When Roger Williams crossed the Seekonk River away from Plymouth Colony and out of the reach of Massachusetts extradition orders, he did not mourn his dissenter’s fate. He did not liken his circumstance to that of the Israelites, cast to wander in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. Instead, he identified his beef with the pro-Church-of-England colonists—which motivated his expulsion—as a matter of Divine Providence.
Williams could claim the patch of land he soon purchased from the Narragansett Native Americans as his promised land. He duly called his new home Providence, an overt reference to his belief that God was on his side.
Williams wasn’t alone in self-sanctioning geographic occupation via reference to divine power. Providence appears to be a favored ecclesiastical and colonial concept of Britons and their descendents—or of those who chose to travel and found it prudent to carry God’s will with them. There are Providences throughout the Anglophone world, established by colonizers, would-be colonizers, explorers, and, as we came to call them in this country, homesteaders.
Their shared name evokes a shared idea: to find a place providential, one must consider one’s own presence there no less than an act of God.
Wherever British ships sailed, Providence went with them. Thanks to colonialism, today you can visit several Caribbean Providences. Modern-day Isla de Providencia, off the coast of Nicaragua, was occupied by the Providence Island Company before it passed to Spanish (now Colombian) territory. It was once a pirate hideout and is now a scuba-diving destination.
New Providence is the largest island in the Bahamas. (In some tricky, cannibalistic maneuvering, the US Navy used the gunboat USS Providence to attack and capture the island from the British during the Revolutionary War.)
Elsewhere, the less-suitably-named Providence Atoll in the Seychelles consists of two inhospitable islands.
But nowhere are there more Providences than in this country. Just 13 years after Roger Williams’s holy venture into Rhode Island, Puritans exiled from Virginia took the same rosy view in founding Providence, Maryland. The city is now Annapolis—renamed in 1694 for Princess Anne of England (perhaps reflecting colonists’ shifting understanding of power to the more terrestrial).
Religious pilgrims’ fantasies of ordained exile in the New World evolved easily to expansionist self-justification in the new United States. It was a hop, skip, and jump from Williams and the Puritans’ divine providence to pro-expansionist journalist John L. O’Sullivan’s insistence on American “divine destiny” in 1839, to making said destiny Manifest with the annexation of Texas in 1845.
There are now places called Providence in 23 of the 50 states. Most of these Providences are tiny, usually unincorporated towns of fewer than 2,000 residents. Providence also lends its name (if not its divine essence) to a neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona, and a mountain range in the Mojave National Reserve in southern California.
The nominal link between expansionism and Providence deteriorated, however, as the West was won. Providence does not exist in either Alaska or Hawaii. It is also missing from Montana, the Dakotas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nevada. Nor can Providence be found in the southwestern states for which the idea of Manifest Destiny was first articulated in order to justify their conquest from Mexico. Either the mapmakers felt God’s absence in their endeavors, or such insistent bluster became unnecessary.
One might cry “coincidence!” but the properties of American Exceptionalist belief twinned with Christian-articulated expansionism in Providence(s), USA, was more than just a trend. “What’s in a name,” in the case of Providence, is a theological punch.
Providence in the way Roger Williams and other settlers meant it is shorthand for Divine Providence, a concept that dates back to the birth of Western monotheism. Though the exact theological definitions of Divine Providence vary depending on your preferred Judeo-Christian sect, according to most, there are two types: “general providence,” whereby a benevolent God keeps an eye on the natural order of the universe, and “special providence,” in which God directly intervenes in people’s lives.
It is this second kind of “special providence” that undergirds ideas of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. It is also what allowed someone like Williams to believe God acted specifically on his behalf to secure land in what is now the Ocean State.
Viewed this way, “providence” acts as a sort of dual optimism/fatalism—one believes that God has one’s back, and that’s for the best. But if things go wrong, the misfortune must be attributed to the mysterious workings of God’s will. Providence is a fairly convenient base belief for those attempting to found communities with as yet unpredictable results in foreign territory.
The colloquial uses of “providence” also betray this ambivalence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, providence can be used to mean thrift and frugality in regards for the future—something the Puritans would have sanctioned. It can also mean foresight, provision, or a person’s God-allotted fate. Specifically in New England, “a providence” denoted “that which is disastrous but which is at the same time to be regarded and submitted to as the act of God.”
Unable to escape its ecclesiastical connotations, Providence as a place name has meant more than geography and more, even, than destiny. It represents an expectation of a certain kind of destiny—a successful one, directed by a benevolent God. And while providential success to Roger Williams might have meant securing a bit of land along with his religious freedom, for later providential pioneers it meant territorial and material gain first, with a bonus halo of divine sanction to cover the moral rear.
Whether by act of God or man, Providences were in the money. Post-Williams, Providence, Rhode Island gained wealth through the slave trade (another vocation murkily justified via Christianity). Providence, Ohio (now a ghost town) was founded as a fur trading post and grew rich on the gambling money of travelers headed west. Isla de Providencia supposedly still hides chests of pirate treasure from its buccaneer days.
Contemporary Providences aren’t lacking in wealth either. New Providence in the Bahamas has been a luxury tourist destination since the 1960s. Its capital, Nassau, was once a pirate stronghold, and now hosts cruise ship tourism-driven casinos. A “Princess” brand luxury hotel shares the suburb of Providence, Guyana, with a newly built world-class cricket stadium.
Stateside, Providences continue to spring up around the country—and nor are they named by accident. These new Providences are master-planned communities, aimed at wealthy homebuyers. And while (sub)urban development isn’t exactly analogous to 19th century homesteader settlements, Providences in Texas, Las Vegas, Florida, and Alabama share the moniker’s historic associations with righteousness and money. Providence-as-site no longer means simply divine foresight or even destiny. Providence now means Luxury.
Not all Providences are markedly rich—in New Providence, Iowa, for example, the median household income was $39,000 in 2000. But it is exactly these small-town Providences that serve as inspiration of the developers of the planned communities. The Village of Providence (within the Hunstville, Alabama city limits) bills itself as lost American small-town charm revived in a contemporary city, perfect for those seeking “the comforts and conveniences of a modern neighborhood with the values and traditions of yesterday,” according to its real estate literature. (Providence, AL also makes explicit reference to the first American city of Providence—it has streets named Thayer, Hope, and Meeting, though these don’t correspond geographically to the same streets here.)
Developers market simplicity and neighborliness (providential Christian values) as tenets of their planned communities, all while charging for access to such idylls. From the simulated home tour on its web site, “comforts and conveniences” of Providence Village life include neoclassical columns, grand pianos, and canopied beds. The Providence, Florida, website asks readers to check a price range box (the lowest value is $300,000) when submitting inquiries on its contact form. Lighted tennis courts and a 24-hour guarded entrance come standard. Providence Village, Texas, shows off its lush lawns and a swimming pool with waterslide—all in the middle of the desert.
These Providences demonstrate a drift from the thrift of the providential Puritans to the luxury of suede-ensconced condo interiors. And while this might seem a corruption of Roger Williams’s faith, providence as Manifest Destiny, the pinning of God’s will to financial success—none of these are alien to certain geographic aspirations.
The founders of today’s Providences probably don’t literally believe their cul-de-sacs are informed by a divine hand. Yet McMansion builders that proclaim “freedom, family and beauty” as their motivators—as the Providence Village developers do—are continuing the providential legacy. These new Providences may be nominal allusions to the divine rather than literal evocations, but they demonstrate an American sense of entitlement regarding land that dates back to Roger Williams. Go on, they suggest, God knows you deserve it.
SIMONE LANDON B’10.5 on Corn Dip Eve.