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I have strongly felt the want of a history of RhodeIsland. I have been obliged to relate many historical facts, which I have collected, in various ways, at the hazard of mistake and deficiency. It has been somewhat mortifying to me, as a native of Rhode Island, to be obliged to rely on the writers of Massachusetts and Plymouth, for facts concerning the history of Rhode Island, which could not, otherwise, be ascertained. While all the other NewEngland States, and indeed most of the States of the Union, have histories, it is hoped that Rhode Island will not much longer be content to bear the reproach, of being indebted to other States for her knowledge of her own history. I am glad to learn, that the papers of the late Theodore Foster, Esq. are now in the possession of the Rhode Island Historical Society. I hope that the Society will immediately appoint some competent person to prepare a history of the State. The Legislature ought to aid in procuring the requisite documents from England, and in defraying other necessary expenses.
The State has no reason to be ashamed of her history. She owes it to herself to record it truly.
The want of such a history has induced me to insert in this volume several documents which cannot readily be found. I am not aware of any Rhode Island publication, except a file of newspapers, in which a copy of the first charter is contained. The second charter is not easily to be procured. Very few, probably, of the citizens possess a copy .
It may, indeed, be objected to this book, that it is encumbered with documents. But I have desired to furnish the reader with the means of forming an acquaintance with Mr. Williams, by a perusal of his own letters, and other writings. These are never common-place. They are all marked with the impress of his character. The numerous authorities have been added, in order that if I
have committed mistakes, the reader might have the means of correcting them. It would be strange, if, amid so much contradiction and confusion, I have fallen into no errors. I can only say, that I have anxiously labored to learn the truth; and I shall be thankful for any suggestions, which may tend to make the book more accurate and useful.
A few of the notes are marked “G.” They were appended by Mr. Greenwood to the documents which he loaned to me, and I have taken the liberty to copy them, as valuable illustrations.
Roger Williams lived in an eventful period, and a memoir of him must contain many references to contemporary personages and events.
I have endeavored to speak of these with candor and kindness. The character and actions of the Pilgrim fathers have necessarily come under review. I have been obliged, occasionally, to censure; but it has been a source of pleasure, that the more I investigated their actions, the more deep and sincere was my veneration for those excellent men. It is due to them to point out those errors in their conduct, which they, were they now living, would lament and condemn.
The position in which this country is placed, as the great exemplar of civil and religious liberty, makes it inexpressibly important, that the true principles on which this liberty rests, should be thoroughly understood. A responsibility lies on the citizens of this country, which no other nation ever sustained. Here it is to be demonstrated, that man can govern himself, and that religion can walk abroad in her own dignity and unsullied loveliness, as the messenger of God, armed with his authority, and wielding his omnipotence; that she can speak to the hearts of men with a voice of power, which owes no part of its emphasis to the force of human laws; that she, instead of leaning on the arm of the magistrate for support, can enter the halls of legislation, the cabinets of rulers, and the courts
of justice, to spread out her laws, and proclaim her eternal sanctions. If civil liberty fail here, or if religion be overwhelmed with error or worldliness, the great cause of human happiness will suffer a disastrous check. It is believed, that a better knowledge of the principles of Roger Williams will have a salutary tendency, and that the publication of a memoir of his life is opportune, at this crisis, when, both in America and in Europe, the public mind is strongly agitated by questions which affect both the civil and the religious rights of men. If this book shall contribute, in the slightest degree, to the promotion of truth and freedom, I shall rejoice, and praise Him, who has restored my health, and given me leisure to finish the work.
A word or two of explanation, on certain points, may be necessary. In the quotations from old documents, I have altered the orthography conformably to present usage. One reason for this course was, that scarcely any writer was consistent with himself, especially in relation to proper names. There is, too, nothing in orthography to mark the style of a particular writer, and it may, consequently, be altered, without affecting the idiomatic peculiarities of his composition, while the book is freed from the uncouth forms of words spelled according to antiquated fashions.
The Indian names have been reduced to a uniform orthography, agreeably to what was believed to be the best form. They are spelled, in a most perplexing variety of ways, by different authors. Roger Williams himself sometimes spelled the same name differently in the same document.
I have endeavored to arrange the dates according to the old style. Many mistakes have been committed, by various authors, from a neglect of this point. Before 1752, the year was computed to commence on the 25th of March,
which was, accordingly, reckoned as the first month, and January and February were the eleventh and twelfth. Dates between the 1st of January and the 25th of March, are usually, in this book, marked with both years. Thus the time of Mr. Williams' arrival in America was the 5th of February, 1630–1. No portrait of Roger Williams, it is believed, is in exist
As the best substitute, a fac-simile of his hand writing has been engraved, and prefixed to this volume. It was copied from a document, kindly furnished by Moses Brown.
Ill health, and various other causes, have delayed the work. Further search might, perhaps, detect additional materials; but my official duties, and other reasons, forbid a longer delay. It is now respectfully commended to the favor of the public; and above all, to the blessing of Him, without whose smile human approbation would be vain. I cannot, and, indeed, ought not to, be without some solicitude respecting the reception of a work, on which I have expended so much time and labor, cheered by the hope, that it would serve the cause of human happiness. I am well aware, that it is defective in several points ; but it has not been in my power to make it more complete. I can easily anticipate objections, which will arise in some minds. One of these, it is probable, will be, that I have spoken too freely of the faults of Christians and ministers; that I have unveiled scenes of intolerance and persecution, which the enemies of religion may view with malicious joy. But my reply is, that I have not alluded to such topics, except where my main theme compelled me to speak of them. I trust, that what I have said is true, and uttered in a respectful and kind spirit. We must not, in order to promote or defend religion, attempt to conceal events which history has already recorded, and much less to palliate conduct, which we cannot justify. Let us, rather, con
fess, with frankness and humility, our own faults, and those of our fathers; learn wisdom from past errors; and bring ourselves and others, as speedily as possible, to the adoption of those pure principles, by which alone Christianity can be sustained and diffused. The book of God records, among its salutary lessons, the mistakes and sins of good
I have believed, that the wrong and mischievous tendency of intolerance could not be more forcibly exhibited, than in the conduct of our fathers. All men concede to them sincere piety, pure lives and conscientious uprightness of purpose. How pernicious, then, must be a principle, which could so bias the minds of such men, as to impel them to oppress, banish or put to death their fellow Christians! How dangerous the principle, if, in such hands, its operation was so terrible! We need not wonder that, under the direction of bigotry, ambition, cupidity and despotism, it produced the horrors of St. Bartholomew's, and the atrocities of Smithfield. The experience of NewEngland has proved, that the best men cannot be trusted with power over the conscience; and that this power must be wrested from the hands of all men, and committed to Him who alone is competent to wield it. This volume is dedicated to the defence of religious liberty, both by an exposition of the principles of Roger Williams, and by a display of the evils of intolerance. If it shall thus aid in hastening the universal triumph of pure and undefiled religion, my strongest desire will be accomplished.
Newton, December 12, 1833.