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Roger Williams

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Roger Williams ... A Brief Biography

Drypoint etching, 1936, by Arthur W. Heintzelman, commemorating the Tercentenary of the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams. Courtesy of Roger Williams University Archives.

ROGER WILLIAMS was born in London, circa 1604, the son of James and Alice (Pemberton) Williams. James, the son of Mark and Agnes (Audley) Williams was a "merchant Tailor" (an importer and trader) and probably a man of some importance. His will, proved 19 November 1621, left, in addition to bequests to his "loving wife, Alice," to his sons, Sydrach, Roger and Robert, and to his daughter Catherine, money and bread to the poor in various sections of London.

The will of Alice (Pemberton) Williams was admitted to probate 26 January 1634. Among other bequests, she left the sum of Ten Pounds yearly for twenty years to her son, Roger Williams, "now beyond the seas." She further provided that if Roger predeceased her, "what remaineth thereof unpaid ... shall be paid to his wife and daughter...." Obviously, by the time of her death, Roger's mother was aware of the birth in America in 1633 of her grandchild, Mary Williams.

Roger's youth was spent in the parish of "St. Sepulchre's, without Newgate, London." While a young man, he must have been aware of the numerous burnings at the stake that had taken place at nearby Smithfield of so-called Puritans or heretics. This probably influenced his later strong beliefs in civic and religious liberty.

During his teens, Roger Williams came to the attention of Sir Edward Coke, a brilliant lawyer and one-time Chief Justice of England, through whose influence he was enrolled at Sutton's Hospital, a part of Charter House, a school in London. He next entered Pembroke College at Cambridge University from which he graduated in 1627. All of the literature currently available at Pembroke to prospective students mentions Roger Williams, his part in the Reformation, and his founding of the Colony of Rhode Island. At Pembroke, he was one of eight granted scholarships based on excellence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Pembroke College in Providence, once the women's college of Brown University, was named after Pembroke at Cambridge in honor of Roger Williams.

In the years after he left Cambridge, Roger Williams was Chaplain to a wealthy family, and on 15 December 1629, he married MARY BARNARD at the Church of High Laver, Essex, England. Even at this time, he became a controversial figure because of his ideas on freedom of worship.
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