Would Roger Williams Have Called it a Holiday Tree?
First, they didn’t have Christmas Trees in 1663 Rhode Island, so the answer to the post title is “No.” I’m also pretty sure that, by now, as he looks down upon us, Roger Williams has gotten used to people calling upon his founding authority to help make the case against religion in the colony he founded based on religious freedom. This time, it’s Governor Chafee using Williams to justify the use of the “Holiday Tree” (a practice, Nesi Notes, that has been in place for a few years now):
Recently, some controversy has arisen regarding the holiday tree in the State House Rotunda — a tree that stands mere feet from the Royal Charter that, more than three centuries ago, granted ‘a full liberty in religious concernments’ and ‘the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights’ to the inhabitants of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
This continues the ironic, but expected, practice of using words meant to encourage the practice of religious freedom to justify the removal of religious meaning. That was hardly the original intent of the 1663 Charter. The Governor has gotten his history wrong as a reading of the entire Royal Charter of 1663 reveals. Let’s just focus on the famous section from which these convenient quotes are pulled. (The quotes cited by the Governor are in italics; I’ve underlined some important contextual phrases as well):
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.
Now, know ye, that we, being willing to encourage the hopeful undertaking of our said loyal and loving subjects, and to secure them in the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights, appertaining to them, as our loving subjects and to preserve unto them that liberty, in the true Christian faith and worship of God, which they have sought with so much travail, and with peaceable minds, and loyal subjection to our royal progenitors and ourselves, to enjoy; and because some of the people and inhabitants of the same colony cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the public exercise of religion, according to the liturgy, forms and ceremonies of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalf; and for that the same, by reason of the remote distances of those places, will (as we hope) be no breach of the unity and uniformity established in this nation:
Have therefore thought fit, and do hereby publish, grant, ordain and declare, that our royal will and pleasure is, that 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; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly, and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others, any law, statute, or clause therein contained, or to be contained, usage or custom of this realm, to the contrary hereof, in any wise notwithstanding. And that they may be in the better capacity to defend themselves, in their just rights and liberties, against all the enemies of the Christian faith….
The Charter also mentions proselytizing the Narragansets: “whereby our said people and inhabitants in the said Plantations, may be so religiously, peaceably and civilly governed, as that by their good life and orderly conversation, they may win and invite the native Indians of the country to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Saviour of mankind”. Historical context is important. It is clear that the religious freedom granted was specifically the freedom to practice other forms of Christianity, particularly if not of the Church of England “brand”.
Further, the granted freedoms did not mean that those exercising those rights could cause “civil injury” to others who conformed to more traditional religious mores. Over time, such religious freedoms were properly extrapolated to mean tolerance of other, non-Christian religions or for those who practice no religion at all. Unfortunately, as the Charter warned against, religious liberties have been taken and, it can be argued, “civil injury” has resulted as religion, even something as innocent as a Christmas Tree, has been taken from the public square for fear of “offending” other or non- beliefs.