Roger Williams and the Separation of Church and State

It is often said that when the Puritans first settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were seeking religious freedom. It should more properly be said that they were seeking freedom from religious freedom.

The stated purpose of these Puritans was to establish a City on a Hill, dedicated to their particular vision of God and the performance of what they regarded as God’s laws. They allowed no room for individual interpretation. Puritan ministers were compelled to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, or face imprisonment. Everyone was compelled to attend approved church services, or suffer painful consequences. The colony’s leaders believed that it was the responsibility of the State to prevent error in religion; they believed the success of the colony depended on it.

Roger Williams was a young English clergyman, and a graduate of Cambridge. He brought his family to Massachusetts Bay Colony a few months after its establishment, and the Boston church immediately offered him a post.

At first he turned it down. Williams was convinced that preventing error in religion was not the responsibility of the State. He did not believe preventing such error was even possible, for when people interpreted God’s law, they would inevitably err. It was his belief that a society such as the Puritan leaders envisioned would corrupt the church.

Yet he eventually accepted a position at a church in Salem. Soon he had gathered about him a like-minded congregation. The authorities continued to keep a wary eye on him, and eventually his free-thinking interpretations of Scripture became too much for them. In October 1635, the General Court banished him and gave him six weeks to leave the colony.

Because Williams was ill, and winter was coming, they agreed to extend his stay in the colony until spring, provided he did not speak publicly during that time. He complied, yet continued to promote his views privately, among his friends and family. The authorities considered this a violation of their terms, and in January they sent soldiers to arrest him and have him shipped off to England. Warned of the impending arrest, Williams quickly put on his warmest clothes, stuffed his pockets with provisions, and fled into the snow.

For 14 weeks he survived in the wilderness, helped only by some Indians with whom he had previously traded. Eventually he found his way to a likely spot for settlement, and purchased it from the Narragansett Indians. He called the place Providence.

His family and a dozen or so others soon joined him, and quickly he realized they would need some form of government. He drafted up a political contract, a remarkable document that showed just how free-thinking he had become.

Although all English and colonial precedent gave him complete political control over the settlement on the land he had purchased, he relinquished almost all the land to the common stock of the town, and with the land any special political rights to which it would entitle him. He reserved for himself only a vote equal to that of the others. And in stark contrast to the founding documents of every other European settlement in the New World, the compact made no mention of God’s kingdom, God’s will, or God’s blessing. It didn’t mention God at all.

This omission was no accidental oversight. Even Williams’ worst enemies knew how pious he was. Devotion to God informed everything he did, or wrote, or said. By leaving God out of the compact, he was intentionally limiting the government of Providence to matters purely civil. Unlike every other English settlement, this one would neither set up a church nor require church attendance. All this was completely revolutionary.

Massachusetts did not take kindly to having this godless colony at its borders. The authorities began to claim more and more land in an attempt to swallow up the new colony. So Williams sailed to England to convince Parliament to grant him a legal charter.

At first, Parliament was no more receptive than Massachusetts to the idea of divorcing church from state. Tradition and universal public opinion still demanded the death penalty for heretics. But Williams was relentless, promoting his views tirelessly wherever he could get an audience. In February 1644 he published a pamphlet in which he used for the first time a phrase which continues to echo through public debate in America today: “(the) wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”

His efforts paid off. Since Rhode Island was a tiny settlement, safely separated from England by a vast ocean, Parliament agreed to let him perform his revolutionary experiment. His charter was granted in March of 1644. The charter gave the colonists complete self-rule, as long as their tiny government conformed, more or less, to English law. Amazingly, it left religious decisions up to the majority of Rhode Island settlers.

Williams had created freest society the Western world had yet seen.

(Barry 72-90)

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