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The Start of American Separation of Church and State



Rob Hardy


We Americans are rightly grateful to the geniuses who founded our nation, and set it going with the ideas that there would be no official religion, no religious requirement for public office, and a separation of church and state. Those founders didn't develop those ideas on their own, of course; the philosopher John Locke is often credited with inspiring ideas of religious freedom in Jefferson and Madison. Locke himself was probably influenced in turn by the Puritan Roger Williams, and Williams had a broader idea of religious freedom (he would extend liberty to atheists) than Locke did. Williams got his ideas of religious liberty from his study of human nature and human government, but especially from the Bible; he was a devout Christian minister. Williams believed in the Puritan cause, and felt it was the right way of Christian belief. We say sometimes that colonists came to America for reasons of religious freedom, but while they might have been fleeing religious persecution, they were ready enough in their turn to persecute those of the "wrong" belief. It was Williams who began turning this around, and in Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, historian John M. Barry has not given a biography of Williams as much as he has teased out the religious and political ideas and the events that brought forth the several revolutionary concepts which Williams instilled in his Rhode Island colony and which were to shape the nation when it came into being a hundred years after he died. Anyone interested in the separation of church and state will find this a fascinating story. 




Williams was born in England around 1603. He came to the attention of the influential jurist Sir Edward Coke as a young expert in shorthand. Coke took him on as secretary, and arranged his education through Cambridge. Coke was a huge influence in Williams's extracurricular education, because through him, Williams got to see first hand Parliament, the Star Chamber, and conferences with King James. The king believed in the divine right of kings (well, he would, wouldn't he?), and Coke was the legal thinker who insisted to the king that a monarch could make laws only through Parliament, not by simply insisting that what he wanted was by definition what God wanted, too. Barry also cites Sir Francis Bacon as an influence, contending that Bacon's insistence on evidence and experimentation rather than dogma or logic was within Williams's intellectual armamentarium, but such influence was indirect especially compared to that of Coke. 




Williams left England for New England in 1631. He got to Boston, where Governor John Winthrop offered him a job as assistant minister. Winthrop's religious view was that the new land would be a Christian "City on a Hill," and that the government had to nurture the church so that the people's wickedness might be curbed and the special covenant with God might be maintained. Williams was to come to opposite ideas, but to start off, he found the Massachusetts church corrupt, and said so, and was banished from Boston shortly after he arrived there. When officials came to arrest him in the winter of 1636, he had been tipped off and he was not at home. He got the help of the Indians through the brutal winter, and reached a bend of bay later named for the Indian inhabitants, the Narragansett. He bought land from them (he always supported the fair purchase rather than the confiscation of Indian lands) and called the settlement Providence.  




It was the beginning of "the freest society in the world, built around a structure of law, endorsing every man's 'peaceable and quiet enjoyment of his lawful right and Libertie.'" Where Winthrop had stressed obedience to God supported by government enforcement of the Ten Commandments, Williams insisted that only parts of the Ten were any of the government's business. It was all well and good for the government to enforce commandments that had to do with human relations; murder, theft, and adultery were properly addressed by civil laws. But the first four commandments had to do with having no God before one in particular, not to make graven images, and to keep the Sabbath holy. Williams said that the state had no right to inject itself into the arena of the relationship of an individual with God. When it came to draw up a compact for his settlement, it stipulated that all within would have "libertie of conscience," the freedom to think of God any way they wished. In fact, the compact made no reference to God in any way. This is simply amazing in the context of the times and the beliefs of the compact's author. Williams was no freethinker; he was as pious a Puritan as any, and his letters and writings are profuse in mentions of God, longing for God, and faith. He included scriptural references throughout his writing; religious thought was the way his mind conducted itself. Not only did he restrict government's role in religion, he overturned the philosophy of government. He would endorse neither the divine right of kings nor the Puritan belief that they were building God's kingdom. Governments did not get their authority either from kings or heads of churches, he began to realize; governments got their authority from their citizens and were responsible to those citizens. He was far ahead of his times; the general thought was akin to what clergyman John Cotton, champion of the Massachusetts way of Puritan enforcement, wrote in opposition to Williams's ideas: "Democracy, I do not conceive that ever God did ordeyne as fitt government eyther for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors who shall be governed? As for monarchy, and aristocracy, they are both of them clearly approved, and directed by scripture." 




That other clergy considered themselves absolutely certain in doctrine was revolting to Williams. He earnestly sought religious truth, but realized that his soul was as uncertain a searcher as anyone else's. This was a foundation of his idea that individuals should be in charge of their own religious growth and effort, and entirely separate from influence by clergy and governors who had complete certainty of what others' beliefs ought to be. Indeed, he called for the wall of separation between church and state a century and a half before Jefferson. He called for an end to laws that were supposed to improve the people morally, such as the ones against cards, bowling, shuffleboard, dice, and other activities that other clergy thought "haynously sinfull." Williams knew that government was necessary; he hated the thought of anarchy as much as he did governmental imposition of religious beliefs. He seemed to think of his Rhode Island colony as an experiment; the members might learn ways of government, but they would not be looking for any confirmation of godly purpose. If they succeeded, it would not be because of God's favor; while others would object that God would prosper nations that had proper religious foundations, Williams pointed out all the Catholic and "Turkish" ones that were thriving. 




Liberty, in the view of Winthrop and his fellow magistrates, was the liberty of living a life which the magistrates themselves would recognize as good and godly, and few of their subjects disagreed with this view. The best aspect of Barry's book is its explanation of the growth of Williams's ideas at a time when they were in opposition to the thinking of the masses and the thinking of the leaders. It is true that Williams successfully petitioned Charles II to approve the colony's charter that said, "No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who do not actually disturb the civil peace of our own society." Nonetheless, Williams's books had been burned; members of Parliament said that if England tolerated the religious errors of citizens, God would surely rain down his wrath. We are still trying to sort out how much religion and state may mix, but we are merely doing some fine tuning; Williams did the initial heavy intellectual labor to separate the two. It was an effort of no small heroism, and Barry's book is a brilliant examination of the birth and institution of Williams's ideas. 




(The author will be visiting Reed's Gumtree bookstore in Tupelo, Monday, Jan 23rd from 12:00-1:30.) 




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