On July 8, 1663, King Charles II of England gave his approval to a document that might have seemed routine at the time. It turned out to be anything but.
The parchment in question was a charter recognizing the existence of the colony of Rhode Island, and among its provisions was a passage that may have altered history: language laying the foundation for a broad freedom of conscience. This provision – the first such guarantee in the American colonies – had a profound influence on the course of religious liberty.
This month, Rhode Island is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its Colonial Charter. A number of events are planned. But the celebration should not be limited to one state. The principles embedded in the charter are worthy of recognition around the world wherever people appreciate the rights of conscience or yearn to be free.
Rhode Island’s founding document is remarkable for the 17th century. It acknowledged that not everyone was willing to conform to the state-established faith and promised the colonists “to secure them in the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights.”
Asserts the charter, “[S]ome of the people and inhabitants of the same colony cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the public exercise of religion, according to the liturgy, forms and ceremonies of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalf….”
The document authorized the colonists “to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments….”
While couched in the Christian language of the time, it goes on to express the king’s mandate that “no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion” and that “all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments….”
The charter – the original copy of which still exists today and rests in a climate-controlled room in the Rhode Island Statehouse – encapsulates the ideas of Roger Williams, the iconoclastic preacher who founded Rhode Island after being expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635.
Williams had secured a charter for his growing community in 1644, but at the time England was embroiled in a civil war that led to the eventual execution of King Charles I. England was a commonwealth for about seven years, and during that period the country’s leader, Oliver Cromwell, officially recognized Rhode Island.
The monarchy was restored in 1660 under King Charles II, who promptly negated all of Cromwell’s actions, thus voiding Rhode Island’s charter. With the colony in a precarious position, its agent, John Clarke, had to lobby the crown for a new decree.
It took a few years, but Clarke was successful – some would say wildly successful. Not only did the charter secure Rhode Island’s right to exist, it reaffirmed one of the central reasons the colony was formed in the first place: to guarantee religious liberty.
Scholars say the Rhode Island charter – which many believe Clarke ghosted for the king – is a significant milestone in the history of religious freedom that deserves greater recognition.
“I think it’s very important, directly and indirectly,” said John Barry, author of the 2012 book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. “You have to understand that the document was the result of more than 25 years’ effort.
“Providence [the capital of Rhode Island] was founded on the basis of absolute separation of church and state, and I mean absolute,” Barry continued. “The founding document for Providence does not even ask for God’s blessing, which for 1637 was absolutely extraordinary, especially considering that document was written by a Puritan minister, Roger Williams.”
Williams is an iconic figure in Rhode Island, and the state has been celebrating the charter and Williams this summer with lectures, panel discussions and even musical performances. On Aug. 20, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan will be the featured speaker at a forum on the significance of the charter.
Although beloved in his home precincts, Williams is less well-known in the rest of the country. Yet all Americans owe the visionary preacher a debt. His early advocacy for complete religious freedom inspired intellectuals in England, such as John Locke, whose writings in turn influenced key Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. There’s no evidence that Jefferson or Madison studied Williams’ writings, but his words and deeds shaped their views just the same.
Williams never really fit in Puritan Massachusetts. He was a devout Christian who insisted that the state should have no business enforcing religious orthodoxy, a stance that clashed sharply with the theocratic colony’s leaders. He argued for complete freedom of conscience, a concept he called “soul liberty.”
Williams used strong language to get his views across.
“Forced religion,” he once observed, “stinks in the nostrils of God.” He labeled the state’s attempts to regulate religious behavior “soul rape.”
In his 1644 book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, Williams observed, “[N]o one Tenent that either London, England, or the World doth harbor, is so heretical, blasphemous, seditious, and dangerous to the corporal, to the spiritual, to the present, to the Eternal Good of Men, as the bloudy Tenent...of persecution for cause of Conscience.”
Opinions like this won Williams few friends among the Bay colony’s leadership. In 1635, they had had enough. They hauled Williams before the General Court, where he was found guilty of “disseminating new and dangerous opinions.” The plan was to ship him back to England by force, but Williams was tipped off and bolted.
Accompanied by a small band of followers, Williams headed south to the wilderness. Unlike other Europeans, who simply stole land from the natives or swindled them, Williams, who counted the tongue of the local Narragansett Indians among the seven languages he spoke, paid for a tract of earth and founded Providence.
Geographically, Providence wasn’t too far from Boston. But in their respective attitudes toward freedom of conscience, the two communities could not have been farther apart.
Unlike the Puritans of Boston, who did not hesitate to whip, imprison or even execute religious dissenters, Williams extended freedom to all – even to those he personally disliked. For example, he often criticized Quaker theology, yet Quakers worshipped freely in Providence.
Williams’ views on religious freedom were far advanced for the times.
“The majority did not want any toleration,” Barry told Church & State. “A tiny, tiny minority of people believed you should tolerate Catholics. Williams is the only person I know of who thought that you should tolerate atheists. And remember, this is coming from a Puritan minister.”
Williams also coined an interesting phrase that would later resurface in America in a different form. In The Bloudy Tenent, he warned against opening “a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 invoked the metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state” to describe the First Amendment’s religious liberty mandate. There is no evidence that Jefferson knew of Williams’ writings. More likely, our third president was influenced by English Enlightenment thinkers who had in turn been inspired by Williams. (Williams’ books were not published in America until well after the founding period.)
Despite the powerful influence he had, directly or indirectly, on the course of religious liberty in America, Williams, who died in 1683 and is buried in a park in Providence, never achieved towering status in America’s historical tradition. Barry says that’s in part because Massachusetts’ leaders dominated early colonial history, and they loathed Williams.
“Williams was an enemy of nobody, but many people considered him an enemy,” remarked Barry. “He believed probably more than anyone at that time – and a lot of people today – in the idea of freedom. He really did. A lot of people today who talk about freedom are really the people who want to impose their thinking on other people.”
Still, says Barry, Williams’ views – especially his insistence that no one be molested for their religious opinions – were “definitely injected into the bloodstream of American thinking.”
Becky Garrison, a descendent of Williams and author of the recent book Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues, said she hopes the anniversary of the charter will inspire Americans to reflect on his legacy of freedom.
“We need to ask ourselves what we can learn from this man who welcomed all religions,” Garrison said. “More to the point, in a pre-Enlightenment era, we must remember what was in Roger’s character that made him see the light a good 50 years before John Locke and company, thus giving birth to the oldest charter of civil government in existence that granted religious liberty for all.”