Artifacts, architecture and the independent spirit preserve the founder�s ideals
By Karen Rubin
The colony of Rhode Island was founded as a “livlie experiment” in religious freedom. The royal charter obtained from the King by Roger Williams in 1663 says so: “And whereas, in theire humble addresse, they have ffreely declared, that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a livlie experiment, that a most flourishing civill state may stand and best bee maintained, and that among our English subjects. with a full libertie in religious concernements..”
Here, in a modest structure that serves as a visitor center on the site where he lived, the towering figure of Roger Williams seems to be very present today. Certainly, the debate he sparked has been resurrected, especially as the notion of vouchers for religious schools, public funding of faith – based initiatives, and even whether the phrase ” under God,” added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, should be removed, especially as new justices are being selected to the Supreme Court.
The Roger Williams National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service, has always been a “hot spot” for visitors to Providence, the village on the river he founded as a refuge of tolerance for those who sought to worship according to their conscience. These days, the Park Rangers seem to take on the mantel of Supreme Court justices in engaging in discussion with visitors.
Just such a conversation is underway during my visit. A man has asked, “What would Roger Williams have said about ‘under God’ in the Pledge?” The Park Ranger suggests he would not have approved, not because he was not a religious man, but because he feared the intrusion of the state into religion.
The Visitor Center is very small – about the size of a living room – and yet, I am completely absorbed in what is there. I feel it is a haven, a place where I find my footing. I can only imagine what the Quakers – who had to fear being hanged in Puritan settlements – might have felt in being able to find safe haven in Rhode Island (even though Williams was no fan of the religion), and how the Jews escaping persecution from the Spanish who were establishing a new foothold in the Carribean, found refuge in Newport, felt. (The very weekend we visited in Providence, was to have the annual reading of George Washington�s letter to the Congregation of Touro Synagogue, pledging that they would be free to follow their own religion in the new nation.)
Just how brave and enlightened Roger Williams was became clearer, less abstract, amid these artifacts and relics.
The artifact in the display case that was most affecting was the reproduction of a Bible in the Algonquian dialect that was used by Roger Williams. A linguist, he had written in his own hand in the margins, words in the Narrangasett dialect.
This aspect of Williams was new to my understanding. My American history had only described his contribution in terms of his position on freedom of religion (monumental to be sure), but his preaching to the Salem congregation exhorting compensation to the Indians for the lands the colonists took evidently put him in conflict with the theocrats as much as his heretical notion that religion was a personal choice that could not be demanded or dictated by the state.
That is the real magic of travel – seeing first hand and examining original documents, artifacts, and elements of culture, walking in the footsteps – combine and provide context, making the abstract concepts of history much more real.
Williams escaped from Salem, where he was threatened with arrest for his radical views, and established his settlement at the headwaters of Narrangasett Bay on land that was deeded to him by the Narrangasetts – an arrangement was worked out where the land was paid for over time by letting the Narrangasett chief, Canonicus, take what he needed from the trading post. He named it Providence after “God�s merciful Providence unto me in my distress.”
After he was joined there by family and a few friends, the settlers formally agreed to “hold forth Liberty of Conscience,” making laws “only in civill things.”
Just a few years afterward, in 1644, Williams was visiting in London when he published “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution,” calling for religious freedom for all – - “Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian.” He wrote, “that no civil magistrate, no King, nor Caesar, have any power over the souls or consciences of their subjects in the matters of God and the crown of Jesus.” The sentiment resonates in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
There is a painting on the wall that portrays Providence as it was first settled, when the Providence River still flowed freely through the city (it had actually been covered over with the “world�s widest bridge” and now it has been rechanneled to it looks more like a canal). When he acquired the land, it was divided up among the families, their properties in neat, narrow rectangles flowing from the river and rising up the hill. Today, the names of the original settlers are the names of the streets: Williams, Angell, James.
The Visitor Center is a short distance away from The First Baptist Meeting House, literally the first in America, founded by Roger Williams in 1638. The church, itself, was erected in 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution. It could seat 1,400 people – one third of the population of Providence at the time.
Providence, as a city, and Rhode Island, as a state, has remained true to Williams� spirit, and is known for its tolerance, which is taken here to be a measure of the independence of its people.
Within view of the Roger Williams Memorial is the Rhode Island State House, a stunning structure to rival the nation�s Capitol building and topped by the fourth largest free – standing dome. At the top is “Independent Man,” Rhode Island�s symbol of its independent character.
It is also telling in the founding of Brown University, an ivy league institution which has a reputation for liberal outlook.
The university was founded by John Brown, whose house is another major attraction, providing another window into American history.
John Brown House
John Brown made his fortune in the slave trade, as a pioneer in the China trade, and as a privateer (that is, a patriot because they attacked British ships), becoming one of the richest men in Providence (and probably, of his time), and an active participant in the debates and practices that shaped the new nation and the world.
The only connection to the Williams� story, in an odd way, is that John Brown�s wife was Quaker – a group who were allowed to live in Providence when they were expelled and persecuted elsewhere. But where Williams represents the colonial era, when the rules for the new society were being formed, Brown represents the emerging nation, and the decided shift from noble, religious purpose, to the commercial.
The John Brown House, a opulent mansion built to impress people and grand by any standards, provides a timeline from 1788 when it was first built (150 years removed from those first settlers, their situation and their sensibilities), to the present time. It provides a window to what life was like for those of wealth and power in those first years of the new nation, and also to the complexities even within one family (Brown�s brother took John to court over slavery; Brown subsequently gave the money to found Brown University, which became one of the most liberal colleges in the country).
The house remained in the Brown family up until 1901, and is full of personal touches. It was the home of John Brown’s daughters and their families; the winter residence of the elegant Gammell family during the second half of the nineteenth century; the formidable mansion of Providence utility, real estate and trolley mogul, Marsden Perry in the early twentieth century, before coming back into the Brown family in 1936.
One – third of the furnishings in the house are original; two thirds are period pieces. The pieces are so extraordinary that during our visit, several were on loan for a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the most cherished pieces is a nine – shell desk and bookcase considered to be one of the finest pieces of American colonial furniture in existence.
Each of the rooms is presented to provide a “vignette” of life at a particular time during the history of the house.
John Brown was a great admirer of George Washington, and one room is wallpapered with scenes from Washington�s life; his brother was a Quaker, and his simple room, in such contrast to the opulence of the others. In another room, there are maps on the wall that belonged to John Brown dating before Lewis & Clark�s expeditions, when so much of the West was a vast unknown, as indicated by incomplete lines. ($7/adults; $5.50/seniors, students; $3/7 – 17; 52 Power Street, 401 – 273 – 7507, www.rihs.org).
Directly across from the John Brown House is the Nightingale – Brown House, considered one of the finest buildings, and the largest wood frame house to survive from 18th century America. Built in 1792 for Rhode Island merchant Joseph Nightingale, it is one of five mansions built on College Hill in the years after the Revolutionary War. The houses are among the most important examples of residential architecture from the country�s early national period.
It was purchased in 1814 by Nicholas Brown, and for the next 171 years, was in the family of Nicholas Brown and his descendents, a family who made enormous contributions to the civic, cultural and economic life of Rhode Island.
The house is a record of change in residential architecture and innovations. The house was reopened in 1993 as the John Nicholas Brown Center, part of Brown University, supporting research and education in all fields of American civilization.
Both houses are along Benefit Street, only the second street built in Providence after its founding. All along this charming, mile – long street are absolutely stunning examples of historic colonial homes (Providence Preservation Society, 21 Meeting St., 401 – 831 – 7440,www.ppsri.org). This is also where you can visit the Providence Athenaeum, one of America�s oldest subscription libraries, at 251 Benefit Street (www.providenceathenaeum.org).
Much of Providence�s history is manifested in its neighborhoods and architecture, like Federal Hill (see Discovery, 9/9). Downcity is Providence�s business and financial district. A section here is known as the Jewelry District, a reminder that Rhode Island used to be the costume jewelry capital of the nation since it was here that the technique of plating gold and other precious metals began.
The independent spirit of its founder, symbolized by the Independent Man atop the State House, is manifest in the people, still. During our visit, the daily newspaper, the Providence Journal, featured an article about locals who practice Wicca – what some might refer to as witchcraft but which is an ancient religion organized around natural forces.
History is manifest in other, intriguing ways in Providence. There is much more emphasis on its maritime history, for example. No place in Providence is far from water – whether it is one of the three rivers that flow into the city, or the Bay.
The Providence Warwick Convention & Visitor Center website has marvelous calendar of events and planning tools, One West Exchange St., Providence RI 02903, 401 – 274 – 1636,www.GoProvidence.com.
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