If you’ve ever held an old and rare book in your hands, you know the thrill I enjoyed for a few hours on August 23. I’m writing this in the Rare Books reading room in the Library of Congress in Washington. The book is a 1774 collection of royal charters granted to several English colonies in America, printed in London. The purpose of my visit here was to read or scan these charters, looking for references to guarantees of religious freedom.
Having been impressed by the pioneering work of Roger Williams in separating government from religion, I wanted to read these charters “in person.” Students of early American history know that Williams had to leave Massachusetts due to the stringent, even cruel, religiosity in control there—almost as much entanglement of pulpit and policy as that promoted today by Islam. Williams was instrumental in getting a charter from King Charles II with what I believe to be the first instance of guaranteed religious liberty in the Western world, even more (as I understand it) than in the Netherlands.
My main focus was on what the Rhode Island charter actually said, then how it compared to other colonial charters. The ones collected in The Charters of the British Colonies in America were Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, and of course Rhode Island. I don’t pretend to be as careful (read: obsessive) a researcher as I once was, so I guarantee no perfection, but here is what I found.
The charters for Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania did not contain protections for religious liberty. The Massachusetts charter said “there shall be a liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God to all Christians (except papists).” The Georgia charter said, similarly, “for ever hereafter there shall be a liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God . . . all such persons (except papists) shall have a free exercise of their religion.” The animosity toward Catholics that shows in those charters was not short lived. As late as 1844 there were riots in and around Philadelphia between Catholics and Protestants, but acrimony did not die out for decades afterward.
Alone among these American colonies, then, (and, in fact, the rest of the world) due chiefly to the influence of Williams, the Rhode Island charter guaranteed that “no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any-wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion . . . . and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments.” There was no mention of exempting the hated papists nor even the unsettling Quakers from that protection.
The thought leaders in founding the United States were influenced by Williams as well as philosophers Locke, Mill, and Rousseau. It is unfortunate that so many Americans are ignorant of these wise men. Despite the revisionist distortions by current Christian fundamentalists, there is a direct philosophical line from these pioneers of thought to the ground-breaking godless Constitution that in 1788 created the United States of America.
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