Roger Williams University is named after the English Protestant theologian Roger Williams (1603-1683), who in the spring of 1636, along with a number of his followers, founded the Providence (named so for God's providence) Plantation Colony, which provided a refuge for religious minorities. There, civil matters were settled by a majority vote by heads of households, and the concepts of "liberty" and "conscience" were held in great esteem. The London-born preacher, an early proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, established the First Baptist Church of Providence (the first in the United States) in 1639.
Williams was also a student of Native American languages and an advocate for impartial dealings with Native American nations, and a close friend of Narragansett chief Canonicus, who in fact granted Williams the land on which the settle of Providence was built. Various people would flock to Williams's colony in the following years, including dissenting Christians, Jews, and others.
In the tradition of religious freedom and discovery, the History Department at Roger Williams University sponsored the first Religion and State conference in 2007 and hosts it every two years.