Newport: Before the Gilded Age Mansions, a Beacon for Diversity

Rockwell Stensrud's "Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639-1969." Redwood Library and Athenaeum

Newport, Rhode Island, is a popular New England resort town catering to sailors, beachgoers and hoards of visitors lured by the famous Bellevue Avenue mansions ("cottages") of the Astors, Vanderbilts and other so-called Gilded Age Robber Barons.

It is a town that respects and preserves its past and presents its architectural treasures with pride. Many remember Newport when it hosted the America's Cup regattas for a half century; it is still home to world-renowned jazz and folk concerts each summer. All that social splendor might fool the visitor into thinking Newport has always been the playground for the One Percent.

That surface opulence is deceiving. Long before the haut monde descended on Newport in the mid-19th century, the town had exerted its moral and spiritual influence as a haven for all who wanted to worship God in their own fashion. That right was denied them in surrounding territories but freely granted and fiercely defended in Rhode Island.

Religious expression was the magnet that attracted talented artisans, entrepreneurs, merchants and rogue pirates; they catapulted the town into the first rank of prosperous American entrepôts. Freedom matters.

From its founding in 1639 until 1776, when British forces invaded, Newport dominated Rhode Island's cultural and political world. It was the centerpiece for "a lively experiment," the radical restructuring of English society authorized by King Charles II in the 1663 Charter for Rhode Island.

That landmark document sanctioned two fundamental freedoms which were to became cornerstones of the United States in the 1780s but in the 1660s were revolutionary: liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state.

In Rhode Island people could hold different religious beliefs than their neighbor and not be hanged, and the government could not impose a state church on its citizens. This was law. This was new. This was shocking to orthodox Puritan oligarchs who relished imposing their convictions on everyone.

The 17th century was dubbed the Age of Faith. A more apt description might be the Age of Brutality. England's civil wars of the 1640s pitted royalist Anglican Protestants (Cavaliers) against Puritan parliamentarian Protestants (Roundheads); over 100,000 soldiers and civilians died. So little separated them but so much divided them.

On the Continent, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) blundered across Germany in the violent struggle between Catholics and Protestants, each claiming to have God on its side. The result? Wholesale genocide. Armies reduced the population of central Europe by over 35 percent.

Four hundred years ago, there appeared to be no solution to these devastating religious wars. Princes commanded obedience, and their propaganda decreed that the only way to maintain an orderly society was by binding church and state. The sovereign chose the religion and everyone else followed.

Christendom (church and state as one) bestowed immense power on the monarch and deprived everyone else of options in how they worshiped God. They were hostage to a fixed system.

The absence of free choice was the crux of the dilemma.

Queen Elizabeth had quieted a century of England's religious unrest by embracing Protestant doctrine. Still, many subjects objected to the preponderance of Catholic rites and relics that remained in Church of England services. Puritanism took root in the mid-16th century as a rebellion against excessive pageantry.

For Puritans, the Reformation had not gone far enough; they wanted to cleanse the national church and focus on the Bible, the Word, not suspicious Roman rituals. Their goal was to return to the basics of Christianity.

And, because religion is often politics disguised as a cross or a star or a crescent, some Calvinists were eager to push further and deny legitimacy to the episcopal church. These radical Puritans were labeled Separatists.

Their defiance was theologically heretical and, because the monarch was leader of the Anglican communion, their refusal to follow was a civil crime. Separatists were outlaws. Many fled to Holland to worship without state interference. The Plymouth Colony Pilgrims on Mayflower were Separatists in search of a new home.

Reformist Puritans agreed to covenants of faith to bind their communities. From within these conclaves emerged even more startling demands to shatter medieval strictures and create a world in which the individual would be free to believe in and openly pray to his or her God, untouched by monarch or magistrate.

Dream on, King James I told Puritans in 1604. His son, Charles I, was harsher in his condemnation of them, but Charles was a fool. He engineered his own demise by intriguing against his subjects and lying to Parliament.

In 1649—after some 17,000 countrymen and women had fled to New England to escape his persecution, after he sparked two deadly civil wars—Charles was tried, found guilty of treason and beheaded. He is the only English monarch in a thousand years to die at the hands of Parliament.

Largely because of Puritan discontent, social, theological and political forces combined to ignite a revolution on both sides of the Atlantic between 1620 and 1660. The known world was turned upside down by dissenters who wanted to take control of their spiritual and temporal lives.

The "people" gained sovereignty; the monarch no longer held the winning hand. Choice became an option. New Protestant sects openly embraced freedom of religion and the abolition of the state church. The moral compass had shifted that dramatically, and that quickly.

New England suffered its own traumas. The constrictive, biblically inspired Massachusetts Bay Colony was more intolerant than Charles's realm. Separatist clergyman Roger Williams staged a one-man rebellion against the conformity of the New England Way, challenging magistrates' right to seize Indian land and to dictate theological dogma. Williams implored: Stop persecuting people for their beliefs; it is counterproductive and against the will of God.

The leaders were desperate to be rid of him, yet few intersections of folly and fate have had more lasting reverberation in America than his banishment—and few have been as underestimated or overlooked. Roger Williams's forced departure from Massachusetts provided the twist that began the unraveling of the prevailing social contract. Within a half century, a subject's relationship with his or her monarch and minister would be altered forever.

In 1636, Williams founded Providence on Narragansett Bay as a haven for religious nonconformists. Two years later Anne Hutchinson, whose preaching sparked the Antinomian crisis in Massachusetts, was banished for her beliefs. About 100 of her supporters were pressured to vacate the colony after her guilty verdict.

They joined Williams in Rhode Island, and the nascent colony became the natural destination for people who did not want their faith dictated by petty tyrants. Heresy did not exist in Rhode Island because there was no state religion; mandatory church attendance was abolished, as were tithes. Williams and his followers established the freest, most tolerant colony in the New World.

Newport was founded by nine English families of farmers and merchants who envisioned a prosperous community. The town had ample acreage for large-scale agriculture, a first-rate harbor and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Newport emerged as the model for the colony's future. The walls of exclusion for faith were torn down. Puritans, Anglicans, Jews, Baptists, Quakers and other sects were welcome. Newport attracted talented, open-minded people and proved that diversity worked.

Then came its undoing. Over 300 buildings were destroyed in Newport during the Revolutionary War. Commerce vanished; a half century passed before the town discovered its future. Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and 1900, America became the wealthiest nation on earth; Newport was unspoiled, ripe for people in search of enjoyment.

Just as today, a class of the super-rich was establishing new boundaries, often with a touch of ostentation. That enormous cache of accumulated wealth produced art-filled mansions along the East Coast, but an age-old problem persisted: how to beat summer's heat? For the richest and most socially conscious, Newport, with its fresh air and water, became the answer.

Bellevue Avenue is only two miles long, but when the Gilded Age was at its height, it was one of the most famous streets in the world. American architect Richard Morris Hunt returned from Europe with visions of grandeur, and he had a steady stream of clients intent on building the most spectacular houses to exhibit their wealth.

The firm of McKim, Mead & White set high standards, and every other architect was challenged to design a "cottage" that would become the talk of the town. The result of all this money and architectural talent pouring into such a small town turned Newport into the elite resort just at the time America was becoming a dominant political, financial and cultural force in the world.

The Gilded Age came to an abrupt end with the imposition of federal income taxes in 1913 and the outbreak of World War I a year later. Newport drifted into the background until preservationists began salvaging many Gilded Age gems; heiress Doris Duke was responsible for the restoration of over 80 Colonial-era buildings.

Newport possesses a dual personality. It gained vibrancy by introducing freedoms unavailable elsewhere and in doing so helped halt a century of religion-inspired slaughter. Its ascension to the rank of the most sought-after social mecca in America might seem anomalous, but it was part of a pattern. The town had been wealthy since its founding. Newporters saw no conflict between honoring personal spiritual liberties in the 1600s and celebrating personal prosperity in the 1800s.

Rockwell Stensrud is the author of Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639-1969, recently released in paperback. His latest book is Inventing Rhode Island: Six Lives (ebook) chronicling the experiences of the colony's founders in the 17th century.