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Roger Williams & Church-State Separation

by Edwin Gaustad

These days, separation of church and state is in danger of becoming a hollow cliché. And on other days, it has been in danger of being regarded as a communist plot or, more recently, as a secularist one.

A look back at the life of the seventeenth-century founder of Rhode Island corrects these misunderstandings as well as gives a passionate freshness to the whole subject. Roger Williams was no communist, no secularist, and above all no huckster of empty slogans.

He was a deeply religious believer, in some ways even more religious than the Puritans who ejected him from Massachusetts in 1635. And he advocated religious liberty not because religion mattered so little but because it mattered so much.

He fought for religious liberty not only on theoretical or ideological grounds, but also on the eminently pragmatic realization that the absence of such liberty had cost countless lives in Europe and in England, and threatened to do so in the newly colonized lands of North America. Or, in his incendiary words, “the whole earth [has been] made drunk with the blood of its inhabitants.” Has the time not come, he asked in wrenching words, to still the “fearful cries” of the many thousands of “men, women, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, old, and young, high and low, plundered, ravished, slaughtered, murdered, famished” – all in the name of attempts to impose a state-sanctioned conformity in religion? Surely no enlightened nation, no compassionate people could tolerate the continued use of the bloody swords raised against the tender consciences of its people.

Such a commonplace idea now; such a radical idea then. Indeed, the book in which Williams so zealously made his case against religious persecution (The Bloudy Tenent, 1644) was quickly burned in London and vigorously banned in Boston. For Williams was making war not merely against a Puritan peculiarity but against the received wisdom of the whole western world. Church and state must work together, in intimate alliance, to preserve the moral and social order, rooting with frenzied vigor all heresy, all novelty, all nonconformity. Williams chose not the path of least resistance, but the path of greatest resistance.

Nearly twenty years would pass before (with the help of a Newport neighbor) he would be able to guarantee a measure of religious liberty even to his tiny colony. That guarantee came in the form of a royal charter, granted to Rhode Island by King Charles II in 1663. Without ambiguity that charter embraced a shockingly novel notion: namely, that “a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained…with a full liberty in religious concernments.” When near the end of his life, Williams watched his fellow Rhode Islanders plunge into contention and disputation, he reminded them that “our charter excels all in New England or the world, as to the souls of men.”

Gradually, other charters followed suit (e.g. New Jersey, Carolina), as religious liberty proved to be not such a horrifying notion. John Locke helped, as did William Penn. Then, a century later, a new nation went on record against any establishment of religion and for a free exercise guaranteed to all religion. The struggle had been long, and the treasure found at the end priceless. As Roger Williams declared, “Having bought truth dear, we must not sell it cheap – not the least grain of it for the whole world.”

Now we find ourselves mired in protracted debates over faith-based initiatives and whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Our whole history has been filled with faith-based initiatives, but they have been under the direction of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and voluntary organizations. What is different in the current controversy is that the initiative in “faith-based initiatives” is being taken by government. And what is wrong with that?

In Roger Williams’s terms, this allows the wilderness of the world to invade the garden of the church. In our terms, such government sponsorship blurs if it does obliterate the essential distinction between civil and spiritual affairs. And that distinction is essential if we are to prevent a gradual return to that bloody world that Williams and so many others fought valiantly to deliver us from.

Separation of church and state is a cause, not a cliché. It is a constant challenge, not a weak-willed surrender. Religious liberty, as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both recognized, is not an embellishment of liberty, but the very foundation of all liberty.

Edwin S. Gaustad is the author of Roger Williams in Oxford’s Lives and Legacies series.

Recent Comments

  1. Dave's Mormon Inquiry

    Church and State

    Edwin Gaustad posted a short essay entitled Roger Williams

  2. Rhianna Hawk

    Wow, I had no idea that so much of our religious freedoms today were impacted by just one man. I’m looking for historical novels about influential figures in history for a report in my college History course, and Roger Williams sounds like a great subject. I love your quote of him saying that “our charter excels all in New England or the world, as to the souls of men.”

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