Touro Synagogue – Newport Rhode Island – founded by 15 Jewish families arriving in Rhode Island from Barbados in 1658. It is the oldest synagogue in America.
“To hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand, yea and best be maintained with a full liberty in religious concernments. No person within the said colony shall be in any wise molested, disquieted or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion”
The above is from the Charter of 1663 granted by Charles II to the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and is clearly exceptional for its time. For the first time ever a European monarch officially sanctioned a policy of religious tolerance. The practice of religious freedom was turning out to be unique to Rhode Island, the smallest state, and would greatly influence the authors of the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Rhode Island would be the last state to approve the Constitution and it would take a visit by George Washington himself to get them to do it.
By the mid-seventeenth century the Protestant Reformation had shaken established European churches and governments to their core. The monarchs of France and Spain maintained that their countries were Roman Catholic and would remain so. England’s Henry VIII established the Church of England, the Anglican church. Many protestants however believed the Anglican church maintained too many of the trappings of Catholicism placing them on a collision course with the official state religion.
Puritans, Pilgrims, Catholics and Jews looked to the new world as a place they might practice their religion in peace and freedom. The colonies soon found that while many fled religious intolerance in the old world there was little practice of religious tolerance in the new.
The Puritans established themselves in Massachusetts and imposed their form of Protestantism as the state religion of the colony. Lord Baltimore led the Catholics to Maryland. The Episcopalians dominated the Virginia government. Jews, fleeing Catholic Spain and Portugal were not welcome anywhere. There were no synagogues in America.
Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631 and like many before him came to the new world so that he could practice his religion freely. He soon found that he could not.
Williams was a Puritan, an English Reformed theologian, and later a Reformed Baptist and a supporter of members of the Free Will Baptist movement.
He was expelled by the Puritan leaders from the colony of Massachusetts because they thought that he was spreading “new and dangerous ideas”, So much for religious freedom. What the Puritans wanted so desperately for themselves that were unwilling to grant to others.
In 1636 Roger Williams left Massachusetts and founded the new city of Providence envisioning a community in which government and religion were separate and people were free to follow the religion of their choice or no religion at all and not compelled to follow a state sponsored church.
It was a radical idea. Three years later 9 men would leave and, funded by the radical preacher Anne Hutchinson (also banished from Massachusetts) would purchase Aquidneck Island from the Narragansett Indians and rename it Rhode Island. They would found the city of Newport.
Newport, the city of the secularists, would become the 5th largest city in the colonies after New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. The concept and practice of religious tolerance gave colonial Newport and Providence a nearly unmatched diversity and prosperity as people of many faiths lived, worked and worshipped side by side.
The success of this experiment of free thinkers was eventually enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the new United States.
Cotton Mather called Rhode Island a “cesspool”.
Williams wanted his Rhode Island to be a haven for those “distressed of conscience”, and it soon attracted a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals. From the beginning, a majority vote of the heads of households governed the new settlement, but “only in civil things”.
Newcomers could be also admitted to full citizenship by a majority vote. In August 1637, a new town agreement again restricted the government to “civil things”. In 1640, 39 “freemen” (men who had full citizenship and voting rights) signed another agreement that declared their determination “still to hold forth liberty of conscience”.
The First Baptist Church, Providence – the oldest Baptist congregation in America – founded by Roger Williams in 1638.
Thus, Williams founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate, that provided religious liberty and separation of church and state. This was combined with the principle of majoritarian democracy.
Williams was also a student of Native American languages, an early advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans, and one of the first abolitionists in North America, having organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in any of the British American colonies. Williams, more than any other Englishman, was trusted by the Indians, and proved trustworthy. His alliance with the Narragansett allowed the tribe to become the most powerful in Southern New England and for 40 years his relationship with the native Americans kept the peace.
However, the other New England colonies began to fear and mistrust the Narragansetts, and soon came to regard Roger Williams’ colony as a common enemy. In the next three decades, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth exerted pressure to destroy both Rhode Island and the Narragansett. In 1643, the neighboring colonies formed a military alliance called the United Colonies which pointedly excluded the towns around Narragansett Bay. The object was to put an end to the heretic settlements, which they considered an infection. In response, fellow citizens sent Williams to England to secure a charter for their new colony.
Despite strenuous objection from Massachusetts agents, Williams was able to obtain a Charter which put Rhode Island on equal footing with the other English colonies. While in England he published the first phrase book and dictionary of native American languages. It was immediate hit and gave Williams a standing he did not have before it was published.
It took Williams until 1647 to get the four towns around Narragansett Bay to unite under a single government. Freedom of conscience was again proclaimed. The colony became a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs, including Baptists, Quakers, and Jews. Still, the divisions between the towns and powerful personalities did not bode well for the colony. Although an anti-slavery law was passed Newport ignored it, entering the slave trade in 1700 after Roger Williams death.
In 1784 the abolitionist Quakers of Rhode Island demanded an end to slavery and clashing with shipping interests, crafted a compromise that any child of a slave born after March 1 were to be “apprentices,” the girls to become free at 18, the boys at 21. As with other Northern instances of gradual emancipation, this gave slave owners many years of service to recoup the cost of raising the children. By 1800 there were only 384 slaves in Rhode Island. The next decade slavery disappeared.
On a hot, muggy afternoon, August 17, 1790, George Washington arrived in Newport by packet ship. He was here to address the Rhode Island legislator’s concerns on guarantees of religious freedom in the new Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
“Washington arrived in the seaport town accompanied by a crew of notables, among them his secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, New York governor George Clinton, US Supreme Court justice John Blair, and South Carolina congressman William Loughton Smith. They, in turn, were greeted by Newport’s luminaries— politicians, business leaders, and clergy. Together they gathered on the second floor of a red brick customhouse—then serving as Rhode Island’s state capital— where selected representatives from the community addressed the president.
Among them was Moses Seixas, who read two letters that day. He presented the first one as the Grand Master of the Masonic Order of Rhode Island and the second as the warden of the Hebrew congregation in Newport.”
Outside of Rhode Island, freedom of religion for non-Christians in the colonial period was limited. In fact, freedom of religion for some denominations of Christians, including Quakers, Baptists, and Catholics, was often limited and sometimes denied.
It’s hard to imagine just how unusual the situation was in the young nation: a Jew, recognized as one of a community’s civic leaders, reading a public letter to the new president. After all, the families of many of Newport’s Jewish population had come to America to escape centuries of persecution in Europe.
Seixas’s message on behalf of Newport’s small Hebrew congregation reminded President Washington of the precarious historic position of Jews, even as he hopefully described a future in which they were fully accepted as American citizens. Seixas’s letter said, “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Writing shortly after receiving the letter from Seixas, Washington reassured the Jewish community of Newport that his government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And he went further, explaining the difference between true freedom and tolerance. Washington wrote, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
Let us not forget what has been given to us by the people of Rhode Island during these talks of “registry” and the difficult dark days perhaps to come.