More than 100 years before Thomas Jefferson began his efforts to promote religious freedom in colonial Virginia, the citizens of our tiny colony were experiencing that freedom. The diverse and flourishing sects extant in 17th century Rhode Island demonstrate the success of that colony’s “lively experiment” in religious freedom.
And where did that phrase “lively experiment” come from? Now chiseled into the white marble frieze of our handsome State House, these words are an integral part of our state’s legacy to the nation, a bequeathing that led directly to permanent protection for all Americans to be free from government-imposed religion.
Not enough of us understand the source of this legacy, and know who was the framer of the words enshrined in Rhode Island’s founding documents. Many incorrectly attribute the words to Roger Williams. Many more think that the American concept of religious freedom was the creation of Jefferson and other founding fathers in the 18th century.
In fact, it was a physician and preacher who lived with his family in Newport who we must thank for being the persistent petitioner who succeeded in getting the English monarch, Charles II, to grant to the colony of Rhode Island, in 1663, complete protection against governmental interference with the free exercise of religion.
This great person’s name is John Clarke, who lived four centuries ago. His life’s work and achievements must be taken into account in any complete teaching of Rhode Island history.
For one thing, but for Dr. Clarke’s efforts, Connecticut’s eastern boundary would have extended all the way to the west passage of Narragansett Bay!
But that is another story, for another day.