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.
Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University, said Charles was a closet Catholic trying to negotiate and resolve disputes among the mother country's ambitious settlers of the New World.
"I am speculating here, but in some sense (King Charles II) might have thought, 'If I create a little zone where all of the strange sectarians can go ... this tiny colony could become a safety valve to get rid of all the chaotic people who (are) disrupting the real colonies.'"
Like many colonists, Clarke was a Puritan who emigrated from England in 1637 seeking religious freedom. But he and a minority of others, after they arrived, deplored the Puritan hierarchy's stranglehold on government in New England, where they had created a new state church. He and the other like-minded believers, some of whom would eventually found the Baptist church in America, had been jailed and banished from Massachusetts and gathered in the region of Rhode Island.
The charter, approved on July 8, 1663, attracted more religious diversity to the unique colony, with new settlers ranging from Quakers to Jews. Newport is home to America's oldest synagogue — the Touro Synagogue to which President George Washington wrote his famous letter assuring Jews that their right to worship would be protected under the new Constitution.
Jews were already enjoying that protection within the borders of their colony under the charter, which said: "No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony."
Leonard explained that making religious freedom a legal right might appear reasonable today, but in the 17th century, separating religion from the state was considered heretical and treasonous.
Even after the ratification of the First Amendment, states and local governments clung to the idea of a state established church, Leonard said, noting a couple of Republican North Carolina lawmakers filed a resolution just a few months ago that declared that state had the power to declare a state religion. The proposal went nowhere.
"That was this year. It's taking a while for that establishmentarian idea to die out," he said. And the seemingly natural pull of a majority faith to dominate public life is what makes Clarke's and Williams' ideas on religious freedom so brilliant to Leonard and other historians.
"How is it that they saw what almost no one else around them saw?" Leonard asked. "I think it was because they were obsessed with the idea of uncoerced faith. They took conscience to its theological and political conclusions."
He explained that Clarke wasn't just asking the king to protect freedom of conscience for Christians, but for non-Christians and secularists as well.
Leonard said Clarke embraced the idea that a true pluralistic society would be the best circumstance from which Christianity could make its strongest case and attract true believers, rather than followers forced into the faith by the state.
"In the (Rhode Island) charter the idea is born before the Enlightenment or secular humanism that the state cannot coerce faith from the either the heretic or the unbeliever," Leonard said.
The type of pluralism that Clarke and others in his era envisioned is just starting to materialize on a national scale, Leonard explained, with immigration diversifying the country's religious makeup and those identifying as unaffiliated with religion making up 20 percent of the population.
By the time Clarke returned to Newport, the pluralism he had hoped for had changed the colony's politics, forcing him out of public service. He remained a physician and a Baptist minister until his death in 1676.
His first and second wives and children preceded him in death, but his will created a trust "for the relief of the poor and the bringing up of children unto learning from time to time forever." The John Clarke Trust is the oldest charitable trust in the United States, donating thousands of dollars annually to social service and educational institutions throughout southeastern New England, the society said.
But Clarke's legacy with regard to religious liberty gradually drifted into a footnote as more dominant personalities like Williams, Jefferson and Madison received most of the credit for engraining freedom of conscience into the country's religious, political and legal mindset.
The Clarke society made some inroads in bringing Clarke out of obscurity this year during Rhode Island's yearlong celebration of the 350th anniversary of the charter. Wermuth, who sits on the anniversary commission, said the society kicked off events with a reading of a play he wrote about Clarke's role in the charter.
"It went off spectacularly well," he said. "I have been encouraged to publish (the script) and get it out to schools."
Meantime, Wermuth continues to plug away on a book about Clarke. It's a task that would be easier had Clarke himself been more inclined to put his ideas in writing and promote himself.
Most who are aware of Clarke's contribution to America's history agree his obscurity was largely his own doing because he didn't write like Williams, John Locke, Jefferson and other prominent advocates of liberty.
"That's the way history works," said David Erickson, a theological historical studies professor at Baptist Mission Association Theological Seminary. "If you don't write much they don't remember much about you in the end."
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