On a fine summer day in 1636, Roger Williams and a handful of followers paddled down the Seekonk River, pulled ashore where a fresh spring surfaced at the foot of a high hill, and declared the site their new home. Williams named it Providence, in gratitude for the “freedom and vacancy of this … place and many other providences of the most holy and only wise.”
Williams had much to be thankful for. Five years earlier he had arrived in Puritan New England and found a society as rigid and intolerant as the one he’d left behind in England. Church and state were indistinguishable, and religious life was strictly controlled. Williams became an outspoken critic of what he saw, but not because he held dear some secular notion of liberty. This “divinely mad” man, as a contemporary called him, was guided by his religious beliefs to the conclusion that only in a free society can sinful men and women undertake the spiritual pilgrimage.
And so Williams aired his views, enraging civil and religious authorities from Boston to Plymouth. Asked to serve as a minister in Boston in 1631, Williams refused on grounds that the congregation had not disavowed the Church of England. Such Separatist views infuriated the Boston ministry. After Williams openly accused the magistrates of unjustly wielding what he considered to be their excessive power, Boston’s animosity toward him became so great that he moved to Plymouth, where he remained long enough to antagonize the colony’s leading citizens by telling them they had illegally appropriated Indian land. In 1634 Williams aroused Salem citizens’ ire by insisting that, among other things, residents could not be forced to swear to obey the civil authorities: taking oaths was an act of worship, Williams said, and no business of the General Court. Furthermore, Williams argued, the civil authorities had no right to punish transgressions against the first four Commandments. Any attempt to make Christian belief a citizen’s duty, he knew, tainted that belief.
In Puritan New England, such dissent could not go unpunished for long. On October 9, 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay banished Williams, and, three months later, prepared to seize him and deport him to England. Warned of the plan, Williams fled in the midst of a blizzard and headed south to live among the Indians. With the arrival of spring, he set out to find his new home.
Shortly after selecting the site for Providence, Williams and his followers signed a “town fellowship,” on June 16, 1636, in which they agreed to “active or passive obedience to all such orders as shall be made for the public good … by the major assent of the present inhabitants … and such others whom they shall admit unto them, only in civil things.” Roger Williams, the “divinely mad,” had founded America’s first democratic community where complete religious liberty would be practiced.