Thursday, October 9, 2008

The first separation of church and state--ever!

by Lori Stokes

...well, at least in the western world. It happened in Rhode Island, in 1663.

This was the year that the colony received its royal patent. In 1643, Roger Williams had received a charter from Parliament, during the interregnum. When Charles II came to the throne, Rhode Island received a new patent from the king. It is a remarkable document. There's no room to get into all the details here, but pick up Early New England, A Covenanted Society by David Weir for a terrific in-depth discussion.

In the 1663 patent, for the first time the English king/government acknowledged not only that there were religious conflicts in New England, but that differences in religious opinion were unavoidable--and even valid. Here is how the charter describes the people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut colonies for Rhode Island "...some of those oure subjects not being able to beare, in these remote parties, theire different apprehensions in religious concernements, and inn pursueance of the afforesayd ends, did once againe leave their desireable stationes and habitationes, and with excessive labour and travell, hazard and charge, did transplant themselves into the middest of the Indian natives..."

Here, for the first time, the crown acknowledges that the religious beliefs of its people are truly heartfelt, and real. These are not seditious traitorous rabble-rousers, but people who leave their desirable stations in life and their homes for the excessive labor and hazard of the wilderness. The king will justify and honor those beliefs and actions with this patent.

With religious diversity up-front as the founding cause of the Rhode Islanders, the charter goes on to allow the people of Rhode Island to travel safely into other colonies where their views are unwelcome, and, most importantly, the freedom to set up a society that rejects the state religion of England itself. "[A] most flourishing civil state may stand and best bee maintained among our English subjects, with a full libertie in religious concernements; and true pietye rightly grounded upon gospell principles will give the best and greatest securiety to sovereignetye, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyaltye."

This is truly remarkable. It is indeed the first time in the west that a government "[legally] separated the civil magistracy from civil religion and an established state church. We should note that civil religion is not the same thing as the established state church. The state church is an institution with records, buildings, financial dealings, and personnel; civil religion is something more amorphous, and can be described as a cluster of ideas that can be sustained by the state church (or by the state itself) and that form the often submerged foundations of societal life" [Weir 53].

In granting its charter, the crown recognizes that in Rhode Island, civil religion was the antithesis of the English state religion, and was not even uniform itself--many religions were tolerated in Rhode Island, and each contributed to the cluster of ideas that created the civil religion there. The crown also sees that maybe people who are allowed to live according to their deepest religious beliefs will be the most loyal citizens, as they will be grateful to the king for granting them that freedom.

The big news here is that it is no longer treason to challenge the Anglican church. Religious freedom is not heresy (so long, of course, as one's religion is still Christian), or political treason, or anything but a private, personal matter.

What's unusual is that this great religious freedom was granted to America at the same time the crown was clamping down hard on religious freedom in England itself. The laws of the Clarendon Code maintained uniformity and orthodoxy. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all town officials to be Anglicans. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required the clergy in England to use only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid groups of five or more people holding dissenting religious views to gather together. And the Five Mile Act of 1665 made it illegal for a dissenting minister to live within five miles of a town unless he had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which was unlikely. These measures sent more English Puritans to America.

So why did the crown decide to grant religious freedoms in America that it was actively stamping out in England? Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between them. We know that Charles II, leaning more and more towards Catholicism, and later converting on his deathbed, hoped to create more religious tolerance in England. But Parliament, wary of another religious convulsion, took away the king's power to make religious law altogether, and embarked on its coercion of uniformity. Events in the small and still financially unimportant colonies in New England were not as pressing to Parliament, trying to keep things under control at home after the Restoration.

But a precedent was set in New England by the Rhode Island royal charter. Massachusetts Bay colonists would never accept people of different religious beliefs to live amongst them, but they did trade with Rhode Islanders, hold markets together, and allow them to travel through and stay overnight in MBC. Gradually MBC, with its natural, un-coerced uniformity, came to be seen as the anomaly--even by its own people! And generations of Americans grew up not only expecting religious diversity to be tolerated, but, crucially, expecting civil religion, not state religion, to be the order of the day.

Therefore it was no stretch 100 years later to set up a government in which religion was important but uncodified by law. Americans were used to this kind of separation of church and state, and comfortable with the primacy of civil religion over state religion. Belatedly, in the late 20th century, attempts were made to open up the public to the idea of state religion, but it will likely be an uphill battle to convince Americans to accept this 17th-century idea.


Phil Johnson said...

Excellent subject for discussion, Ms. Stokes.
We live in peculiar times. The dominant media has an overpowering effect on our thinking. We tend to think in terms that things are explained by this or that--a black and white world.
Your article points up the definitive role that the Rhode Island experience plays in the development of our values as Americans.
Many people like to think that the source of our higher values and morality exists outside human history--that certain eternal values pre-exist human experience. For example, they might think that the separation of church and state value is not generated by our historical experience; but, that it comes to us by revelation through the super natural.
But, your article points to the fact that our values are forged in our historical experience.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"true pietye rightly grounded upon gospell principles will give the best and greatest securiety to sovereignetye"

Can't skip that part. Sounds like GWashington.

Lori, I recall William Penn spending some time in English jail for religious reasons, then be granted his own charter for Pennsylvania. Do your studies indicate that England was exporting its sectarian religious troublemakers while simultaneously solidifying its state church's control at home?

Lori Stokes said...

That process was already happening, as tens of thousands of dissenters had left England voluntarily in the 1630s and 40s. So the government wouldn't seem to have to institute new laws to drive dissenters out. I think it just came down to Parliament minimizing the trouble and treasure the colonies could cause England. By instituting toleration in the colonies, England was guaranteed not to have to deal with religious war overseas, while keeping that religious freedom far from home. It was a win-win.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ha. The Crown owed Billy Penn money. As a Pennsy boy who grew up 5 miles from his house, I should have known that.

The founder’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670), had won crucial naval victories for the Crown during England’s wars with the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century.

Having just recovered from its own civil war that had resulted in the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the subsequent rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, England had few funds with which to fight. The admiral used his own personal wealth "for victualling of the Navy," at the cost of about sixteen thousand pounds. At the admiral’s death, the matter of the debt remained unsettled.

The younger Penn, who had joined the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, three years before his father’s death, petitioned King Charles II in May 1680 with a plan: He would forgive the Crown its debt to the Penn family in return for land in the New World. On this land he would establish a colony for Quakers and persecuted religious groups.

The impecunious Charles agreed-- he had much land to offer in America along the Mid-Atlantic coast, in the territory recently acquired from the Dutch as spoils of war.

Brad Hart said...


How I have missed your posts! I am so glad to see your "resurrection." Your pre-American Revolution stuff is always refreshing.

As for the post, well done. I couldn't agree more. Roger Williams is one interesting cat, and I hope that this blog will devote more future posts to him and his contemporaries.