ROGER WILLIAMS was born in London, circa 1603, the son of James and Alice (Pemberton) Williams. James, the son of Mark and Agnes (Audley) Williams was a "merchant Tailor" (an importer and trader) and probably a man of some importance.
Roger's youth was spent in the parish of "St. Sepulchre's, without Newgate, London." While a young man, he must have been aware of the numerous burnings at the stake that had taken place at nearby Smithfield of so-called Puritans or heretics. This probably influenced his later strong beliefs in civic and religious liberty.
He entered Pembroke College at Cambridge University from which he graduated in 1627. At Pembroke, he was one of eight granted scholarships based on excellence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
In the years after he left Cambridge, Roger Williams was Chaplain to a wealthy family, and on 15 December 1629, he married MARY BARNARD at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. Even at this time, he became a controversial figure because of his ideas on freedom of worship.
And so, in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Roger thought it expedient to leave England. He arrived, with Mary, on 5 February 1631 at Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Their passage was aboard the ship Lyon (Lion).
He preached first at Salem, then at Plymouth, then back to Salem, always at odds with the structured Puritans. When he was about to be deported back to England, Roger fled southwest out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was befriended by local Indians and eventually settled at the headwaters of what is now Narragansett Bay, after he learned that his first settlement on the east bank of the Seekonk River was within the boundaries of the Plymouth Colony.
Roger purchased land from the Narragansett Chiefs, Canonicus and Miantonomi and named his settlement Providence in thanks to God. The original deed remains in the Archives of the City of Providence.
Roger Williams was Governor of the Colony 1654 through 1658. During the later years of his life, he saw almost all of Providence burned during King Philip's War, 1675-1676.
Roger and Mary (Barnard) Williams were the parents of six children, all born in America:
- 1. MARY, born at Plymouth, Plymouth Colony, August 1633, died 1684; married JOHN SAYLES in 1650; six children. John and Mary Sayles lived on Aquidneck Island and are buried near Easton's Beach, Middletown, Rhode Island.
- 2. FREEBORN, born at Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 4 October 1635, died 10 January 1710; married first THOMAS HART, died 1671; four children. There were no children of Freeborn's second marriage to WALTER CLARKE, a Governor of Newport.
- 3. PROVIDENCE, born at Providence, September 1638, died March 1686; never married.
- 4. MERCY, born at Providence, 15 July 1640, died circa 1705; married first in 1659 RESOLVED WATERMAN, born July 1638, died August 1670; five children. Mercy married second SAMUEL WINSOR, born 1644, died 19 September 1705; three children.
- 5. DANIEL, born at Providence, February 1641 "counting years to begin about ye 25 of March so yt he was borne above a year & half after Mercy (Carpenter, Roger Williams), died 14 May 1712; married 7 December 1676 REBECCA (RHODES) POWER, died 1727, widow of Nicholas Power; six children.
- 6. JOSEPH, born at Providence, 12 December 1643, died 17 August 1724; married LYDIA OLNEY, born 1645, died 9 September 1724; six children.
Roger Williams died at Providence between 16 January and 16 April 1683/84, his wife Mary having predeceased him in 1676.
His descendants have contributed in many ways, first to the establishment of an independent Colony, later to the establishment of an independent state in a united nation. The United States of America has maintained the reality of separation of church and state which Roger Williams envisioned, and ordained in his settlement at Providence.
Sources: Carpenter, Edmund J., Litt.D., Roger Williams, New York, 1909; Anthony, Bertha W., Roger Williams of Providence, RI, Vol. II, Cranston, RI, 1966; Haley, John Williams, The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. IV, Providence, 1944; Hall, May Emery, Roger Williams, Boston, 1917.
- Master Roger Williams, A Biography (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1957) by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. Purchase this book.
- Roger Williams, A Contribution to the American Tradition (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, Indianapolis and New York, 1953) by Perry Miller. Purchase this book.
- The Irrepressible Democrat, Roger Williams (The Ronald Press Company, New York, 1940) by Samuel Brockunier.
- Roger Williams, New England Firebrand (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1932) by James Ernst.
- The Correspondence of Roger Williams (Brown University Press, Providence, 1988) by Glenn W. LaFantasie. Purchase this book.
- Descendants of Roger Williams - Book I - Waterman & Winsor Lines (Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, 1991) by Dorothy Higson White and Kay Kirlin Moore. Purchase this book.
Under the terms of its founding Charter, Rhode Island stood alone among the colonies in its desire to "hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil State may stand and best be maintained, with a full liberty of religious concernments."
Roger Williams and his followers were convinced that religion was a matter of conscience between an individual and his God, not the government. The founding documents for Providence, Rhode Island indicate a clear division between the public, civil realm and the private world of belief: