Sodomy Law: Rhode Island, May 19, 1647

"Touching Whoremongers"

Representatives of four towns met at Portsmouth, formed the government of the Rhode Island Colony, and drew up a body of laws, one of the earliest governmental codes passed by American colonists. These laws, unlike those of the Puritan colonies, were not generally modeled upon biblical texts, but on the statutes of the English parliament.(1)

Rhode Island's capital crimes of 1647 were: (1) treason, (2) murder, (3) manslaughter, (4) witchcraft, (5) robbery, (6) arson, (7) rape, (8) buggery, and (9) sodomy.

Treason was apparently considered the most serious offense, since for it alone the punishment was death by torture: the guilty insurrectionist was to be hanged, cut down alive, drawn and quartered, "his entrails and privie members cut from him and burned in his view." He was then to be beheaded.

Sodomy, buggery, rape, adultery, fornication, "and their accessaries" were listed together in this legal code, under the category of laws "Touching Whoremongers." The sodomy provision, uncharacteristic of other Rhode Island laws, referred for its authority to biblical text as well English statute. This colonial statute was also unique among American sodomy laws in finding its religious warrant in the New Testament (St. Paul), rather than in the Old.

The Rhode island statute of 1647 stated:

Touching Whoremongers. First of sodomy, which is forbidden by this present Assembly throughout the whole colony, and by sundry statutes of England 25 Hen. 8, 6: 5 Eliz 17. It is a vile affection, whereby men given up thereto leave the natural use of women and burn in their lusts toward another, and so men with men work that which is unseemly, as that Doctor of the Gentiles [St. Paul] in his letter to the Romans once spake, i. 27. The penalty concluded by that state under whose authority we are is felony of death without remedy. See 5 Eliz 17.(2)

Rhode Island law was next revised in 1663.



  1. Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 91-92, citing William R. Staples, ed., The Proceedings of the First General Assembly of "The Incorporation of Providence Plantation, " and The Code of Laws Adopted by That Assembly, in 1647, with Notes Historical and Explanatory (Providence: Charles Burnett, Jr., 1817), pp. 31-32; John Russell Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England (Providence: A. C. Green, 1856), vol. I, pp. 156-90. The incorporation of four towns referred to here as Rhode Island was also known at the time as "Providence Plantations."
  2. The English statute known as 5 Elizabeth 17 was the 1563 reenactment of the 1533 "buggery" statute known as 25 Henry 8, 6, originally passed under Henry VIII."