Rhode Island is often overlooked as the smallest state, a place seldom happened upon by accident, somewhere that one has to intend to go. Drawn by family, I made a trip to Rhode Island and serendipitously learned the lesson of Roger Williams. Roger Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and, for those only familiar with the Southern Baptist movement, a rather unbelievably liberal Baptist. The founder of the first Baptist church in the nation, Williams was also the advocate of a form of religious freedom that is still railed against today by conservative Christian factions that wish to make America a “Christian nation.”
We are accustomed to religious propagandists today telling us that the “founding fathers” were Christians just like they are (simply not true), and that America should remain a “Christian country.” Roger Williams, although not often spoken of in the same tier as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, classifies as one of our founders and he was an outspoken advocate of conscience as the guiding force behind religion, not state or federally mandated compliance. Rhode Island was offered as a “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” It was a state where a mind was free to follow its lead.
I confess to overlooking Rhode Island often. But as a refuge for “Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks,” it is the Dreamland of religious liberty. Progressive to the point of welcoming Jewish believers and Muslims, Williams went as far as to declare, “none [should be] compelled from their own particular Prayer or Worship, if they practice any.” Even the unbeliever was welcome. How far the “religious right” has fallen from this original ideal of a humble Baptist who envisioned a homeland where residents were free to believe as their conscience dictated!