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What Would Roger Do?

Yesterday’s all-day celebration of the 350th anniversary of Rhode Island’s state charter included a ceremonial re-dedication of plaques at the Roger Williams National Memorial on North Main Street. Just after 1:00 p.m., a crowd of about 100 gathered to hear congressman Jim Langevin recall his days as RI secretary of state, when he was entrusted with overseeing the charter – a document described by the late historian Thomas Bicknell, he said, as “the greatest instrument of human liberty ever constructed.”

We heard Roger Williams University President Dr. Donald Farish share the same advice he gives RWU grads: “Whenever you are lost and unsure of what to do next because you’re in a complex situation, just ask yourself, ‘What would Roger do?’”

We heard Roger Williams National Memorial Superintendent Jan Reitsma sing the praises of R.W.'s famous concept of “soul liberty” and Ranger John McNiff say, “It’s about this time of year that Roger would have come to this very spot to start this settlement next to a spring that was gushing out of a hillside.”

After the speeches, centenarian Elsie Williams – the oldest living member of the Williams clan – pulled a drape off the plaque, revealing the words “ROGER WILLIAMS FOUNDED PROVIDENCE HERE IN 1636.” The crowd clapped.

But for me, at least, there was a distracting asterisk to this otherwise pleasant event. To begin the ceremony, Dr. Paul Hanson of Newport’s United Baptist Church led the crowd in a head-bowed invocation that mentioned “Our gracious heavenly father,” “Christ’s holy name” and that ended with “Amen.” In other words, a Christian prayer kicked off this ceremony on a public sidewalk next to a national park at which we were honoring the man who essentially invented the separation of church and state.

“Let us pray together,” Dr. Hanson said.

Huh?

When the ceremony ended, I caught up the its organizer, Dr. Clifford Brown, the President of the Roger Williams Family Association. A Providence resident who teaches political science at Union College, Dr. Brown explained that the choice for the invocation was historical: Dr. Hanson is the pastor of church founded by John Clarke, the man who wrote and secured Rhode Island's 1663 charter. (Williams was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the document, but it was Clarke who brought it back from London.)

“Williams was not against prayer, he was against people being forced to pray,” Brown added.

Below is a transcript of Dr. Hanson’s invocation.

Let us pray together.

Our gracious heavenly father, we gather together on this sacred place, this place where your servant Roger Williams came, led by your hand, as he so acknowledged, by simply the naming of this town as “Providence.”

And we recognize that his vision was one that continues to touch us in so many ways, not only as Rhode Islanders but also as a nation. For his vision was that all would be able to come and settle and be here and be able to freely understand their relationship to you in accordance with their own understanding of conscience.

And so we’re so thankful that we’re able to come here again and to be in a place where he was, where he stood, where he thought, where he prayed, where he called people together in order to be your people but also to begin this great nation of which we are a part.

And so we ask now that you will once again bless this gathering and help us always to remember the one whom we are honoring this day as part of who we are in our great heritage as Rhode Islanders and as Americans. But we ask these things in Christ’s holy name.

Amen.

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