metacomet’s War or King Philips War) broke out in 1675. It was one of the deadliest wars in the history of the continent.
The English settlers’ designs to conquer North America led to massacres and months of brutal conflict. Indigenous peoples were forced into hiding or sold into slavery. Roger Williams, although having done his best to maintain neutrality throughout the Rhode Island colony, ultimately failed to keep the peace and briefly fled Providence, only to return to a burned city.
Death and Legacy
Roger Williams died in 1683, leaving behind a legacy that carries on in the foundation of civil governments around the world. Indeed, one of America’s most important phrases is We the People. It’s a phrase echoing Williams’s belief that in a civil government, “the sovereign, original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people.”
His final remains, along with those of his wife, Mary, can be visited at Prospect Terrace, in Providence RI.
“teare not downe the Bridge after You by leaving no small pittance for distressed soules that may Come after us” – Roger Williams
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