With same sex marriage in Rhode Island becoming law of the land today, New England becomes the first region in the United State to vote in favor of marriage equality. Rhode Island may have been the last state in the Northeast to grant LGBT couples the same civil rights as other couples, but this victory brings to mind how Rhode Island has served as a beacon for religious liberty since its inception.
Roger Williams, founder of both the state of Rhode Island and the Baptist Church in the United States, pioneered the concept of religious liberty in North America if not the world.
He became the first person in Western civilized world to push the notion of a state built on liberty of conscience not by “tolerating” the other but through pushing forth a vision that incorporated justice for all. He showed a way to “be” with the other rather than putting himself front and center, even though this way of being entailed some significant personal sacrifices including giving up his home in Salem, loss of social standing and any hope of a fortune in order to create a place where all can be equal.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek expounds upon why in his mind the concept of tolerance practiced by seemingly well intentional progressive minded people does not represent a virtue. He asks the question, “Did you notice how almost automatically we tend to translate issues of sexism, racism or ethnic violence, whatever, into the terms of tolerance?” Then he cites the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., noting, “For him (and he was right) it would have been an obscenity to say white people should learn to tolerate us more.” Instead as Žižek observes, King showed up and demanded full equality, a principle that Williams put into practice.
Rhode Island once again made social justice history when in May 18, 1652, they crafted the first law in the colonies that made slavery illegal.
When the Founding Fathers sat down to craft the Declaration and the original Constitution over a hundred years later, they could not follow Williams’s example by granting their slaves a similar freedom.
Also, Williams demonstrated his support of equal rights for women during an era where women were still viewed as property of their husbands, and as such, their voices were never heard in any public capacity whatsoever. The first recorded conflict in Rhode Island arose over the application of the law of liberty when Jane Verin, the wife of Joshua Verin desired to avail herself of Williams’s ministry. The Verins came to Providence in the Spring of 1636 where they obtained a lot next to the Williams. While Joshua chose not to attend the religious meetings held in Williams's home, Jane began coming to these meetings against her husband's wishes. In retaliation, Joshua beat her until “she went in danger of life.”
The town of Providence met to reprimand Verin both for his physical abuse, as well as violating his wife's liberty of conscience.
At the town meeting, an act was passed where “It was agreed that Joshua Verin, upon breach of covenant for restraining liberty of conscience, shall be withheld from liberty of voting until he shall declare the contrary.” He was never formally prosecuted for his abuse, nor was the colony able to intervene on Jane's behalf when he forcibly took her back to Salem.
Even today Williams would be considered a forward thinker on women’s rights when you compare his treatment of women with the Puritan view of the weaker sex that continues to inform today’s political debates around female sexuality. Speaking of sex, contemporary human sexuality and issues such as abortion, LGBT rights and contraception would not have been part of the public discourse circa 1600s. Also, like other clergy of his time, Williams would not perform marriages because like other Puritan clergy, he would have viewed the formalizing of this union as purely a civil matter.
Hence, we cannot apply Williams’s teachings directly to those topics that dominate the US political landscape in the 21st century. However, in assessing Williams’s unilateral stance that justice is the inherent right of every individual, one could conclude that regardless of his personal convictions, he would side with those who wish to exercise their religious beliefs as long as they remain separated from the state. I base this assumption in analyzing his interactions with the Quakers, who practiced a form of faith that angered him to no end. But still, Williams possessed that rare ability to set aside personal prejudice and allow the Quakers to reside within the colonies. In fact, he even assisted Ann Hutchinson and crew in purchasing what is now the town of Portsmouth from the Narragansett natives.
This acceptance of outcasts got put to the test from 1658 to 1661 when severe laws were passed in Massachusetts Bay Colony against the Quakers.
They became subjected to capital or corporal punishment that in the cases of some like Mary Dyer resulted in death. Despite intense pressure from Massachusetts Bay Colony to join in this crackdown, Williams refused to persecute those Quakers who resided within the confines of Rhode Island. Then when an order received from King Charles II in September 1661 requiring that Quakers be sent back to England instead of being subjected to capital or corporal punishment, Williams let them stay.
If he allowed the Quakers to come in and quake as they so pleased, extended liberty to women who back there were viewed as their husband’s property, and viewed the Native Americans as the rightful owners of their land, then I feel confident the founder of the first Baptist church in America would also extend justice to LGBT folks currently being ostracized by 21st century Southern Baptists who refuse to allow them to receive the same rights granted to other US citizens including the right to marry the person they love.
For under Roger Williams’s rule, all were welcome into this itty-bitty spot of land that anyone could call home.
This reflection is excerpted from Becky Garrison's ebook Roger Williams' Little Book of Virtues. From now through Pentecost, get this ebook for free by logging on here and using coupon code YQ46D.
Photo via flickr user Jef Nickerson