350th anniversary of Rhode Island's "lively experiment" in religious freedom
Rhode Island’s Colonial Charter holds a unique place in the evolution of human rights in the modern world. When King Charles II approved the Charter in July 1663, it marked the first time in modern history that a monarch signed a charter guaranteeing that individuals within a society were free to practice the religion of their choice without any interference from the government. This freedom was extremely radical in an age marked by wars of religion and persecution of people for religious beliefs.
Like the Declaration of Independence, Rhode Island’s Charter was a product of an amazing confluence of stubborn resolve, diplomatic skill, and ability to capitalize on a moment of opportunity. Roger Williams had secured a charter from Parliament in 1644 when the monarchy was overthrown, but this charter was voided by King Charles II when the monarchy was restored in 1660. John Clarke, who had been in England since 1651 serving as an agent to protect Rhode Island’s interests against the attempts of the neighboring colonies to dismember and subvert the colony, was able to obtain a new charter for Rhode Island despite great obstacles and opposition. His charter was unique in its grant of “freedom of religious concernments” and its language soon echoed in the charters of other colonies. It’s principles were subsequently written into the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Charter arrived in Newport, in November 1663, where it remained until removed to the new State House in Providence when it was occupied in 1900.
-Dr. Stanley Lemons
Professor Emeritus, Rhode Island College