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Roger Williams: The Separation of Conscience and State


There was a whole country in America … to be set on fire by the rapid motion of a windmill in the head of one particular man … one Mr. Roger Williams. — Cotton Mather, New England Puritan minister

Roger Williams (c. 1603–1683), founder of Rhode Island, was a key figure in forging the distinctive American character. The American was a self-governing man who was equal to all others in his enjoyment of freedom. Williams helped to create this American by making an intellectual connection that led to a unique protection of personal freedom. Liberty required the complete separation of church and state. A man’s conscience must be free from all interference from authority. He must have what Williams called “soul-liberty” rather than “soul-rape.

At the same time Williams was preaching soul-liberty in America, the nations of Europe were practicing soul-control — an alliance between state and church, king and God. Some nations actively persecuted those who did not share the state-sanctioned religion; for example the Protestant Huguenots were persecuted by the French Catholic state and forced to flee for their lives. In Williams’s homeland of England, religious disputes eventually sparked a series of civil wars.

But the Puritans who left England to exercise religious freedom did not wish to grant the same freedom to others. They replicated and embraced the idea of church and state as long as the institutions were under their control. Williams stood as an intellectual pioneer in espousing freedom of conscience. If a man’s conscience was not his own, he contended, then that man could own nothing. If he did not have the right to weigh the world and reach his own conclusions, then he had no rights whatsoever.

It is commonly assumed that Williams’s idea of soul-liberty led to the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The first words of the Bill of Rights guarantee soul-liberty even before freedom of speech or freedom of the press are mentioned.

Williams and the wall between church and state

Although he had taken holy orders in the established Church of England (the Anglican Church), Williams was persuaded to Puritanism shortly thereafter. The Puritans sought to simplify the ceremonies and doctrines of the Anglican Church, which they believed resembled Catholicism too closely. The established church objected.

As crucial as religion was to the ensuing conflict, however, the backlash against Puritans in England was also political. The English Puritans tended to be middle-class merchants and affluent businessmen who had an influential presence in Parliament, where they promoted Puritan values. King James I (of England), from whom the King James Bible issued, was solidly Anglican. When the arrogant Charles I succeeded James in 1625, the royal hostility toward Puritans and other non-Anglican Protestants deepened. A tug of war erupted between Charles, who believed his authority was absolute, and a Parliament that wanted to move toward a constitutional monarchy. That led to a campaign of persecution against the Puritans, who reasonably feared they would be stripped of their political offices and property. Those and other bitter tensions eventually ushered in three civil wars and the execution of Charles in 1649.

Williams was intimately acquainted with the consequences of state involvement in religion, and he prudently emigrated to the New World before open violence erupted. An early wave of Puritans called Pilgrims had founded a colony at Plymouth in 1620. In February 1631, Williams and his wife arrived at the colony of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they were warmly welcomed. The welcome did not last long. Williams was immediately offered a prized teaching position, which he immediately rejected owing to a commitment to “separatism” — the belief that Puritans should break completely from a corrupt Church of England. In volume 1 of Conceived in Liberty, Murray Rothbard explained, “An individualist and a fearless logician, Williams had concluded that the Puritan church in Massachusetts, being Separatist de facto, should also be Separatist de jure: that is, should break openly from communion with the Church of England. In short, he pursued the Puritans’ logic further than they were willing to go, and thus embarrassed the Puritans a great deal.”

Williams also rejected the governing document of the colony —the Massachusetts Bay Charter — in part because it sanctioned the confiscation of Indian land; arguably, Williams was also the first American abolitionist to argue against slavery. He also objected to the charter’s civil punishment of religious dissent and disobedience. The latter position particularly outraged authorities. But Williams insisted that the individual alone could determine his relationship with God; all interference by authority was unjustified. “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” he proclaimed and provided specific criticisms.

That also must have embarrassed authorities because it exposed a contradiction within the Puritan position. Rothbard observed, “[A] Protestant theocracy must always suffer from a grave inner contradiction: for one significant tenet of Protestantism is the individual’s ability to interpret the Bible free of ecclesiastical dictates. Although particular Protestant creeds may have no intention of countenancing or permitting dissent, the Protestant stimulus to individual interpretation must inevitably provoke that very dissent.”

Williams was reviled for his belief in the separation of church and state as well. He coined a phrase to describe this position; there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state. By this, he meant there should be no state funding or taxation of any religion and that religion should not determine the policies or operation of government.

More than a century and a half later, Thomas Jefferson used the same wording as Williams. In an 1802 letter, Jefferson called for a “wall of separation between church and state” in order to respect the intimate relationship between an individual and God. That letter is widely credited with being the source of the phrase commonly used to describe the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom: “the separation of church and state.”

Puritan authorities in Massachusetts did not so readily embrace Williams’s “wall.” After all, their power to govern the colony came directly from religious qualifications. In 1635 Williams was banished but given a reasonable period in which to settle his affairs.

When a plot was launched to kidnap the lingering Williams and transport him back to England, he fled and lived for three months with friendly Narragansett Indians. In 1636 he founded the colony of Providence through the rare act of purchasing land from Indians. Other towns nearby were similarly founded by religious refugees from Massachusetts. For example, the antinomians including Anne Hutchinson founded Portsmouth; antinomians believed that faith and not strict observance of the gospel was the true path to salvation. The area became a haven of religious tolerance that welcomed people of all faiths, including Quakers and Jews, and extended respect to Indian beliefs. In 1638 Williams founded the first Baptist church in America from which he himself quickly withdrew, preferring to become a “seeker” — a nondenominational Christian who sought only truth.

The libertarian state of Rhode Island

Although he believed the king had no legal or moral right to grant title to Indian lands, Williams was practical enough to return to England in 1643 and obtain a Land Patent to secure his claim against neighboring colonies. In March 1644 he returned with official documents recognizing “the Providence Plantation in Narragansett Bay,” which became a confederation of towns. (“Plantation” is an antiquated synonym for “colony.”) He also returned with a freshly published book that made him the foremost authority on American Indians: Key into the Languages of America or A help to the Language of the Natives in that part of America called New England. Williams openly considered aspects of Indian culture to be superior to Europe’s, and his book was the first attempt to educate American colonists on how to communicate productively with native residents.

When internal divisions threatened the confederation, Williams returned to England in the company of the Baptist minister John Clarke to obtain a Royal Charter that would cement his claim to the colony. Clarke remained in England and argued tirelessly for the charter until it was granted in 1663 after ten years. The remarkable document affirmed the previous Patent but went much further. Among its unique features:

1. The right of land ownership was explicitly extended to Indians.

2. Absolute religious freedom was assured.

3. Rhode Island became a de facto independent state that made its own laws and elected its own officers.

Rhode Island became renowned among colonies for the unparalleled freedom enjoyed by all individuals, including women and Indians.

The “bloudy tenent” of the state

John Cotton is widely viewed as the most influential theologian of his day in Massachusetts. He and Williams were mirror images on several points. Cotton advocated a strong alliance between church and state, and he came to advocate the harsh punishment of heretics. Cotton also believed men could not find salvation by themselves but required the grace of God.

When Williams was banished from Massachusetts, Cotton corresponded with him on theological points and to explain that the expulsion was due to the tendency of Williams’s “doctrines to disturb the peace of the church and state.” Williams replied. The matter might have ended there if one of Cotton’s letters had not also appeared in a London newspaper. Williams’s public response was Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered (1644).

The correspondence prompted Williams’s best-known political work as well: The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace (1644). The book constitutes one of the earliest defenses of the separation of church and state. Written as a dialogue between Truth and Peace, the book drew upon the Old and New Testament to argue that religious conformity violated God’s will. Williams concluded, “God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing consciences, persecution of Christ Jesus in His servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”

Cotton responded to The Bloudy Tenent with a publication of his own, The Bloudy Tenent, Washed, and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb (1647). In turn, Williams responded with The Bloudy Tenent yet More Bloudy: by Mr. Cotton’s Endeavour to Wash it White in the Bloud of the Lamb (1652).

The most important impact of the exchange was its likely influence on several Founding Fathers. In his book Religious Freedom: Rights and Liberties under the Law, Melvin Urofsky wrote, “Whether or not Jefferson read Roger Williams, there is a direct link between the ideals of the ‘bloudy tenent’ and the ideals expressed in the Statute and the First Amendment.” “The Statute” refers to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) drafted by Jefferson. The Statute strengthened the religious protections within the Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) drafted by George Mason with assistance from James Madison. Those documents led directly to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (1791), which was championed by both Jefferson and Madison.

Specific ideas argued by Williams are expressed in the main body of the Constitution as well. For example, Article VI, paragraph 3 reads, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That reflects Williams’s belief that no political office or act should be predicated on a religious qualification.

The most compelling argument for Williams’s likely influence, however, is the implausibility of Jefferson’s and Madison’s being unaware of history that occurred in their own backyards. They were highly educated men to whom religious freedom was a driving passion. In their writings and the measures they supported, both Jefferson and Madison expressed the same political views as Williams — sometimes in much the same language.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).