Meaningful Providence belongs in state name

Meaningful Providence belongs in state name

The elimination of the word “plantations” from the official name of the state tersely known as Rhode Island has been randomly suggested. Respect for those in the community whose ancestors had been burdened with 250 years of slavery on (mostly) Southern plantations and who still bear much of a burden of bigotry and discrimination due to those humble beginnings is certainly a worthy goal.

However alteration of the word “plantations” from the state’s name almost certainly implies eradication of the word “Providence” from the area’s official title. The word “plantations” is certainly of little consequence in the state’s actual history and at its foundation suggested no allusion to slavery. Roger Williams might have used a phrase like “Providence estates” or “Providence domains” or even the picturesque “Providence fields.” But what was not accidental or arbitrary was Williams’ selection of the word “Providence” in the title for his newly founded colony. Williams truly believed that his foundation across the Seekonk River was the hand of God, a site that would declare chiefly, down through the centuries, the radically new notion of liberty of conscience and freedom of religion. To forego the invocation of the Divine Name, so meaningful to Williams, in favor of the words “Rhode Island,” a scenic reference to a Greek island in the Mediterranean Sea, is profoundly to alter the founder’s intention. The exploitation of Black labor, indeed Black lives, especially in the American South is a sad episode for which America is still atoning. But the Providence of God guiding Mr. Williams to the upper shores of Narragansett Bay is a glorious episode for which America must be ever grateful and, thanks to the state’s current official name, ever cognizant.

The Rev. John A. Kiley

Woonsocket

Retired pastor of St. Francis Church, Warwick