Roger Williams and the Narragansett. (from “Triumph and Tragedy in the Name of Liberty”)


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A little more than a century before Rousseau contemplated man in his true state of nature, Roger Williams, a minister who had arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 and after tumultuous stints at preaching in Plymouth and Salem, was banished for inciting views contrary to the church of England.

Among these ideas so offensive to John Winthrop’s court were the first expressions of the argument concerning a separation of church and state and a consequential tolerance of all beliefs.

Williams fled three days before an armed guard arrived to arrest him, leaving Salem and making his way to present day East Providence where he was given a tract of land beside a spring and close by a river.

He was not there long however, when word came from Plymouth’s Governor John Endicott that he was encamped within the Colony’s boundary and must move on again. With the guidance of a Wampanoag, he headed downriver in a canoe and landed in a large cove on the east side of what he came to name Providence.

A small group of Narragansett greeted him when Williams stepped ashore and guided him to a well known path that led along the base of a forested hill where he again set up camp near another freshwater spring that ran into a salt marsh and a cove beyond, just west of the site.[1]

Lest the reader be mislead by the apparent spontaneous generosity of the natives, Williams had befriended these Indians and others long before his expulsion. He earned his living from trade and was alert for ways of expansion. His writing of  “A Key to the Language of North America” was the first extensive guide to the vocabulary of the Algonquin language, or at least the derivative which was spoken by the local Narragansett tribe.

Williams wrote “A Key” during a voyage for London in 1643 where he sought a charter for the colony he’d settled seven years before.

The book impressed the crown and the public. It was printed in London and became a valuable companion for fur trappers who made the perilous but often profitable voyage across the Atlantic.

Pelts of all kinds from North America were a popular luxury in Britain, and hundreds of impoverished would be trappers entered the ranks of those already teeming through the forests of New England. Even later travelers like William Brooks Cabot found “A Key” to be a useful guide to conversing with the few remaining Native Americans he encountered. Williams had stated his intent of the “Key” being of use by missionaries in a nobler pursuit; namely

“ to spread civility and Christianity; for one candle will light ten thousand.”

The uniqueness of Williams’ “Key” was the “ observations” he interspersed throughout the vocabulary, and the portrait of kindness and generosity that Williams gave of what most Europeans still regarded as “savages”.

To his credit, he scoffed at that antiquated notion and wrote

“ I could never discerne that excess of scandalous sins amongst them , which Europe aboundeth with.”

he described their society as a model of co-existence.

“ With friendly joining they breake up their fields, build their Forts, hunt the Woods, stop and kill fish in the Rivers, it being true with them as in all the World in the Affaires of Earth or Heaven…”

These observations penned by Williams contain considerable warmth toward his neighbors, but they came from a man who had a zeal for religious freedom and believed that

“ Nature knows no difference between European and Americans in blood, birth, bodies,&c. God having of one blood made all mankind, Acts 17…”

and scolded his English brethren:

Boast not proud English, of thy birth & blood,

Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.

Of one blood God made Him, and Thee & All,

As wise, as faire, as strong, as personall.”

Williams forged a number of personal friendships during the seven years he shared their territory before penning “A Key”,  and during that long journey, writing the manuscript by lantern in a pitching sea, he reflected that

“ I have acknowledged amongst them an heart of sensible kindnesses, and have reaped kindness against from many, seven yeares after, when my selfe had forgotten…”

and duly reported that amongst their society,

“ The sociablenesse of the nature of man appears in the wildest of them, who love societie, Families, cohabitation, and consociation of houses and townes together.”

Williams also wrote of their regard for one another.

“ There are no beggars amongst them, no fatherless children unprovided for….their affections, especially to their children, are very strong; so that I have known a Father, take so grievously the loss of his childe, that he hath cut and stobd himselfe with griefe and rage.”

“ A Key to the Language of America” is clearly a pivotal document in providing a true understanding of Native Americans for European readers. The book offers a vivid and compelling window into the life and society that existed outside the confines of the British and French settlements. Most importantly, it gave readers a true and accurate picture of Native life, a life that was very close to what Rousseau imagined before the origins of inequality.

Williams also wrote a tract while in London that was published there as well, entitled “The Bloody Tenant of Persecution” which was in response to the writings of John Cotton. The tract showed Williams to be a thinker far beyond his mission of religious tolerance. As Martha Nussbaum points out,

“ Williams’ experience of finding integrity, dignity and goodness outside the parameters of orthodoxy surely shaped his evolving views of conscience.” [2]

The principles expressed in “ The Bloody Tenant” would be a precursor of John Locke’s work some forty years later.

Williams was an important figure whose legacy is his promotion of “liberty of conscience” in the Colonies. From the moment he founded Providence Plantations under the democratic charter granted him, liberty of conscience was secured. The settlements that had been founded by other puritan dissidents such as Anne Hutchinson, as well as Baptists and Quakers and Jews were united in one government but the majority could make policy “only in civil things”.  And the citizens proved to be as progressive minded as their leader, being the first colony in North America to make slavery illegal in 1652. At least for a time.

In the coming years, Williams continued to preach and write about his ideals, and when time came to renegotiate the charter, his persistence paid off with a willing Charles II, and the result was an astounding document for the times. It gave the colony of Rhode Island unparalleled liberties, setting it apart from the rest of the Colonies and instilling for the first time what would become its continuing legacy of Independence.

“ Noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or call in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of sayd colonye; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tyme’s hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoye his and theire owne judgements and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of lande hereafter mentioned; they behaving themselves peaceablie  and quietlie, and not using this libertie to lycentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civill injurye or outward disturbance of others; any lawe, statute, or clause, therin contained,or to be contained,usage or custome of this realme, to the contrary hereof, in any wise, notwithstanding.”

As Nussbaum notes

“ The final provision of this clause is very interesting: the charter guarantees liberty of religious belief and practice even when a law or custom forbids it. In other words, if law says that you have to swear an oath before God to hold public office, this law is nullifie by the charter. Moreover, it appears that the charter nullifies the applicability of laws to individuals when such laws threaten their religious liberty. If a law says that people have to testify on Saturday, and your religion forbids this, then that law is non-applicable  in your case. In other words, it would appear that Williams has forged the concept of accommodation, which soon became widely accepted in the colonies.”[3]


[1] This described Indian path is now South Main Street which runs along the base of College Hill in Providence.

[2] Nussbaum, Martha C. “ Liberty  Of Conscience”  Basic Books 2008

[3] Ibid pp50

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
This entry was posted in Native American history. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Roger Williams and the Narragansett. (from “Triumph and Tragedy in the Name of Liberty”)

  1. Donald Whitcomb says:

    Roger Williams was private Chaplain in my relative”s Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham’s house, Oates, and her husband Sir Francis Masham gave him the Rhode Island Charter, all on my facebook profile wall. Donald Whitcomb. Cudworth Street in Provincetown Massachusetts was formerly named Orthodox Road as The Platonist Ralph Cudworth was Damaris Masham’s father. James Cudworth was Deputy Gov. of Colonies and was persecuted for entertaining Quakers [Thomas Huckley’s Law, Plymouth Colony]*Donald Whitcomb on facebook

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