Roger Williams: Soul Man

How An Eccentric 17th-Century Preacher Helped Bring Religious Liberty To America

Edwin S. Gaustad is a professor of history and religious studies emeritus at the University of California, Riverside. He is an expert on Roger Williams, the 17th-century religious liberty pioneer and founder of Rhode Island. Gaustad is the author of several books, among them Church and State in America.

In his new book, Roger Williams (Oxford University Press), Gaustad examines the life of an important but often overlooked figure in the struggle for religious liberty and church-state separation in America.

Williams in 1644 warned about creating an opening “in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” The language is similar to the “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor employed by Thomas Jefferson 158 years later, although there is no evidence Jefferson knew of Williams’ phrase.

In this interview with Church & State, Gaustad discusses the life and ideas of Roger Williams. The book is available at online sellers such as amazon.com or at major bookstores.

Q. Who is Roger Williams and why should Americans of today care about him?

A. Williams was a 17th-century English clergyman who became part of the “great migration” to Mas­sachusetts in the early 1630s. Americans today should care about him because he took major steps to move America, early on, from the medieval to the modern world. Because the notion of a separation of the civil from the ecclesiastical estates was such a novel one, such an unsettling one, Williams had to return again and again to that startling theme. He believed the private sanctuary of the soul should never be invaded by the clumsy, brutal hands of the state. The liberty of the soul was “off limits” to the reach of the civil magistrate.

Q. You’ve written about Williams quite a bit. What accounts for your strong interest in him?

A. My interest in him relates principally to his historic contributions to religious liberty – a full freedom in matters of the soul.

Q. When most Americans think of religious freedom, they think of figures like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Why have the accomplishments of Roger Williams been overlooked?

A. It helped that both Jefferson and Madison were presidents of the United States, and therefore hard to overlook. Also, they were deeply involved in the critical founding years of the new nation. Williams’ only possible competitor in the 17th century on matters of religious freedom was William Penn, who arrived in America a half-century later. He is better remembered because his colony was a very successful one, and his name is “built in” to that colony’s history.

Q. In what way were Williams’ views on the relationship between religion and government so unusual for the times?

A. Williams advocated the scariest political heresy of his day: namely, that a civil institution could survive without the supporting arm of the church. He was alone in this view in all New England, alone in most of the other colonies, and certainly alone in his own homeland of England.

Q. Williams declared that all who sought to live in peace could come to his Rhode Island colony regardless of what they believed about religion. It was a noble sentiment. How did it work out in practice?

A. Rhode Island did well as a sanctuary for all those persecuted for cause of conscience: for example, Quakers and Jews. But his fellow citizens were often quarrelsome, bickering and uncivil — to Williams’ disappointment and dismay.

Q. Rhode Island’s Royal Charter of 1663 guaranteed all residents the right to “freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernment.” How did this language affect other charters and the course of religious freedom in what became the United States?

A. The language of the Rhode Island charter of 1663 was picked up by other colonies, notably New Jersey and Carolina. So that gradually the scariest language of religious freedom became more familiar and less frightening.

Q. During this life, Williams was often regarded as a crank and a nuisance. In death he was nearly forgotten. When did Williams’ reputation begin to improve and how did it happen?

A. Williams’ reputation was rescued gradually in the l9th century through the effort of Isaac Backus and George Bancroft. In the 20th century, even Massachusetts took steps to erase its legal banishment. Then such historians as Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan added to Williams’ restoration of reputation.

Q. Williams’ own spiritual journey was wide-ranging. It’s interest­ing that although he was a preacher, none of his sermons have sur­vived. What do we know about Williams’ own religious beliefs?

A. Since we have seven volumes of Williams’ writings, we can know a great deal about his religious beliefs, about the nature of the church, about the political order, and most of all about the spiritual integrity of every soul.

Q. Religious Right leaders today say America is a “Christian nation.” What would Williams’ take on this be?

A. Williams believed that only individuals could be redeemed, not institutions. No Christian nation, no Christian schools — only individual Christians.

Q. Williams wrote a book titled The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience that outlined his ideas. What were the book’s main arguments and how was it received in England?

A. The Bloudy Tenent was a sustained and powerful argument against religious persecution, against the use of the sword in matters of the spirit. And the book was burned in London.

Q. Some political leaders of Williams’ day spoke of the need for “toleration” in religious matters. This was seen as a great step forward, but for Williams it was not enough. Why did Williams object to the concept of mere toleration?

A. Toleration implied that the ruler, in his magnanimity of the moment, could allow dissenters to worship as they pleased. But the freedom of the soul was not for the ruler to grant or withhold — it was a fundamental and natural and God-given right.

Q. Other political leaders spoke of extending religious freedom to the various Christian denominations. What did Williams think of such proposals?

A. Williams would extend freedom not only to other Christian denominations, but to all people, even Roman Catholics and even Muslims. Also to non-believers.

Q. Aside from religious liberty, Williams is remembered for his en­lightened policy toward Native Americans. How did his religi­ous and political beliefs affect his dealing with Native peoples?

A. Because he believed so strongly in the spiritual integrity of every individual, he even included the Native Americans in that principle, and would not have anything to do with cultural imperialism disguised as Christian evangelism.

Q. What legacy has Roger Williams left us? What can modern-day Americans learn from him?

A. Williams’ legacy lies chiefly in his passionate defense of the liberty of the soul. It is this that demands the separation of the civil from the spiritual order or, in our terms, separation of church and state.