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Newport tour highlights R.I.’s long commitment to freedom of religion

Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. is the oldest synagogue in the United States, dedicated in 1763.
Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe
Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. is the oldest synagogue in the United States, dedicated in 1763.

NEWPORT, R.I. — The Ocean State may be small, but it played a major role in establishing a new nation’s commitment to freedom of religion. The Four Faiths Four Landmarks Walking Tour shows how Colonial Newport’s lively experiment in religious diversity created a blueprint for the United States of America, while offering visitors a look at some striking art and architecture at four historical houses of worship. From Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the United States, to Trinity Episcopal Church, where the Vanderbilts worshiped, to Newport Congregational Church, with stunning stained glass windows by John La Farge, to Channing Memorial Church, honoring an early Unitarian minister and abolitionist, the tour covers nearly two centuries of Newport history.

“These houses of worship represent different forms of religion that were in conflict through much of history,” says Chuck Flippo, site manager for the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue. “The fact that they coexisted peacefully in Newport in the 17th century was remarkable.”

Unlike most of New England at that time, Newport and other Rhode Island towns practiced separation of church and state. Instead of having a town common anchored by a large white Congregational church, in Newport the town common had commerce at one end and government at the other. “Eventually the other colonies, and later the United States, became committed to the concepts of separation of church and state and religious freedom, and that’s what allowed the tremendous diversity we have today,” Flippo adds.

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The tour begins at Touro Synagogue, which was built by noted Colonial architect Peter Harrison and dedicated in 1763. Admission to the synagogue’s Loeb Center is included in the tour ticket. You can visit before or after the tour, but visiting the center first provides a useful framework for the rest of the sites. Of particular interest is the exhibit on the “Washington letter,” which George Washington sent to the manager of the synagogue in 1790 to address the congregation’s concerns about the new nation’s commitment to religious freedom. In it Washington pledged that America “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” In fact, it was not until the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, specifically guaranteeing freedom of religion in the First Amendment, that Rhode Island agreed to sign the document.

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Simple, symmetrical, and filled with light, the synagogue evokes a feeling of calm. A docent explains that there was no Jewish sector in Newport in the Colonial era; people of various religions and backgrounds lived and worked together. But she acknowledges that much of that work involved the slave trade, in support of Newport’s major role in the rum industry.

From Touro the tour proceeds to Trinity Episcopal Church, as soaring and grandiose as the synagogue is simple. Chartered in 1698 by the Church of England, this was the official church of the mother country. The upper class worshiped here; one of two Tiffany windows in the church is said to show the visage of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Docent Tillie Thompson said the triple-tiered wineglass pulpit, topped by a hanging “sounding board” to improve acoustics, is the only freestanding triple-decker pulpit left in the United States, and possibly in the world.

It was a short walk to the Newport Congregational Church, an 1857 Romanesque Revival structure built of Connecticut sandstone or brownstone and vaguely reminiscent of a fortress. Inside, a team of art conservators, many perched on scaffolding, were hard at work restoring ceiling murals created by renowned painter and stained glass artist John La Farge, who came to Newport after finishing work at Trinity Church in Boston. The church is one of only two buildings where La Farge was given free rein to execute the entire interior scheme, says Andrew Long, outreach coordinator for the church; the other was a church in Manhattan that has since been torn down.

What’s unique in terms of 19th-century American church art, Long says, is that everything is abstract, rather than figurative. Taking the Second Commandment very literally, the congregation would not allow any art that resembled a “graven image.”

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La Farge also left his mark on the last house of worship on the tour, the 1880 Channing Memorial Church, built as memorial to William Ellery Channing, the father of Unitarianism. La Farge developed new techniques in stained glass by incorporating opalescent glass to suggest draped fabric, speckled confetti glass to simulate terrazzo floor ties, and glass jewels to fashion borders and frames.

Chris Laudon, a property chairwoman and former board member of the church, explains that in the early 1800s, a rift developed between conservative and liberal factions of the Congregational church. The conservatives remained Congregationalists, while the liberals became Unitarians, focusing more on nature and community. The Unitarian Church was “the next evolution” of religious freedom and diversity in Newport, Laudon explains. “In many places, they doubted whether freedom of religion would allow a culture to function,” she adds. “But it worked here — and the fact that they got rich doing it helped a lot.”

Four Faiths Four Landmarks Walking Tour, Mondays 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m., through Sept. 3, 401-290-7535, www.4faiths.org.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen.albanese@gmail.com.