On Sunday, August 19, I joined what is probably a very short list: people who have spoken at two different Colonial houses of worship on the same day. I began the day preaching during the morning worship service for The First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island, and ended it at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, where I accepted the 2018 Alexander George Teitz Memorial Award on behalf of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the United States, but it played a foundational role in the development of the American tradition of religious liberty for all. The state was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a religious dissenter who had been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his heresy. Before he could be forced back to England, Williams slipped out of town and fled to the area he named “Providence.”
Known as the “prophet of religious freedom,” Williams believed that “forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God” and supported the complete separation of church and state. He established Rhode Island as the only Colony without an official church or religious requirements for civic duties. An ordained minister and continuous religious seeker, Williams held regular worship services in his home that all members of the Colony were free to attend — or not — as their own consciences led. In 1638, Williams and approximately 20 other congregants entered into believer’s baptism, creating the first Baptist congregation in the New World.
For lovers of history and supporters of religious liberty for all, Rhode Island has many fascinating places of interest. Visitors to the State House can see the original Colonial charter guaranteeing religious freedom. You can tour numerous Colonial houses of worship, including The First Baptist Church in America, Touro Synagogue, Great Friends Meeting House and Trinity Episcopal Church. Especially meaningful are the grave markers for Baptist icons Obadiah Holmes and Dr. John Clarke. I was excited to visit each of these places but had no idea Rhode Island was responsible for another first: the legal recognition of a woman’s right to conscience.
At the Roger Williams National Memorial, I found a pamphlet titled “A Woman’s Right to Liberty of Conscience” and learned just how deep Williams’ commitment was to religious freedom for everyone. Several families joined Williams in Providence upon its founding in 1636, including Joshua and Jane Verin, who were also Williams’ next door neighbors. Joshua had no interest in attending the worship services at Williams’ house, but Jane attended, despite her husband’s objections. To punish her disobedience, Joshua beat Jane. This was the first controversy that the fledgling community had to decide: While Joshua was free not to attend services, would the community permit him to dictate his wife’s religious observance?
All heads of households were called together on May 21, 1638, to judge Joshua — not for nearly beating his wife to death, but for whether he had interfered with Jane’s rights of conscience. Some in the town supported Joshua arguing that to punish him would actually violate his religious conscience because he believed that God has required wives to be submissive to their husbands. Others spoke strongly in favor of Jane, with one resident noting that to decide Jane had a lesser right to follow her conscience than her husband would spark outrage among all the wives in Providence. Fortunately for the cause of religious liberty, Joshua and his contingent were the minority opinion. The Providence town record reveals that the town voted for Jane, revoking Joshua’s voting privilege until such time as he would change his mind. Even though Joshua moved his family back to Salem where he would be permitted to decide religious matters for his wife, this case was an important milestone affirmatively finding that women in Rhode Island had the independent right to follow their own religious conscience.
Eventually, the Rhode Island settlement included Newport and other communities. Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest synagogue, was completed in 1763, and it has its own role in the formation of the American religious liberty tradition. President George Washington’s “Letter to the Jews of Newport” is one of the earliest acknowledgments that American religious liberty protects everyone.
To commemorate that famous letter and Touro’s place in America’s religious history, the synagogue foundation hosts an annual program highlighting the letter and recognizing an individual or organization who best exemplifies the ideals of religious and ethnic tolerance with the Teitz award. This year, the BJC was the honoree (see page 2 of the September/October 2018 edition of Report from the Capital for details). Walking the hallowed ground of America’s commitment to religious liberty in Rhode Island is a pilgrimage for any Baptist and a reminder of how important it is to defend this freedom for all.