Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Spectacle of Toleration Blog

"How Christian an Understanding" Event, Great Quaker Meeting House, Newport, R.I., June 21, 2013

Last month I spent a day in Newport, Rhode Island where I spoke as part of a panel entitled "How Christian an Understanding." The panel was devoted to the topic of church and state in Rhode Island and the larger nation.  It was part of a year-long program sponsored by the Newport Historical Society and several other Rhode Island historical and cultural institutions called Spectacle of Toleration.  (An academic conference on this theme is scheduled for early October and will include talks by Jeremy Bangs, Evan Haefeli, Andrew Murphy, Jon Butler, Tisa Wenger, and James Bennett).

In this post, I want to call your attention to the Spectacle of Toleration blog and what appears to be a series of posts on the "How Christian an Understanding" panel.  The blogger for this series is Katie Garland, a graduate student in public history at UMASS-Amherst who is working this summer as an intern at the Newport Historical Society.  Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will recognize Katie's name as my long-time research assistant while she was a history major at Messiah College.

Here is a taste of Katie's first post:

When strung together, words like “religion,”"history,” and “politics” can be contentious.  To help us make sense of our past, the Spectacle of Toleration program will explore questions about religion in American history throughout 2013.  This year-long project marks the 350th anniversary of the 1663 King Charles II charter that established the colony (which would later become the state) of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.  Unique for its time, the charter instructed that no person “shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinione in matters of religion,” formally establishing the “livelie experiment” which would come to define Rhode Island.

While the charter granted religious toleration, what exactly did that mean for the people of Rhode Island?  How did Rhode Island’s “livelie experiment” affect other British colonies in North America?  And, what effect did this policy have on the United States’ founding and subsequent history?

These are difficult questions to answer.  Many of us read them with our minds already made up.  Rather than thoughtfully considering the questions, we look only to the historical facts which supports our convictions.

But what would happen if we thought about the past differently?  What if we withheld our preconceived notions, and genuinely sifted through the evidence, eager to learn how the founders of the colony of Rhode Island, or the United States more generally, thought about the relationship between religion and government?  Perhaps we would learn something surprising both about the past and about ourselves. 

This is the first in a line of blog posts which will explore some of these topics....