Politics and Military

Roger Williams Pardoned in Massachusetts but Doesn’t Return

In 1936 Rhode Island planned to celebrate its Tercentenary. It seemed only fitting that the state should get its founder out of his legal hot water. Massachusetts, after all, had banned him 300 years earlier.

Roger Williams then led a group of his followers to establish Rhode Island.

Notorious Roger Williams

Williams was notorious in Massachusetts for challenging the authority of the government. He thought the government should separate itself from religious affairs. He believed the government couldn’t enforce the oaths it administered because it hadn’t done it properly. Williams posited that oaths were a form of prayer.

Williams also challenged the right of the King of England to grant ownership of North American lands. He said the indigenous people had to sell the land before falling under British control.

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

Finally, a Pardon

Williams made peace with two indigenous sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi. He bought land from them, and Rhode Island then 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 won 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 before Massachusetts enacted the pardon. Rhode Island officially requested it in the run up to the Tercentenary. It passed the Legislature in time for the 1936 Rhode Island celebration. But 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 still lived he would have fared no better in Massachusetts in 1936 than he had in 1636.

A Fitting Memorial

Rhode Islanders faced other hurdles in honoring its founding father. For decades they had debated a fitting memorial, but the state wrestled with how to erect a statue to Williams. The most practical obstacle: No one really knew what he looked like.


Commemorative stamp

One 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, various institutions had discovered paintings over the years that they claimed looked like 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.

Roger Williams Statue, Roger Williams Park, Providence, Rhode Island. Photo: Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress

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

This story last updated in 2022.

Images: The Landing of Roger Williams in 1636 by Alonzo Chappel (1857). Roger Williams statue Detroit Publishing Co, P. Roger Williams statue, Roger Williams Park, Providence, R.I. United States Providence Rhode Island, None. [Between 1900 and 1910] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2016809706/.

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