In the picturesque city of Newport, Rhode Island stands an historic edifice, the Touro Synagogue, which testifies eloquently to the early settlement of Jews in America. It is an unpretentious building, set back from the street, yet it is so typically colonial that it attracts the attention and admiration of all passers by. For over two centuries, the small synagogue has stood as a testimonial that in the United States of America men may seek eternal truths in their own particular ways without hindrance from a civil government that embraces them all.
My wife, Rebecca, and I were on our first visit to the synagogue in 1997. As I stood in quiet contemplation, I was struck by the enormous price paid by the early settlers of our great nation in the pursuit of the principles of religious liberty.
In the spring of 1658, fifteen Spanish Portuguese Jewish families arrived in Newport. These Jews, some of whom were Marranos, sought to start a new life in a land where they could live as free men and women and practice the religion of their fathers, without hindrance or fear. They believed this to be possible in the Colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations because of the assurance of freedom of religion and liberty of conscience promised by Governor Roger Williams to all who came within its borders.
Roger Williams, founder of the colony that became Rhode Island, believed in religious liberty. His own banishment from Puritan Massachusetts had convinced him that religious intolerance was a threat to civil peace and a barrier against the search for truth. So he used his influence in Rhode Island to shape a new kind of civil government, one devoid of power over spiritual matters. The legal cornerstone of this experiment was proclaimed in the colony’s Code of Laws of 1647. After listing the laws governing the secular affairs of the commonwealth, the code concluded with this statement:
“These are the lawes that concerne all men…and otherwise than… what is herein forbidden, all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, everyone in the name of his God.”
In 1790, George Washington was the recipient of a letter written by Moses Seixas, warden of the synagogue. In reply Washington sent the famous letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R. I.” which has since become the classical expression of religious liberty in America. In this letter Washington wrote, “for happily the Government of the United States which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” A facsimile of this historic document is exhibited on the west wall of the synagogue. The original letter is on exhibition in the B’nai B’rith Building in Washington, D. C. The words “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” were not original with Washington. They were contained in the letter that Moses Seixas addressed to him. But Washington was obviously so impressed by them, for they seemed to express very forcibly the ideals which he espoused for America, that he incorporated them in his letter. Highly significant were these words from the President of the new nation, a nation feeling its way. Adoption of the Bill of Rights was more than a year in the future when Washington penned these perceptive phrases. And though the First Amendment would guarantee religious liberty in the strictly legal sense, Washington went further. His was a doctrine of brotherly love, and of mutual respect.
I first learned of this historic letter by our first President from reading it in an old issue of the United Israel Bulletin. In the May-June 1945 (Iyar-Sivan 5705) issue, United Israel President David Horowitz first published “George Washington’s Welcome to Judah.” The following is the content of Washington’s address to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in the year 1790.
While I receive, with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are passed is rendered more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and a happy people.
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
As I wandered the grounds of this national historic site, I thought about Washington’s moving affirmation to this little congregation of Sephardim, Jews of Spain and Portugal. Some, called Marranos, had become Christian converts to escape persecution. Others had been driven from Iberia and now resided elsewhere in Europe or in South America and the West Indies. How their hopes must have been rekindled by this classic declaration of religious liberty by George Washington.
I hope the readers will, in the future, have an opportunity to visit the Touro Synagogue. Since it was designated a National Historic Site by the United States Government in 1946, thousands of visitors from all parts of the United States and from many foreign countries have made a pilgrimage to Newport to see this beautiful edifice which is the religious heritage of Jews in America in colonial days.
As we walked away, I turned again to glance at one of our oldest symbols of liberty and was left with the deep impression that this oldest of synagogues in America was not now just a museum, a reminder of a distant era, but that it is still in active use today.
On a quiet street in Newport, Rhode Island, a principle has triumphed.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.