Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Charter of (July 8, 1663)

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roger williams founded Providence in 1636 as a shelter for anyone "distressed in conscience." His covenant was the first anywhere to exclude the civil government from religious matters. From the beginning the towns that became Rhode Island practiced religious liberty, welcoming Quakers and Jews, and enjoyed separation of church and state. John Clarke, a Baptist minister who was Williams's friend and co-worker, was influential in the framing of the code of laws of 1647 establishing a "democratical" government. The restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 forced Rhode Island to secure a charter; Clarke was Williams's emissary to Charles II, who granted the first American charter guaranteeing religious liberty. The maryland act of toleration (1649) was a statute; the charter of Rhode Island, which remained its constitution until 1842, made the guarantee a part of fundamental law. The language of the charter on this key provision was Clarke's. It referred to the colony's "livlie experiment" to show that a civil state could best be maintained if the inhabitants were secured "in the free exercise and enjoyment of all theire civill and religious rights." All peaceable persons might "freelye and fullye hav and enjoye his and theire owne judgments."

Leonard W. Levy


Perry, Richard L., ed. 1959 Sources of Our Liberties. Pages 162–179. New York: American Bar Foundation.