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The Mysterious 1644 Portrait of Roger Williams

A portrait of Roger Williams is easy to sketch in words: Baptist minister banished from Massachusetts, founding father of Rhode Island and champion of religious freedom. His achievements are literally woven into the fabric of early America.

The 1644 portrait of Roger Williams

The 1644 portrait of Roger Williams

Williams accumulated many admirers for his relations with native Americans, his views on religious freedom and his political leadership, which helped to create Rhode Island. But establishing a memorial for Williams proved difficult because once he died in 1683, there were no likenesses of him. For there was no portrait of Roger Williams – at least that's what people thought.

He had come to America as a rabble-rousing, English minister who decried corruption in the Church of England. He soon rubbed the residents of Massachusetts the wrong way and was banished to Rhode Island where he studied the language of the local Indians and purchased land from them.

In 1644 he returned briefly to England to win a charter for the Providence Plantations and managed to again infuriate conservative English politicians by publishing a pamphlet calling for religious toleration and separation of church and state.

Back in Rhode Island, Williams turned his efforts to building a baptist church in America and stabilizing Rhode Island. Following his death in 1683, Williams' house sank into ruin and his grave was lost track of.

More than 100 years later, Williams reputation underwent a revival and his writings and philosophy gained renewed respect as people began appreciating his impact. But connections to Williams, beyond his writings, were few. Images of Williams were created, but their authenticity was never established.

In 1844, Daniel Jones published an article about Williams in a Welsh-language journal, and along with it he published a print he said was a likeness of Williams. Thus a legend was born: While in England in 1644 Roger Williams had had a portrait painted of himself. Following the turmoil of the English Revolution, the portrait had made its way to America, along with other belongings of the Duke of York, and been auctioned in New York.

Daniel Jones had purchased the painting, or so he believed. As Rhode Islanders sought to create a proper memorial for Williams, a letter was sent to the Providence Journal offering to give the painting along with a donation of $500 to any group that would also put up $500 to create a memorial to Roger Williams.

Jones motive was probably not to deceive. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Roger Williams' beliefs, most likely because he believed Williams had a Welsh heritage like his own. Though his claims about the portrait were invariably questioned, it made it into a number of books about Roger Williams.

Whatever the reason, Rhode Island historian Sidney Rider undertook an inquiry to examine the facts. Could the portrait be real?

Eventually, Rider and others concluded the painting was not authentic. The portrait undoubtedly celebrated Williams' life; it showed him seated with the Rhode Island charter and had his books in the background. But a number of problems with the painting – including misspelling in one of the titles of his books – led them to conclude the painting was not authentic.

The painting was perhaps, some conjectured, a poor portrait of Benjamin Franklin that had been augmented with the background designed to make it look like a painting of Roger Williams.

Nevertheless, reprints of the painting made their way into numerous books about Roger Williams' life and achievements. Sculptors have also made likenesses of Williams in numerous locations, including Salem, Mass. and in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. But to the best of anyone's knowledge his features were never documented.

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