For Baptist clergyman John Clarke, this day, July 8, 1663, spelled the end of a long wait. Twelve years earlier, he had sailed to England from Rhode Island to lobby the king in behalf of the plantation. Now, with a gracious gesture, King Charles II granted the request.
No doubt John immediately opened his copy and read again the words he had so fervently desired. The document was a new charter for Rhode Island. In it, Charles II "informed, by the petition of our trusty and well-beloved subject, John Clarke" granted the colonists a number of rights.
Rhode Island had been founded by Roger Williams, an advocate of "soul liberty" (freedom of conscience), after he fled from religious persecution in Massachusetts. Charles commended the perseverance of the Rhode Islanders.
The language throughout the charter was largely religious. It recognized that the settlers had gone to America to pursue "with peaceable and loyal minds, their sober, serious, and religious intentions, of godly edifying themselves, and one another, in the holy Christian faith and worship, as they were persuaded; together with the gaining over and conversion of the poor ignorant Indian natives...to the sincere profession and obedience of the same faith and worship..."
It invoked the blessing of God on their endeavors and acknowledged the colonists' claim that "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."
But the paragraph that must have meant the most to John Clarke, lay further down in the document. In 1651, he had been seized in Massachusetts and told he must pay a £ 20 fine or be whipped. The reason? He had taught things that did not agree with official state doctrine.
Under this charter, that sort of thing should never happen in Rhode Island. For Charles declared that it was his royal will and pleasure "that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested [harassed], punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil 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 and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceable and quietly..."
The Rhode Islanders now had more liberty of conscience than Englanders themselves. This was a red letter day in the history of religious freedom, for the freedoms of Rhode Island gradually came to be the norm in all of the United States. Curiously enough, Rhode Island operated under this charter for almost two hundred years, even after the close of the revolutionary war.
- Covey, Cyclone. The Gentle Radical; Roger Williams. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
- Gaustad, Edwin S. Liberty of Conscience; Roger Williams in America. Library of Religious Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
- Roger Williams: Freedom’s Forgotten Hero (Video) Freedom Research Productions Fair Oaks, California.
- Kunitz, Stanley. American authors, 1600-1900: a biographical dictionary of American literature. New York: The H. W. Wilson company, 1938.
- Miller, Perry. Roger Williams, His Contribution to the American Tradition. New York: Atheneum, 1962.
- "Williams, Roger." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958 - 1964.
- Wood, James E. editor. Baptists and the American Experience. Judson Press, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1976.
Last updated June, 2007