Newport’s Historic Diversity Highlighted In Newsweek

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Centuries before the Gilded Age, Rhode Island was teaching the world the real meaning of tolerance.

“Tolerance” and “diversity” have been popular buzzwords on college campuses and other PC environments for quite a few decades now. Typically, they’re demonstrated by ensuring that any photographs that make it onto the cover of the alumni magazine include a variety of genders and races.

Such superficial demonstrations of diversity miss the point. The fruits of diversity aren’t derived from people who look different from one another, but from people who think differently from one another. While most Rhode Islanders understand the founding of the state within the context of a Puritanical Massachusetts Bay Colony, it’s important to realize that despite the 3000 miles distance, the settlers weren’t that far removed from a Europe where a set of slightly different beliefs than your neighbors would get you killed. Author Rockwell Stensrud described the situation in Newsweek

The 17th century was dubbed the Age of Faith. A more apt description might be the Age of Brutality. England’s civil wars of the 1640s pitted royalist Anglican Protestants (Cavaliers) against Puritan parliamentarian Protestants (Roundheads); over 100,000 soldiers and civilians died. So little separated them but so much divided them.

On the Continent, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) blundered across Germany in the violent struggle between Catholics and Protestants, each claiming to have God on its side. The result? Wholesale genocide. Armies reduced the population of central Europe by over 35 percent.

Four hundred years ago, there appeared to be no solution to these devastating religious wars. Princes commanded obedience, and their propaganda decreed that the only way to maintain an orderly society was by binding church and state. The sovereign chose the religion and everyone else followed.

Christendom (church and state as one) bestowed immense power on the monarch and deprived everyone else of options in how they worshiped God. They were hostage to a fixed system.

The absence of free choice was the crux of the dilemma.

So in such a period, it becomes much more clear how revolutionary Roger Williams was.

New England suffered its own traumas. The constrictive, biblically inspired Massachusetts Bay Colony was more intolerant than Charles’s realm. Separatist clergyman Roger Williams staged a one-man rebellion against the conformity of the New England Way, challenging magistrates’ right to seize Indian land and to dictate theological dogma. Williams implored: Stop persecuting people for their beliefs; it is counterproductive and against the will of God.

The leaders were desperate to be rid of him, yet few intersections of folly and fate have had more lasting reverberation in America than his banishment—and few have been as underestimated or overlooked. Roger Williams’s forced departure from Massachusetts provided the twist that began the unraveling of the prevailing social contract. Within a half century, a subject’s relationship with his or her monarch and minister would be altered forever.

In 1636, Williams founded Providence on Narragansett Bay as a haven for religious nonconformists. Two years later Anne Hutchinson, whose preaching sparked the Antinomian crisis in Massachusetts, was banished for her beliefs. About 100 of her supporters were pressured to vacate the colony after her guilty verdict.

They joined Williams in Rhode Island, and the nascent colony became the natural destination for people who did not want their faith dictated by petty tyrants. Heresy did not exist in Rhode Island because there was no state religion; mandatory church attendance was abolished, as were tithes. Williams and his followers established the freest, most tolerant colony in the New World.

Times have certainly changed since Roger Williams’ day, but the virtues of allowing people the freedom of their convictions remain a constant.

Learn more in Stensrud’s book Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639-1969.

Newport-A Lively Experiment

-Tristan Pinnock, Blast History Correspondent

Tristan's just this guy, ya know?