Prof. Emeritus Lemons Presents Lecture in Celebration of Shinn Fund 25th Anniversary

More books have been written about Roger Williams than any other 17th-century American, but some of the facts attributed to Williams are simply fiction said Rhode Island historian J. Stanley Lemons, RIC emeritus professor of history.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Ridgway F. Shinn Jr. Study Abroad Fund at Rhode Island College, Lemons present the lecture “In Search of Roger Williams.”

According to Lemons, some of the characterizations of the Protestant theologian who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious liberty are false. For example, writers refer to Williams 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 said.

Beginning in the 1950s, historians returned Williams to his 17th-century historical context; however, the Seeker label has remained. Lemons will focus on the Seeker characterization in his lecture, making reference to an article he is currently writing titled “Roger Williams: Not a Seeker, But a Witness in Sackcloth.”

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.”