Essex Men Who Built the United States: Part Four - Rhode Island Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Essex Men Who Built the United States: Part Four - Rhode Island

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Essex Men Who Built the United States
Introduction | Virginia | Massachusetts | Connecticut
Rhode Island | Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey
Georgia | The United States

The colony around the Narragansett Bay was established in response to and as a haven from the strict religious beliefs of the Puritans of Massachusetts, which had alienated some of the New World settlers.

Roger Williams (1604 - 1683)

Roger Williams was the son of a London merchant. After graduating from Cambridge, he took holy orders and in 1629 became chaplain for Sir William Masham in High Laver, near modern-day Harlow. Masham had already been the MP for Maldon (1624 - 1626) and would go on to become MP for Essex (1640 - 1654). In December 1629 Williams married Mary Barnard, one of the Masham household. He became well-acquainted with various leading Puritans from around the county and attended a conference of the founders of the Massachusetts colony in Lincolnshire.

Claiming that William Laud had driven him out of England, Williams set sail with his wife on board the Lyon in December 1630. He held positions at churches in Salem and Plymouth but his views were non-conformist even by the standards of the Puritans. Williams believed that religion should not be imposed on citizens, attacking the Puritan system and advocating the separation of church and state. He also believed that the colony's charter was a breach of the rights of the native population.

The Massachusetts magistrates found him guilty of spreading 'new and dangerous opinions'. In a move that has ironic echoes of the Puritans' own exile from England, they themselves banished Williams. Williams and some of his followers initially planned to settle on Aquidneck Island in the Narragansett Bay. On the advice of John Winthrop the Elder, Williams fled into the territory of the Narragansett tribe in January 1636. He purchased a large tract of land on the Pantuxet river where he founded the settlement of Providence.

In Providence all religions were welcome. It soon became a haven for groups ranging from Quakers to Baptists. Williams guaranteed the separation of church and state and made sure that all land purchases were democratic. He also made sure that the native tribes were treated humanely. In the late 1630s, Williams himself suffered a crisis of faith and became a Seeker, a Christian who was not a member of any denomination.

In 1643, when the rights of the colony were coming under threat from its larger neighbours, Williams returned to England. Henry Vane helped Williams secure a charter for the colony of Providence Plantation of Narragansett Bay. The new colony not only included the town of Providence, but also Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick. Williams returned to England again in 1644 and the colony was renamed Rhode Island and Providence Plantation. In 1651, he returned to England once again and stayed for three years in order to obtain a confirmation of the charter. On his return to America, he was elected president of the colony, a post he held for four years. Later, Williams was elected as an assistant to Governor Benedict Arnold in 1663, 1667 and 1670.

Williams served with the Providence militia in King Philip's War (1675 - 1676) and saw the towns of Providence and Warwick burnt to the ground and his friends the Narragansett tribe almost wiped out. Williams died and was buried in Providence in 1683. His remains are currently sealed in bronze and set into the base of a monument to his memory in Prospect Park, Providence. His ideals of freedom of worship and the separation of church and state have become fundamental parts of the Constitution of the United States.

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