Tracy Jonsson


The concept of separation of church and state is fundamental to American identity. It is etched deeply into this country’s communal disposition and present in its national documents. The Constitution and its First Amendment rights affect American interaction with theocratic governments around the world, interaction among citizens nationally, and entitlement to free speech and religious practice. The natural assumption would be that this concept developed on the eve of the Revolution as a way to rein in the power of a future federal government—but, in fact, the 1663 Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations first introduced a policy advocating the separation of church and state into American life. It is one of the earliest government documents anywhere creating a wall of separation between church and state. The phrases “Religious Toleration” and “Lively Experiment” are synonymous with Rhode Island because the inclusion of these phrases in the Charter allowed the Colony to become the first royally sanctioned secular government in North America. It is also because of these phrases that the Charter occupies a place in contemporary debate, even while the majority of obsolete colonial charters have fallen out of memory.