One Big American Idea
“Religious Freedom” and “Separation of Church and State” form the roots of America’s welcoming and inclusive motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” or “From Many—One.”
At the Loeb Visitors Center, we celebrate these founding ideals. We explore their origin, how they became the very first clauses of the Bill of Rights, and how Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the other founders saw these ideals as key to making America a strong and enduring nation.
Come explore the forces that shaped Newport and Rhode Island as the nation’s first home of religious freedom. Experience the day-to-day life of an early American Jewish community. Learn how George Washington’s historic visit to Newport in 1790 produced one of the most beautifully written expressions of religious freedom in the history of the world.
Your Visitor Experience
The Loeb Visitors Center is home to a broad array of interactive exhibits that tell the story of how the principle of religious freedom was established in America. It is also a starting point for tours of the Touro Synagogue and other area tours.
The Center’s exhibits address three major themes:
Heretics to Heroes
What makes a person go from being called a heretic by one group in society to being praised as a hero… [Learn More]
Experiment in Religious Freedom
Guaranteeing the legal right of religious freedom, along with the separation of church and state… [Learn More]
Washington’s Letter to Newport’s Jews
George Washington’s letter to Newport’s Jews lives on as one of the most powerful and inspiring lessons… [Learn More]
The “Share the Vision” video presents an overview of the Loeb Visitors Center and its mission. Through the words of visitors, staff, local leaders, and Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., himself, you will learn about the important role that Rhode Island played in building the foundation upon which the concepts of religious freedom and the revolutionary idea of the separation of church and state were based.
The Loeb Visitors Center exhibits include:
Early American Jewish Portrait Gallery
At the Center, you will find the Portrait Tree, which displays digital images of portraits of more than 200 early American Jews with brief online biographies that give a glimpse into the life and times of colonial American Jewry. Many of those included on the Portrait Tree lived in or were connected to Newport’s Jewish Congregation. These biographies are part of a larger online database of portraits of early American Jews generously funded by Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. and available through the website of the American Jewish Historical Society at: www.loebjewishportraits.com.
Philanthropy, Faith and History
“Philanthropy, Faith and History” tells the story of early Jewish life in Newport through some of its most important Jewish residents. Among those featured are Moses Seixas, Abraham and Judah Touro, Aaron Lopez, Moses Michael Hays and Emma Lazarus.
The Architecture of Touro Synagogue
This video presentation and accompanying wall text explain how the understated, dignified architecture of Touro Synagogue reflects the lack of ostentation of Newport’s houses of worship in deference to the spirit of equality among all faiths in the city. It also tells the fascinating story of Peter Harrison, the self-taught, non-Jewish architect who designed the Touro Synagogue.
A Gentleman Both Agreeable and Fair
At the top of the grand stairway to the second floor of the Center, visitors are greeted by a portrait of Reverend Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister who lived in Newport and was a close friend of hazzan Isaac Touro, Aaron Lopez and other members of the Hebrew Congregation. Much of what we know about Jewish life in early Newport comes from Stiles’s diary, which has detailed accounts the consecration of the synagogue in 1763 and of the relationship with Touro and Lopez, among others. Like many other educated Christians in colonial America, Stiles learned Hebrew so he could read the Bible in its original language. Stiles would later leave Newport to become president of what is now Yale University.
To Bigotry, No Sanction
At the center of the second floor’s long wall is a large reproduction of Thomas Sully’s portrait of President Washington and facsimiles of the original letters exchanged between Moses Seixas and Washington in August of 1790. An interactive touch screen allows visitors to learn the history of the two letters and explore their importance.
Colonial Newport’s Multicultural Townscape
As one of America’s busiest seaports, early Newport attracted a wide variety of individuals and groups who lived in mutual harmony. In addition to the Baptist followers of Reverend John Clarke, who settled Newport after leaving Portsmouth, the community included Quakers, Anglicans, Moravians, Jews, Africans and African-Americans (both free and enslaved) and a variety of mariners and traders from around the world.
Through a series of filmed vignettes performed by actors, the visitor can learn about relationships between Newport’s early Christian and Jewish neighbors, early commerce and trade, the status of African-Americans, freedom of the press and other aspects of Newport life.
The Loeb Visitors Center is the physical starting point for the following two tours.
Tours of the Touro Synagogue National Historic Site begin at the Loeb Visitors Center. The tour includes unlimited time at the Loeb Visitors Center and in Patriots Park, plus a half-hour guided tour of Touro Synagogue. On special occasions, the Jewish Cemetery is open for guided tours. [Learn More]
Tour Two: Newport’s 4 Faiths Walking Tour
This popular tour also begins at the Loeb Visitors Center. You may buy tickets at the Newport Gateway Center or online. The “4 Faiths” walking tour explores four remarkable National Historic Landmark houses of worship located in Newport’s historic Old Quarter. The city’s diverse community of faiths, which included Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists, and other denominations, reflected Newport and Rhode Island’s unique role as Colonial America’s “lively experiment” in religious freedom.
Trinity Church, on Queen Anne Square in Newport, Rhode Island, is a historic parish church in the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. Founded in 1698, it is the oldest Episcopal parish in the state. The current Georgian building was constructed by master builder Richard Munday between 1724 and 1726 from designs by Sir Christopher Wren. It is a National Historic Landmark. [Learn More]
The oldest extant synagogue building in the United States, Touro Synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and was designated a National Historic Site in 1946. [Learn More]
This magnificent edifice is where Sen. John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were wed in 1953. The complex includes three buildings: the brownstone Gothic Revival church, the parish house, formerly a school, and a convent. The church was built in 1848-52, to a design by renowned Brooklyn architect Patrick C. Keely. The engineer for its construction was U.S. Army Lieutenant William S. Rosecrans who would rise to the rank of Major General in the American Civil War. [Learn More]
The congregation was gathered as Newport’s First Congregational Church in 1695 by Reverend Nathaniel Clap, a Harvard College graduate who ministered to the Newport congregation until his death in 1745. The congregation was active during the American Revolution and both churches’ meeting houses were used as barracks and hospitals by the British and French troops in Newport. The current sanctuary was dedicated in 1857. [Learn More]
There are many additional places to find information about historic Newport and surrounding attractions. Here are a few that you may find of value and enjoy.
This is a comprehensive guide to Newport attractions, history, recreation and more. It is written by a native Newporter who will show you all that the “City by the Sea” has to offer you and your family. [Learn More]
Located in the Old Brick Market building in the heart of Newport. The Museum provides the whole family with an engaging introduction to the area’s rich history and the beauty of its architecture. It is operated by the Newport Historical Society. [Learn More]
Since 1854, the Newport Historical Society collects and preserves artifacts, photographs, documents, publications and genealogical records that relate to the history of Newport. It develops and delivers educational programs, exhibits, tours, conferences, and publications about Newport’s history. [Learn More]
Founded in 1968 by Doris Duke, the Newport Restoration Foundation preserves, interprets, and maintains landscape and objects reflecting Aquidneck Island’s 18th- and 19th-century architectural culture. Since its founding, it has restored or preserved 83 buildings. [Learn More]
The Isaac Bell House is one of the best surviving examples of shingle style architecture in the country. The house was designed by the firm of McKim, Mead and White in 1883. [Learn More]
This is the largest, most sophisticated, and most complex fortress in North America. It was the NASA of its day and a popular destination for those seeking a unique learning and recreational experience. [Learn More]
This National Historic Landmark houses the International Tennis Hall of Fame and its museum. It was the site of the earliest US Open in 1881. [Learn More]
Founded in 1747, it is the oldest community library in the United States still occupying its original building. [Learn More]