In 1936 Rhode Islanders planned to celebrate their Tercentenary by honoring the state’s founder, Roger Williams. But they faced a few problems. First, Massachusetts still considered him a criminal. And second, no one knew what he looked like.
Williams was notorious in Massachusetts for challenging government authority. He thought the government should separate itself from religious affairs. He believed that oaths were a form of prayer. Therefore, he believed, government couldn’t enforce oaths.
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.
Massachusetts’ Puritan leaders had actually welcomed Williams with joyful relief when he arrived on the Lyon from Bristol, England, on Feb. 5, 1631. They were pleased to have another Puritan minister who could help preach.
But after a five-year stay, the Puritan leaders chased Williams out of his Salem church. They did it by refusing to approve official business for Salem until 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 Narragansett sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomi. He bought land from them, and Rhode Island then prospered. The goodwill Williams created with the Narragansett people helped bring about their alliance with the colonists during the Pequot War. That alone should have won him forgiveness from the Massachusetts Legislature.
He didn’t get it until 1936, when Rhode Island officially requested the pardon in the run up to the Tercentenary. The Legislature granted it in time for Rhode Island’s celebration. But Massachusetts admitted no wrongdoing. It did retract the ban on him as well, but a little late.
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 their 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.
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 people had 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.
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 2023.
Images: The Landing of Roger Williams in 1636 by Alonzo Chappel (1857). Roger Williams statue By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65213559.