The Reverend Samuel Newman (1602-1663) was a learned clergyman and the first prominent settler of present-day East Providence. He has not received as much acclaim as other Rhode Island founders because his village at Rumford, like the settlement of Thomas Willett at Wannamoisett, was beyond the boundaries of Rhode Island until the state annexed East Providence in 1862.
Newman was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1602, the son of Richard Newman. As a youth, he entered the famous Magdalen College of Oxford University and took a particular interest in religious studies. By the 1620s, Newman had become what was then termed in England a Nonconformist, meaning that he had embraced the tenets of Calvinism. In 1636, he migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to join other Puritan Nonconformists like himself. He first served as a minister in Dorchester, then moved to Weymouth in 1638.
During this period of ministry, Newman joined with Clement Cotton and others to prepare an alphabetical index to the keywords of the Bible, the so-called Cambridge Concordance. Published in 1643, this work was the best concordance to the King James Version of the English Bible, and it earned Newman acclaim and respect in both Old and New England. It was reprinted many times, even as late as 1889, almost two and a half centuries after it was first compiled.
In 1644 or 1645, Newman led some members of his Weymouth congregation southwestward to present-day Rumford, Rhode Island, where they settled and soon established a church that survives today as the Newman Congregational Church. This area was called Seekonk (Seacunke”) and was the subject of a jurisdictional dispute between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony when Newman arrived. Perhaps to his disappointment, Plymouth prevailed in 1645, but Newman was nonetheless influential in renaming the town Rehoboth, a biblical term meaning “wide or open space.” This Plymouth Colony town at first comprised an area including present-day Seekonk, Rehoboth, eastern Pawtucket, East Providence, and the northern part of Barrington. Still, the Newman settlement was confined to present-day Rumford.
Newman was Rumford’s most prominent and influential early resident. He presided over the Congregational church there (showing little tolerance for Baptists) until he died in 1663. He also served for a time as the settlement’s first schoolmaster as part of his community’s pioneering program of publicly supported schools. One of Rumford’s significant thoroughfares and its most historic church are continuing reminders of Samuel Newman’s prominence in the affairs of early Rhode Island.
Samuel Newman was inducted in The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.