Ancestors: Famous and Notorious
Meet two more of my Rhode Island ancestors, one famous and the other infamous, even notorious in his day. Times change and notorious conduct 400 years ago is a cause for admiration today. Many who were persecuted in colonial times are responsible for the freedoms we now take for granted.
Roger Williams was born London in 1603. His father was an importer and trader, a merchant of some importance until his death in 1621. Roger grew up during the period when numerous Puritans and others thought to be heretics were burned at the stake at Smithfield near London, acts that influenced his later religious beliefs. He was educated at Cambridge University's Pembroke College and graduated in 1627 having received scholarships for his excellence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
As a theologian and independent preacher, Roger Williams first preached at Salem, Massachusetts in 1631. His controversial beliefs in separation of church and state and freedom of religion attracted the attention of Massachusetts Bay's Puritan rulers who were about to deport him back to England in 1636. He fled southwest to the area around Narragansett Bay where he founded Providence, the first area of Rhode Island settled.
Williams founded the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence. He favored treating the Native Americans fairly and was a peace maker between the colonists and Indians. He established a trading post at North Kingston, and as governor of the colony from 1655 to 1658 encouraged trade with the Indians. Williams may have been the first American abolitionist as he forbade slavery in the state of Rhode Island. His belief in separation of church and state would become a founding principle of our American form of government.
His contemporary, Samuel Gorton was born in 1591 in Manchester, England. Also from a wealthy, influential family, Gorton received a liberal education. His fluency in Greek and Latin enabled him to read the Bible in its original text leading to his nonconformist beliefs. A convincing speaker, he would speak wherever people would listen to him, although it was said that he "did indeed clothe his thought at times, in clouds, but then it was because they were too large for any other garment."
Gorton brought his family to Boston in 1636 and was constantly in trouble with authorities. After he moved to Portsmouth, Rhode Island two Indian chiefs, Ponham and Soconoco, were hired by Massachusetts to raid Gorton's home and burn it down. In 1642 after several run-ins with Massachusetts authorities, Gorton and 100 of his followers were put out and forced to walk in a blinding snowstorm about 90 miles back to Providence. Massachusetts continued to harass him until he left his family and went back to England for three years.
There the Earl of Warwick befriended Gorton and helped him obtain a royal charter from the king as well as an order of safe passage. He returned to Boston where authorities had to honor his documents and allow him to proceed to Providence. Gorton founded Warwick, Rhode Island, and was elected the first President over the towns of Warwick and Providence, called the Providence Plantations. He was elected a Deputy Governor in 1664, 1665, 1666, and 1670. Treated as a heretic by the Puritans, he wrote, Hypocrisy Revealed, a critique of his critics. A graduate of Pembroke College and Cambridge University, Samuel Gorton was in fact a minister of the Gospel, an independent thinker and a true champion of liberty.