In 1763, The Reverend James Manning, a Baptist minister and an alumnus of the College of New Jersey (predecessor to today's Princeton University), was sent to Rhode Island by the Philadelphia Association of Baptist Churches in order to found a college. Providence Plantations, having been the colony founded by Baptist exile and church founder, Roger Williams in the 1630s. At the same time, local Congregationalists, led by future Yale College president Ezra Stiles, were working toward a similar end. The inaugural board meeting of the Corporation of the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations was held in the Old Colony House in Newport, Rhode Island. Former Royal Governors of Rhode Island under King George III Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward as well as leading Baptists the Reverend Isaac Backus and the Reverend Samuel Stillman were among those who played an instrumental role in Brown's foundation and later became American revolutionaries. On March 3, 1764, a charter was filed to create the College, reflecting the work of both Stiles and Manning. The university charter was executed under the authority of King George III.
The charter had more than sixty signatories, including the brothers John, Nicholas and Moses of the Brown family, who would later inspire the College's modern name following a gift bestowed by Nicholas Brown, Jr. The college's mission, the charter stated, was to prepare students "for discharging the Offices of Life with usefulness & reputation" by providing instruction "in the Vernacular and Learned Languages, and in the liberal Arts and Sciences." The charter's language has long been interpreted by the university as discouraging the founding of a business school or law school. Brown continues to be one of only two Ivy League colleges with neither a business school nor a law school (the other being Princeton).
The charter required that the makeup of the board of thirty-six trustees include twenty-two Baptists, five Friends, four Congregationalists, and five Church of England members, and by twelve Fellows, of whom eight, including the President, should be Baptists "and the rest indifferently of any or all denominations." It specified that "into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests, but on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience." One of the Baptist founders, John Gano, had also been the founding minister of the First Baptist Church in the City of New York. The Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition remarks that "At the time it was framed the charter was considered extraordinarily liberal" and that "the government has always been largely non-sectarian in spirit."In commemoration of this history, each spring for over two centuries, faculty and the graduating class proceed down the hill, in academic dress, to the grounds of the First Baptist Meeting House (erected in 1774, "for the publick Worship of Almighty GOD and also for holding Commencement in") to publicly confer the bachelor's degree.
The college was founded as Rhode Island College, on the site of the First Baptist Church at the corner of Main and Miller Streets in Warren, Rhode Island. The first commencement was held in Warren in September 1769. The original church building was burned to the ground by British and Hessian soldiers in 1778, and the present First Baptist Church stands on the original site. However, the College had already moved in 1770 to its present location on College Hill in the East Side of Providence. The first building, the College Edifice, was renamed University Hall in 1823.
James Manning was sworn in as the College's first president in 1765. His tenure ended in 1791.