James Wermuth

The forgotten patriot

One man’s actions forever married religious freedom with democracy

(AiméE Van Drimmelen for The Boston Globe)
By James Wermuth
April 28, 2011

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AS RHODE Island prepares to celebrate the 350th anniversary of an extraordinary American document, its author remains all but forgotten. In the summer of 1663, against seemingly insurmountable odds, an improbable patriot living in an unlikely place changed the course of world civilization.

Through Rhode Island’s King Charles II Charter, Dr. John Clarke convinced the king to grant religious toleration and separation of church and state to a political entity, the diminutive Colony of Rhode Island. For the first time in world history, religious freedom became fundamental to democracy. The Charter’s words soon enriched other colonial charters and eventually found their way into the writings of James Madison, architect of America’s founding documents. The 20th-century historian Thomas Bicknell wrote of religious freedom, “Its clear, full, deliberate, organized, and permanent establishment in the world can now be distinctly traced to the Colony of Rhode Island . . . under the leadership and inspiration of Dr. John Clarke, the true founder.’’

Indeed, while the idea of religious freedom had been around for millennia, legal authorization was an entirely new concept, an idea so important to liberty that it became a raison d’être for America’s Revolutionary War. Scores of celebrated thinkers such as Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and John Milton promoted religious freedom, but none had the foresight or courage to give it the force of law. Sovereigns did not suffer challenges to absolute rule lightly and in America, neither did the Puritans.

Hutchinson and Williams established civil compacts, but they proffered only limited policy for their respective settlements. While well-intentioned, they did not provide legal protection. In fact, they bordered on treason.

Clarke was a strong proponent of religious freedom when he arrived in Boston in 1637. Within weeks of his arrival, he came to Hutchinson’s defense as she stood before the Massachusetts General Court. With no laws to support his position, Clarke realized the vital importance of legal sanction.

When a Lynn, Massachusetts magistrate arrested Clarke and two others for “illegal worship,’’ Clarke was incensed. In 1651, Clarke returned to England as a Rhode Island agent. His charge was to secure a new charter that granted religious freedom.

If these were dangerous times in New England, they were treacherous in England. With Charles I decapitated, Clarke appealed to the staunch Puritan Oliver Cromwell with no success. The restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1661 seemed to bring even fewer opportunities; King Charles II disdained non-conformists with a particular dislike of Baptists, Clarke’s chosen faith.

Despite the seemingly treasonous character of his Charter, a document that unapologetically dismissed Puritan authority and reduced even the king’s power, Clarke’s skilled diplomacy won King Charles II’s confidence. On July 15, 1663, Charles II granted Clarke’s eloquent Charter with the words, “that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a livlie experiment. . . with a full libertie in religious concernements . . .’’

As Rhode Island received the Charter to great acclaim, Clarke remained in England, having expended his funds petitioning the king. Eventually, a friend loaned Clarke funds to return to Rhode Island with his wife. After having devoted 12 years of his life to achieving the Charter for Rhode Island, the colony rewarded him by paying only a pittance. Despite the far-reaching importance of the Charter, Clarke marks little more than a footnote in American history, overshadowed by the more dominant personalities of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, several notable historians and writers persist in naming Roger Williams as the author, and a documentary by Ken Burns completely overlooks Rhode Island’s salient contribution to democracy by putting forth the canard that Thomas Jefferson was the father of America’s religious freedom. The lesson of the documentary teaches scores of viewers to ignore this rich component of America’s founding.

Clarke is worthy of acclaim as his life sets a moral rudder for students of all ages. His life was imbued with self-abnegating munificence, even his last will and testament was remarkable. In it, Clarke established America’s first and still viable educational trust. Administered through the Bank of America, the John Clarke Trust extends scholarships, “for the education of children from time to time, forever.’’

James Wermuth, a retired architectural conservator, is director of the John Clarke Society in Newport.