Then & Now---A long history
By Don D’Amato
Conimicut, a thriving and picturesque area along Warwick’s shore, is one of the villages that can trace its history back to the founding of Warwick in 1643. The story begins with Samuel Gorton and his followers and their quest to find a safe haven where they could practice their beliefs without persecution. Samuel Gorton, Warwick’s charismatic founder, was one of Rhode Island’s most fascinating and enigmatic characters. To characterize him as a controversial and quarrelsome figure borders on understatement.
Upon arriving in Massachusetts in 1637, he quickly antagonized an impressive list of influential and powerful persons in 17th century New England. Gorton, a brilliant, but unorthodox, self proclaimed, preacher severely criticized the religious doctrines of the Boston and Plymouth Puritans and opposed their right to rule in Massachusetts. According to his biographers, Gorton was born to a working class family in England in 1592. Lacking the opportunity to get a formal education, Gorton managed to obtain a most unorthodox accumulation of knowledge. He not only could read English, but became proficient in Greek and Latin, and before being in America very long, had mastered the Indian language. Like many of his contemporaries in the new World, his main interests were in Scripture and in English Common Law. Without the benefit of formal training, he memorized some of the obscure biblical passages and interpreted them without seeking established ecclesiastical authority. This was not uncommon at the time, but Gorton often carried his beliefs to the extreme.
He classified himself as an Ultra-Puritan. He felt as many others did that there was no necessity for bishops to act as intermediaries and believed that people were guided by God’s spirit directly. He preached that all should be able to worship as they pleased and that all men and women, not just the Elders or the ordained, had the right to preach. For this, and for his insistence that there should be a separation of church and state and that the New England Colonies were not correct in their practice of English Common law, he quickly incurred the wrath of the Puritan Elders in Boston and Plymouth. For a time his brilliance and appeal were tolerated, but as he challenged all authority he was banished from Massachusetts and eventually made his way to Providence. His views on government and legal rights soon led him to quarrel with a number of leaders in the community and he made enemies, among whom were William Arnold, William Harris and other founders of Pawtuxet village, now shared by the Cities of Warwick and Cranston.
Mainly because of Arnold, Gorton's attempt to be admitted as a freeman in Providence failed. William Arnold, one of the five "disposers," as the men were called who handled such applications, strongly opposed Gorton, and was successful in keeping him from becoming a citizen of Providence. Arnold, on May 25, 1641, wrote that Gorton, "showed himself an insolent, railing and turbulent person."
Even Roger Williams, usually a tolerant man, found Gorton troublesome. Roger Williams, in a letter to Governor Winthrop, dated “Providence 1640” says, "Master Gorton having abused high and low at Aquidnick, is now bewitching and bemadding poor Providence, with his uncleane and foul censures of all the ministers of this country...and also denying all visible and externall ordinances..."
Williams and a few others refused to admit Gorton as an inhabitant with town privileges. Despite this opposition, Gorton's followers grew, causing Williams to remark to Winthrop, "Yet the tide is too strong against us, and I feare it will force me to little Patience, a little isle next to your Prudence..."
The differences between Williams and Gorton were not on religious grounds but on the question of the concept of government. Gorton, in 1641, again attempted to be received in "town fellowship" and again he was refused. The man who most strenuously opposed Gorton's application at this time was William Arnold, who asserted that Gorton was had divided Providence "into parties aiming to drive away its founders...."
The bitter feelings that grew between Arnold and Gorton lasted for the lifetime of both men and were responsible for many of the disturbing events of the early period.
Gorton and his followers moved into the Pawtuxet area, three of the original Pawtuxet purchasers, William Arnold, Robert Cole, William Carpenter, as well as Benedict Arnold, William Arnold's son, offered themselves and their land to the protection of Massachusetts in Sept. 1642. This move was to keep Gorton from settling in Rhode Island.