Religious Liberty in the United States
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
With this simple, elegant statement, the authors of America’s Bill of Rights made a stand against millennia of religious persecution and the abuses of state-sponsored religion. They created what Thomas Jefferson called “a wall of separation between church and state.” And, they eliminated the ability of the Federal government to pass laws designed to curtail or interfere with an individual’s relation to his or her God (or absence thereof).
The story of this miracle of democracy is complex. It begins with the Puritans, who left England for the Colonies in order to escape the restrictions of the official Church of England. The Puritans, ignoring the lessons learned in England, banned dissenters from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and established their own state religion. Roger Williams, cast out by the Puritans, made his new colony of Rhode Island a model of religious diversity: neither the state nor the individual could be forced into a particular religious belief. Newport founder John Clarke persuaded King Charles II to put these concepts in writing in the Rhode Island Charter of 1663. Elsewhere in the Colonies, William Penn, George Mason and James Madison wrote basic concepts of religious liberty into Pennsylvania and Virginia laws. In the Declaration of Independence and other writings, Thomas Jefferson recast philosopher John Locke’s ideas about the rights of the individual in matters of conscience. Finally, George Washington, brilliant political strategist, led the campaign in this new country to accept the separation of church and state as unique American values.
Rhode Island’s "Lively Experiment"
Rhode Island’s experience was a catalyst to the development of these values. 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.1
“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.2
Religious Liberty in Newport
Within the framework of the Royal Charter, the town of Newport epitomized the uniquely American separation between church and state. Like Williams, Newport’s founders had been banished by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for what the Puritans considered to be heresy and were adamant about maintaining religious liberty in their new home after the treatment they had experienced in Massachusetts.
This openness drew many religious sects. At the time of the American Revolution, Newport was home to many denominations, including Anglicans, Quakers, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists. At the time, there was no separate house of worship for the Catholics, who had arrived with French troops stationed in the town when it was taken from the British. The Irish philosopher George Berkeley, writing from Newport in April of 1729, noted, "Notwithstanding so many differences, here are fewer quarrels about religion than elsewhere, the people living peaceably with their neighbors of whatsoever persuasion."3
It should be noted to this day, that unlike many New England towns, no house of worship stands directly on the town square or opposite the public Courthouse. So too, the Touro Synagogue, the Quaker Meetinghouse, and many of Newport’s churches still bear no outward symbols of their denomination or faith.
Limits of tolerance in Colonial America
Newport and Rhode Island’s practices regarding the exercise of religion were relatively unique among the Colonies: the situation for most non-Christian and Catholic groups was far from idyllic. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony railed against the Quakers, the Baptists and the Anglicans; Georgians distrusted Catholics and all were suspicious of “Jews, Turks and Infidels.” Morton Borden, in his 1984 book, Jews, Turks & Infidels”, writes:
… Many Americans defined the United States as a Christian nation. Jews, Turks, and Infidels (or any other exotic group), they believed, could worship as they pleased but had no right to participate in its government. Some of the same state constitutions that guaranteed religious liberty also contained provisions that restricted holding office to Christians or to Protestants. In several states those restrictions were defended and maintained well into the nineteenth century. …Obviously there was a gap between the rhetoric of religious liberty and the fact of religious bigotry; between the will of what some Christians claimed to be the opinion of the majority and the rights of the minority.4
Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Vermont all required office holders to be Christian and Protestant. Most of the states did not allow clergy to hold any governmental position. Several states required an oath of office swearing adherence to Christianity. In Pennsylvania, the requirement for office holders was slightly different – only atheists were barred from political life. Article IX of the Pennsylvania State Constitution (1790), required "that no person, who acknowledges the being of a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this commonwealth."5
In Rhode Island, it was possible for those of differing religious beliefs to practice their religion freely, but not to participate as full citizens in civic affairs. Jews were prevented from being naturalized or given the status of free denizens, and therefore could not vote or hold public office. They could hold property, however, and could bequeath property to their descendants. Newport’s Jews would occasionally challenge Rhode Island’s restrictive laws of citizenship. In 1684 the laws were challenged by one of Newport’s earliest Jewish immigrants, Moses Campanal. Also, in 1762, merchant Aaron Lopez was denied naturalization by a Rhode Island court and was forced to change his nominal residence to Swansea, Massachusetts in order to become a subject of George III and to be granted rights of citizenship in the Colonies. In the 1740s, members of Congregation Shearith Israel were naturalized in New York. Several of these individuals later became prominent members of the Newport Jewish community, including Moses Levy, Moses Lopez, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera and Abraham Rodriguez. Rhode Island, although it would not allow Jews to be naturalized, recognized the status of Jews who had been naturalized in other states.6
Colonial Jews, including those in Newport, thus lived within a complex, somewhat contradictory framework of laws and practices regarding religion. They were free to organize, worship and practice according to their historic rituals. They were able to conduct business, travel, live wherever they chose in the community, and contribute to civic life, as long as their actions were seemly and appropriate to community values. But they were unable to vote, to hold public office or to gain any other rights as citizens in many of the States.
Despite these restrictions, Newport and its Jews served as models of the free expression of religious faith in colonial society. The commitment of the people – all the people – in Newport to religious liberty showed the rest of the country that a religiously diverse civil society is stronger than one that ignores the rights of the minority. Their strict adherence to separation between church and state and the degree to which individual religious choices were protected were instrumental in gaining ratification of the Bill of Rights and in making religious liberty a pillar of American democracy.
Endnotes and citations for Separation of Church and State
1 Goddard, William G. Address To The People Of Rhode-Island, Delivered In Newport, On Wednesday, May 3, 1843, In Presence Of The General Assembly, On The Occasion Of The Change In The Civil Government Of Rhode-Island, By The Adoption Of The Constitution, Which Superseded The Charter Of 1663. Providence: Knowles And Vose, Printers. 1843.
2 Goddard,p. 19
3 Goddard, p. 19
4 Morton Borden, Jews, Turks, and Infidels (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), ix, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=62754450.
6 Max J. Kohler, A. M., LL.B., "The Jews in Newport" (New York: The Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 6, 1897), pp. 20, 62.