1637: Providence Agreement

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Source: Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, ed. Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).

32 [Providence Agreement]

The complete text is taken from Charles Evans, “Oaths of Allegiance in Colonial New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, n.s., 31 (April 13–October 19, 1921): 424. Evans’s spelling is used.

August 20, 1637

Roger Williams, who refused to take any of the oaths required by the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he believed any oath constituted taking God’s name in vain, moved with his followers to Providence, which was founded using this document. The simple covenant formula is familiar, but without the oath it becomes a compact resting on implicit popular sovereignty. In addition to being one of the first political compacts, the Providence Agreement also contains the first expression in the new world of the separation of church and state—achieved by limiting the town meeting to “civil things.” The following year the second Rhode Island colony was established at Aquidneck (Pocasset), using an oath in the traditional covenant form (see the Government of Pocasset [33]). A minority withdrew the following year from Pocasset and drew up its civil compact at Newport without an oath (see the Newport Agreement [34]). Another colony, which was established at Portsmouth, drew up its new agreement two days after Newport’s (see the Government of Portsmouth [35]); unlike the Newport Agreement, the Portsmouth one contained an oath. The Providence Agreement of 1637 was replaced by the Plantation Agreement at Providence, 1640 [36]. Portsmouth and Newport joined in a federation in 1642 that allowed each town to retain its respective government and thus to preserve the differences (see the Organization of the Government of Rhode Island [37]). Warwick formed itself in 1647 [38], and finally, in 1647 these towns all united in the Acts and Orders [39], which was a complete constitution.

We whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves in active and passive obedience to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for the public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major consent of present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together in a Towne fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto them only in civil things.

[Signed by Richard Scott and twelve others.]