“A Pandemic Billy Sunday Could Not Shut Down”


Religion News Service is running my piece on Billy Sunday.  I absolutely love the title they chose and the images they added!  Here is a taste:

(RNS) — As the United States deals with the social effects of COVID-19, several states with stay-at-home orders have exempted religious services. Some evangelical churches, claiming their First Amendment right to worship, held religious services on Easter with the full knowledge that the virus spreads through close human contact.

History will do little to sway the pastors of these churches. Nor should we expect history to provide definitive answers as to whether it is a good idea for churches to remain open during pandemics.

But history can serve as a moral guide in times of crisis. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” In that spirit, it is worth remembering evangelist Billy Sunday’s face-to-face encounter with the great influenza pandemic while conducting a revival crusade in Providence, Rhode Island.

Read the rest here.

I also did a brief video interview about the piece with Brad McKinnon of Heritage Christian University in Florence, Alabama.

George Washington and American Jews


On August 18, 2019, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island had its 72nd annual reading of George Washington’s letter to this Jewish congregation.  The speaker that day was Jed Rakoff, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York.

The New York Review of Books is running an excerpt of Rakoff’s speech.  Here is a taste of Washington’s Legacy for American Jews: ‘To Bigotry No Sanction.’“:

George Washington’s letter of August 1790 (sixteen months after he became president) responding to a letter from Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, is rightly celebrated as one of the definitive statements of religious freedom under the new US Constitution. Washington’s assertion that “the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” made clear that our nation’s first president would not permit the power of the new government to become an instrument of religious intolerance….

But is it still true? There may be cause to worry. Two years ago, in August 2017, neo-Nazi marchers, some of them carrying Nazi flags, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Some of these neo-Nazi demonstrators, carrying semi-automatic rifles, surrounded a local synagogue and posted messages online threatening to burn the temple down. Finally, James Alex Fields Jr.—a confessed Hitler admirer—intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring twenty-eight others.

Then, last October, an expressly anti-Semitic mass murderer entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven members of the congregation and wounding several others. This, the single most violent anti-Semitic incident in US history, was followed, just a few months ago, by a synagogue shooting near San Diego, California, that left one Jew dead and several others injured.

Needless to say, Jews have not been the only victims of the acts of domestic terrorism that have become all too common in our country. Black and Hispanic people, and others, have suffered much worse, as recent events in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, so horribly attest. But that a violent hatred of Jews is once again rearing its ugly head in certain quarters is difficult to deny. Although in America, in contrast to anti-Semitism in many other parts of the world, this hatred and accompanying violence is mostly the work of small fringe groups of political extremists, it is apparent that such attacks are increasing in both number and ferocity. American Jews, so fortunate in so many ways, need to be more alert to these threats, both to others and to ourselves.

I do not wish to seem an alarmist, and all of this must be put in perspective. Despite the recent increase in anti-Semitism in the US, we Jews owe the overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans a huge debt, both for according us what Washington called our “natural rights,” and for increasingly welcoming us into the life of the American Republic without obliging us to abandon our traditions and beliefs. As Washington envisaged in his letter, Americans have in so many ways become “a great and a happy people,” Jewish Americans not least among them. But just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so we cannot be sure that such happiness will continue if we do not acknowledge, and confront, the growing dangers we face.

Unlike the Moses Seixas of May 1790, who feared to give offense, we must be like the Moses Seixas of August 1790, who asserted our rights, as Americans and Jews, to lead our daily lives free of fear.

Read the entire piece here.

George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790


In August 1790, President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and others traveled to Rhode Island.  On August 18, they stopped at the Touro Synagogue in Newport.  Later in the day, Washington wrote this letter to the congregation:



While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address1 replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport,2 from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

A President of the United States at a Jewish synagogue.

For more context on this letter and the trip click here.

The Author’s Corner with Elaine Crane

80140104089920L.jpgElaine Crane is Distinguished Professor of History at Fordham University. This interview is based on her new book, The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport (Cornell University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Poison Plot?

EC: Mary and Benedict Arnold were a badly matched couple. The documents I stumbled on relating to Benedict’s divorce petition were salacious, and I needed little tempting to write a story that would upend everything we thought we knew about prim and proper New England. As I became more and more interested in both microhistory and legal history, the Arnold saga seemed a perfect way to combine both interests in a readable narrative.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of The Poison Plot?

EC: I’m not really trying to make an argument or support a thesis. I’m a writer telling a story, and the title simply alerts potential readers to what the story is about. On the other hand, the book’s subtext highlights female dependence in an eighteenth century society that thrives on male dominance. And although I never actually say so, it is an indictment of consumerism.

JF: Why do we need to read The Poison Plot?

EC: Nobody NEEDS to read it. But if any bookworm is interested in a small local incident that has international implications; if any reader wants to understand that early Americans were in many ways much like us; if any history lover is turned off by ponderous words and long winded sentences; if anyone is smitten by historical crime stories, then maybe, just maybe such a person would like The Poison Plot.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EC: I was greatly influenced by Clinton Rossiter, one of my undergraduate professors at Cornell. The other great influence was the first feminist movement, during which I realized how much I wanted an academic career.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I’ve started to unravel the story of an eighteenth century vintner and his Native American servant. As usual, the documents will tell me what to say.

JF: Thanks, Elaine!

America’s First Anti-Slavery Statute

PujaraIt was passed in 1652 in Rhode Island colony.  It applied to Warwick and Providence. It banned lifetime ownership of slavery.  It was probably never enforced.

Olivia Waxman explains it all at Time.  Her piece centers around the work of Christy Clark-Pujara in Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.  Some of you may recall that Clark-Pujara visited the Author’s Corner in August 2016.

Here is a taste of Waxman’s piece:

Slavery in the United States wasn’t abolished at the federal level until after the Civil War, but on this day in history, May 18, 1652, the first anti-slavery statute in the U.S. colonies was passed in what’s now the state of Rhode Island. (The statute only applied to white and black people, but in 1676, the enslavement of Native Americans was also prohibited in the state.) While it sounds like Rhode Island was ahead of its time — and, in some ways, it was — what actually happened was complicated.

Though Rhode Island’s Quaker population was starting to question slavery and the relatively young colony was looking for ways to differentiate itself from neighboring Massachusetts, the statute was very limited. For one thing, the law, which only applied to Providence and Warwick, banned lifetime ownership of slaves. For periods of 10 years or less, it was still permitted to essentially own another person, as an indentured servent. And it’s not as if, 10 years after the statute was passed, people let their slaves go.

“There’s no evidence that it was ever enforced,” says Christy Clark-Pujara, author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island and professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One possible reason is that Rhode Island also couldn’t afford to enforce a ban on slavery. The colony dominated the North American trade of slaves, with Newport is the major slave-trading port in North America. New England farms at this point weren’t producing anything that England wasn’t already producing, so England didn’t need these things, which meant that the region served as supplier instead for the West Indies and the large slave population of that region. In return for the food and housewares sent from the U.S. to the West Indies, New England got molasses, which it used to distill rum, and Rhode Island actually became the number-one exporter of rum.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Christy Clark-Pujara

PujaraChristy Clark-Pujara is Assistant Professor and Anna Julia Cooper Fellow in the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  This interview is based on her new book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (New York University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Dark Work?

CCP: After reading Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (1998), in graduate school, I became mildly obsessed with the history of northern slavery. I engrossed myself in the scholarship of northern slavery, everything from Lorenzo Greene’s The Negro in Colonial New England (1968) and Edgar McManus’ Black Bondage in the North (1973) to Leslie Harris’ In the Shadow of Slavery (2003). My focus on Rhode Island was rather serendipitous. I began researching slavery and emancipation in Rhode Island in the years after Ruth Simmons commissioned the report on Brown University and its connections to the institution of slavery in 2003. After reading the report and the secondary literature that highlighted Rhode Island’s overt investments in slavery, I was surprised to find out that no one had written a history of how those economic ties to the business of slavery had shaped the lives of the enslaved and curtailed the freedom of their descendants. Dark Work builds and expands on my PhD dissertation, “Slavery, Emancipation and Black Freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842, (University of Iowa-Iowa City, 2009).”

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Dark Work?

CCP: I contend, that the business of slavery—the economic activity that was directly related to the maintenance of the slaveholding in the Americas, specifically the buying and selling of people, food, and goods—encouraged race-based slavery, stalled the emancipation process and circumscribed black freedom in Rhode Island from the colonial period through the American Civil War. In response to economic, political, and social marginalization enslaved and free black Rhode Islanders resisted bondage, fought for their freedom and banded together to build institutions to combat their circumscribed freedom.

JF: Why do we need to read Dark Work?

CCP: There is no comprehensive history of slavery in Rhode Island even though the business of slavery was central to the development and economic success of the colony and state. Moreover, a full accounting of the institution of slavery in the Americas necessitates a full accounting of the business of slavery, which was concentrated in the northern colonies and states. I also hope that my work contributes to scholarly literature combating the myths that northern slaveholding was rare, that slavery was mild or that emancipation was quick and free blacks were fully incorporated into the new nation. Other denials include that only a few northerners were invested in the business of slavery or that investments in slavery were confined to the slave trade. These myths are powerful and dangerous, as the erasure or marginalization of the northern black experience and the centrality of the business of slavery to the northern economy allows for a dangerous fiction—that the North has no history of racism to overcome.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CCP: I decided to become a historian in college. To my great surprise I actually enjoyed my college history courses. In high school, I found my history classes to be rather boring—all we did was memorize names, dates and events. My college professors, on the other hand, emphasized what we could learn and change about ourselves and our world through historical analysis. History was means by which we could understand and transform the present. I was hooked. I wanted to do what they did—teach and write history, because history can make us better citizens.

JF: What is your next project?

CCP: My current book project, From Slavery to Suffrage: Black on the Wisconsin Frontier examines how the practice of race-based slavery, and debates over abolition and black settlement shaped white-black race relations from French settlement in the 1740s through the American Civil War. Black people were a tiny minority in Wisconsin territory, and later the state; nevertheless, race-based slavery and anxieties about black migrants led white Wisconsinites to debate the merits of abolition and the rights of black residents. In the mid-nineteenth century, fugitive slaves passing through Wisconsin often assisted; on the other hand, blacks who sought permanent residency experienced social, economic, and political marginalization. My project highlights the complexities of racism against black Americans in the formative years of the state and argues that histories emphasizing the favorable treatment of black fugitives obscured the limited freedom black people faced in early Wisconsin.

JF: Thanks Christy!

How a Church With a History of Slavery is Dealing With Its Past

Cathedral of St. John’s–Providence, R.I.

According to this New York Times article, over half of the slavery voyages from the United States left from Rhode Island ports.  Most of those Rhode Island slave traders were Episcopalians (Anglicans). Katherine Seelye describes what today’s Rhode Island Episcopalians are doing about it.  It is a great story about an attempt to merge historical understanding with racial reconciliation.  Here is a taste:

Over the last decade, the Episcopal Church of the United States has formally acknowledged and apologized for its complicity in perpetuating slavery.Some Episcopal dioceses have been re-examining their role, holding services of repentance and starting programs of truth and reconciliation.

The Diocese of Rhode Island, like many others, has been slow to respond. But under Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely, who became the Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island in 2012, it is taking steps to publicly acknowledge its past. They include the establishment of a museum focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery and the North’s complicity, as part of a new center for racial reconciliation and healing.

“I want to tell the story,” Bishop Knisely said, “of how the Episcopal Church and religious voices participated in supporting the institution of slavery and how they worked to abolish it. It’s a mixed bag.”

Other slavery museums — notably the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., and the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, S.C. — tell the story of slavery in the South. Some museums and historic sites touch on slavery in the North. But no museum is devoted to the region’s deep involvement, according to James DeWolf Perry VI, a direct descendant of the most prolific slave-trading family in the United States’ early years and a co-editor of a book called “Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.”

He is helping to plan the museum and reconciliation center, which are still in the organizing and fund-raising phases. They are to be housed at the 200-year-old stone Cathedral of St. John, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. Because of dwindling membership, the majestic but deteriorating cathedral was closed in 2012.

Newport’s Revolution House

Last summer I had the privilege of speaking at one of the events sponsored by the Newport Historical Society in honor of the 350th anniversary of religious toleration in Rhode Island.  You can read about my visit to Newport here.

While I was in Newport I met up with my former student and research assistant Katie Garland.  She was spending the summer in Newport on an internship with the Newport Historical Society.  She also blogged about religious freedom in Newport at the Spectacle of Toleration blog. Katie gave me the grand tour of historic Newport, including a visit to the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, the site of a Stamp Act riot in 1765.

I was thus pleased to hear about the new “Revolution House” project at the Newport Historical Society. Beginning this summer they will be turning the house into a museum devoted to the American Revolution in the Rhode Island seaport town.

Check out the very cool “Revolution House” website here.

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…. 

Newport Pics

Here are a few pics from my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island.  Read all about it here.  I have a few more pictures on Facebook.

Newport Historical Society Gift Shop.  Glad to see “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation” prominently displayed

Touro Synagogue: Oldest synagogue in America

Part of the Newport Historical Society is located in the oldest surviving Baptist meeting house (1730) in the United States.  It is a 7th Day Baptist.

The Newport Colony House

Outside of the Newport home of the Rev. Ezra Stiles, local congregational minister and later president of Yale College

Redwood Library and Athenaeum is one of the oldest libraries in America.  (Only the Library Company in Philadelphia is older).  Rev. Ezra Stiles served as librarian during his stint in Newport

The session with John Barry and Michael Feldberg on religious freedom and Christian America took place inside the Great Friends Meeting House

Great Friends Meeting House in Newport.  Oldest house of worship in Rhode Island (1699).
Newport Historical Society summer intern (and UMASS graduate student in public history) Katie Garland.  Did I mention she is my former student and worked as my research assistant for three years?  She is doing a great job and gave me a great tour of colonial and revolutionary-era Newport

Church and State in Newport

Great Friends Meeting House, Newport, RI

I just finished a rather full day of touring, speaking, and eating in lovely Newport, R.I.  If you are a regular reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you know that I am up here to participate in a panel discussion on religious freedom and the American founding sponsored by the Newport Historical Society.

The day began with a whirlwind tour of colonial and revolutionary Newport.  Until today I did not know that Newport has more pre-1776 buildings than any other city in America.  My tour guide was Katie Garland, a 2012 Messiah College graduate who is currently a graduate student in public history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  Katie is interning this summer at the Newport Historical Society and has quickly become an expert on all things Newport.

Katie took me to several important colonial and revolutionary sites including the Touro Synagogue (oldest synagogue building in the country and second oldest Jewish congregation), the Great Friends Meeting House (the oldest place of worship in Rhode Island dating back to 1699), the home of Calvinist minister Ezra Stiles, a 7th Day Baptist meeting house from the 1730s (which is part of the building that houses the Newport Historical Society),  the oldest lending library in America, the Newport Colony House (the site of the Stamp Act Riots in Newport), and several other buildings.  I also got my first glimpse of the famous Newport mansions.  Newport is loaded with early American history and I hope to come back soon.

In the late afternoon a crowd gathered in the Great Friends Meeting House for a panel discussion entitled “How Christian an Understanding?”  I was joined on the panel by John Barry, author of the best-selling Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul and Michael Feldberg of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.  The panel moderator was Daniel Cowdin of Salve Regina University in Newport. Ruth Taylor of the Newport Historical Society was the host for the event.

As might be expected, I spoke about some of the themes I wrote about in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  I reminded the audience to use the past responsibly when employing it in arguments about whether America was or wasn’t founded as a Christian nation.  The past can be both a guide for the present and a “foreign country.”  We should thus be careful how we use it in contemporary debates.  I then focused on three points:

1.  The fact the founding fathers, to a man, believed in liberty of conscience in matters of religion.

2. The fact that many so-called “founders” included either religious establishments or religious oaths for office in the state constitutions that they wrote.

3.  The fact that the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, which declared that there was a “wall of separation between church and state” that was “high and impregnable,” did not necessarily represent the way church and state issues had been handled, officially or unofficially, between 1789 and 1947.

John Barry discussed the career of Roger Williams and how he, despite his deep Calvinist faith, parted ways with the Puritans on the question of the separation of church and state.  I also learned that Barry ended up writing about Roger Williams after a false start on a book about Billy Sunday and religion and politics in World War I America.  It was good meeting Barry, especially after I reviewed Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul in Christian Century last year.

Before starting the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, Michael Feldberg was the long-time archivist at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.  Feldberg pulled no punches in arguing that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, at least demographically and culturally.  I also learned from Feldberg that despite Rhode Island’s staunch commitment to religious freedom, Jews were not permitted to vote in elections because they could not swear a Christian oath.  Feldberg is doing some very interesting work on the history of George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Touro congregation/synagogue and he will coming out shortly with a book on the subject.

After the event I said my farewell (at least for now) to Katie and headed off to dinner with the members of the panel, Ruth Taylor, and a host of dignitaries from the Rhode Island historical community.  It was fascinating to learn about their planning and preparation for the 350th anniversary of the original Rhode Island charter of 1663.

Back to Pennsylvania tomorrow, assuming I can get the slow leak in my car’s tire patched up.

In Newport

I am in Newport, R.I. where tonight I will be part of a panel on the founders and religious freedom.  The event will take place at 5pm in the Great Friends Meeting House.

No more blog posts today.  I am too busy seeing the sites (this is my first visit to Newport and it is a beautiful day) and hanging out with Katie Garland, my former student/research assistant, University of Massachusetts public history graduate student, and summer 2013 Buchanan/Burnham intern at the Newport Historical Society.

Stay tuned.

Next Week in Newport, R.I.

Great Friends Meeting House, Newport, R.I.

Yesterday I did a post on the upcoming (2014) 350th anniversary of the colony/state of New Jersey in 2014, but this year there is an important 350th anniversary celebration going on in Rhode Island.  350 years ago this year King Charles II negotiated a charter with John Clarke that created a settlement in which religious toleration was permitted and encouraged.

The Newport Historical Society, along with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Salve Regina University, the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, the John Carter Brown Library, and the Rhode Island Historical Society are sponsoring a series of events this year in Newport on the religious history of the state and the nation.   They are calling it Spectacle of Toleration and you can learn more about it here.

I will be participating in a panel next Friday (June 21) entitled “How Christian an Understanding.”  I will be joined by John Barry, author of Roger Williams the Creation of the American Soul, Michael Feldberg of the George Washington Institute, and Daniel Cowdin of Salve Regina.  I think my job is to explain what the nation’s founding fathers thought about the separation of church and state.

If you will be in the Newport area next weekend, I hope to see you at the Great Friends Meeting House.  The event is open to the public and will run from 5-7pm.

Jon Stewart on the Rhode Island "Holiday Tree" Controversy OR Did Congress Ever Meet on Christmas?


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Stewart has a lot right here, but he may be in error on at least one point.  David Bruce Forbes explains in a thorough post at Religion & Politics.

Call for Papers: Religious Freedom and Toleration

Over at Religion in American History, Linford Fisher informs us of a very interesting conference to take place next year in Rhode Island.  Here is the call for papers:

No Person Shall Bee Any Wise Molested:
Religious Freedom, Cultural Conflict, and the Moral Role of the State 
A conference planned for October 3 – 6, 2013, in Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, organized by the Newport Historical Society, the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, Salve Regina University, the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, the John Carter Brown Library, and Brown University to mark the 350th anniversary of the 1663 Rhode Island Charter. 
What is religious toleration? What are its functions, effects, and limits in society? How has it manifested (or not) around the world in human history?
The 1663 Rhode Island Charter stipulated that no person “shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion.” This charter famously ignited the “lively experiment” that both reflected and shaped religious and political developments in the early modern world and has continued to influence global conversations about the role of toleration and religious freedom. The 350th anniversary of this charter provides a timely point of entry into a thoughtful consideration of a far larger set of questions about religious freedom in particular historical and present day contexts.
Far from exemplifying a simple narrative of “progress,” toleration and religious liberty have been contested, often resisted ideas that have proved surprisingly difficult to implement equitably. This is especially true when one looks outside the traditional boundaries of church-state relations to consider the lived experiences of religious dissenters, ethnic minorities, women, and enslaved and free people of color, including American Indians and indigenous populations around the world. The uneven adoption of such ideas in the early modern world, ongoing intolerance in the United States even after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, and the globalization and contestation of full religious liberty today suggest that a more comprehensive investigation of the meaning of religious liberty and toleration is an issue of particular urgency for the present.
Situated in historic Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, this conference looks at the sources, consequences, changing meanings, and lived experiences of religious freedom and intolerance. To that end, the program committee solicits panels and individual paper proposals that represent innovative research on the broad themes of religious liberty, toleration, intolerance, religious conflict, and the role of government in such contexts. Papers that cut across traditional lines of disciplines, geographies, and chronologies are especially welcome, as are papers that look at transnational and comparative contexts, local and international conditions of toleration, and the shifting boundaries between the public and the private. In addition to historians, the committee hopes to engage scholars from other disciplines, including (but not limited to) anthropology, ethics, literature, religious studies, political science, economics, theology, sociology, law, philosophy, and peace, conflict, and coexistence studies.
Possible topics include (but are not restricted to):
●       New perspectives on the 1663 Rhode Island charter—its context and consequences
●       Shifting meanings of religious freedom in specific historical contexts
●       Intersections of religious freedom or prejudice with race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexuality
●       Limits of religious freedom and expression
●       Economic, cultural, and political consequences of religious tolerance and intolerance
●       Conflicts over public space
●       Religiously inspired moral coercion
●       Nationalism, national identity, and transnational networks
●       Historical formations of the religious, the civic, the secular, and the state
●       Experience of the religiously unaffiliated, freethinkers, and the “nones”
●       Attitudes towards religion in secular culture
●       The interplay between law, policy, and religious coexistence
●       Lived tolerance and intolerance
●       Interreligious dialog and ecumenism
●       Instruments of religious intolerance in the twenty-first century
●       Governments and indigenous peoples
●       Literary and artistic boundaries of religious freedom
Please send a 500 word proposal and curriculum vitae for each participant to spectacleoftoleration@gmail.com by February 1, 2013. Full panel proposals should be sent under one cover and should include a panel chair and respondent. Questions should be directed to the email above.
This conference is part of The Spectacle of Toleration: Learning from the Lively Experiment, a multi-year project that aims to open up an international conversation about toleration and religious freedom. In addition to the academic conference, The Spectacle of Toleration plans to provide several years of public programming. For more information, please see: http://www.newporthistorical.org/index.php/the-spectacle-of-toleration/

A Roger Williams Revival?

Over at Religion in American History, Linford Fisher writes about the renewal of interest in Roger Williams, the Puritan founder of Rhode Island and champion of religious liberty. 

Rhode Island has been celebrating the 375th anniversary of its founding (the anniversary was last year, but the party continues). John Barry’s recent book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul is getting a lot of attention. And several conferences on Williams are in the works.

Williams (and Anne Hutchinson) best represent the spirit of the American founders on religious freedom.  Yet many still insist on tracing the religious roots of the United States to the largely intolerant Puritans and Pilgrims.

Here is a taste of Fisher’s post:

There’s more one could say about how Roger Williams continues to inspire and haunt this great city. I’ll leave you with this. If you are ever at the John Brown House Museum on College Hill, ask the receptionist to see the Roger Williams root and hear its story. This experience alone will give you a sense of the staying power that Williams has had and will likely to continue to have in this endearing city and state. In the meantime, brace yourself for more national discussions regarding Williams, Rhode Island, and religious liberty (if nowhere else, on this blog in the coming weeks when I post my review of Barry’s book).