On July 8, 1663, King Charles II of England gave his approval to a document that might have seemed routine at the time. It turned out to be anything but.
The parchment in question was a charter recognizing the existence of the colony of Rhode Island, and among its provisions was a passage that may have altered history: language laying the foundation for a broad freedom of conscience. This provision--the first such guarantee in the American colonies--had a profound influence on the course of religious liberty.
This month, Rhode Island is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its Colonial Charter. A number of events are planned. But the celebration should not be limited to one state. The principles embedded in the charter are worthy of recognition around the world wherever people appreciate the rights of conscience or yearn to be free.
Rhode Island's founding document is remarkable for the 17th century. It acknowledged that not everyone was willing to conform to the state-established faith and promised the colonists "to secure them in the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights."
Asserts the charter, "[S]ome of the people and inhabitants of the same colony cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the public exercise of religion, according to the liturgy, forms and ceremonies of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalf. ..."
The document authorized the colonists "to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments. ..."
While couched in the Christian language of the time, it goes on to express the king's mandate that "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" and that "all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments. ..."
The charter--the original copy of which still exists today and rests in a climate-controlled room in the Rhode Island Statehouse--encapsulates the ideas of Roger Williams, the iconoclastic preacher who founded Rhode Island after being expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635.
Williams had secured a charter for his growing community in 1644, but at the time England was embroiled in a civil war that led to the eventual execution of King Charles I. England was a commonwealth for about seven years, and during that period the country's leader, Oliver Cromwell, officially recognized Rhode Island.
The monarchy was restored in 1660 under King Charles II, who promptly negated all of Cromwell's actions, thus voiding Rhode Island's charter. With the colony in a precarious position, its agent, John Clarke, had to lobby the crown for a new decree.
It took a few years, but Clarke was successful--some would say wildly successful. Not only did the charter secure Rhode Island's right to exist, it reaffirmed one of the central reasons the colony was formed in the first place: to guarantee religious liberty.
Scholars say the Rhode Island charter--which many believe Clarke ghosted for the king--is a significant milestone in the history of religious freedom that deserves greater recognition.
"I think it's very important, directly and indirectly," said John Barry, author of the 2012 book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. "You have to understand that the document was the result of more than 25 years' effort.
"Providence [the capital of Rhode Island] was founded on the basis of absolute separation of church and state, and I mean absolute," Barry continued. …