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Roger Williams: TheInner and Outer Man Glenn W LaFantasie There is much about Roger Williams that we do not know. Despite the many books that have been written about him, and despite the reputation he has earned as the founding father of Rhode Island and as a radical religious thinker, he still remains something of a shadow on the historical landscape. 1 It istrue that we know quite a bit about Williams the public figure. The story of his banishment from Massachusetts Bay in the winter of 1636 has a familiar place in the history of the United States. Little, however, is known about his private life or his more mundane activities. It is difficult, in fact, to conjure up an image of the man or to reconstruct with any degree of accuracy what sort of life he led. Only brief glimpses into his private side suggest the nature of Williams' personal qualities. Unlike other national heroes, unlike a Benjamin Franklin or an Abraham Lincoln, we cannot meet Roger Williams on familiar terms. Though we perceive the shadow, we do notknow the man. To say this, however, does not explain why Williams seems such a hard manto know. Why do so many mysteries confound our efforts to see him in a clear light? Why do we know so little about his private side? Why, quite simply,does Roger Williams seem so distant and beyond our grasp? One reason that Williams seems so elusive to us today is that countless documents which probably would have answered many of our questions about him have been lost or destroyed. What we know about Roger Williams Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 1985,375-394 376 Glenn W. LaFantasie actually comes from a surprisingly small number of sources that have managed to survive the vicissitudes of time: slightly less than 200 letters, some pamphlets and longer works that he wrote, some scattered references to him and to his activities in the colony and town records, and various allusions to him in the writings of his contemporaries. 2 Many records that once existed are missing. An untold number of letters that he wrote to officials in neighboring colonies and to friends in England have never been located. No letters to his wife or children-or from them, for that matterhave ever surfaced. Three of his most important compositions, the texts of which have apparently perished, are conspicuously absent from his collected works: a treatise and a letter he wrote during his first few years in New England (which fanned the flames of controversy that led to his banishment from Massachusetts Bay), and a "book" entitled "Defense of Civil Order and Government" (probably written in 1657).Nor do any of his prepared sermons survive, although Williams, a year before his death, wrote out the titles of some of them in a manuscript he described asbeing nearly thirty pages long.1 Other documents met a similar fate in his lifetime. Williams himself had a way of misplacing important papers or losing track of them after he had circulated them for others to read. Writing to John Winthrop, Williams admitted in 1638 that he had lost his records of a debt owed him by one George Ludlow, and he wondered if Winthrop could remember the exact amount that Ludlow had promised to pay. Some of his writings, however, were lost because of circumstances beyond his control. He complained in 1669,for instance, that a copy of his book on the "Defense of Civil Order and Government," originally sent in manuscript to the towns of Providence and Warwick, had been stolen by William Harris, with whom he was engaged ina long and bitter dispute over the boundaries of Providence and, ironically enough, over the boundaries of law and order. A worse loss occurred in 1676 when a party of Indians attacked Providence and burned Williams' house to the ground (along with most of the other houses in the town). 4 Presumably whatever papers he had retained throughout his lifetime were in his house at the time, and the loss must have left him heartsick. For historians, the catastrophe that befellWilliams'personal papers has meant that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 375-394
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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