The Forgotten Founder

Why 'Puritan Deviant' Preacher Roger Williams Deserves A Bigger Place In American History

James Calvin Davis, associate professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont, has edited a new collection of the writings of 17th-century religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams. The book, On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Belknap Press, 2008) contains a generous selection of some of Williams’ most famous writings as well as an introductory essay by Davis.

Davis talked recently with Church & State about the legacy of Williams.

Q. Who was Roger Williams and why should we care about his views?

A. Roger Williams was a 17th-century Puritan and the earliest notable voice for religious freedom in Amerca. He’s important not just because he called for religious freedom earlier than, say, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but because his views came out of a very different worldview than theirs, namely a traditionally (even conservatively) religious one.

Q. Why did Massachusetts Bay Colony kick Williams out?

A. Well, there’s some debate about that, and the debate goes back even to Williams’ time. Williams insisted that he was kicked out of the Bay Colony because of his religious views, specifically that he taught that the Church of England was an apostate (false) church and that the New England Puritans should publicly declare their separation from that institution. This “separatism” was a minority view in Puritanism and was seen as dangerous by those who ran the Bay Colony, because a rejection of the official English Church was a rejection of the king’s authority (since the king was the head of the church).

While Williams thought he was banished because of his religious scruples, some Bay Colony leaders insisted that religion had little to do with his banishment. They argued that Williams was kicked out because of the seditious nature of his views on the authority of the state and his carping about the land rights of the Native Americans. (Williams insisted that the king had no right to confer patents to land in the New World; instead it should be purchased from the Americans.) Whether or not Williams was factually right that his banishment was primarily about religion, he subsequently made a career out of railing against such religious discrimination.

Q. Williams was almost a fundamentalist Christian by modern-day standards, yet he favored full religious liberty for Catholics, Jews, Muslims and atheists. How did he come to this viewpoint?

A. Williams was “fundamentalist” in the sense that he believed his Puritan worldview to be true and virtually every other worldview (including those of other Puritans) to be false. But his Puritan theology also taught him that God gives all human beings a capacity to be good citizens, regardless of whether they professed proper faith. That capacity for social cooperation is part of the “natural law” instilled in all human beings as part of their creation. In other words, Williams believed that religiously it made no sense to assume that a person had to be a good Christian to be a good magistrate or citizen. His faith taught him to keep the spiritual and the civil separate, so that he could respect as good citizens and neighbors the very people whose religious views he unequivocally rejected.

Q. What would Williams think of the Religious Right’s efforts to undermine church-state separation and make America an officially “Christian nation”?

A. I am convinced that Williams would break out in hives over contemporary calls for America to “recover” its identity as a “Christian nation.” In his own time, Williams rejected that kind of language for a civil state. Williams insisted that no state has “most favored nation status” in the eyes of God. All societies are a mixture of the faithful and reprobate, and the only “Christian nation” is the church. I think he’d be particularly disappointed to discover that some of the most vocal calls for America to be a “Christian nation” come from the tradition that claims him as one of its forefathers, the Baptists.

Q. Founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison loom large over the history of religious freedom in America. Yet Williams expressed some of the same ideas much earlier. Has our country failed to give Williams his due?

A. We absolutely have failed to give Williams his due. Williams not only offered some of the same arguments as Jefferson and Madison more than a century earlier, he not only penned the “wall of separation” metaphor long before Jefferson did, but he also argued for religious liberty from a much different starting point than Jefferson and Madison. Williams argued for this freedom from a deeply and traditionally theological point of view. His is an important “counter-narrative” to the dominant understanding of this American doctrine as simply a product of Enlightenment rationalism.

Q. It can be difficult for people living in a modern, multi-faith society to grasp how radical Williams’ ideas were at the time. How out of step was Williams with the prevailing notions of his day?

A. Virtually no one was arguing for the kind of toleration of religious diversity Williams commended. The Bay Colony leaders were right in step with almost everyone of their time when they assumed that preserving religious uniformity was a necessary task of government. In the 17th century, almost everyone in Christian Europe – Protestant and Catholic – agreed that right religion (meaning their religion) was necessary to ensure public morality and social order. Nearly everyone would have seconded Puritan John Cotton’s statement that “the flourishing of religion is the flourishing of the civil state, and the decay of religion is the decay and ruin of the civil state.” Interestingly, many of our Founding Fathers of the 18th century held on to this assumption that public morality requires a certain accommodation of religion, and the assumption has plenty of adherents today. In his rejection of that assumption that a good society needs public religion to flourish, Williams was out of step in his day and in others.

Q. In your book’s introductory essay, you note that Puritan leader Cotton Mather dismissed Williams as an overheated “windmill,” and there’s little evidence that Williams’ ideas directly influenced the founders. Yet he seems to have had a great indirect influence through Baptist preachers who later adopted his ideas and helped enact the First Amendment. What can you tell us about that and why is it important?

A. Yes, when he died Williams had a lot of detractors outside and within Rhode Island, so most New Englanders responded to his death with “good riddance.” But the Baptists claimed him as one of their forefathers, and they carried his theological arguments for religious liberty into the 18th century battles for that freedom. Baptist leaders like Isaac Backus and John Leland took inspiration from Williams as they stoked the flames for religious liberty throughout the colonies and early Republic. And this Baptist tradition had a profound effect on religious liberty in America, by stirring up popular support for state measures like the Virginia Bill Establishing Religious Freedom and the federal First Amendment. Leland in particular also seems to have had an influence on Jefferson. The activism for religious liberty of 18th-century Baptists is a big part of Williams’ legacy.

Q. Williams had a rocky relationship with the Quakers, and it was here that his beliefs were really put to the test. How did Williams acquit himself? Did he “walk the walk as well as talk the talk”?

A. Because Rhode Island advertised itself as a safe haven for conscientious conviction, the Quakers soon came to the colony in droves. In the 17th century, Quakers were notorious for engaging in socially disruptive practices (e.g., occasionally they were reported to have walked through town naked) as a matter of protesting social conventions. Williams abhorred their theological beliefs, but he was unwilling to restrict them because of beliefs themselves. At the same time, he was willing to entertain restrictions and punishments for Quakers who engaged in religiously motivated practices that seemed to threaten the social order in some fundamental way.

Some of those who know a little about this episode in Williams’ life see his willingness to civilly punish the Quakers as a contradiction of his commitment to religious freedom. But I don’t see it that way. Instead, I see the Quaker episodes as an illustration of just how hard it is to negotiate a commitment to religious liberty and an equally noble commitment to public safety and stability when the two seem to collide in religious practices. In trying to negotiate between these two goods, Williams usually treated as the default that religious practice should be protected, and supported civil restrictions only in exceptional cases. In this way, he was much more conservative with civil restrictions of religious expression than his Bay Colony counterparts. But in acknowledging the “hard cases” that arise when religious beliefs manifest themselves in socially deviant religious practices, Williams actually exhibited a more sophisticated understanding of religion and the needs and limits of religious freedom than the tradition of Locke and Jefferson is able to handle.

Q. You talk at some length about the fact that Williams tended to frame his arguments in Christian theological language. What, in your view, is the value of that for people today?

A. One of the reasons I think Williams is so important a voice to recover is that he defended religious freedom as a believer himself. That he was successful beats back the assumption among some agnostics and atheists that deeply held religious conviction and respect for conscience are somehow antithetical. In other words, religion doesn’t automatically lead to civil intolerance and repression. One can be religious, even dogmatic, and still aggressively defend religious freedom in the civil realm. At the same time, Williams assures believers that they don’t have to give up their commitment to their understanding of truth in order to respect religious freedom.

Q. There is much discussion these days about the role of religion in politics. Does Williams have anything to teach us about this issue?

A. Against those calls for an institutionalization of Christian religion in American politics – the so-called return to a “Christian nation” – Williams offered powerful arguments for why a certain separation of religion and state makes sense from both a Christian and a pragmatic point of view. At the same time, Williams evidently saw no problem with religious people being active in politics and sharing their religious perspective in public debate over important civil matters – in fact, that’s exactly what he did with his entire career.

Q. Williams opposed taxation to support clergy salaries. Does that mean he wouldn’t be a big supporter of President Bush’s “faith-based” initiative or other government efforts to fund churches or church schools?

A. It’s hard to say for sure what Williams would think of these kinds of programs, since they (and the society they reflect) obviously are more politically complicated than Williams could possibly envision. But given his concern that collusion with the state pollutes the church and undermines its mission, I’m guessing that he wouldn’t be a big fan of “faith-based initiatives.” Williams once wrote that “Christianity fell asleep in Constantine’s bosom,” and I suspect that he’d see these programs as one more way the church risks being lulled to sleep, one more way in which state power co-opts, compromises and domesticates the counter-cultural message of the Church.

Q. It’s always risky to engage in speculation about historical figures, but if Williams could see the American religious landscape today, what do you think he would say?

A. Again, this kind of exercise makes historians very nervous, because of the oversimplification of history required to transplant Williams into the 21st century. One thing I think we can say, however, is something I mentioned before, that Williams would be surprised and disappointed to discover that a Baptist tradition that claims him as an ancestor would host so many spokespersons for the “Christian nation” reading of American history. At the same time, I’d like to think Williams would be pleased to see that we in the United States have taken seriously the need to preserve religious freedom as our “first liberty,” as well as the need for each generation to parse out exactly what that means in the hard cases when religious obligation and social needs collide.

 Q. Are there any other points you’d like to make?

A. Just that I am grateful that you are raising awareness of Williams’ contributions to the history of religious freedom in this country. Williams’ views on this subject are more sophisticated than some of the options that get a lot of press these days, so I think we could all stand to spend a little more time in the words of this Puritan deviant!