The Forgotten Founder

Long Before Madison And Jefferson Gave Us Church-State Separation, Roger Williams Fought For 'Soul Liberty'

In 1635, Roger Williams was appointed to pastoral duties at the local church in Salem, Mass. Williams, a Puritan preacher who had fled religious persecution in England, was already unpopular in Boston for rebuking civil authorities who seized lands owned by Native Americans, but he promptly waded into another controversy.

Massachusetts' General Court, the governing authority at the time, required all males over the age of 16 to swear an oath of allegiance to the king of England, ending with "so help me, God."

Most people didn't see a problem with that. Williams did. To him, the state's use of God's name in a civil oath was far from innocuous. What about the atheists, he argued? Would they be forced to take the oath as well?

"A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man," insisted Williams. Doing so, he contended, would force the non-believer "to take the name of God in vain."

Williams' stand irked civil authorities. That was bad enough, but he didn't stop there. He announced that civil officials should have no authority in religious matters. Williams asserted that government officials should stick to enforcing the "second tablet" of the Ten Commandments, which deals mainly with non-religious offenses such as murder, lying and stealing, and leave enforcement of the "first tablet," which lists religious decrees, to the clergy.

Such views were more than just unusual in mid-17th century America they were heretical. On July 8, 1635, Williams was summoned before the General Court, warned that his views were "erroneous and very dangerous" and basically told to shut up.

Williams did the opposite. In a series of letters to church officials in Boston, he protested his treatment at the hands of the General Court and continued to spread his "erroneous" opinions, daring to assert that his views on religion should be of no importance to the state. On Oct. 9, he was called before the General Court again. There were to be no more warnings.

Declared the Court, "Whereas Mr. Roger Williams, one of the elders of the church at Salem, hath broached & divulged diverse new & dangerous opinions.... It is therefore ordered, that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks."

The problem was, other than "this jurisdiction," there were no other settlements in colonial America where Williams could easily relocate. The six weeks came and went, with Williams still in town. Government officials made plans to ship him back to England, by force if necessary.

Williams had other ideas. One January evening he left his wife and two young children behind and fled into the wilderness. Williams, who had spent time among Indians and spoke several of their languages, wintered with some natives until spring. At the headwaters of the Narragansett River, he purchased a plot of land from the Indians. Sending for his wife and children, Williams proclaimed a new settlement. He called it "Providence."

Although no one is really certain when Williams was born, most scholars believe it was sometime in 1603, making this year the 400th anniversary of Williams' birth. In Rhode Island, the state Williams founded, celebrations and observances are under way. It's a good time to consider anew the legacy of Roger Williams.

When most Americans think of the great historical figures who pioneered the separation of church and state, men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison quickly come to mind. Williams was in many ways their spiritual grandfather and he was much more radical, especially considering the times in which he lived.

"Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."
- Roger Williams

"I think it's beyond dispute that he did contribute a great deal to the tradition of religious liberty in this country," said Edwin S. Gaustad, professor emeritus of history at the Uni\xadversity of California, Riverside, and author of several books about Williams. "One historian said that the major contribution of Williams is that he stands at the beginning of our history. So the stream grows steadily from the 17th century to the present."

Williams was definitely ahead of his time. The idea of separating religion and government was unthinkable in the 17th century. Although the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to separate themselves from the Church of England, which they considered corrupt, they had no intention of dividing religion and government.

Puritan Massachusetts was in fact a theocracy. The General Court taxed everyone to fund the Puritan Church. Only church members could vote or hold public office. Blasphemy was a capital offense. Ministers were an\xadswer\xadable to government authorities. Resi\xaddents could be fined, imprisoned or whipped for breaking various religiously inspired laws.

Williams would have none of that in Rhode Island, the state he founded. Gaustad, in his book, Roger Williams: Prophet of Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2001), writes that by 1640 nearly 40 families were living in Providence, and they boldly declared that religious freedom and separation of church and state would be among their guiding principles.

"We agree, As formerly hath been the liberties of the Town, so still to hold forth Liberty of Conscience," the residents de\xadclared.

Church-state separation, Wil\xadliams argued, was essential for the health of both the state and the church. In an ongoing exchange of letters with Puritan minister John Cotton, Williams defended his vision for Rhode Island. Williams asserted that there should be a "hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world." When that wall or hedge was breached, he argued, it was necessary to rebuild it.

Wrote Williams, "[T]o restore [God's] Garden and Paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto himself from the world."

(Williams' language is very similar to Jefferson's metaphor of "a wall of separation between church and state," but there is no evidence Jefferson knew of Williams' observations.)

Cotton was never persuaded, and it was easy for those left behind in Massachusetts to feel good about being rid of Williams. Yet, as Gaustad points out, Williams had the last laugh.

Noting that Williams once wrote that he would build his city near a "sweet spring," Gaustad writes, "Although Rhode Island prospered slowly, it hung on to become the safest refuge for liberty of conscience. Dissenters of all stripes, persons of all religious persuasions or none, could find sanctuary in Rhode Island. Beside that 'sweet spring,' Williams sowed the seeds of a sweet liberty."

Williams meant what he said. Rhode Island became a haven for religious dissenters including some that even Williams found it hard to stomach. Wil\xadliams disliked Quakers with great intensity and he argued with them frequently about theology but they settled unmolested in Rhode Island. In 1657, when authorities in Massa\xadchusetts, trying to whip up a general persecution against Qua\xadkers, wrote to government officials in Rhode Island and asked for help in stamping them out, the colony's General Court was blunt in its reply.

"We have no law among us whereby to punish any for only declaring...their minds and understanding concerning the things and ways of God, as to salvation and eternal condition," the Court advised Bay Colony authorities.

Williams had a long track record of speaking truth to power. In 1643 he penned an anonymous tract addressed to the British Parliament rebuking them for meddling in religious affairs. Noting that England had alternatively been officially Protestant and Catholic and that many lives had been lost in the ensuing conflict, Williams wrote, "We query whether the blood of so many hundred thousand Protestants, mingled with blood of so many thousand papists be not a warning to us."

Williams' masterstroke, however, was his 1644 book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience. Williams wrote the book during a period when he was trying to secure an official charter for Rhode Island from England, which may have distracted him. The work lacks cohesion, and even Gaustad has called it "long and somewhat disorganized." Nevertheless, its thesis was startling to the 17th century mind: Williams argued that mergers of church and state were blasphemous as well as dangerous.

In The Bloudy Tenent, Williams laid down arguments for church-state separation that are still used today: that government officials are not competent judges of religious truth, that forcing people to take part in religion against their will lessens genuine interest in faith and that religious freedom which Williams called "soul liberty" was not a favor to be granted by the state but a God-given right.

Embracing a vision that went far beyond his contemporaries, Williams insisted that religious freedom must extend to all, not just Christians. He proclaimed religious liberty the birthright of everyone, "paganish, Jewish, Turk\xadish, or anti-christian." He even asked readers to consider that if Jesus returned to Earth, he would not use force to persuade anyone but would rely instead on love and moral persuasion. A true Christian church, Williams argued, could never persecute anyone.

In the book, Williams traced the development of Christian history through the ages. He asserted that the 4th-century Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who favored Christianity with state subsidies and support, actually damaged Christianity and put the church on the wrong path. Church and state, Williams argued, were still reaping Constantine's bitter harvest 1,200 years later. It was time, Williams wrote, to tear asunder that which Constantine had joined. It was time to separate church and state.

Church and state, Williams asserted, serve different functions and play different roles. He endorsed the idea that Christians must obey civil rulers but only in civil matters. In religious matters, he maintained, the believer must rely on the commands of his own conscience.

Any other system, Williams believed, led to oppression, war and death. The Bloudy Tenent is indeed a bloody book, as Williams speaks graphically of those who suffered and died in Europe's religious wars.

"Who can but run with zeal inflamed to prevent the deflowering of chaste souls, and spilling the blood of the innocent?" he wrote. He asked readers if it was just to ignore the "fearful cries" of thousands of "men, women, children, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, old and young, high and low, plundered, ravished, slaughtered, murdered, famished?"

Williams' critics were not impressed. In England, Parl\xadiament banned the book and ordered all copies burned. In Massachusetts, Cotton was so incensed he wrote a reply, The Bloudy Tenent, Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb. In his response, Cotton took the common 17th-century view that complete religious liberty was dangerous. Allowing theological heresy could bring down the social order, Cotton argued. Only a fanatic would advocate such a thing.

Williams fired back in 1652 by publishing a type of sequel, The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy: By Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to Wash it White in the Blood of the Lambe. In this tome, Williams rebutted the charge that society would collapse if religious freedom were extended, pointing to the example of Holland, which had extended toleration to all and prospered. He compared freedom of religion to a ship at sea and called state religious persecution a "notorious and common Pirate" that lays waste to the "Con\xadsciences of all men, of all sorts, of all Religions and Persuasions whatsoever."

Although his style cannot be called graceful, Williams was a prolific writer all of his life and was not afraid to use blunt language. He once called government attempts to enforce religious conformity "spiritual rape." On another occasion, he wrote, "Forced worship stincks in God's nostrils."

In one of his most famous missives, Williams in 1655 attempted to explain to the residents of Providence the need for a division between religion and government.

At the time, Williams was serving as president of Providence. It's unclear why he wrote the letter, but apparently some inter-religious tensions had riled the community; Williams sought to calm them.

Williams likened the colony to a ship at sea whose passengers include "Papist and Protestants, Jews and Turks." The voyage would go more smoothly, Williams asserted, if "none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews and Turks be forced to come to the Ship's Prayers or Worship; nor, secondly, compelled from their own particular Prayers or Worship, if they practice any."

The captain of the ship, like the head of a state, had an obligation to keep the civil peace among the passengers, Williams wrote.

"[T]he Commander of this Ship," he insisted, "ought to command the Ship's course; yea, and also to command that Justice, Peace, and Sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the Seamen and all the Passengers." In religion, Williams asserted, a person may be a law unto himself but that right did not extend to a citizen's dealings with civil government.

Williams' words failed to end the squabbling and two years later Williams, perhaps weary of the infighting, stepped down as president of Providence. He spent many of his later years resolving land disputes over the boundaries of Rhode Island and acting as a negotiator between the colonists and hostile Indians. He died early in 1683 the exact date is unknown and was buried in a hillside near his home in Providence.

In England, Parliament banned Williams' book and ordered all copies burned.

What made Williams such a forceful advocate for church-state separation and religious liberty? Perhaps a clue can be found in his own restless search for religious truth. Although he started as a Puritan, Williams left that faith community in 1638 after rejecting the practice of infant baptism and helped a small band of Baptists in Providence establish the first Baptist church in America.

But Williams did not remain a Baptist for long. Just a few months later, he quit that church too. Williams came to believe that humankind would not know the "true church" until Jesus returned to earth. He studied the Bible and engaged in theological debates all of his life but never found another church to call home.

It took some time for Williams' reputation as a champion of religious liberty to emerge. In 1702, Puritan preacher Cotton Mather wrote a religious history of New England that portrayed Williams as a dangerous fanatic. Seventy-five years later, another minister, Isaac Backus of Massachusetts, set about to rescue Williams' reputation.

Backus, like Williams, was an advocate of church-state separation and complete religious liberty. In 1777, Backus published his own religious history of New England that praised Williams as a visionary and a principled man. Backus had done extensive research, even collecting original letters by Williams. He also put Williams' philosophy into action, blasting church taxes and agitating for adoption of amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty.

The debate over Williams went on after the American Revolution. In 1834, historian George Bancroft wrote a history of the United States that portrayed Williams in a favorable light. Not everyone was persuaded. President John Quincy Adams felt that Bancroft's history reflected poorly on his home state of Massachusetts. Calling Williams "a polemical porcupine," Adams asserted that Williams' refusal to swear the oath of the General Court was "seditious."

Nevertheless, Williams' reputation continued to grow. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more scholarly works on Williams and colonial history appeared. These later books, free from the sectarian axe-grinding that had colored earlier works, presented a more balanced portrait of the man.

Still, not all historians were convinced of Williams' value. One, writing in 1950, asserted that Williams had "exerted little or no influence" on developments in America. Church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer strongly disagreed. In his Church, State and History (1953), widely regarded as the definitive work on the subject, Pfeffer asserted that Williams was far ahead of his time and said his ideas "represent the great contribution of American democracy to civilization."

Gaustad notes that from a historical perspective, Williams lacks the verve of Jefferson and the intellectual firepower of Madison. Those men, who lived during a time of great upheaval and helped shape the nation, captured the American imagination in ways Williams never did.

"He could use better public relations, that's certainly true," said Gaustad. "The Baptists have tried to keep his reputation going, but there isn't really a vested interest group that has taken him as their great cause. Jefferson and Madison lived in the midst of the Revolution and the Constitution. To most people, what happened 160 years before that must have been irrelevant."

Williams' contribution was recognized, if belatedly, even in Massachusetts where in 1936, legislators apologized to Williams by passing a law rescinding his expulsion. Three years later in Providence, a statue of Williams was unveiled. As a nod to Williams' advocacy of religious pluralism, a Catholic priest and a rabbi officiated at the event.

A statue of Williams also adorns the U.S. Capitol, alongside other important figures from American history. (No contemporary artistic renditions of Williams have survived. Although Williams appears in several etchings, portraits and paintings, these images reflect only guesses at his appearance.)

In 1984, the U.S. National Park Service created the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence. Rhode Island's only national park, the facility is located on a piece of the original settlement of Providence and includes a 4.5-acre park, Williams' gravesite and a visitor center featuring exhibits on religious freedom and a video presentation about the life and legacy of Williams.

Throughout this year, the memorial is hosting special events in honor of the 400th anniversary of Williams' birth. On May 10 and 11, it will offer "A Bridge to the Past: A Key into Roger Williams' World" with re-enactors in period garb who will demonstrate how settlers lived and worked in Providence during Williams' time.

What is Williams' relevance for Americans today? Historian Gaustad said his message is a timeless one that politicians today would do well to bear in mind: "Government should keep its calloused hands off tender consciences," Gaustad said. "Leave religion alone. When they try to help, they only hurt."