The Touro Synagogue: Peter Harrison, George Washington, and Religious Freedom in America

Touro Synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison, 1759-1763, Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo courtesy of author)

The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island is the only Jewish house of worship that survives from the American colonial period. Built at the threshold of America’s Revolutionary period, it survived the war and the damaging occupation of Newport by British troops. After the war, the congregation returned and the synagogue formed the focal point for the affirmation by President Washington himself of the religious freedom protected in the new nation. These two stories—the building of the synagogue and the address by Washington to the congregation—are often considered separately, but in a deeper sense they constitute one larger narrative about immigration, assimilation, tolerance, and freedom in eighteenth-century America.

The Sephardic congregation in Newport consecrated the synagogue in December 1763.[1] They called themselves Nephuse Israel (the scattered of Israel) at the time of the consecration, but soon changed their name to Yeshu’at Israel (Salvation of Israel). Their journey to Newport was a long one. The Sephardim, expelled from Spain and Portugal during the 1490s, had migrated to several European nations, but often continued to face persecution. Some came to seek better circumstances in the New World. The members of the Newport congregation first arrived in the city from the Dutch West Indies in 1658. In Newport, as was true for Jews in America throughout the colonial period, they faced social barriers and often lacked legal privileges, such as the right to vote. Still, the presence and religious practices of the new arrivals were permitted in Rhode Island, and the General Assembly of the colony, reflecting attitudes of the mother country, proclaimed that the Jews “may expect as good protection here, as any stranger residing amongst us in his Majesty’s Colony ought to have, being obedient to his Majesty’s laws.”

The congregation spent a century in Newport without a dedicated place of worship. Indeed, synagogues in the thirteen British colonies were rare before the American Revolution. An early one, since demolished, stood on Mill Street (now South William Street) in New York by 1730. Other congregations, such as the group that first gathered in 1733 in Savannah, Georgia, where the first synagogue was not consecrated until 1820, met for worship in rented spaces, private homes, or various other locations. By the late 1750s, the congregation in Newport had the financial means, aided by donations from outside the city, to begin construction of a fine building in an excellent location on a hill not far from the elegant state house (today called the Old Colony House). For the designer, they chose the prominent architect Peter Harrison, the British-born Newport merchant and sea captain who was something of a gentleman-architect because he rarely received payment, as in the modest 45 pounds honorarium for his plans for Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1760-1761). Harrison added the Touro Synagogue to an impressive list of important public buildings he designed in Cambridge, Boston (King’s Chapel, 1749-1754), and Newport itself (Redwood Library, 1748-1750, and the Old Brick Market, begun in 1762).[2] It was, to be sure, a mark of the integration of the Jewish community into the mainstream of American life that they had secured the collaboration of a leading American architect and had the means and freedom to erect a large and stylish synagogue in a fine setting.

Harrison was faced with a challenge: knowledgeable about Christian houses of worship, he needed advice about the requirements of the Jewish congregation and the kind of building they desired in Newport.[3] Isaac Touro, the Dutch-born spiritual leader of the congregation at the time, was among those who described to Harrison the kinds of spaces and other features that would be needed to encompass the synagogue’s meaning and purpose. Harrison, a significant architectural thinker and designer, brought his own ideas to the project. The final result is a fusion of different traditions, and stands as an early example of the adaptive melting pot of styles and ideas that characterizes American architecture.

Touro Synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison, 1759-1763, Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo courtesy of author)
Touro Synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison, 1759-1763, Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo courtesy of author)

The Touro Synagogue is among the most striking and original buildings in eighteenth-century America. The synagogue immediately comes across as a different kind of structure from others buildings in Newport. The rear of the synagogue, as required by Jewish ritual, faces exactly east, and this orientation turns the porticoed façade sharply away from the public road. Thus, the siting relates neither to the adjacent buildings nor to the viewer on the street. And whereas there was an expectation for symmetry in the Georgian period, the wing with a school for children on the left greatly throws off the usual balance. The exterior of the building is remarkably plain, even to the point of starkness, and one immediately senses the architect’s desire to express on behalf of the congregation a sober and modest simplicity. In addition to any verbal guidance offered to Harrison, he might have been inspired by the self-effacing exterior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London (1701), another Sephardic house of worship, which is also marked by plain wall treatments, simple, round-headed windows, and a prominent beltcourse.

The blocky appearance of the Touro Synagogue is also striking. The main structure is only slightly longer than it is wide, and is more squared in plan than the Sephardic synagogues in London (Bevis Marks) and Amsterdam (Esnoga, 1675). To a late eighteenth-century viewer in Newport, this squarish design would have been redolent of earlier Congregational meetinghouses, which were consciously distinguished in plan from the typically long naves of the Anglican tradition. Harrison, doubtless with the concurrence of the officers of the congregation, made it clear that this was an outlier among religious structures in an Anglican empire. Harrison himself was raised as a Quaker, and would have had a sharp awareness of meaning and hierarchy as expressed in the floor plans for a house of worship in Anglican America. Within this design, as cultural historian Laura Leibman has shown, Harrison managed to incorporate the mystical ratio of 37:100, inspired by the temple described in Ezekiel 41 and encouraged by Sephardic theologians for synagogue building (if the length of the synagogue at Newport is the equivalent of 100 units, then from the raised platform, called the tevah or bimah, in the middle to the back wall measures 37 units).[4] The front portico adds to the religious symbolism by alluding to the porch on the Temple of Solomon and by defining the front plane of the 37:100 ratio. Stylistically, it is in the Ionic order and stands before the main building like an ancient temple front, akin to others as revived and adapted in the classical and Palladian tradition.

Harrison, responding to advice from his patrons, skillfully designed the interior of the Touro Synagogue with an eye to its religious function and significance. There is the ark (hekhál) on the back wall for keeping the Torah, the raised seating platform for readings near the center of the room, and the dozen columns supporting the gallery which stand for the twelve tribes of Israel. The galleries accommodated women on the upper level, while the men worshiped on the ground level. On the left (north) side there is elevated, built-in seating for wardens of the synagogue. These basic elements are found in some Sephardic synagogues in Europe and the Caribbean, but Harrison articulated the interior in his own style. The capitals and other details derive, as in so much of Harrison’s work, from British architectural books, such as those of James Gibbs, Batty Langley, Isaac Ware, and William Kent, and the presence of a gallery is broadly reminiscent of Christopher Wren’s influential London churches from the seventeenth century.[5] The interior, as in much high-style Georgian design in the thirteen colonies, is of common painted wood, without the fine stone, dark, varnished wood, or gilded details that might be seen in Old World buildings.

Touro Synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison, 1759-1763, Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo courtesy of author)
Touro Synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison, 1759-1763, Newport, Rhode Island. (Photo courtesy of author)

While most of the interior ornamentation is characteristic of Harrison’s manner and Georgian building in particular, he introduced several unusual elements that give an aura of exoticism and antiquity. Strikingly, the vase-and-ring balusters are made with great bulbous turnings, which was characteristic of earlier design, as one sees on William and Mary furniture of the early eighteenth century. Harrison’s own style was more current, and his ornament in Christian churches such as the King’s Chapel in Boston and the Christ Church in Cambridge does not include such bulbous profiles. Harrison included a large number of these balusters in the synagogue, and placed them close to each other, giving a decorative and busy appearance redolent of an earlier time and place. Another unusual aspect inside is the use of Chinese fretwork, which can be seen on the north wall and front paneling near the raised seating of the wardens of the synagogue. New Haven minister Ezra Stiles referred to these panels in 1763 as “interlaid with Chinese Mosaic Work.” This motif in Georgian design was more likely to appear outdoors, especially on balustrades, or it might appear on a staircase in place of banisters. At any rate, it was unusual enough as panel adornment in a sacred building to be mentioned in the brief description by Reverend Stiles. With the Chinese fretwork in the Touro Synagogue, Harrison was using a design element that was plain and neat but also ultimately derived from a non-Western source, and different from the classical architectural language of the synagogue as a whole.

The current Torah ark on the rear (east) wall is fanciful, too, but architectural historian Esther I. Schwartz showed that the ark was rebuilt in 1828.[6] Ezra Stiles roughly sketched the original ark at the time of the consecration in 1763, and the original apparently sported a large urn or ball finial on top. The vertical panels on the ark were originally rectangles with small, arched moldings over each, as one sometimes sees in wainscoting or cabinet design of the time. The scrolling brackets on either side of the early design of the ark at the Touro Synagogue recall similar scrolls adorning the central, upper body of the ark in both the Amsterdam Esnoga and the Bevis Marks synagogue in London. Never having designed an ark for a synagogue, Harrison relied on his advisors in the congregation for guidance, and he turned to Georgian tradition for some of the individual motifs.

Harrison used the architectural vocabulary at his disposal and the verbal recommendations from the congregation to endow the synagogue with an air of historicity and exoticism, and he attempted to express the Jewish, and specifically Sephardic, visual traditions and identity of the building. When the synagogue was consecrated in 1763 the local press and others were invited to attend. A writer for the Newport Mercury on December 5, 1763, praised the “Handsome Assembly of People” and, confirming to us that Harrison succeeded in giving the building a substantial, historicizing, and eastern feeling, wrote that the building “could not but raise in the Mind a faint Idea of the Majesty and Grandeur of the Ancient Jewish Worship mentioned in Scripture.” This good review of the style and meaning of the architecture and the presence of guests at the consecration indicate that the structure was celebrated well beyond the Jewish congregation, and the synagogue, then as now, immediately become a broadly shared point of pride in the city of Newport.

The Touro Synagogue closed during the Revolutionary War. Loyalists were hounded out by city officials in 1775 and 1776, and many members of the congregation were Loyalists or were neutral and left the city during that time. The difficult conditions brought about by the British military occupation in 1776 and thereafter interrupted normal life there, and the synagogue remained shuttered. Isaac Touro had left the keys to the building with the Quakers, another religious group in the city.

After the war, the Touro Synagogue reopened, and became the site of a notable exchange of letters between the congregation and George Washington. He was touring some states during the early part of his presidency, and he passed through Newport. Washington received letters of support and welcome from several groups, including the Jewish congregation. He received an address dated August 17, 1790 and signed by the warden of the Congregation Yeshu’at Israel of Newport, Moses Seixas, who was a merchant as well as a leader at the synagogue. The letter is eloquent and passionate:

            Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits—and to join with our fellow Citizens in welcoming you to New Port.

            With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, & danger when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, shielded your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

            Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine: This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Publick Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

            For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Antient of Days, the great preserver of Men—beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: and, when like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.[7]

Gilbert Stuart, "Portrait of George Washington," 1796-1803. (The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA)
Gilbert Stuart, “Portrait of George
Washington,” 1796-1803. (The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute,
Williamstown, MA)

There is no evidence that Washington visited the synagogue itself, but he wrote back to Seixas from Newport on August 18, 1790 and made a notable and influential statement about religious freedom in America:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island

Gentlemen.

            While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.Gentlemen.

            The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

            The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

            It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

                                                                        Go: Washington[8]

It is possible that Washington received some help in drafting the letter,[9] although it went out with his signature, and it is broadly consistent with Washington’s writing style including the use of one of his favorite phrases, “under his own vine and figtree,” a borrowing from the Old Testament (Micah 4:4) that is especially apt here considering the Hebraic context of the missive. The letter stands as a major statement about religious freedom, and shows Washington’s antipathy for the idea of mere tolerance, a word, he suggests, that implies the haughty indulgence of one group toward another. Beyond toleration, religious freedom was now a guaranteed right, and, for its part, Congress would not support one religion or sect, nor act to undermine another one. Although coming from Washington himself and not constituting a legal document, this statement of 1790 was written on behalf of the new nation and expressed Washington’s sense that with “liberty of conscience” a variety of religious practices would be able to flourish in the United States.

Political differences could not be accommodated as easily during the time of the Revolution as religious differences were. Isaac Touro, a Loyalist, left Newport for New York, where he struggled to make a living; he died in 1783 while living in the British colony of Jamaica. Harrison became a customs collector in New Haven, Connecticut. One contemporary stated that in New Haven “Peter Harrison received great abuse and many insults from the Rebels on account of his Loyalty.” Soon after his death on April 30, 1775, a mob attacked his home, burning the house along with his personal papers and the books in his library. The fire destroyed the documents and books that might have clarified for us the sources for Harrison’s work as an architect, including his interactions with and designs for the Jewish congregation in Newport. Even without those papers, we can see in the Touro Synagogue a masterwork of colonial architecture and the successful result of the process of cultural adaptation and accommodation in America. It is fitting that it was to the congregation of this synagogue that President George Washington proclaimed that the “Children of the Stock of Abraham,” along with all Americans, were free to practice their faith without fear.

 

[1] For a broad history of the synagogue, see Leonard Everett Fisher, To Bigotry No Sanction: The Story of the Oldest Synagogue in America (New York: Holiday House, 1998).

[2] For Harrison’s work in Newport and elsewhere, see Carl Bridenbaugh, Peter Harrison: First American Architect (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1949); and John Fitzhugh Millar, The Buildings of Peter Harrison: Cataloguing the Work of the First Global Architect, 1716-1775 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2014), esp. 70-111.

[3] Although not documented to Harrison, the attribution of some other synagogues in the New World to him is suggested by Millar, The Buildings of Peter Harrison, 94.

[4] Laura Leibman, “Sephardic Sacred Space in Colonial America,” Jewish History 25, no. 1 (2011): 13-41.

[5] See Nancy Halverson Schless, “Peter Harrison, the Touro Synagogue, and the Wren City Church,” Winterthur Portfolio 8 (1973): 187-200.

[6] Esther I. Schwartz, “Touro Synagogue Restored, 1827-1829,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 17, no. 2 (Summer 1958): 23-26.

[7] Mark A. Mastromarino  and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series (Charlottesville, VA, and London: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 6:286.

[8] Ibid., 284-85.

[9] See Julian Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Papers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974),  19:610 note 8.

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3 Comments

  • Thanks for providing my first window into Judaism in early United States. It’s fascinating to know the synagogue survived the war and remains in use in modern times. Joseph, your article was an enjoyable read.

  • Thank you for your insightful article on The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. I was moved by the letters written to George Washington after his visit to Newport by the Jewish Congregation and George Washington’s reply. They were so eloquently written and espouse the tenents of religious freedom and the principles of our country perfectly.

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