In Search of Roger Williams
Rhode Island historian and RIC Emeritus Professor J. Stanley Lemons will present In Search of Roger Williams, a lecture about the evolving images of the founder of Rhode Island, on Thursday, March 27, 7-8:30 p.m. in the Forman Center, Room C, at Rhode Island College, 600 Mt. Pleasant Ave., Providence. Co-sponsored by the RIC Department of History and the Ridgway F. Shinn Jr. Study Abroad Fund, this event is free and open to the public.
More books have been written about Roger Williams than any other 17th-century American, but some of the facts about Williams are simply fiction, said Lemons.
For example, writers have referred to Williams, a Protestant theologian who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious liberty, as a “Seeker.” Williams was not a Seeker, said Lemons; this label was first given to him by his opponents. “In the 1640s, to discredit someone, you called him a Seeker, which was like calling someone a Communist in the 1950s,” he said. “Seekers were considered a heretical group who denied the divinity of Christ and the existence of Heaven and Hell, among other Christian doctrines. These were beliefs that Williams abhorred. He was a Puritan, a deeply religious man, who considered himself a witness for Christianity. His writings are saturated with biblical quotations and references to Scripture.”
By the mid-19th century, when the idea of religious liberty had come to be regarded as part of the American way of life, Williams was raised to heroic stature, said Lemons. “During that time, Williams was characterized not as a religious man but as a philosophical champion of democracy, so much so that they nearly transformed him into a New Deal Democrat by the 1930s. This was the gravest misconception by writers, because they stripped the theologian of his deeply religious character,” he said.
Lemons has twice been recognized by the American Association of State and Local History with the Award of Merit (their highest award) for his contributions to Rhode Island history. He served as professor of history at Rhode Island College for 39 years and is author of “The Elect: Rhode Island’s Women Legislators, 1922-1990” (1990); “FIRST: The First Baptist Church in America” (2001); and “Rhode Island: The Ocean State” (2004). In 2013 he contributed a volume to the “Baptists in Early North America” series and this August, Baylor University Press is publishing a book co-authored by Lemons, Linford Fisher and Lucas Mason-Brown titled “Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father.”
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