Loeb Visitors CenterTouro Synagogue National Historic Site, Newport, RI

Heretics to Heroes

Roger Williams purchases land from the Narragansett Tribe

Roger Williams purchases land from the Narragansett Tribe

From Persecution to Freedom

What makes a person go from being called a heretic by one group in society to being praised as a hero by a much wider audience in a later era?

Early American history is replete with stories of heretics becoming heroes. It started with dissenting Puritans living in England in the early 1600s. They were labeled heretics because they criticized the Church of England as being corrupt. In 1608, a group of Puritans left England for the Netherlands, where they hoped to practice their faith more freely. Twelve years later, they left for New England, where they founded Plymouth Colony.

While they sought religious liberty for themselves, the first Puritans of Massachusetts were intolerant of those who dissented from their view of the church’s role in society. Massachusetts Bay’s Puritans thought that the civil authorities should enforce church attendance and suppress preaching by other Christian believers such as Catholics, Baptists, Quakers and other nonconformists. Most notable was Roger Williams, who fled imprisonment in Massachusetts for believing Christianity grew from a direct relationship between God and mankind, and that no government had the authority to enforce a single way to worship.

Williams said, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Rhode Island Colonial Charter 1663

Rhode Island Colonial Charter 1663

In 1636, Roger Williams trudged south from Salem, MA 45-miles in waist-deep snow to Narragansett Bay. There, in what is today Providence, he purchased land from the Narragansett Indians with the vision of launching a new, religiously tolerant colony. Soon Williams was joined by Anne Hutchinson, John Clarke and others who also suffered persecution by the Massachusetts Bay Puritans for their belief in conscience rather than state coercion of a uniform religious belief.

Within three decades, Roger Williams, John Clarke and their followers received a charter from King Charles II of England to establish the colony of “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” The 1663 charter made the colony the first political entity in the world to legalize religious freedom and separation of church and state. It said, “No person within the colony at any time shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony.”

This refuge for religious minorities that Charles II called a ‘lively experiment’ to determine whether toleration would lead to prosperity attracted Jews along with Christian dissenters who had left Europe after centuries of persecution. Quakers came to Rhode Island after suffering acts of religious persecution elsewhere. Soon Jews, Huguenots, and others came seeking religious liberty.

Nearly all who made the journey found a welcoming home in the Rhode Island colony and its rapidly growing coastal city of Newport. Soon people considered undesirable elsewhere began contributing to the growth of colonial America. Today they are remembered among the nation’s founders—heroes, not heretics.


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