Forgotten patriot: 17th century physician did the work to legislate religious freedom
Rhode Island State Archives
Before Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington and other well-known Founding Fathers, there was Dr. John Clarke.
More than a century before the ideals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience became part of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Clarke, a doctor and Baptist minister, was the first person to designate them as legal rights by writing them into the Rhode Island Charter.
History has largely ignored Clarke, but educating people about his little-known legacy has become an obsession for James Wermuth, a 66-year-old retired businessman who has made it his life's purpose to bring out of obscurity a man who has been overshadowed by others who get credit for making religious liberty and freedom of conscience distinctly American ideals.
It's a challenge even in Clarke's home state of Rhode Island, which is celebrating the 350th anniversary of the charter this year. "There is a deeply ingrained belief that Roger Williams wrote the charter. It is so difficult to disabuse people of that idea," Wermuth said.
As head of The John Clarke Society, Wermuth tirelessly researches and writes about the work and impact of the man he calls the "forgotten patriot." He crafted an essay that he will hand out to people milling about Newport's Washington Square on Independence Day, reminding them that a native of their small town had a huge influence on the founding documents that still shape an increasingly religious diverse country today.
"The Charter literally set the precedent for America's First Amendment guaranteeing freedoms of speech and religion," Wermuth wrote. " ... Against all odds, for the first time in history, a sovereign granted these freedoms to a political entity. Word spread rapidly. Rhode Island provided the world’s only non-theocratic sanctuary for those persecuted by theocracies and religious inquisitions."
A 'lively experiment'
Many scholars of religious history have at least heard of Clarke as a contemporary of the famous Protestant theologian Roger Williams, a founder of Rhode Island. Both men traveled to England in 1651 to petition the monarchy for changes in how the colony was governed.
Williams returned to America after getting England to oust the colony's "Governor for Life," William Coddington. But Clarke stayed for another 12 years to secure the charter.
England was in civil war at the time, creating political chaos but also opportunity for Clarke. After the beheading of King Charles I, Clarke had an opening to lobby the new monarch for a charter for the new colony of Rhode Island. But, Wermuth said, England's leaders didn't pay him much attention until they saw the charter as a way to stop a perceived land grab of a good chunk of the colony by neighboring Connecticut.
"So they went to Clarke and told him to put into the charter what you will, but deal with the borders," Wermuth said.
Whether Clarke fixed the border dispute with Connecticut in the best interest of Rhode Island is debatable. But a lengthy sentence at the beginning of the charter's second paragraph set apart Rhode Island as unique among all other colonies and countries around the world:
"And whereas, in their humble address, they have freely declared, that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty."
Simply put, King Charles II gave up one of his most powerful tools for keeping his subjects in check: ruling over their religious life.
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