350th anniversary of Rhode Island's "lively experiment" in religious freedom
July 25, 2013 01:00 AM
By Ken Yellis
My 2013 New Year’s resolution was that I would say “That’s so Rhode Island” only in pride from now on, rather than out of resignation. On June 22, I had a resoundingly hopeful occasion to use the familiar phrase: the opening of the new Charter Museum at the Rhode Island State House.
The museum’s first exhibition takes its visitors seriously, as learners who come seeking to understand our forebears and, therefore, ourselves. In a compact installation in a small space, it nevertheless contrives to convey a vivid sense of the conflict-ridden world in which those forebears lived and a rich context in which to think about the British colony’s 1663 Charter.
In 1663, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was a tiny outpost, remote from but affected by a Europe whose feverish religious ferment, intense political and social antagonisms and high-stakes military and economic struggles among powerful forces had over a century and a half produced war after war, civil conflict after civil conflict. By 1663, the evidence of the enormous cost of all this was plain to see. Moreover, the causes of this strife were still at work. Many, including the new young king of England, Charles II, sought new methods for managing that conflict-ridden world and reducing its volatility.
In the English-speaking world that meant law. Historian Pauline Maier has written: “The milestones of English history are marked not so much by stone monuments as by parchment documents, including an abundance of addresses, petitions, and declarations.” Rhode Island’s 1663 Charter represents one of those milestones and, as such, its significance reaches far beyond the boundaries of this small state. Framed and negotiated by John Clarke and granted by the king, who was ready to countenance an overseas laboratory, the charter can be seen as an effort to find a different path to peace and stability, one rarely if ever trod before in the human experience, paved with the principles of liberty of conscience and strict separation of church and state.
In the new museum, the charter is surrounded by other documents and memorabilia. These show us, among other lessons, that we are not born knowing how to practice tolerance: We have to learn it from law, from instruction, from experience — and from failure.
The exhibition does not cloak painful facts about Rhode Island’s past. It tells us that the colony effectively advertised itself as a place that welcomed all peoples. And they came, not only various forms of Christian worship, but also Judaism, Islam, Native American religions, agnosticism and atheism. This ideal encouraged diversity and supported freedom, but it did not prevent injustice. While “soul liberty” did not keep some Rhode Islanders from enslaving African and Native Americans, and did not afford women the same rights as men, the ideas of religious freedom and democracy persisted.
Indeed, some of the peoples who came did so under duress. On display is an 18th century Minkisi from the Newport Historical Society that probably belonged to an African brought to the New World as a slave. “This,” the label tells us, “was once a fabric pouch that contained a carved cowrie shell, beads, bits of glass, and pins. In Africa, such bags were used for protection or divination, and likely had the same use here.” Of a 1676 notice of a “Sale of Indian Captives” on loan from the Rhode Island Historical Society, we learn:
King Philip’s War raged in part of New England in the mid-1670s. Rhode Island tried to remain neutral in this fight, as did the Narragansett Indians. However, the colony soon found itself engulfed in war. Colonial officials took natives captive and men were sold into slavery. Selling war captives was not uncommon, but this decision was still a sharp contrast to the original intentions of the colonists.
The exhibition’s presentation of these diverse and evocative materials, drawn from NHS, RIHS, and other collections around the state, gives us a vivid sense of the political, social, cultural, religious and intellectual mélange that was mid-17th-century Rhode Island. Here, perhaps, we can find foreshadowed the challenges that we — and maybe every society — face today, in learning not just how to get along but how to find strength and creative energy and beauty in our differences.
In 17th-century Rhode Island’s readiness to take on these challenges we can find much to admire. From the ways in which it fell short of its aspirations we can find a reminder that living up to one’s ideals is not a single task but a process of learning and growth.
We owe a debt to Governor Chafee, his able staff, and the Rhode Island State Archives, the Newport Historical Society, the Rhode Island Historical Society and the other participating organizations, as well as individuals too numerous to mention here. In creating this exhibition, they have given us something that will instruct, enrich and guide us for years to come.
Ken Yellis is a member of the Rhode Island 1663 Colonial Charter Commission. A historian and museum professional, he lives in Newport.