Roger Williams and the “Refused to Learn the Local Language” Meme


To start, this is the meme I’ll be discussing.

Undocumented Immigrants Meme

The point of the meme is obvious.  It’s intended to mock the conservative dislike of undocumented immigrants entering the country and receiving benefits by pointing out that the earliest English colonists came without any permission from the native inhabitants of the land and would have starved to death without their assistance.  I agree with the general thrust of the meme entirely.  I want to be 100% clear on that.  Unfortunately, this is possibly the single worst painting that could be used for this meme.

You might recognize the painting as the below, Roger Williams Being Received by the Indians, 1635, by Alonzo Chappel.

Roger Williams PaintingRoger Williams is, to put it succinctly, a man with a morality beyond that of the present day who inexplicably found himself in the 17th century.

Let’s start with the first line of the meme: “Undocumented Immigrants Refuse to Learn the Local Language.”  Can you guess who wrote A Key Into the Language of America, the world’s first English-Native American language dictionary?  I hope so, because otherwise your deductive skills are lacking.  It was Roger Williams!  His initial intention was to minister to the Native Americans.  In order to accomplish this, he learnt their culture and language.  However, by the time he had the knowledge to attempt to convert them, he no longer had the desire: his conscience would not allow him to do so.  He had discovered that they had their own culture, their own religion, their own forms of worship, and he had no desire to tear them away from their ancestral forms.  He left behind all churches and belonged to none.  He was a Christian, but would not associate himself with any specific church, instead claiming that he was waiting for a new apostle to lead him, and that until then, it was unknowable which church was correct.

Roger Williams CoinIn contrast with most of the other colonists, then, we can see that Roger Williams did learn the language.  He also purchased Providence from the Wampanoags, although he admits that he was only able to purchase it due to love.  Even then, he knew that it was a myth that the Native Americans had no concept of property.

The natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that prince or people, even to a river, brook, &c. And I have known them make bargain and sale amongst themselves for a small piece or quantity of ground; notwithstanding a sinful opinion amongst many, that christians have right to heathen’s land.

Roger Williams was a friend of the Native Americans, and kept Providence Plantations neutral in most of the wars fought against them by the other New England colonies.  He even gave himself as a hostage to the Native Americans, in order to ensure the return of their chiefs by his fellow colonists.  He worked his whole life towards maintaining peace between the Native Americans and the colonists, yet Providence was nevertheless burned in 1676.  I think by now it’s pretty obvious why a different colonial leader would have been more appropriate.  Since I like Roger Williams a lot, though, I’ll mention some other great things about him.

Roger Williams, despite the opinion of many other Europeans, realized that the Native Americans had a concept of property, and that therefore, land not bought from them was gained immorally.

“The natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that prince or people, even to a river, brook, &c. And I have known them make bargain and sale amongst themselves for a small piece or quantity of ground ; notwithstanding a sinful opinion amongst many, that christians have right to heathen’s land.”

Roger Williams was the first proponent of the Separation of Church and State, and for Religious Freedom, in America, and established the first government in modern history in which government and religion were entirely separated.

“It is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.”

Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his objections to the church’s attempts to interfere in the secular lives of the colonists and force them to conform to a single religion.  He believed that the church should only concern itself with those things that dealt with God, while the state should deal with affairs between human beings.

“God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”

Roger Williams promoted a free and open society in Providence, Rhode Island.  He did not attempt to silence his enemies, but let them speak freely, believing that sincere disagreement was better than hypocritical conformity.

“Although the loose will be more loose (yet) possibly being at more liberty they may be put upon consideration and choice of ways of life and peace, yet, however, it is infinitely better that the profane and loose be unmasked than to be muffled up under the veil and hood of traditional hypocrisy, which turns and dulls the very edge of all conscience either toward God or man.”

Roger Williams StatueIn 1641, Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first law legalizing slavery in the English Amerian colonies.  In 1652, thanks in part to support by Roger Williams, slavery was declared illegal in Providence Plantations.  However, when Providence Plantations unified with the towns of Rhode Island, becoming Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the state’s official name, and the longest name of any state), the merchant towns, especially Newport, opposed the law and ignored it, continuing slavery in the colony for over another century.  Newport became the greatest shipper of slaves in the 13 colonies.

Roger Williams, at the age of 70, rowed himself from Providence to Newport, a distance of about 30 miles.  He did so in order to hold a religious debate with George Fox, leader of the Quakers in Newport.  The debate took place, but Fox was not present.  Williams claimed that God helped his old bones row the distance.

Roger Williams’s tolerance of other religious brought hordes of travelers to the colony, hoping for religious freedom.  The first Baptist church in America was founded by Roger Williams in 1638.  The oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere is in Newport, Rhode Island.  Quakers arrived in Newport in 1657, and Huguenots, French Calvinists, settled in Rhode Island in 1686.  Antinomians founded Portsmouth in 1638, led by Anne Hutchinson.  In no other colony was such a diversity of religious opinion tolerated.

Edit: To clarify my position, this meme would be 100% accurate if it depicted Jamestown or Plymouth.  My only issue with it is that it depicts Roger Williams, who is the worst of the English settlers to use as an example for this, and even then, the assistance that he got from the Native Americans was quite literally life-saving, and he would have frozen to death without their aid.




This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Roger Williams and the “Refused to Learn the Local Language” Meme

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, despite the fact that I loathe memes of any ilk. This was illuminating and I’d be interested to read more about Roger Williams. Any books to recommend?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kelvingon says:

    Interesting !!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. johnkutensky says:

    Kinda surprised by how popular this got. Evidently I should discuss Roger Williams more often…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post.
    I’ve only been to America once, and that was to Rhode Island in June 1998. I was lucky enough to stay at the Roger Williams University during the summer break. Such a beautiful location. Staying there, now knowing about Roger Williams, was incredibly apt.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sarah Henry says:

    Reblogged this on Sarah Says….

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Freshly Pressed! | John Kutensky

  7. hampshirehog says:

    Shared on Facebook. Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. funinocala says:

    Reblogged this on Faded Roots and commented:
    This is especially apropos since my next blog series will deal with our Mayflower ancestors. I find that history is never quite as simple as some would have us believe.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. JImbo says:

    Great info. Lots ofvresearch . 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. JImbo says:

    Reblogged this on The Readneck Review Blog and commented:
    This bears sharing. The amount of myth shattering material here backed up by primary sources is impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Learn something new every day would be among the top ten sentences on my list for personal mottos, if I had one. I have neither a list, nor a motto, as everything is in flux – another aspiring favorite of mine. Though I did learn something new, and to thank I have you, even if it is in a yoda way for the sake of a little rhyme

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Very Bangled says:

    Fascinating read. Thank you for the art history and history history lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. dH says:

    Reposted to Facebook.

    This man was truly ahead of his time, as you said yourself in the article. It’s a shame that Roger Williams has not been mentioned more (if at all) in our history books. I wasn’t the most studious in my teens, but perhaps a story like his would have piqued my interest, when discussing the early colonies for class assignments.

    Great read, sir.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. kaushik55 says:

    We were taught US history in school(in India). Not much was mentioned about the work of Roger Williams in the text books. You are post shows that not all colonists were land-grabbers and some were really broadminded. I thank you for sharing that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnkutensky says:

      I’m not surprised. Even in US history in the US, I’d be surprised if he gets much of a mention. He founded the smallest state and all his neighbors hated him, and if you get into what he did, you probably have to get into how the other colonies were actually theocracies instead of the tolerant democracies we like to pretend they were.


  15. Pingback: My Five Underknown Historical Figures | John Kutensky

  16. aljok says:

    Simple and poor folks!Where is your,s altars and gods?Thank you America!!!! So?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Reblogged this on Roger Williams Trading Post and commented:
    I have been intending to explore in a post what this painting of Roger Williams means for me. Here I found another commentatary that’s on point with that conversation!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Please Visit Roger Williams Trading Post! A New Cooperative Buying Club and fair trade association established in Providence Plantations. Thank you for this truthful article.


  19. johnkutensky says:

    Reblogged this on John Kutensky and commented:

    Now seems like an apt time to reblog this, what with refugees in the news again and Pilgrims on everyone’s mind.


  20. Pingback: Roger Williams in Art | John Kutensky

  21. Pingback: Roger Williams and the “Refused to Learn the Local Language” Meme — John Kutensky – Internet as a Hobby

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.