Since the Spectacle of Toleration project celebrates the 350th anniversary of the 1663 Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, let’s spend some time discussing its historical context and the document itself. Many of us may know that the Charter granted religious toleration, legally separating church and state for the first time in the western world. However, these ideas did not appear out of thin air. We must understand what was happening in England and the British colonies in New England to appreciate the Charter.
Unlike other colonies that were established with charters and official government documentation from the beginning, Rhode Island towns were established as religious dissenters fled other areas in North America seeking religious freedom. Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, William and Mary Dyer, William Coddington, and others left Massachusetts Bay Colony after clashing with officials over religious ideas. They settled towns like Providence, Portsmouth, Warwick, and Newport. Largely independent, these towns had little formal connection with one another. This left them vulnerable to annexation by nearby colonies, and annexation could mean giving up religious independence. So, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island whose story we explored a few weeks ago, travelled to England in 1643 where he acquired a charter which formally created the Colony of Rhode Island in 1644. Signed in the midst of the English Civil War, the 1644 Charter gave the Colony basic rights to create its own government. In other words, it allowed the people of Rhode Island to create legislation, as long as the laws did not contradict the English government.
Roger Williams and John Clarke returned to England in the 1650s to craft a new charter to be signed by King Charles II. In the meantime, William Coddington, one of the founders of Newport, had actually acquired the Coddington Commission. This document, unsanctioned by other Rhode Island politicians, made him governor for life, and Williams and Clarke needed to undo it. Also, since the English government was in flux (civil war will do that to a country), and divisions sprung up between towns in Rhode Island, Williams and Clarke wanted a new document to formally re-establish the Colony.
The most famous section of the Charter granted the people of Rhode Island religious liberty, allowing them to follow their own consciences in terms of religion. Here is part of the key passage:
to preserve unto them that libertye…because some of the people and inhabitants of the same colonie cannot, in theire private opinions, conforms to the publique exercise of religion, according to the litturgy, formes and ceremonyes of the Church of England… noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion…but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme…enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments
These ideas are intimately tied to their historical context; Williams and Clarke were moved to Rhode Island from Massachusetts Bay Colony because they did not agree with the Puritan establishment there, so they understood the significance of religious liberty. They were also influenced by the English Civil War having witnessed how English leaders used religion for political gain. Thus, instead of following other models, Clarke and Williams wanted to separate church and politics in order to protect religion from corrupt politicians.
However, the Charter did much more than protect people’s religious beliefs. It more firmly established the Colony’s borders, which required negotiations with Connecticut and Massachusetts. It guaranteed the people of Rhode Island the rights that other English citizens enjoyed. The Charter established the government’s structure, including elections and the numbers and duties of representatives and other government officials. Remarkably, the Charter even recognized Native American land ownership and required English citizens to purchase land from the Natives (rather than simply claim it as in other colonies), noting:
And itt is hereby declared, that itt shall not bee lawfull to or ffor the rest of the Collonies to invade or molest the native Indians, or any other inhabittants, inhabiting within the bounds and lymitts hereafter mentioned…without the knowledge and consent of the Governour and Company of our Collony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations.
Although these aspects of the Charter may not be quoted as often, they are still integral parts of the document, and sections that Clarke fought hard to acquire. Ironically, the religious sections of the Charter were met with little resistance by the English government or colonists, but the more mundane (to us today) sections dealing with boundaries required significant negotiation.
Today, the Charter’s legacy has grown almost larger than life. Excerpts (especially related to religious freedom) are literally carved into Rhode Island government buildings and the Spectacle of Toleration project this year is celebrating the anniversary of the document. However, it is important to remember that the document did more than formally establish the separation of church and state for the Colony of Rhode Island. It also addressed practical issues related to boundaries, government structure, and interactions with neighbors. All of these ideas were bound to the historical context. Witnessing the English Civil War, religious disputes in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and how other colonies were created and established, John Clarke and Roger Williams (and others) knew what to fight for (and what not to fight for) as they established the new government and requested formal recognition for the Colony from the king of England.
Hopefully we have piqued your interest and you may want to learn more about these topics. The Charter itself is currently on display in an exhibit in the Rhode Island State House in Providence. Check it out to see the Charter, key pieces of legislation, and other artifacts from the founding of Rhode Island. Most of my information about Roger Williams was drawn from John Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, which we discussed a few weeks ago. I discovered John Clarke’s significance in Sydney V. James’ John Clarke and His Legacies. And, finally, I gleaned information about the Charter and how it compared to other colonial legislation from David A. Weir’s Early New England: A Covenanted Society.
Next week we will continue talking about religion and government, and explore how some of these ideas in the 1663 Charter, and the early 1639 Newport Compact, played out in daily life.