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A Plantation to Be Proud Of

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  • Terry Foreman
    A turn of events showing one way the 21st century differs from the 17th. - Terry Foreman A Plantation to Be Proud Of By SARAH VOWELL Published: July 4, 2009
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 5, 2009
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      A turn of events showing one way the 21st century differs from the 17th. -
      Terry Foreman


      A Plantation to Be Proud Of

      By SARAH VOWELL
      Published: July 4, 2009

      LAST month, Rhode Island’s Legislature approved a proposal to allow a
      ballot referendum in 2010 to change the state’s official name from “State
      of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to simply “State of Rhode
      Island.” According to The Providence Journal, “Proponents of the name
      change say the word ‘plantations’ is offensive to the African-American
      community because it conjures up images of slavery.”

      On the one hand, as a person who spends a minimum of 20 minutes a week
      furious with President William McKinley, I feel that these, the
      historically minded, bleeding-heart hand-wringers leading this movement,
      are my people.

      On the other hand, as New York City’s biggest, or perhaps only, fan of the
      founding of Providence Plantations, I feel compelled to stick up for its
      noble legacy of religious freedom.

      As your average Rhode Island government spokesman and/or persnickety
      history buff will point out, in 17th-century English, “plantation” was a
      synonym for “colony” or “settlement” — just as a legal charter was a
      “patent” and “whore of Babylon” was a kicky pet name for the pope.

      In his farewell sermon to the colonists leaving England to settle
      Massachusetts Bay in 1630, “God’s Promise to His Plantation,” the Rev. John
      Cotton evoked the word’s biblical roots, quoting the second Book of Samuel:
      “I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and I will plant them.”

      Providence Plantations’ founder, the young Puritan theologian Roger
      Williams, arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. The Boston
      church immediately offered him a job as a minister, which he turned down
      because he deemed the congregation not quite puritanical enough. In a
      community of religious fanatics, the outspoken Williams became the guy who
      all the other Puritans wished would lighten up about religion.

      Williams harangued the Bay Colony’s government for making everyone, even
      nonbelievers, attend church; he denied a government’s legal authority to
      prosecute violations of the Ten Commandments having to do with worship,
      including keeping the Sabbath holy.

      He bristled when the magistrates made everyone, even nonbelievers, swear an
      oath at court; he considered an oath to be a covenant with God and thought
      that a nonbeliever making a simple pledge to tell the truth in the eyes of
      God about the 17th-century equivalent of a parking ticket was taking “the
      name of God in vain.” He wrote of a “wall of separation” between the church
      and the state long before Thomas Jefferson did, though to opposite ends.
      Williams yearned to separate “the garden of the church from the wilderness
      of the world.”

      Because he refused to shut up, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay
      banished Williams from the colony in 1635. Terrified and rejected, he fled
      south on foot through the snowy wilderness. It was perhaps the loneliest
      march in American history up until pretty much every day in 1962 that James
      Meredith walked into the University of Mississippi’s cafeteria for lunch.

      Upon his arrival in Narragansett Bay, Williams was supposedly greeted by an
      Indian who called out, “What cheer, netop?” It was a mishmash of old
      English and Algonquian meaning, “How’s it going, friend?” Without the
      friendly aid of the Narragansett, Williams would have surely perished.

      He got the tribal chiefs’ permission to live there, and named his new home
      Providence. One of the Puritans’ favorite words, it conveys the generosity
      and wisdom of their God while at the same time admonishing lowly mortals to
      suck it up and accept God’s will even if one had a bone to pick with the
      magistrates of Massachusetts Bay.

      Proud that no money changed hands between the Narragansett and himself,
      Williams later boasted, “Rhode Island was purchased by love.” By which he
      meant Providence Plantations! His community would eventually join forces in
      the 1640s with towns like Newport and Portsmouth on the nearby island known
      as Aquidneck or Rhode — possibly named for either the Greek isle of Rhodes
      or the Dutch word for red, not that anyone is sure. The whole shebang
      appears as the official name Rhode Island and Providence Plantations on the
      royal charter of 1663.

      African and American Indian slaves were eventually forced to work in towns
      and on farms both in Providence Plantations and on Rhode Island. The ports
      of Providence and Newport were both major points in the slave trade
      triangle. In other words, Rhode Island itself has as much culpability in
      the history of slavery as Providence Plantations. But the supporters of the
      referendum object to the tone set by the word “plantation,” even though
      there was no slavery at Providence Plantations’ founding — just one weird
      white man with a dream.

      Williams’s settlement offered what he called “soul-liberty.” A man with the
      narrowest of minds presided over the most open-minded haven in New England.
      His own unwavering zealotry made him recognize the convictions of others,
      however wrong-headed. Others not sharing his beliefs would be tortured
      eternally “over the everlasting burnings of Hell,” and this, he figured,
      was punishment enough. And so Providence and its environs soon became a
      refuge for regional outcasts — Puritan dissenters like Anne Hutchinson who
      got kicked out of Massachusetts, as well as Quakers, Baptists and Jews.
      (Newport boasts the country’s oldest, and perhaps prettiest, synagogue.)

      In 1663, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations obtained an unprecedented
      charter from Charles II that guaranteed its residents would not be
      “molested, punished, disquieted or called in question for any differences
      in opinion in matters of religion.” This sentiment, written more than a
      century before the First Amendment, is a premonition of one of the finest
      ideals of the imperfect country that was to come. If there is anything to
      be learned from the life of an admirable crank like Williams, it’s just how
      wise the founders were to link freedom of speech and religion together in
      one legal guarantee.In his farewell sermon to the colonists leaving England
      to settle Massachusetts Bay in 1630, “God’s Promise to His Plantation,” the
      Rev. John Cotton evoked the word’s biblical roots, quoting the second Book
      of Samuel: “I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and I will plant
      them.”

      Providence Plantations’ founder, the young Puritan theologian Roger
      Williams, arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. The Boston
      church immediately offered him a job as a minister, which he turned down
      because he deemed the congregation not quite puritanical enough. In a
      community of religious fanatics, the outspoken Williams became the guy who
      all the other Puritans wished would lighten up about religion.

      Williams harangued the Bay Colony’s government for making everyone, even
      nonbelievers, attend church; he denied a government’s legal authority to
      prosecute violations of the Ten Commandments having to do with worship,
      including keeping the Sabbath holy.

      He bristled when the magistrates made everyone, even nonbelievers, swear an
      oath at court; he considered an oath to be a covenant with God and thought
      that a nonbeliever making a simple pledge to tell the truth in the eyes of
      God about the 17th-century equivalent of a parking ticket was taking “the
      name of God in vain.” He wrote of a “wall of separation” between the church
      and the state long before Thomas Jefferson did, though to opposite ends.
      Williams yearned to separate “the garden of the church from the wilderness
      of the world.”

      Because he refused to shut up, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay
      banished Williams from the colony in 1635. Terrified and rejected, he fled
      south on foot through the snowy wilderness. It was perhaps the loneliest
      march in American history up until pretty much every day in 1962 that James
      Meredith walked into the University of Mississippi’s cafeteria for lunch.

      Upon his arrival in Narragansett Bay, Williams was supposedly greeted by an
      Indian who called out, “What cheer, netop?” It was a mishmash of old
      English and Algonquian meaning, “How’s it going, friend?” Without the
      friendly aid of the Narragansett, Williams would have surely perished.

      He got the tribal chiefs’ permission to live there, and named his new home
      Providence. One of the Puritans’ favorite words, it conveys the generosity
      and wisdom of their God while at the same time admonishing lowly mortals to
      suck it up and accept God’s will even if one had a bone to pick with the
      magistrates of Massachusetts Bay.

      Proud that no money changed hands between the Narragansett and himself,
      Williams later boasted, “Rhode Island was purchased by love.” By which he
      meant Providence Plantations! His community would eventually join forces in
      the 1640s with towns like Newport and Portsmouth on the nearby island known
      as Aquidneck or Rhode — possibly named for either the Greek isle of Rhodes
      or the Dutch word for red, not that anyone is sure. The whole shebang
      appears as the official name Rhode Island and Providence Plantations on the
      royal charter of 1663.

      African and American Indian slaves were eventually forced to work in towns
      and on farms both in Providence Plantations and on Rhode Island. The ports
      of Providence and Newport were both major points in the slave trade
      triangle. In other words, Rhode Island itself has as much culpability in
      the history of slavery as Providence Plantations. But the supporters of the
      referendum object to the tone set by the word “plantation,” even though
      there was no slavery at Providence Plantations’ founding — just one weird
      white man with a dream.

      Williams’s settlement offered what he called “soul-liberty.” A man with the
      narrowest of minds presided over the most open-minded haven in New England.
      His own unwavering zealotry made him recognize the convictions of others,
      however wrong-headed. Others not sharing his beliefs would be tortured
      eternally “over the everlasting burnings of Hell,” and this, he figured,
      was punishment enough. And so Providence and its environs soon became a
      refuge for regional outcasts — Puritan dissenters like Anne Hutchinson who
      got kicked out of Massachusetts, as well as Quakers, Baptists and Jews.
      (Newport boasts the country’s oldest, and perhaps prettiest, synagogue.)

      In 1663, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations obtained an unprecedented
      charter from Charles II that guaranteed its residents would not be
      “molested, punished, disquieted or called in question for any differences
      in opinion in matters of religion.” This sentiment, written more than a
      century before the First Amendment, is a premonition of one of the finest
      ideals of the imperfect country that was to come. If there is anything to
      be learned from the life of an admirable crank like Williams, it’s just how
      wise the founders were to link freedom of speech and religion together in
      one legal guarantee.

      [the end http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/opinion/05vowell.html?emc=eta1
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