A Fight for Liberty of Conscience

On the 11th day of July, 1776, only one week after the fledging Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain, the Rhode Island General Assembly, led by Newport merchant Metcalf Bowler, declared some sixty Newport residents might be “inimical” or hostile to the Patriot cause. These men, including a number of Jewish residents, were required to come before the General Assembly and sign a declaration of loyalty to the American Colonies. One man would stand up to the government.

Before recounting how Moses Michael Hays responded to this official request, it is important to know the man and the time and place he lived. Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. His parents arrived in New York from Amsterdam in 1729 and were naturalized on the 12th of July of that year, taking the Oath of Allegiance on September 9, 1729. The Hays family became early and active members of New York’s Shearith Israel, recognized today as the oldest Jewish Congregation in America. Judah Hays took his son into his merchant and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left him the largest share of his assets. In 1766, Moses Michael Hays married Rachel Myers, younger sister of eminent New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple relocated to Newport, living on Broad Street close to the recently completed synagogue and the state capitol within the Old Colony House. Hays was not only a well-known merchant trader, he would also organize and bring the warrant for the Scottish Rite Masonic Order to America. Continue reading

American Irony: Religious Freedom & African Enslavement in Colonial Newport

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Newport, Rhode Island in the mid-18th century embodied two marked ironies. Settled a century earlier on the principles of religious freedom and civil liberties, the fledging colony would attract many of the world’s most persecuted religious minority groups including Quakers, Baptist, and Jews. These same religious minorities would also enjoy the vast economic prosperity of trading and owning enslaved Africans. Between 1705 and 1805, Rhode Island merchants, largely from Newport, would sponsor nearly 1,000 slaving voyages to West Africa carrying back nearly 100,000 enslaved Africans to America and the West Indies. By 1755, Newport was a leading slave port in the American colonies. Continue reading

A Dialogue Between Two African Women

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
– P. Wheatley

Most people would recognize the name Phillis Wheatley as the first published African woman poet in America. Believed to have been born in Senegal, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven to the Wheatley family of Boston. Recognizing her potential, they taught her to read and write, and supported her later writings in poetry. Wheatley would convert to Christianity and become an active member of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Constantly in ill health, she would die young at the age of thirty-one. Continue reading

The Activist Cleric of the Early Civil Rights Movement

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Rev. Samuel Hopkins

2013 is a special year for Newport, for Rhode Island and for the nation. It is the 350th anniversary of the Rhode Island Colonial Charter, one of the nation’s earliest compacts to affirm religious toleration and freedom. It is the 250th anniversary of the completion of Newport’s Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in America and the place in 1790 where President George Washington reaffirmed the importance of civil liberties and citizenship regardless of religion. And 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Peace. The connecting theme between these three historic anniversaries is the recognition of all people’s inherent rights of personal and civil freedoms.

As we celebrate the importance of our cherished freedoms in America, we should also recognize that well before civil and human rights leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglas, and Martin Luther King, there was a bold minister in 18th century Newport who had the audacity to believe – and preach – that all men were created equal. Continue reading

Provisional Liberty in Early Rhode Island

Pos04 2013 is the 350th anniversary celebration of the Rhode Island Royal Charter.

Dated July 8, 1663, it was drafted by Dr. John Clarke of Newport. Clarke worked for over a decade to secure the charter from England’s King Charles II who finally granted establishing the “Colony of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations.” The document uniquely guaranteed a “freedom of religious concernments” for its citizens. But it is the definition and requirements of full citizenship that lead to murky circumstances for non-Protestant Christians. Continue reading