From a very early age my Dad taught me about the absolute necessity of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. You see, my Dad was an American Baptist Minister and these are core principals(PDF) of that branch of Christianity. The foundation for this tradition is the life and teachings of Roger Williams (16031684).
Roger Williams developed a strict belief in the right of all persons to absolute freedom of conscience, especially with respect to religion. His views put him in opposition to the theocracy of England so, in 1630 he left for the New England colonies arriving at Boston in 1631. He quickly realized that the early New England settlers where simply creating a theocracy using their own brand of religion. Williams taught and preached on his philosophy of liberty of conscience bringing him into conflict with the authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During this time he visited with the native peoples of the area frequently even learning their languages which won him the respect and friendship of many tribes. Unlike most people of the colony, Williams respected the American Indians’ right to freedom of religion and their ownership of the land. He felt strongly that land in the colony must be legally purchased from the native peoples and never just be taken from them.
In 1635 the General court of the Massachusetts brought charges against Roger Williams for teaching his philosophy of absolute liberty of conscience and freedom of religion. He never contested the charges against him but freely admitted his belief highlighted by this quote “No one should be bound to maintain a worship against his own consent”. In October 1635 the General court of the Massachusetts colony banished Roger Williams from Massachusetts for refusing to retract his statements apposing the religious laws of the court.
Williams left Massachusetts in 1636 and settled on land he purchased from the Indians on Narragansett bay. He along with a dozen or so followers established Providence Plantations now known as the city of Providence. A few years later, in 1639, John Clarke arrived on Rhode Island and founded the city of Newport also on the principles of absolute freedom of religion and conscience. Clarke and Williams traveled to England in 1652 to secure a charter from King Charles II. Clarke authored the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations which was signed July 15, 1663 by the King. This established the first government in the Americas dedicated to the principals of freedom of religion and Rhode Island followed it as the basis for government until 1842.
By the time of the American Revolution, Williams and Clarke where long deceased. However their philosophy of religious freedom, tolerance and liberty of conscience was influential in the actions of the leaders of the revolution. The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was a model of religious liberty for all the colonies. The states adherence to these principals led to the founding of the first Jewish Synagogue in the colonies, Touro Synagogue established in 1763 in the city of Newport. These ideas of freedom and liberty where widely held by intellectuals at the time of the revolution and are embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;….
Although the belief in the absolute right of freedom of religion and conscience was common among many intellectuals of the era, it was not included in the Constitution of the United States. This was due to many citizens still desiring their own form of theocracy based on the teachings of their religious leaders. This brings me to the ratification of the Constitution and the absolutely essential Bill of Rights that I will write about in another post tomorrow.
For reference and further reading:
Memoir of Roger Williams, James D.Knowles, 1834
Roger Williams The Pioneer of Religious Liberty, Oscar S. Straus, 1894
An Historical Discourse on the Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode-Island, John Callender, 1739
History of Rhode Island, Edward Peterson, 1853
Records Of The Colony Of Rhode Island And Providence Plantations In New England, John Russel Barltett, 1859
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