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Roger Williams Pardoned in Massachusetts but Doesn’t Return

In 1936 Rhode Island was planning to celebrate its Tercentenary. It seemed only fitting that the state should get its founder out of his legal hot water. In 1636 Roger Williams and a group of his followers established Rhode Island after Williams had been banned from Massachusetts.

Williams was notorious in Massachusetts. He challenged the authority of the government. It was not separate from religious affairs as it ought to be, he said. He believed oaths administered by this government were not enforceable because they were not properly administered. (Oaths were a form or prayer, he posited). And he challenged the right of the King of England to grant ownership of North American lands, which he said were owned by the Indians and had to be purchased before falling under British control.

After a five year stay, Massachusetts chased him out of his Salem church by refusing to approve official business for the Salem unless the town got rid of Williams. Off he went to Providence to establish the colony that became a haven for nonconformists.

Williams made peace with two Rhode Island Indian sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi. He bought land from them and Rhode Island prospered. The good will Williams created with the Narragansett Indians initially brought them to support the colonists in the Pequot War. That alone should have been enough to win him support in the Massachusetts legislature.

Roger Williams buys land in Rhode Island

Roger Williams buys land in Rhode Island

Still, it took several tries for the pardon to become law after Rhode Island officially requested it in the run up to the Tercentenary. It did pass the legislature in time for the 1936 Rhode Island celebration, though Massachusetts admitted no wrongdoing in granting the pardon.

Civil libertarians seized on the pardon for political purposes. Massachusetts had instituted a loyalty oath for teachers in 1936.  Critics suggested if Williams was alive he would have fared no better in Massachusetts in 1936 than he had in 1636.

The pardon was but one of several hurdles Rhode Island faced in honoring its founding father. For decades a fitting memorial had been debated, but Rhode Island wrestled with how to erect a statue to Williams. The most practical obstacle was that no one really knew what he looked like.

roger-williams-pardonOne artifact of Williams’ day had survived. In unearthing his grave in 1860 in an early attempt at creating a memorial, an apple tree root had been found instead of a skeleton. It was preserved by enthusiastic Williams fans who suggested it had been divinely inspired to grow to conform to the shape of Williams’ body.

Meanwhile, many paintings over the years had been discovered by institutions who purported their discoveries were likenesses of Williams. But all had been debunked. Williams was often drawn in Pilgrim costume, though he was not a Pilgrim. And he is often shown with long hair and clean shaven, though some accounts suggested he actually had close-cropped hair and wore a beard.

Finally, the committee planning the tercentennial settled on the likeness that appears on a statue of Williams and was placed on the three cent stamp that commemorated the founding of Rhode Island.

3 comments

  1. Eugene Rossi

    So he gets kicked out of the state for religious disagreement and threatened with the death penalty if he returned, and he was the radical one. Hmmmmm…….

  2. Kerry Mackin

    He was such an amazingly progressive leader and one of the early voices calling for the separation of church and state and speaking up for the rights of indigenous peoples. We could learn a lot from him today.

  3. I had no idea that Roger Williams argued against the government because it wasn’t separate from religion. I majored in history in college, and I love reading about it. It would be really interesting to read a novel about Roger Williams and his life.

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