The First ‘Victory’ for Women’s Independent Religious Freedom

By Jennifer Hawks

When we think of the great Baptist heroes who championed religious freedom for all people in America, we often think of Roger Williams, John Leland, Isaac Backus, George W. Truett or Martin Luther King Jr. As with most historical narratives, stories about the fight for faith freedom for all often leave women in the shadows. To celebrate Women’s History Month, BJC is introducing several stories of women who played a role in fighting for freedom, including religious freedom.

To kick off BJC’s honoring of women’s stories, I wanted to start in Colonial America with Jane Verin, the test case for whether Roger Williams was really championing religious freedom for all people or just all people like him.

Roger Williams founded Rhode Island to provide a safe haven for those with a distressed conscience. Many of those who followed Williams to the fledging colony had gotten crossways with the Puritan church in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and fled before they could be excommunicated, sent back to England, or put to death for their religious views. Less than two years after it was established, however, Rhode Island’s founding principle of religious freedom would be tested.

In 1635, Jane Verin lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony with her husband, Joshua Verin. They were members of the Salem church, but Jane had stopped attending services, likely creating a need for them to leave Salem. They joined Williams in 1636 as one of the original families to settle what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

Providence was laid out differently from most Colonial settlements. Instead of planning around a common green dominated by a church building, Providence’s original settlement was linear and did not include a church building. Landowners (including women) received approximately equal shares of strips of land adjacent to one common road. Williams gave the Verins the plot next to his own.

Unlike in Massachusetts, church attendance was voluntary in the new Rhode Island Colony. Williams, an ordained minister, held services in his home every Sunday and several other days throughout the week. It was not uncommon for Sunday services to last five to seven hours, with only a short break for a meal. Jane was a frequent participant in these services, but her husband had not attended for at least a year. At some point, Joshua prohibited Jane from going to their neighbor’s house for religious services, but Jane kept going. We don’t know why Joshua refused to attend services so soon after following Williams to Rhode Island or when he first had a problem with Jane’s participation.

In Salem, Jane defied authorities by refusing to go to church services. In Providence, she defied her husband by refusing to stay home. For her disobedience, Joshua beat Jane, nearly to death. In a letter from Williams to Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams complained about Joshua’s presence in the community and described the incident as “[Joshua] hath trodden [Jane] under foote, tyrannically and brutishly” and that “with his furious blows she went in danger of Life”.

Now, the new government had a decision to make. On May 21, 1638, the approximately 50 voting members of Providence’s leadership gathered to determine what to do with Joshua’s refusal to allow Jane to attend worship services. While not technically in trouble for physically assaulting his wife, the assault appears to be the final straw that caused the leadership to reconsider Joshua’s standing in the community.

Williams believed women to be the inferior sex. Yet, he and other leaders took up Jane’s cause, arguing that Jane must have the ability to choose whether or not she would attend worship services. Joshua’s supporters argued that to punish him would be to violate his own religious conscience, as he believed that God requires wives to submit to their husbands. Fortunately for the cause of religious liberty, Jane won the day.

The Providence town record of the meeting reveals that Joshua was stripped of his voting privileges “for restraining of the liberty of conscience” until he would change his mind about Jane’s freedom to choose to attend services. In a first for American jurisprudence — and perhaps in all of the English colonies — a civil government recognized a wife’s ability to choose her religious path separate from her husband.

Instead of changing his mind, Joshua took Jane back to Salem within a few weeks of the council’s decision. It did not take long for Jane once again to incur the ire of Salem’s leadership. On October 4, 1638, Jane was referred to the authorities for refusing to attend services and was tried on Christmas Day. One of the last written references we have of Jane Verin is her expulsion from the Salem church on January 7, 1640.

In a society in which women were legally second-class citizens, Jane Verin stood firm on her belief that she should decide what her religious beliefs and practices would be. No government or husband would make that decision for her.

Though mostly forgotten to history, Jane’s case was one of the first tests of whether religious freedom would truly honor individual conscience. May we honor Jane today by standing up for the right of all of our neighbors to choose their religious paths.

Jennifer Hawks is Associate General Counsel of BJC.

Our mission is to defend and extend #FaithFreedomForAll.