Religious Freedom 101: A Lesson from Old Places

The First Baptist Church

A reminder from The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

We are hearing a great deal these days about religious freedom. Much of it comes from individuals who appear – from their comments – to know little of our country’s history.  For the past three days, I’ve been immersed in a state where all Americans would be well advised to come for a class on Religious Freedom 101.

One of the truly misunderstood stories in American history is that of Rhode Island and the establishment of religious freedom. My father – that lonely breed of Southern Christian liberal – has spent the past decade or more writing letters to the editor that remind his fellow church-goers of the importance of the separation of church and state. For my part, I’ve been in Providence and Newport this week, and took the time to visit two of the landmarks of the nation’s move to ensure that all had religious freedom, including the right not to worship.

Friday, I was in Newport for a series of meetings that began at Touro Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark and an affiliate site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Standing as a landmark to religious freedom for all Americans, Touro Synagogue, dedicated in 1763, is the oldest synagogue building in the United States.  As described on the National Trust website:

A structure of exquisite beauty and design, steeped in history and ideals, the synagogue is considered one of the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America and the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.

The congregation was founded in 1658 by the descendants of Jewish families who had fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal and who themselves left the Caribbean seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered.

Touro Synagogue

Touro Synagogue, Newport, RI (Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

By the time those families came to Rhode Island, the “lively experiment” that was Rhode Island was already underway.  An exhibit in the Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. Visitor’s Center (and captured on the website) explains it best:

Rhode Island’s experience was a catalyst to the development of these values (that the acceptance of the separation of church and state was a uniquely American value).  Under the terms of its founding Charter, Rhode Island stood alone among the colonies in its desire to “hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil State may stand and best be maintained, with a full liberty of religious concernments.”

Roger Williams and his followers were convinced that religion was a matter of conscience between an individual and his God, not the government. The founding documents for Providence, Rhode Island indicate a clear division between the public, civil realm and the private world of belief:

We, whose names are here under, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major assent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a town-fellowship, and such others whom they shall admit unto them, only in civil things.

“Only in civil things.” This phrase, assumed to be from the pen of Roger Williams himself, establishes the principal of religious liberty that was to become the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the Rhode Island Colony, only matters of civil interest were to be considered by the town-fellowship. Matters of theology, doctrine, and religious practice were to be considered apart from the realm of civic discourse and within the confines of the individual consciousness or “soul-thought.”

The Charter of the Rhode Island Colony, negotiated in 1663 by Newport founder John Clark on behalf of the Rhode Island colonists from King Charles II of England, clearly demonstrates that religious freedom was the prime reason for the colony’s existence. Rhode Island’s Charter, which served as state constitution until 1842, includes this unique provision:

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, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others.

Touro’s unique place in American history came about in 1790, when in response to a letter from the congregation, President George Washington eloquently defined the new nation’s standard for religious freedom and civil liberties. He declared that America would…“give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Providence – where I spent the rest of the trip – is a city that celebrates its religious history.  Few communities carry off having a “Steeple Street” with the history that Providence does.  (It is even obvious in the city’s name!)

Steeple Street

Steeple Street, Providence

The most important of those houses of worship, from a historical standpoint, is The First Baptist Church, Providence.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Note that I didn’t write “the First Baptist Church in Providence.”  No, this is THE FIRST Baptist Church IN AMERICA. 

Historical Marker

Historical Marker on The First Baptist Church, Providence,

Coupled with the Roger Williams National Memorial, managed by the National Park Service, The First Baptist Church tells an important story that is as fresh as today’s headlines.  I’ve given a couple of speeches recently that focus on the relevance of historic places today.  Here’s what I said in the most recent one:

When we change our focus (in preservation, from buildings) to people, we become serious about relevance. In many of the places we save, and in the way we approach their conservation, we often talk about the “period of significance.” But at the National Trust we are turning that on its head, and asking, “What if the period of significance is now?”

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, where Abraham Lincoln conceived the Emancipation Proclamation, understanding that “the period of significance is now” leads us to use of the site as the springboard for exhibits, lectures, and projects that address human trafficking in the 21st century. Slavery, unfortunately, didn’t end in 1865.

Old places can be eloquent in  helping us think about how the lessons of the past inform us about today’s issues…whether those issues be human trafficking (Lincoln’s Cottage), immigration (The Lower East Side Tenement Museum), labor relations and income inequality (Pullman), or religious liberty (Touro Synagogue and The First Baptist Church).

Visit a historic site, and connect the past with today’s big issues.

More to come…

DJB

2 Responses

  1. […] Religious Freedom 101: A Lesson from Old Places […]

  2. […] talked about both works before Daddy passed away, and I wrote a piece on this blog last year about how old places can help us understand the battles for religious freedom.  When I brought […]

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