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Discourse

Discourse

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Excerpt from Discourse: Delivered Before the Rhode-Island Historical Society, on the Evening of Wednesday, January 13, 1847

Gentlemen of the Historical Society:

In consequence of my compliance with the request of your committee - a compliance, perhaps, unfortunate both for you and me - it has become my duty to address you, and our fellow-citizens generally, upon a purely Rhode-Island theme. I shall, accordingly, speak to you of that Idea of Government, which was actualized, for the first time in Christendom, here in this State, by those who described themselves as "a poor colony, consisting mostly of a birth and breeding of the Most High, formerly from the mother-nation in the bishops days, and latterly from the New-England over-zealous colonies." I shall speak to you of the origin of this idea - of the various forms which it took, in its progress toward its realization here, in minds of much diversity of character and creed; and of that "lively experiment," which it subsequently held forth, that "a most flourishing civil state may stand, and be best maintained, with a full liberty in religious concernments" - a liberty which implied an emancipation of Reason from the thraldom of arbitrary authority, and the full freedom of inquiry in all matters of speculative faith.

To the founders of this State, and particularly to Roger Williams, belong the fame and the glory of having realized, for the first time, this grand idea, in a form of civil government; but we should honor them at the expense of our common nature, should we say that they were the first to maintain that Christ's kingdom was not of this world, and that the State had no right to interfere between conscience and God. The idea must, undoubtedly, have had its historical origin in him who first endured persecution for conscience's sake. "Saul! Saul! why persecutest thou me?" is a voice, implying a denial of right, which comes with a sudden shining round about of light, not only from Heaven, but has come, and shall ever come, from the depths of persecuted humanity, through all time; and, in proportion to the violence and spread of the persecution, has been, and shall be, the depth and extent of the cry. It is the protest of that all-present Reason, which is, at once, the master of the individual and the race, against the abuse made by the creature, of its own delegated authority. And that time never was, and never shall be, when humanity could, or can, recognize the right of any human power to punish for the expression of a mere conscientious belief.

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