The Ocean State reflects New England’s spiritual roots
Size is deceiving. It’s the smallest state in the U.S., but if there are plans for a spiritual visit to Rhode Island, this tiny state will surprise you in a big way. Little Rhody claims one of the largest collections of historic landmarks in the nation.
The Ocean State was founded in 1636 by clergyman and theologian Roger Williams, an advocate of religious freedom and separation of church and state. Rhode Island became a sanctuary for religious outsiders because of Williams’ strong belief in freedom of religion. Following is just a sampling of well-known religious tour sites in Rhode Island:
The First Baptist Church, Providence: The oldest Baptist church in America continues to preserve the belief it was built upon – freedom of religion and the spirit of widespread, conventional worship – by welcoming visitors with open arms to be a part of its long history. In 1638, Roger Williams established what was to be the first Baptist church after holding regular worship in his home for two years. There was no meeting house until 1700 and as Providence’s population grew, so did the church. It became one of the most instrumental Baptist churches in the country in the 19th century.
In 1775 the Georgian-style Meeting House was built and was the city’s most considerable building enterprise at the time. Throughout the years significant changes were made to the building and in 1957 the church was able to fully renovate the Meeting House and bring it back to its genuine form. Georgian features include the 185-foot steeple, terrace, Palladian window behind the commanding lectern and the grooved Tuscan columns. Hanging in the sanctuary is a grandiose Waterford crystal chandelier. Guided tours are offered each Sunday following the worship service. (401-454- 3418, firstbaptistchurchinamerica.org)
Beneficent Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Providence: Referred to as the “Round Top” church because of its notable dome, Beneficent was founded in 1743. The building is a prime example of Classical Revival architecture and was the location of the first graduation of Brown University. Cathedral of St. John, Providence: Established in 1722 and built in 1810, this Episcopal church is one of the four original Colonial parishes in Rhode Island. Guided tours are available upon request.
First Unitarian Church of Providence: Within the steeple of this church, built in 1816, is the largest bell ever cast by Paul Revere and son at their foundry in Canton, Mass.
Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Providence: Finally consecrated in 1889, the Catholic church took over a decade to complete. The cathedral is mother church of the Diocese of Providence and has a 6,330-pipe Cassavant organ inside.
Touro Synagogue, Newport: This synagogue is the oldest Jewish house of worship in the country and the only one to sustain itself through Colonial times. Now a National Historic Site, Touro Synagogue each year welcomes 30,000 visitors from all over the map
In 1658, 15 Jewish families came to Newport in hopes of finding refuge from religious oppression – word had spread about Roger Williams and his firm principles on religious liberty. As the years progressed the Jewish community grew and under the congregation’s first religious leader, Isaac Touro, it acquired land to build a synagogue. In 1763 Touro Synagogue was complete.
The congregation hired Peter Harrison to design the building. Harrison, a distinguished architect whose expertise was Colonial and Georgian-style architecture, positioned the building so worshippers could face east toward Jerusalem while they prayed. The inside is lined with 12 pillars (each fashioned from a single tree) that convey the 12 factions of ancient Israel. On the east wall is the arch containing the Torah and above it is a painting illustrating the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.
The entrance to what is called the “Touro campus” is the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Visitors Center at the Touro Synagogue, where people can grasp the history of the Rhode Island colony and American Judaism. Just two blocks from the center on Touro Street is the Colonial Jewish Burial Ground or “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” which was founded in 1677. (401-847-4794, tourosynagogue.org)
Trinity Episcopal Church, Newport: Founded in 1698, Trinity Church is the oldest Episcopal parish in Rhode Island. The church was designed by Richard Munday in 1726 and has a three-tiered, wine glass-shaped lectern – it is the only center-aisle, freestanding, triple-decked pulpit left in America today. Inside, there are Tiffany stainedglass windows.
Newport County Religious Heritage Trail, Newport: Along this trail are significant religious buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries in Newport County. Groups will visit Friends Meeting House, the oldest religious structure in Newport (initially used by the Quakers); Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House, built in 1730 and the oldest surviving Baptist church building in America; St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Roman Catholic parish and where John F. Kennedy was married; Touro Synagogue; Trinity Church; and Whitehall Museum House, home of Bishop George Berkeley.
Roger Williams National Memorial, Providence: On the site of the initial settlement of Providence, this 4.5-acre park examines the life of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. Beginning at the visitors center, the 18th century Antram-Gray House, guests can appreciate the story of Roger Williams through exhibits and videos. Exploring the gardens and walkways, visitors will pass the Hahn Memorial, a small courtyard in memory of Isaac Hahn, the first Jewish person selected to office from Providence. The park has 17th century interpretive gardens, a Native American garden and a Colonial kitchen garden. (401-521-7266, nps.gov/rowi)
Groups may very well leave Rhode Island religious history buffs after visiting its enlightening spiritual sites. For such a small state it certainly packs in a lot of history pertaining to religious freedom in America.