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.

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Monique
Editor
9 years ago

“practice of using words meant to encourage the practice of religious freedom to justify the removal of religious meaning.”
Exactly. Ironic is correct.
“That was hardly the original intent of the 1663 Charter.”
No, it wasn’t. In fact, by changing the name — by removing the word “Christmas” — the Governor is doing exactly the opposite of what the Charter calls for.

OldTimeLefty
9 years ago

“What’s in name. That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Shakespeare
This is indeed a “Tempest in a Tea Pot”.
OldTimeLefty

RW's Descendant
RW's Descendant
9 years ago

As a descendant of Roger Williams and having read the family lineage and what “religious freedom” meant, I feel in this case that renaming a
Christmas Tree into a “holiday tree” is misused.
Religious freedoms are to protect those who wish to express and celebrate their religion freely. Infringing on what is obviously a “Christmas Tree” which is based a on a religious celebration is an infringement on my rights. If it is not a Christmas Tree – where did the “holiday” come from? This is so bogus…….

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

“Infringing on what is obviously a “Christmas Tree” which is based a on a religious celebration is an infringement on my rights.”
Which right of yours has been infringed upon? You have a right to a Christmas tree in the State House?

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

Um, the Puritans despised Christmas, but why let that get in the way of your victimization meme?
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/opinion/04sun3.html

The Puritans considered Christmas un-Christian, and hoped to keep it out of America. They could not find Dec. 25 in the Bible, their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens’ wintertime celebration. On their first Dec. 25 in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and ostentatiously ignored the holiday. From 1659 to 1681 Massachusetts went further, making celebrating Christmas “by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way” a crime.

So in the spirit of the founding of the state, let’s take down the holiday/Christmas tree, which shouldn’t be there in the first place and do what Roger Williams would have wanted… ban it!

msteven
msteven
9 years ago

Um, while early in his life, Roger Williams was a Puritan; he eventually became a Baptist at the age of 35 and is credited as being one of the founders of the Baptist faith in America. Ultimately, he became a non-denominational yet devoted Christian believer.
From Wikipedia:
His defense of Native Americans, accusations that Puritans had reproduced the “evils” of the Anglican Church, and denial that the king had authority to grant charters for colonies put him at the center of nearly every political debate during his life.
Your attempt to link the Puritan belief on Christmas to what you believe Roger Williams would have wanted is very lame.
Enjoy your holiday tree and make sure to chastise anyone who uses any religious term in public during the season for being insensitivity to those who may have a different belief. Because we must all be Puritans!

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
9 years ago

When I hear “holiday tree” I am very tempted to say “Oh, what holiday is that”?

Andrew
Editor
9 years ago

Obviously, Arbor Day.

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

Holiday tree? Oh, you mean my Saturnalia tree?
And, yeah, yeah, I know about Williams (recommend “The Wordy Shipmates”).
articles.latimes.com/2008/nov/02/entertainment/ca-sarah-vowell2
But the comparison I made is no more lame than claiming a British charter justifies fusing Christian religion with the state.

David S
David S
9 years ago

No.. Winter Solstice. Its not a christmas tree or a holiday tree. It is the Yule tree. Wonderful pagan symbol that finally is breaking free from christian captivity.

Marc
Marc
9 years ago

It never ceases to amaze me how preconceptions can get Russ off track. The point of the entire post was to show the historical anachronism going on by the Governor justifying having a Holiday Tree by citing Roger Williams. The post started with a link to an article explaining that Christmas celebrations, much less the tree, were NOT around during RW’s time. I even linked to Ted Nesi’s piece on how Chafee isn’t the first to do the Holiday Tree thing. While I explained the context of “religious freedom” by showing the passage from the Charter, I was pretty sure that writing, sincerely, that “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.” I hardly made a case for the Charter justifying a Christian state, etc. But that’s just Russ. The only arguments he can win are those against the straw men he creates.

Swazool
Swazool
9 years ago

Just wondering, was there a tree in the manger? Or is the tree an invention like Santa?

brassband
brassband
9 years ago

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 noted that all have the duty to worship “the Supreme Being, the great Creator,” and specifically required public financial support for ministers:
“To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.”
John Adams was the principal author of the Mass. Constitution.
The First Amendment prohibited Congress from establishing a church, but it had no impact on then-existing state-established churches.

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

The point of the entire post was to show the historical anachronism going on by the Governor justifying having a Holiday Tree by citing Roger Williams.

And if you had stopped there we’d be in agreement, but then you went off on the nonsensical victimization meme…

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.

I other words, the problem wasn’t the anarchronistic use of the Charter; the problem was that Chafee didn’t draw the correct anachronistic conclusion, so I chose to lampoon the whole thing. Whether the Charter could be read to allow you to impose your religious views on the trees of this state is totally irrelevant.
Clearly no important problems exist in this state. Let’s debate what we call the shrubbery next!

msteven
msteven
9 years ago

“But the comparison I made is no more lame than claiming a British charter justifies fusing Christian religion with the state.”
——- I couldn’t have put it better than Marc did. His post made no such claim. But by all means continue to say that referring to a “Christmas” tree fuses Christian religion with the state and keep us informed on how persuasive it is.

msteven
msteven
9 years ago

“Clearly no important problems exist in this state. Let’s debate what we call the shrubbery next!”
—– someone post a suggestion how every shrub in Rhode Island be renamed with a prefix of “Christmas” and then when Russ dissents we can play the “no other important problems exist” card.
Russ, your incorrect choice was to “lampoon the whole thing” because it misrepresented the post.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I don’t care what we call the shrubbery as long as it was cut down with a herring.

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

Roger Williams would have insisted on calling it Christmas herring (or maybe a red herring?)…
http://www.dansukker.co.uk/uk/Recipes/Christmas_meals/Traditional_Christmas_herring.aspx
Patrick, why do you persecute the Christians so?
I also suggest that you folks don’t waste time. Call the Chafee now and insist that next spring he call the state house lawn “Easter grass” before you lose the chance!

msteven
msteven
9 years ago

“Call the Chafee now and insist that next spring he call the state house lawn “Easter grass” before you lose the chance!”
—– Yes, comparing the reference of “Christmas”/”holiday” tree to grass in spring time. Another thoughtful, fair and reasoned Russ analogy.

Max D.
Max D.
9 years ago

Just wondering, was there a tree in the manger? Or is the tree an invention like Santa?
Santa was and invention??? You libs keep bursting my bubble. First it was Obama was born in America, then it is social security is solvent, and don’t forget the rich pay less taxes then their secretaries. What’s next? I suppose there’s no Easter Bunny either.

BobN
BobN
9 years ago

Well, Russ just can’t help inserting irrelevancies and falsehoods into the discussion. It’s just the way he sees the world.

Monique
Editor
9 years ago

“First it was Obama was born in America, then it is social security is solvent, and don’t forget the rich pay less taxes then their secretaries. What’s next?”
Well, there’s some question about leprechauns and their pots of gold. But it sounds like you’ve had enough reality for one day …

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

“Well, Russ just can’t help inserting irrelevancies and falsehoods into the discussion.”
I think what you’re going for is that I can’t help inserting the ridiculous (into an already ridiculous discussion imho).
Since we’re reaching back in time on this thread, let’s consider how important Jefferson considered the seperation of church and state, even if asserted only in a symbolic way.
http://www.amazon.com/Writings-Thomas-Jefferson-6/dp/1149040866

[The University of Virginia] was notable for being centered about a library rather than a church. In fact, no campus chapel was included in his original plans…
The ensemble of buildings surrounding the quad is an unmistakable architectural statement of the importance of secular public education, while the exclusion of religious structures reinforces the principle of separation of church and state. The campus planning and architectural treatment remains today as a paradigm of the ordering of manmade structures to express intellectual ideas and aspirations.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
9 years ago

I am sure of one thing-if we were discussing the destructive distillation of soft sh*t,Russ could come up with a block quote on the subject.

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

Hehe… Well, damned if I do. Damned if I don’t. I could have spoken to the U.Va. issue from personal experience, but you know someone would have challenged me to “prove it” if I did.

jparis
jparis
9 years ago

I’m still waiting for someone to post some legitimate information on the Christmas Tree’s roots (ooooooh I love bad puns), you know — to establish that said trees are in fact an integral part of Christmas exclusively, and not really part of some larger holiday tradition. Since we don’t seem to have any of that available, I give you… Wikipedia: “The Christmas tree is considered by some as Christianisation of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship.[41] The English language phrase “Christmas tree” is first recorded in 1835[42] and represents an importation from the German language. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century[41] though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century.[43][44]” “The earliest evidence of the celebration on December 25 of a Christian liturgical feast of the birth of Jesus is from the Chronography of 354 AD. This was in Rome, while in Eastern Christianity the birth of Jesus was already celebrated in connection with the Epiphany on January 6.[70][71]” So Christmas, which began around 400 AD didn’t start seeing the use of Christmas Trees (although other greenery is mentioned in Leviticus) until around the 1800’s. Yeah… seems like a rich tradition completely in context with the holiday, and probably has absolutely no context in other religions, because we know that Christianity has never borrowed dates, customs, or ideas from other older traditions. The fact that there are enough folks up-in-arms over this really does show where the priorities of much of our nation lie. Pass a law that will throw people in prison for 5 years for sharing information on the Internet? Meh… could care less. But challenge the name… Read more »

Marc
Marc
9 years ago

jparis, follow the very first link in my post. Same source. Funny how that works–providing links in blog posts as shorthand–but don’t let that stop you from skimming over them to jump to conclusions based on your preconceptions. Maybe I can distill it down for you
1) Roger Williams had no clue what a Christmas Tree was.
2) The 1663 Charter was a proclamation of religious freedom for various forms of Christianity. That was their world view. Since then, it has expanded to include other religions or none. I agree with that!
3) The Governor, and others, routinely cite Williams as a champion of religious freedom usually for the sake of justifying why any religion in the public square is improper. That’s a misuse of history. Neither Williams, nor other RI founders, conceived of religious freedom that way. This changed over time.
4) A closer reading of the Charter also reveals that the author warned against taking liberties with religious liberty, so to speak.
That’s it. Did this get blown way out of proportiong? Yup. But that’s partly due to the Governor, who really seems to dig being a “maverick” in these sorts of debates. ‘Nuff said by me.

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

“Neither Williams, nor other RI founders, conceived of religious freedom that way.”
And small wonder, to do so would be treason. Under Charles II, the King still derived power from divine right. Why any of that would be relevant to a democracy still escapes me. Now Jefferson on the other hand…

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
9 years ago

Why didn’t the stupid twit of a “governor”just keep his trap shut?
It would’ve avoided the whole stupid argument.

Andrew
Editor
9 years ago

Russ,
How can it be treason to say no religion (not even the state religion) should be expressed in the public square, but not be treason to say any religion (not only the state religion) should be able to be expressed in the public square (with or without a divine-right justification for government)?

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

Andrew, the correct questions would be how could it have been treason. Challenging the divine authority of British king back then was treason. L’etat cest moi, no? Personally, I consider this all to be manufactured outrage designed to whip up the hoi polloi in an election year, hardly the stuff of treason in a democracy.
btw, The Daily Show is now making fun of you. See, world, we blue states have wingnuts too!
news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2011/12/comedy-centrals.html
Hmm, pilgrims, founders… hey, I think Jon Stewart is stealing my ideas!

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