So, who is Roger Williams? In addition to being the founder of Rhode Island and RWU’s namesake, Roger was an outspoken advocate for diversity, tolerance and individual freedoms. His views weren’t always popular, but they were revolutionary and found their way into the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Some historians argue that he is the forgotten Founding Father. In any case, Roger was an American Original:
Roger was an outcast.
On more than one occasion, Roger was forced to flee his home for his contrary opinions. First, he was chased out of his native England for contradicting the Crown. Then, after settling in Massachusetts, Roger was exiled for “dangerous opinions” – forced to flee into the bitter January wilderness after refusing to cease preaching that the government had no right to compel a person to worship in any manner.
Roger was a political pioneer.
Upon founding Rhode Island, Roger was insistent that religious doctrine had no place in the governing of the colony – thus establishing “separation of church and state.” Still, his most revolutionary idea was that “power resides in the people” – that it is the citizens who endow the government with its authority. Quoth Roger: “I infer that the sovereign, original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people.”
Indeed, many of Roger's ideas were revolutionary – and he was never afraid to voice them.
In defense of his Native American neighbors, Roger also directly rebuked the King of England’s claim that the “unoccupied” land in the New World was free for the taking. Roger argued publicly that the King professed “a solemn public lie,” because the natives are the true owners of the land, and that it should be legally and fairly purchased from them.
An avid anthropologist, Roger spent a great deal of time studying the Native American tribes he encountered.
He literally wrote the book on the Algonquin language, “A Key to the Languages of America,” which many scholars consider an anthropological text on native life and customs. As Roger writes in that book, “Nature knows no difference between Europe and Americans in blood, birth, bodies. God having one blood made all mankind.”
Despite believing in the separation of church and state, Roger was a preacher.
Because he believed in the separation of church and state, many people misidentify Roger as an atheist. To the contrary, he was a devout minister and believed all people should have the right to worship as they choose without fear of persecution.
In a society that valued conformity, Roger was a visionary.
Rhode Island was the first true democracy in the modern world that gave each head of household an equal vote (including women) and nurtured the ideals of religious liberty, independence of thought and freedom of speech that would take root in American soil. Many of the principles forged with the creation of the 1663 Rhode Island Colonial Charter were written into the United States Bill of Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
He was a reluctant rebel.
Despite a desire for social acceptance, Roger was never one to compromise his beliefs – even if it meant risking social status or personal freedom. He enjoyed fame in England as the author of several pioneering political works that challenged the status quo so much that government officials ordered the burning of certain texts.
Click here for more facts about Roger.