There is one National Historic Site that preserves the history of religious freedom in the United States. It is Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the US. Located in downtown Newport, Rhode Island, this synagogue opened in 1763 and still has an active congregation.
What is an Affiliated National Park Unit?
The Touro Synagogue is a special type of National Park Unit. It is designated a National Historic Site but it is not directly administered by the National Park Service. Rather, it is an “affiliated area” because it has been deemed significant and as such it is qualified to receive technical and financial aid from the National Park Service.
Note that affiliated sites do not count in the 417 National Park Units, but they are interesting and worth a visit.
Why is Touro Synagogue so special?
It is an emblem of religious freedom and a reminder of how important it is.
When Rhode Island was founded, it was founded on the basis of religious freedom. The founder of the colony, Roger Williams, fled Massachusetts Bay Colony because he was at odds with the Puritans and the way they discriminated against other religions. He founded Rhode Island in 1636, creating a society based on the separation of church and state.
He believed that it was not up to the state or government, it was up to the individual person to make the choice of religion. Within his new colony, religion thrived. This was affirmed by the King of England, who gave Rhode Island a formal charter in 1663 that said no individual would be punished or called into question based on different religious opinions.
The town of Newport grew within this Royal Charter and its openness drew many religious sects. At the time of the American Revolution, Newport was home to Anglicans, Quakers, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists. Interesting to note that none of these places of worship were on the town square or opposite the public courthouse, and none of them outwardly displayed the denomination.
As you wander around the town today, you will still see many places of worship including the Touro Synagogue and the Quaker Meetinghouse.
What makes Touro Synagogue so special is that it has survived intact – likely because it was used as a hospital during the revolutionary war.
Other buildings were torn down by troops and used for firewood during the cold winters, but the church was spared this fate and welcomed home the Jewish community when they returned to Newport after the British occupation ended in 1779.
Today you can take a tour of the building and grounds for a small fee. It is worth it… the interior is gorgeous and the history is fascinating. There is even a tale of an “escape route”.
Be sure to go outside. The grounds are lovely.
What else should you see?
Newport is a lovely town with lots of little restaurants and shops. Fun to walk around.
While you are there you shoals also be sure to do the Cliff Walk. It is only a few miles, paved and flat, but gorgeous.
Ocean, cliffs and amazing old mansions!!!
If you like history, while you are in the area it is also worth visiting the Roger Williams National Memorial Site in Providence, Rhode Island. There you will hear more about his contribution to religious freedom.
He would have been happy 100 years after he established Rhode Island to see his beliefs enshrined in the US Constitution.
1st Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
If more people could be like Roger Williams, the world would be a better place…