Re-running our longstanding post on Roger Williams’ experiment in Rhode Island in 1663, to help us keep our bearings as the eternal minority of Americans demand more of a role for religion in our government.
The first-ever separation of church and state!
…well, at least in the western world. It happened in Rhode Island, in 1663.
This was the year that the colony received its royal patent. In 1643, Roger Williams had received a charter from Parliament, during the interregnum. When Charles II came to the throne, Rhode Island received a new patent from the king. It is a remarkable document. There’s no room to get into all the details here, but pick up Early New England, A Covenanted Society by David Weir for a terrific in-depth discussion.
In the 1663 patent, for the first time the English king/government acknowledged not only that there were religious conflicts in New England, but that differences in religious opinion were unavoidable–and even valid. Here is how the charter describes the people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut colonies for Rhode Island:
…some of those our subjects not being able to bear, in these remote parties, their different apprehensions in religious concernments, and inn pursuance of the aforesaid ends, did once again leave their desirable stations and habitations, and with excessive labour and travel, hazard and charge, did transplant themselves into the midst of the Indian natives…
Here, for the first time, the crown acknowledges that the religious beliefs of a remnant of its people are truly heartfelt, and real. These are not seditious traitorous rabble-rousers, but people who left their desirable stations in life and their homes for the excessive labor and hazards of the wilderness. The king will justify and honor those beliefs and actions with this patent.
With religious diversity up-front as the founding cause of the Rhode Islanders, the charter goes on to allow the people of Rhode Island to travel safely into other colonies where their views are unwelcome, and, most importantly, the freedom to set up a society that rejects the state religion of England itself:
[A] most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments; and true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty.
This is truly remarkable. It is indeed the first time we can think of in the west that a government “[legally] separated the civil magistracy from civil religion and an established state church. We should note that civil religion is not the same thing as the established state church. The state church is an institution with records, buildings, financial dealings, and personnel; civil religion is something more amorphous, and can be described as a cluster of ideas that can be sustained by the state church (or by the state itself) and that form the often submerged foundations of societal life.” [Weir 53]
In granting the charter, the crown recognized that in Rhode Island, civil religion was the antithesis of the English state religion, and was not even uniform itself–many religions were tolerated in Rhode Island, and each contributed to the cluster of ideas that created the civil religion there. The crown also saw that maybe people who are allowed to live according to their deepest religious beliefs would be the most loyal citizens, as they would be grateful to the king for granting them that freedom.
The big news here is that it is no longer treason to challenge the Anglican church. Religious freedom is not heresy (so long, of course, as one’s religion is still Christian), or political treason, or anything but a private, personal matter.
What’s unusual is that this great religious freedom was granted in the Americas at the same time the crown was clamping down hard on religious freedom in England itself. The laws of the Clarendon Code maintained uniformity and orthodoxy. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all town officials to be Anglicans. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required the clergy in England to use only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid groups of five or more people holding dissenting religious views to gather together. And the Five Mile Act of 1665 made it illegal for a dissenting minister to live within five miles of a town unless he had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which was unlikely. These measures sent more English Puritans to America.
So why did the crown decide to grant religious freedoms in the Americas that it was actively stamping out in England? Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between them. We know that Charles II, leaning more and more towards Catholicism, and later converting on his deathbed, hoped to create more religious tolerance in England. But Parliament, wary of another religious convulsion, took away the king’s power to make religious law altogether, and embarked on its coercion of uniformity. Events in the small and still financially unimportant colonies in New England were not as pressing to Parliament, trying to keep things under control at home after the Restoration.
But a precedent was set in New England by the Rhode Island royal charter. Massachusetts Bay colonists would never accept people of different religious beliefs to live amongst them, but they did trade with Rhode Islanders, hold markets together, and allow them to travel through and stay overnight in MBC. Gradually MBC, with its natural, un-coerced uniformity, came to be seen as the anomaly–even by its own people! And generations of Americans grew up not only expecting religious diversity to be tolerated, but, crucially, expecting civil religion, not state religion, to be the order of the day.
Therefore it was no stretch 100 years later to set up a government in which religion was important but not codified in law. Americans were used to this kind of separation of church and state, and comfortable with the primacy of civil religion over state religion. Belatedly, in the late 20th century, attempts were made to open up the public to the idea of state religion, but it will likely be an uphill battle to convince Americans to accept this 17th-century idea.