Table of Contents
Roger Williams reached Providence in a canoe; by what method of traveling he reached the easterly bank of the Seekonk River, the seat of his tentative settlement, after the winter escape from Salem, is not known. Nor is it known where he obtained the canoe, or the tools with which he began to build a house and plant in the spring of 1636 before he was requested by Plymouth to move on. From the Puritans of his day and generation Roger Williams differed in other respects than religion and politics; unlike most of them he did not write a diary and leave to posterity a meticulously detailed story of his life. That he had no Conestoga wagon, the covered vehicle of the immigrant trains in the western movement across the prairies, is certain. He carried so little food that he was constrained to resort to the wigwams of friendly Indians. From the latter, possibly, he obtained the canoe and tools, as well as corn and beans for planting; though there is the probability also that he was able to purchase tools from John Oldham or some other of the English traders who followed the shore line bartering English goods for Indian peltry. The Indians had recognized the superiority of English tools to their own rude stone implements, and had been supplied with them since the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, if not before. It is possible also that some of the early companions and followers of Roger Williams reached Providence by water, or traveled part of the distance in trading vessels; and that Mrs. Roger Williams, with her two children, one an infant bom in the winter of 1635, did not make the journey overland, although Mrs. Thomas Hooker, an invalid, accompanied her husband on the long trek from Massachusetts Bay to the valley of the Connecticut River. In the absence of diary or other statement by Roger Williams or his companions, much is left for imagination, although there are certain facts, among them that the settlement was made in the wilderness, and that tools were absolutely necessary, that may not be evaded.
The first Aquidneck settlers left Massachusetts Bay under more favoring circumstances. Their departure was not hurried as had been that of Roger Williams. In the narrative by John Clarke, “Ill News from New England,” it is related that they engaged a vessel whereby to set forth to accomplish their purpose of establishing a new settlement beyond the limits of any patent. The Puritan exodus from England in 1630 and following years had been well organized, and the Aquidneck group, including several wealthy families, could and did profit from earlier experiences. With a vessel of the type commonly in use in transatlantic voyaging, passengers, furniture, tools, stores of food, and even livestock, could be carried. The short passage from Massachusetts Bay to Narragansett Bay could be made in so brief time that several trips might be made. There is no reason for believing that the settlers at Pocasset or Newport suffered serious hardship. No doubt the general freedom from care of the kind that must have obsessed the Providence planters in the early days contributed to the comparative ease with which the Aquidneck settlers accomplished the establishment of a government, and conducted the business affairs of the two towns.
The first houses erected by Roger Williams and his companions probably were log cabins, with rough stone chimneys, thatched roofs, and walls of logs, axe hewn to flatness on two sides, and mortised at the ends by halving. Whether or not the Aquidneck settlers built log houses is not known; they may have transported lumber from Massachusetts Bay, as Richard Smith did from Taunton when he built his trading house near Wickford in 1641. The houses built in Providence in later years, when sawed timber and lumber were available, were modest in proportions and unpretentious in design, probably with only one general room for all purposes in the earliest instances. Later houses were of one, one-and-one-half, and two stories; in the latter the lower chamber, or living room, and the upper chamber, or sleeping room, both were heated by open fireplaces. Lean-to additions were constructed as more rooms were needed. The practice of enlarging dwellings by building ells was established at an early date in New England. Probably the earliest island houses were little more pretentious, although the Henry Bull house, a large two-story structure, so well constructed that it survived the stress of weather for two centuries, was imposing. William Coddington had built the first brick house in Boston. He and some others of the island men were wealthy, and could well afford good houses. Sawed lumber, of local manufacture, was available at Newport so early as January, 1639-1640, when an order was issued by the court, before which Ralph Earle and Mr. Wilbore, his partner, had been haled for felling timber without license, fixing prices for sawed boards, half-inch boards and clapboards.
One of the marvels of the twentieth century has been the amount of antique furniture alleged to have reached America in the “Mayflower.” Perhaps the island settlers were not so badly off for furniture, because of their control of a vessel, as were the Providence planters. Chairs, as indicated by inventories of probated estates, were scarce in Rhode Island in early days. Stools, benches, and settles served the purpose of chairs; these could be made from boards hewn or sawed from the wood of primaeval forests, without involving the time and careful workmanship required to construct a chair. Silver was almost unknown; pewter was the colonial metal for tableware. Crockery was minutely described and counted piece by piece in probate inventories in such manner as to indicate a value established by scarcity.
Farming was the first Rhode Island occupation. All four of the earliest settlements were referred to as plantations. In Providence, home lots were laid out with narrow fronts on the Town street, so that the houses might be reasonably close together for the convenient maintenance of the watch, but extending back up the hillside and beyond it until the proprietor had five acres for planting. The original holdings at Pocasset and Newport were likewise farm size. How soon after settling the Providence planters had cattle, sheep, swine and horses, is not known, although the first division of land included commons for pasturage. Possibly the Pocasset settlers carried livestock with them, or had it carried on a second voyage. So early as February, 1638-1639, swine were ordered sent six miles from the plantations, or “shut up so that they may not be offensive to the town,” or sent to the islands adjacent. A pound for cattle was ordered in 1640. Newport also regulated the keeping of cattle so early as 1639. In the latter town there was a shortage of food in January, 1639-1640, when a survey disclosed only 108 bushels of corn available for ninety-six persons. The corn was ordered apportioned “one bushel and a half a peck to each person, which is to supply the said person for the space of six weeks,” corn borrowed to be repaid so soon as a supply can be made.” Later in the same year the General Assembly ordered “that all the sea banks are free for fishing to the town of Newport.” When Samuel Gorton applied for land in Providence, both he and the Providence settlers were supplied with cattle. All the earlier town records include mention of “earmarks” adopted to distinguish ownership. All settlements bought venison and other game from the Indians. In 1638 Portsmouth designated four freemen to buy venison from the Indians and established maximum prices for the purchase and the sale thereof to the inhabitants.
The beginning of differentiation in occupations—the earliest type of division of labor— appeared early in colonial times. In August, 1638, Richard Dummer undertook to build a mill at Pocasset, “which was conceived to be useful to the plantation,” and Dummer was rated as a estate – ’ Later in the same year, in November, at Pocasset it was ordered that Mr. Edward Hutchinson shall bake bread for the use of the plantation”; and in the same month Nicholas Easton was granted particular privileges “to fell and carry away any such timber as shall be of necessary use for the present building of the mill,” he having undertaken to set up a water mill “for the necessary use and good of the plantation.” Ralph Earle and partner, who had set up a lumber mill at Newport, were haled before the Court in 1639-1640 to answer a complaint for felling trees without license. Mill rights at the lowest fall of the Moshassuck River, near the Stampers Hill in Providence, were granted at an early date, probably 1646, to John Smith. There is confusion as to the time, in view of the fact that John Smith was a common name in the colony. John Smith, the miller who was a companion of Roger Williams, died before the first division of Providence lands, and was not the John Smith subsequently named in a grant of water rights. Thomas Olney also received a grant in 1655 by the Stampers, as a tanner. Gregory Dexter printed the “Key to the Language of America,” written by Roger Williams; the publication was in London. Gregory Dexter appears not to have followed his trade in Providence, although he was prominent in town and colonial public affairs. John Lutner, carpenter, was reported in 1638 as having departed from Pocasset without license, leaving debts unpaid. John Clarke was a physician. In 1641 Robert Jeffreys was authorized to “exercise the function of surgery.” This may not have meant more than a license to “bleed,” the remedy of the period for reducing fevers. In 1664 Captain John Cranston of Newport, was “licensed and commissioned to administer physic and practice surgery throughout this whole colony,” and was “styled and recorded Doctor of Physic and Surgery, by the authority of this the General Assembly.” The omnipotent General Assembly, repository of legislative, executive and judicial powers, had granted a university degree! The island records, the code of laws prepared for adoption in 1647, the business-like procedure, indicate that the colony had a lawyer or a citizen who had excellent command of the law and judicial procedure. Perhaps this was Coddington, or John Clarke, as the Charter, written by the latter, was a masterpiece in legal phraseology and in the perfection of completeness. Roger Williams forsook farming in Providence, and opened a trading station near Wickford for traffic with the Indians. Richard Smith also had a trading station in the same locality. William Coddington bred and bought horses for export to Barbados. He was accused by William Brenton, who in 1656 styled himself a Boston merchant, of shipping horses “unjustly obtained.” The legal maxim, “caveat emptor,” originated with horse traders. Assuming that the accusation of “unjustly obtaining” did not parallel the “casual finding” in the writ of trespass for trover de bonis asportatis and was not a polite way of saying that Coddington was a horsethief in a period when “quae sentias dicere licet” and men did not hesitate to exercise freedom of speech in a most emphatic manner and in terms that left nothing for interpretation or the imagination, the case of Brenton vs. Coddington is unique as a suit brought by the seller of horses against the purchaser; most suits resulting from horse trades have reversed the parties. William Coddington was granted land for an orchard in 1638. William Blackstone had an orchard in Cumberland. So much, town and colony records yield of information about the division of labor in the earliest years of the colony; much more is suggested which was not recorded because, with reference to many occupations, there was no grant of land or other particular privileges. It may be assumed that little time was lost by the settlers in establishing themselves, so far as possible under environmental conditions, in the occupations with which they had been familiar before immigration or migration, and that the settlements, industrially, tended to assume quickly the general appearance of English towns and villages.
Pocasset in 1638 granted William Balston a license to “erect and set up a house of entertainment for strangers, and also to brew beer and to sell wines or strong waters.” The laws of 1647 forbade the keeping of taverns, alehouses or victualling houses without license. In 1654 each town was ordered forthwith to “appoint or license one or two houses for the entertainment of strangers; and to encourage such as shall undertake to keep such houses,” other persons were forbidden to retail wine, beer or strong liquors. In the following year the General Assembly undertook to appoint tavern keepers for towns not complying with the previous order, until the towns should act. This order contemplated three taverns to a town, one to be established under colony license if the town licensed two. Each tavern was ordered to display “a convenient sign at the most perspicuous place of the said house, thereby to give notice to strangers that it is a house of public entertainment.” In 1656 taverns were forbidden to “suffer any person to tipple after nine o’clock at night.” Warwick, in 1658, was ordered to “constitute one ordinary or more” with “provision of one or two beds at least for strangers, besides other provisions as may be convenient.” In 1661 the Rhode Island precedent for the Raines hotel law in New York was enacted, thus: “Forasmuch as it appears that there is great complaint by reason that there is no place or places for strangers to be entertained, it is therefore ordered that it shall not be lawful for any person to retail wine or liquors but such as shall keep one bed at least and victuals for the entertaining of strangers.” The tavern keeper was an esteemed citizen. William Turpin, the first schoolmaster whose name appears in the Providence records, was also a tavern keeper. Of him Judge Staples wrote that education was “the stepping stone to honors if not to fortune. In 1722 and 1723 he represented the town in General Assembly; in 1727 he was town clerk; and died town treasurer, in 1744.” As a matter of fact, William Turpin, town schoolmaster and tavern keeper, died in 1709, the offices listed by the Annalist as held by the schoolmaster-tavern keeper were held by his son, who bore the same name as the father. No doubt the emphasis upon the maintenance of taverns followed the English practice; the countryside in England was dotted with small ordinaries offering entertainment for the traveling public. It might also indicate a growth of trade, and provision for the colonial prototype of the modern traveling salesman. Drunkenness was punished. Eight residents of Pocasset were fined for a drunken riot on September 15, 1638. The laws of 1647 reproduced the English statute of James, forbidding drunkenness and prescribing penalties. Tavern keepers were enjoined to keep good order; not to permit “carding, dicing, slide, groat,” etc.; and not to “suffer any townsman to remain tippling therein for one hour’s space.” In 1658 an excise on the importation of liquor was ordered with provision for searching vessels suspected of smuggling. Strangers were subjected to examination as possible bootleggers. Sales to Indians were forbidden by some laws, and regulated by others. There was colony recognition of the dangers arising from sales of liquor to red men; the Sachem Ninigret asked the King’s commissioners to prohibit sales to Indians, because more than twenty of his braves had died from drinking it. Evidently poisoned liquor is not a twentieth century innovation.
In 1639 a writ was issued for the attachment of a “shallop” laid down by William Aspinwall. Roger Williams in his letters mentioned his “pinnace,” although for rapid transit in his trip to Newport to debate the fourteen points with George Fox, he used a canoe. Providence Williams, son of Roger, carried back to Providence in a sloop owned by him some of the refugees who had gone to the islands during King Philip’s War, including his mother, Mary Williams. As early as 1646 a ship of 100 to 150 tons was built at Newport for New Haven. Other vessels were laid down in the shipyards established at favorable places, and Narragansett Bay was a shipbuilding center through the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century. Newport, as the largest town, soon attracted among later arrivals more artisans than Providence, including blacksmiths, masons, joiners, carpenters, coopers and cordwainers. As trade grew in Newport, through the enterprise of men of the merchant type like Coddington, Brenton and Dyer, wealth accumulated, the island became prosperous, and the settlers erected houses of a superior type to replace their earlier dwellings. Some of the later houses were so substantial as to stand for two centuries. No doubt the earliest Hebrew immigrants were attracted to Newport by opportunities for commerce, although they must have esteemed the liberty of conscience offered and the absence of persecution.
The early settlers discovered the limestone deposits, and used them; they appear not to have found the hard coal which underlies the soil in quantities, nor to have realized the wealth of the granite. In 1649 it was reported that gold had been discovered on the island, and the excitement that might be expected ensued. Roger Williams sent samples of the “ore” to Winthrop, expressing his belief that it assayed both gold and silver. The General Assembly took possession of the “mine” in the name of the state of England, and William Dyer, as Herald, appointed for the purpose, published a proclamation and set up the arms of England and of the lord high admiral. The “ore,” on careful assay, yielded neither gold nor silver, and the dream of riches vanished.
The Charter of 1663 emphasized fishery and other sea rights. The plantations were described as bordering such “rivers, harbors and roads as are convenient …. for building of ships, supply of pipe-staves and other merchandise,” and as lying “very commodious in many respects for commerce.” The Charter ordered and appointed “that these presents shall not, in any manner, hinder any of our loving subjects whatsoever from using and exercising the trade of fishing upon the coast of New England …. but that they, and every and any of them, shall have full and free power and liberty to continue and use the trade of fishing upon the said coast, in any of the seas thereunto adjoining, or any arms of the seas, or salt water, rivers and creeks, where they have been accustomed to fish; and to build and set upon the waste land belonging to the said colony and plantations, such wharves, stages and workhouses, as shall be necessary for the salting, drying and keeping of their fish, to be taken or gotten upon that coast. And further, for the encouragement of the inhabitants of our said Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to set upon the business of taking whales, it shall be lawful for them, or any of them having struck whale, dubertus, or other great fish, it or them to pursue unto any part of that coast, and into any bay, river, cove, creek, or shore, belonging thereto to kill and order for the best advantage, without molestation, they making no wilful waste or spoil, anything in these presents contained, or any other matter or thing, to the contrary, notwithstanding. And further also, we are graciously pleased, and do hereby declare, that if any of the inhabitants of our said colony do set upon the planting of vineyards (the soil and climate both seeming naturally to concur to the production of wines), or be industrious in the discovery of fishing banks, in or about the said colony, we will from time to time, give and allow all due and fitting encouragement therein, as to others, in cases of like nature.”
Withal agriculture, rather than fishing, was the principal Rhode Island occupation in the early years of the colony, and Rhode Island was a farming community. Other occupations developed as complementary or supplementary to agriculture in a division of labor operating to free the farmer, by his employment of skilled workmen in other fields of labor, to devote his own time and effort and energy to intensive plant and animal husbandry. The rich soil of the island and of some parts of the Narragansett country yielded bounteous crops, and the farmers soon had a surplus for export. Sheep were unusually prolific in lambs, and the flocks increased so rapidly that wool also was available for export to England. One Newport farmer owned 3000 sheep. Tobacco was produced for home consumption and for export. In large part this profitable aspect of agriculture was confined in the early years to the southern part of the colony; the soil to the north was not nearly so well adapted to farming. The great abundance of farm products on the island furnished outward cargoes for vessels engaged in carrying trade with the West Indies, and shipping became attractive because of the double profit on the voyage. Lumber, horses, pork, butter and cheese from Rhode Island were exchanged for sugar and molasses. In later years Rhode Island was to engage in voyages planned to yield three profits, thus: rum to Africa; slaves from Africa to the West Indies; sugar and molasses from the West Indies to Narragansett Bay, the sugar and molasses being distilled into rum for the next round trip.
Joseph Jencks, who settled at Warwick in 1669, brought a new industry to the colony. He was son of Joseph Jencks, “who was the first foundryman who worked in brass and iron on the western continent.” Joseph Jencks, Sr., obtained the first patent granted in America, in 1646, for an improved water wheel and a new type of sawmill. He also made the first fire engine in America, made the dies used by Hull in coining the “Pine Tree shillings,” and patented the scythe in 1655, which thereafter replaced the hand sickle. Joseph Jencks, Jr., was associated with his father in conducting an iron works from 1647 t° 1669, when with his wife and family he left Massachusetts for Rhode Island. On March 25, 1669, he was granted land on either side the Pawtuxet River, on which to set up a sawmill, under an agreement by which he was to sell the Warwick proprietors boards at four shillings sixpence the hundred. Less than two years later, on October 10, 1671, Joseph Jencks, Jr., purchased sixty acres of land near Pawtucket falls, where the Blackstone River becomes the Seekonk. He was the first settler in what was to be Pawtucket, and through his energy laid the foundations for one of the world’s greatest industrial centers. It would be difficult in the twentieth century to find a city that rivals Pawtucket in the variety of its manufactured products, including still a marvelous wealth of steel and iron tools and machinery. The fields of Pawtucket, first, and later those of Rhode Island, were mowed with the new scythe invented by the elder Jencks. Soon hatchets, axes, hammers, shovels, hoes, ploughs, and every type of domestic iron implements needed for the comfort and use of workers and householders in Providence Plantations and on the island were made at the Jencks workshop. Blacksmiths and other ironworkers were employed and trained. Joseph Jencks operated a forge, a sawmill and carpenter shop, and later an iron furnace and foundry. Iron ore was obtained in the vicinity of the Mineral Spring swamp west of the falls, and the paths worn by the carts travelling from woods to forge and back eventually became the winding Main Street of Pawtucket west of the river. The forge was located just below the falls on the west side of the river, and close to it was located the Jencks house. Joseph Jencks, Jr., became a prominent figure in the colony, not only in the economic and industrial life, but also in public service. After holding several town offices in Providence, of which Pawtucket was then a part, he was elected as a Deputy, and afterward as an Assistant, in the General Assembly. One of his sons, Joseph Jencks, became Governor, the first elected outside of Newport. The Jencks family continued prominent in the industry which they established. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War Rhode Island had a larger iron and steel production than any other colony, and the patriots looked to Rhode Island to furnish weapons, and were amply justified in doing so by Rhode Island’s response.
Apprenticeship was a common relation in colonial days; the large number of apprenticeship agreements mentioned in letters or preserved suggests the possibility that Rhode Island might be entitled to a reputation for vocational education. Apprenticeship agreements bound youth to service during minority, and carried complementary obligations to teach trades and other occupations, and sometimes also reading and writing. Many of the early settlers had servants; thus Gorton’s banishment for contempt to court from Plymouth and from Portsmouth arose in each instance from his dramatic defense of a servant. Two of the earliest companions of Roger Williams were lads, who apparently were neither apprentices nor servants. Bond service as well as free service was common, and the trade with the West Indies resulted in the importation of blacks. The colony regulated bond service, and limited both it and slavery of blacks and Indians to periods of years, or to age twenty-four if the relation began during minority. An early statute fixed majority at age twenty-one, and thus limited the period of apprenticeship, the father having no right to contract for service by son or daughter beyond the time of being “of age.” The apprentice usually lived with his master. Thus there were large numbers of young people in the colony, deprived of normal family life in the home relations with father and mother and sisters and brothers, who did not find an equivalent for family life in the relations of master and apprentice and of master and servant. Apprenticeship and bond service tended also to prevent youthful marriages, to prolong courtship, and sometimes to produce social evils.
There is no evidence that there was a serious excess of social immorality in Rhode Island over other colonies, although some writers have been led by the court reports of prosecution for lewdness to exaggeration of the evil as a consequence of Separatism. It was no more a consequence of Separatism than a consequence of theocratic Puritanism, unless Puritanism were an entirely voluntary discipline. In other New England colonies, where theocratic Puritanism, through the combined forces of church and state, repressed or suppressed the normal instincts of youth toward playful recreation, the superficial indication of quiet but sorrowful acquiescence for a time deceived some into interpreting sadness as saintliness; in too many instances the outer quiet concealed a stormy rebellion within, which worked its way eventually into excesses, not always delayed until later life, which brought remorse to those who realized their error. There was some restraint in Rhode Island, naturally, because so many of those who reached the settlements had passed through the experiences of Puritanism and had not wholly departed from the Puritanical view of the world and the flesh, and the essential evil of both. There is need of the caution also in reading the English language of the seventeenth century that some words commonly used then, but not used in polite conversation in the twentieth century, had not then the connotation toward evil attributed to them now. Language changes, and the meanings of words change in use. Similarly, it should not be forgotten that conduct which to twentieth century eyes is innocent might be interpreted scandalously in the seventeenth century. Samuel Gorton’s maid servant was threatened with banishment from Plymouth as an outcast from decent society because she smiled in church! Finally much that was written about Rhode Island in the seventeenth century was the work of prudish Puritans looking in from without, and highly scandalized at what they saw because it conformed so little to, and departed so much from, conventionalities enforced in their communities. Some also of the Rhode Island writers were far too much prudishly Puritanical to interpret Rhode Island life fairly and reasonably. New England had not found in the seventeenth century a substitute for the village sports and folk games, the gleeful songs and happy dances of Merry England. Youth is youth eternally; immorality may be the price exacted and paid for repression and suppression of normal and usually wholesome instincts of childhood and youth. Instinct needs guidance, and it needs also an outlet for expression. Perhaps intuitively old England had found a means of stabilizing youth through wholesome recreation; Puritanism suppressed recreation as sinful. It is significant that the first Rhode Island statute dealing with the problem of youth suggested a week-day holiday for recreation, thus: “Whereas, there have been several complaints exhibited to this Assembly against the incivility of persons exercised upon the first day of the week, which is offensive to divers among us; and, whereas, it is judged that the occasion thereof ariseth because there is no day appointed for recreation; it is, therefore referred to the consideration and determination of each town to allow what days they shall agree upon for their men servants, maid servants and children to recreate themselves, to prevent the incivilities which are amongst us exercised on that day.” There was great wisdom in Rhode Island.
Liberty of Conscience
Rhode Island, in the seventeenth century, was radical for the times and revolutionary in its exaltation of the opinion of the individual citizen. In religion, authority was rejected for liberty of conscience, and complete independence was proclaimed in the Charter declaration that no man should be questioned, molested or disquieted because of his belief in religious concernments. In politics theocracy and autocracy were rejected for democracy in practice in the first instance, and for a representative type of republican government, eventually, which was held definitely responsible to the freemen. There were some who foresaw also the rejection of institutions and of principles fundamental to orderly society in the discord prevalent in the early days of the colony, and in the triumph of Mrs. Joshua Verein in the first case involving the family relations of man and wife. “Because Joshua Verein refused to let his wife go to Mr. Williams’ so often as she was called for (religious meetings), they required to have him censored,” wrote one annalist. “But there stood up one Arnold, a witty man of their own company, and withstood it, telling them that, when he consented to that order (that no man should be molested for his conscience), he never intended it should extend to the breach of any ordinance of God, such as the subjection of wives to their husbands, etc., and gave divers solid reasons against it. Then one Greene replied that if they should restrain their wives, etc., all the women in the country would cry out of them, etc. Arnold answered him thus: ‘Did you pretend to leave the Massachusetts because you would not offend God to please men, and would you now break an ordinance and commandment of God to please women?’ Some were of the opinion that if Verein would not suffer his wife to have her liberty, the church should dispose her to some other man who would use her better. Arnold told them that it was not the woman’s desire to go so oft from home, but only Mr. Williams’ and others. In conclusion, when they would have censured Verein, Arnold told them that it was against their own order, for Verein did that he did out of conscience; and their order was that no man should be censured for his conscience.” The lightly humorous touch of the annalist scarcely disguises the dilemma presented to the townsmen. Joshua Verein was clearly setting up his own opinion against the conscience of his wife in a matter that concerned her religious belief; his was the voice of authority answering a question of almost vital importance to a human soul—exactly the type of question almost certain to arise when man and woman of different religious beliefs intermarry. Yet a decision for the wife involved an assault upon the almost universal opinion of the times that the husband’s right to exact obedience in the family was without limit as to subject matter. As arbitrary authority in religion and in politics had been rejected in Rhode Island, so also arbitrary authority in the family was shaken by the decision for the wife in the Verein case, which was practically that the husband had no right to exact or enforce obedience in matters of religious concernments. Obedience to the orders of the majority had been limited to “civil things”; obedience to the husband had been limited by removing religion from his jurisdiction. Yet the Rhode Island settlers were vigilant protectors of the integrity of the family. Divorce was granted only for adultery, at the request of the injured party. Courts undertook to reconcile husband and wife in instances of family quarreling and separation. Offences against morality were punished severely. There were not so many complaints of this sort before the courts as to suggest more than the proportion of delinquency that seems almost to be inevitable in human affairs.
The State and Religion
While the constitutional inhibition that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” might be predicated as much to a purpose to protect state establishments already existing as to a purpose to protect individual freedom or worship, which it has come to mean in the twentieth century, the limitation of government to civil things precluded “establishment” in Rhode Island in the sense of a state church supported by public taxation. Thomas Jefferson evaluated his achievement in procuring disestablishment in Virginia as of importance almost equal with his writing of the Declaration of Independence, and disestablishment was not accomplished in several states until long after the Revolutionary War. The established church in Massachusetts was supported by public taxes until the middle of the nineteenth century. Rev. James MacSparran made one journey to Bristol to intercede for members of the Church of England who had been cast into jail for refusal to pay taxes to support the established Congregational church while Bristol was a Massachusetts town. There was opposition in Rhode Island not only to an established church but also to an established ministry. Roger Williams adhered strictly and rigidly to his belief that the minister should support himself, rather than be sustained by his congregation. His position on this matter was as revolutionary as his doctrine of soul liberty. While preaching and teaching at Salem and Plymouth he supported himself and his family by physical labor. To this belief he adhered in Providence Plantations. John Clarke, who preached to congregations in Pocasset and Newport, earned his living by practicing his profession of physician. That his education had been partly theological is indicated by his authorship of a Concordance to the Bible, Clarke’s Complete Concordance, one of the books listed in the inventory of the estate of William Harris. Robert Lenthal, who preached in Newport, was as well a teacher in the town’s public school. Samuel Gorton, while awaiting trial in Massachusetts, attended Sunday services only on condition that he might be permitted to answer the minister. Anne Hutchinson’s first offence against the Massachusetts theocracy was committed when she undertook to extend her home class for women into a preaching service, in which she expounded her own theology. William Blackstone, recluse farmer, preached in Providence. Some of those who found nothing of good in the early settlers and early settlements in Rhode Island needed no other evidence to convince themselves of evil in the colony than the want of an established ministry. To assert that they were wholly wrong would involve almost a denial of the moral influence of the conscientious priests, ministers and rabbis who labor to preserve the spiritual life in modem communities. Yet in a period in which an established church and an established ministry in Massachusetts had produced unmitigated tyranny, an opposition to both that swung beyond the middle ground of toleration might be justified. Roger Williams himself was a hardy perennial among dissenters; witness his withdrawal from the Church of England, his conflict with the Congregational establishment in Massachusetts, and his separation from the Baptist group in Providence after a few weeks of enthusiasm for baptism by immersion, to become a Seeker, which meant, in final analysis, that his religion was not dogmatic, and that he found no theological system completely and continuously satisfying. He did not go from Massachusetts to found a new church.
Among the earliest orders of the government at Pocasset was one for the building of a meetinghouse, a measure not incongruous in view of the political establishment modeled on patterns taken from Israel. The Pocasset settlers for the time being were harmonious in a common enterprise of banishment or withdrawal from the establishment in Massachusetts. They were non-conformists there, yet not necessarily one in doctrine—because they agreed only in disagreeing. The reorganization in Pocasset and Newport on purely political lines followed logically a recognition that they differed among themselves in religion. Eventually most of them became either Baptists or Quakers. Anne Hutchinson had been close to Quakerism in her emphasis upon the “inner light.” As the colony strength was recruited by those who were banished or withdrew from other colonies or by those who came directly to Rhode Island because of the guaranty of freedom of worship, the division into sects persisted, and because of the marked diversity and the small number in each instance who found themselves in harmony in dogma, meetings of those who could agree one with another were held in private dwellings. The King’s commissioners in 1665 reported: “In this province only they have not any places set apart for the worship of God, there being so many subdivided sects, they cannot agree to meet together in one place; but according to their several judgments, they sometimes associate in one house, sometimes in another.”
Rise of Church Societies
Some time between August, 1637, and the following March, Roger Williams was baptized by immersion in Providence by Ezekiel Holyman, and himself baptized eleven others, including Holyman, thus forming a Baptist society in Providence Plantations. There was also an early Baptist society at Newport, to which John Clarke and afterward Obadiah Holmes preached. Coddington, Dyer, Easton, Bull and others became Quakers, and as both Baptists and Quakers were not welcome at Plymouth, or Massachusetts, or Connecticut, the societies in Rhode Island were increased both by newcomers and adherents recruited from the earlier settlers. Still they did not include all; Roger Williams departed from the Baptist society, and certainly was not a Quaker. Samuel Gorton and his followers were neither Baptists nor Quakers. William Harris was baptized with Roger Williams, and later became a Quaker. To Rhode Island came also members of other persecuted sects, and some of sects not persecuted, including communicants of the Church of England, French Huguenots,* Moravians, Sabbatarians, Hebrews, and possibly Roman Catholics, though Governor Sanford in 1680 reported no “Papists.” In 1684 Simon Medus, David Brown and other Hebrews were assured by the General Assembly that “they may expect as good protection here as any stranger being not of our nation residing amongst us … . ought to have, being obedient to his majesty’s laws.” Cotton Mather in 1695 listed Antinomians, Familists, Anabaptists, Anti-Sabbatarians, Arminians, Socinians, Quakers, Ranters, in Rhode Island; “everything in the world but Roman Catholics and real Christians.” Trinity Church, Episcopal, was established at Newport in 1699, and St. Paul’s Church at Kingstown a little later. A Seventh Day church was organized in Newport in 1671, and Seventh Day Baptists were prominent among the founders of Westerly and Hopkinton. As the colony grew in numbers, churches, meetinghouses and synagogues were erected, and congregations were organized to support a ministry on the basis of voluntary contributions.
With the Huguenots who settled at Frenchtown in the Narragansett country* came their minister, Reverend Ezekiel Carre. When the settlement was abandoned only two Huguenot families, those of Dr. Pierre Ayrault and Gabriel Bernon, remained in Rhode Island. These settled at Newport and were among those who founded Trinity Episcopal Church, and who petitioned the King for assistance in the settlement of a minister. In 1704 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts sent Reverend James Honeyman to Newport. He became rector of Trinity Church, and visited Little Compton, Tiverton, and Freetown. Two years later Reverend Christopher Bridge gathered an Episcopal society at Kingstown; nearly a century later the building was removed to Wickford, and there was known as St. Paul’s. Other Episcopal societies were established, at Bristol, while the town was still held by Massachusetts, and at Providence, the latter through the effort of Gabriel Bernon. Congregational societies were established in Newport and Providence. Baptist societies and Quaker societies also established churches. In 1739 Callander reported thirty-three churches in Rhode Island, of which twelve were Baptist, ten Quaker, six Congregational or Presbyterian, and five Episcopal; besides other groups not having established places of worship. These societies were voluntary. To supplement the declaration of religious liberty in the Charter, Rhode Island in 1716 enacted a statute, thus:
Whereas, In the fifteenth year of his majesty’s reign, Charles II, of blessed memory, there was a Charter granted to this his majesty’s colony, in which were contained many gracious privileges for the encouragement and comfort of the inhabitants thereof; amongst them, that of free liberty of conscience in religious concernments, being one of the most principal; it being a moral privilege, due to every Christian, as by his majesty is observed, 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; and this present Assembly being sensible, by long experience, that the aforesaid privilege, by the good providence of God having been continued to us, has been an outward means of continuing good and amicable agreement amongst the inhabitants of this colony, and for the continuation and better support thereof, as well for the timely preventing of any and every church, congregation and society of people now inhabiting, or which shall hereafter inhabit within any part of the jurisdiction of this colony, their endeavoring for preeminence or superiority of one over the other, by making use of the civil power for the enforcing of a maintenance of their respective ministers.