Saturday, February 5, 2011
Material: Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell
Purchased By: Me
Boston, Massachusetts received yet another boatload of newcomers on this day in 1631 and among them was one man who would leave a permanent mark on the colonies - the minister Roger Williams. He had traveled with his wife Mary from England. And while he was initially met with enthusiasm by the locals, Williams' strong religious convictions and refusal to confirm soon prompted them to drive him out of their community. Forced to take an arduous journey that might have killed others, Williams was able to survive and establish a settlement of his own in Rhode Island. And to this day, Providence commemorates its founder and his dedication to religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Roger Williams was born in 1603 to a merchant tailor in Smithfield, England who later disapproved of his some of son's religious fervor. But he was undaunted and became a Puritan as he was studying at Cambridge. Williams also took Holy Order in the Church of England, but he realized his religious views would prevent him from advancing very far in the Anglican Church, which he believed was corrupt. So he and his wife decided to join the second wave of Puritans that sailed for the New World in 1630. They came aboard the Lyon and were greeted by a group of settlers eager to have them lead them while their own reverend sailed for England to bring back his wife. But Williams shocked them, declining the position on the grounds that the church was not separated from the local government and the magistrates punished religious infractions, such as blasphemy and idolatry. He'd go on to stir up even more trouble, writing a tract that accused the King of illegally issuing charters to the New World and asserted that the Native Americans should be paid for their land. He moved from Boston to the Plymouth colony but, unsatisfied there, later headed to Salem. The authorities in Massachusetts weren't happy to have him back and brought him before the General Court in Boston when they learned of the tract he had written. Williams narrowly avoided staying out of trouble and went on to become acting pastor of the Salem church, but he was unable to put his objections aside. He went against his word and began speaking out against the charter again, as well as the new oath of allegiance that the colonial government was trying to enforce. The Town of Salem stood behind him for a time, but when its delegates were shut out of the General Court and Williams called for the church to break free from other congregations, it could no longer back him. In October of 1635, the General Court banished Williams from Massachusetts. However, as Winter was coming and Williams had taken ill, the local authorities did not immediately enforce the order, offering Williams temporary shelter so long as he stopped stirring up trouble. But Williams was nothing if not a man who firmly stood behind his convictions, and he continued to voice his concerns. Realizing he would soon be sent back to England, he decided to flee so that he could remain in the colonies. Three days after he departed, the local sheriff came looking for him. Williams' trek was not an easy one - he traversed 105 miles in deep snow, despite his illness - and it might have killed others. Yet somehow he managed to survive the ordeal and the Wampanoag Indians, whom he had defended, took him in and saved his life. His followers soon joined him and after learning that they land they planned to settle was part of the Plymouth colony, they crossed the Seekonk River and purchased land from the Narragansett Indians. Williams named their settlement Providence, as he believed God's will had brought them there. His religious tolerance and appeal to other dissidents attracted plenty more. Williams and his followers were able to establish the first place modern history where government and religion were separated, and the example set an important precedent for the United States. And even though neighboring colonies tried to take down what became known as Rhode Island, Williams and those who came after him didn't back down, and eventually it became the country's smallest state, but an impressive one nonetheless.
Though it's been quite some time since Roger Williams set foot in Providence, there are still traces of him there. On top of the Rhode Island State House dome, there is a gold-covered bronze state known as the Independent Man that pays tribute to Williams' unique spirit. And a brief walk away is the Roger Williams National Memorial, one of the smallest national parks in the nation. It's located on the site of the original Providence settlement, which is now surrounded by urban development. The visitor center features a video that points out that no one really knows what Roger Williams looks like. I thought that was pretty interesting. And the park rangers there are some of the friendliest I've come across in my travels. Stop by if you ever get a chance. There's also many other places that celebrate his memory, like the Roger Williams Park and Roger Williams University, both of which are in Rhode Island. The United States Episcopal Church also celebrates his feast day today. So let's remember this man who refused to back down from what he believed to be right and stood up for other's rights and the great legacy he left behind on the anniversary of the day he first set foot on our shores.