R.I. Historian says long-held facts about Roger Williams are simply fiction

PROVIDENCE, R.I., March 17, 2014 – 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

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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