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Vowell on "Providence Plantations"

NerdPR afficionados, this one included, know the inimitable Sarah Vowell from her frequent appearances on "This American Life." And the author has been making appearances on the New York Times' op-ed page of late, too. This weekend, a characteristically funny plea for Rhode Island to keep its full name - Rhode Island and Providence Plantations - amid calls to drop the "Providence Plantations" bit over concern that the word "plantations" evokes slavery:

...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.

Granted, I’m just an out-of-stater living in a city purchased with a measly string of beads and not with love, but I hope the citizens of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations vote against erasing the grandest part of their state’s name from the margins of subpoenas and Web sites. Silent, bureaucratic antiquities have their charms. Even though I would never call Sixth Avenue its official name out loud, sometimes when I’m walking home past those grandiose Avenue of the Americas street signs, I feel a momentary kinship with Peru. That never happens on Third.

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