Rhode Islanders know the basic story of Roger Williams well. He was the founder of Providence, a refugee from nearby Massachusetts whose devotion to religious liberty has resounded through the ages, at least locally.
But the tale as told today is incomplete, according to Marc Kohler – and what common history has often overlooked links Williams more directly to the nation’s intellectual foundation than is widely acknowledged.
“The man was a genius … There’s so much cause for pride in this man’s thoughts and his accomplishments and his dedication,” he said.
Kohler, the founder of the Roger Williams Educational Foundation, spoke Saturday at the Cranston Public Library’s Central Library in conjunction with the “Roving Roger” exhibit. Sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of State, it features a 7-foot statue of Williams along with a range of educational materials. The exhibit will remain at the library through February.
The hour-long presentation by Kohler was wide ranging, covering events from Williams’ early years in England until the end of his life. He cited John Barry’s book “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul” as a particularly valuable source.
Kohler said his interest in studying Williams emerged from his research for a family-oriented presentation on the Gaspee Affair – another event well known locally but often ignored in the broader telling of nation’s history, one in which he believes the presence of “the spirit of Roger Williams” is unmistakable.
At the heart of Kohler’s message is the idea that Williams’ writings and core ideological tenets – namely “freedom of conscience” and the separation of church and state – directly shaped the work of John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher who was a major influence on the founders of the United States.
Kohler spoke of Williams’ early years in England, a period he said modern histories particularly leave out. As a domestic chaplain to a noteworthy family, he said, Williams “became part of the most powerful, richest Puritan separatist group in England” – and that connection helped protect him after he came to Massachusetts in 1631, bringing with him a controversial message. Indeed, he said, Williams “arrived in Boston untouchable” at a time when dissenters faced imprisonment or death.
While an ordained minister in the Church of England, Williams was a vocal proponent of complete Purtian separation from an institution he had come to view as inherently corrupt. That and other views, such as his criticism of the crown and more tolerant approach toward Native Americans, received an often chilly reception among authorities and some other colonists. He spent time in Salem and Plymouth ahead of his 1636 conviction for heresy and banishment from what was then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Before he could be taken back to England, of course, Williams slipped away from Massachusetts, setting off on a journey that brought him directly into the orbit of Native Americans and, ultimately, led to the founding of Providence. He devoted the rest of his life to fostering his vision for the colony, which later obtained a royal charter.
Kohler said the initial governance agreement reached among the residents of Providence in 1636 represents “the first democracy in the modern world.”
Kohler believes Williams’ reputation suffered in the decades after his death “for lots of different reasons.” Much of it relates to the ire Williams drew from his powerful contemporaries. It was noted during the presentation that Providence was founded in the same year as Harvard University – an institution with strong ties to the leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had expelled Williams.
The political landscape back in England, too, played a role in Williams’ legacy being relegated, Kohler suggested. He noted that Williams was a distant relative of Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan who rose to lead Britain before his death in 1658. Cromwell’s passing led to the restoration of the monarchy – and dealt a severe blow to Puritanism.
Against this backdrop, Locke completed his significant works. Kohler said he believes the political climate at the time was a major factor in Locke not more explicitly embracing Williams’ influence.
In the end, Kohler said, Williams’ importance in shaping what would become the United States cannot be overstated.
“The real story of what happened in this state is a real story about freedom, much more than we ever give it credit for,” he said.
According to a press release, the “Roving Roger” exhibit “expands awareness and understanding of Rhode Island's colonial founder, Roger Williams, and inspires Rhode Islanders to think boldly about how they might contribute to our state and country in the future.” The exhibit has also made stops in Tiverton and Westerly.
To learn more about Kohler, visit marcwkohler.com.