Why We Celebrate — the (Religious) Origins of the Separation of Church & State

(In honor of the 4th, here’s a short excerpt from my 2005 book with Charles Haynes, First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America –– about the origins of our commitment to religious liberty. It may surprise you . . .)

When New Amsterdam refused entry to a shipload of Quakers in 1657, the clergy of the Dutch Reformed Church were happy to be rid of them. In a letter to Holland, two church leaders speculated the Quakers had sailed to Rhode Island — “for that is the receptacle of all sorts of riff-raff people, and is nothing less than the sewer of New England. All the cranks of New England retire thither. They are not tolerated in any other place.”

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island would probably have taken that as a compliment. He envisioned Rhode Island as a haven for the cause of conscience, and the colony was the first place in America with no established faith, where every person had full religious liberty. It came as no surprise to him that dissenters, non-conformists, and “cranks” ended up in his colony. Where else could they go?

Williams himself needed a haven. He was one of the “riff-raff people,” banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 as a heretic and troublemaker. Why couldn’t Massachusetts Bay Colony tolerate Roger Williams? Ask John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay.

Before reaching the shores of New England in 1630, Winthrop was reputed to have stood on the deck of the ship Arbella to remind his fellow Puritans of their God-given mission in the New World. In his much-quoted sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” he preached that they had left England prepared to endure many hardships in order to establish “a city upon a hill,” an ideal Christian community for all the world to see.

Most of the passengers listening to Winthrop on the Arbella were reformers who despaired of ever “purifying” the Church of England of what they considered corruptions of Christ’s teachings. Unwelcome and often persecuted in their native land, they traveled to a New World seeking freedom to live and worship as they believed God intended.

But the liberty America’s Puritan forebears sought was religious freedom for themselves–not for others. And dissent from this vision of a “holy commonwealth” was not long in coming. In 1631, only a year after the arrival of the Arbella, a young clergyman named Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts Bay. Williams’s fundamental objection to the colony was religious in nature. More Puritan than the Puritans, he called for the purification of the colony’s churches. This meant, among other things, complete separation from the Church of England.

Williams expressed his separatist ideas without concern for the political consequences or for his personal loss of position or money. His only abiding interest was to build what he called “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “Garden of the Church” and the “Wilderness of the World.” His concept of an uncorrupted church required a complete separation of church and state. For the church to remain pure, he argued, the government must not be involved in religious matters and churches should not be involved with affairs of state.

Williams also argued that every person must be given the freedom to accept or reject God’s call to salvation. Reason and scripture may be used to convince sinners, he believed, but force must never be used–especially by the state. He reminded his fellow Puritans of Europe’s long history of religious wars and divisions. Imposition of religion by the state, he argued, only leads to persecution and bloodshed.

“It is the will and command of God,” wrote Williams, “that a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s spirit, the Word of God.”

In other words, Williams was convinced that God required “soul liberty,” because God had created every person with freedom of conscience–the freedom to choose in matters of faith. This vision of religious liberty was in direct opposition to the vision of a new Israel proclaimed by Winthrop on the Arbella.

Given this radical departure from Puritan teachings, it is not surprising that Massachusetts Bay, struggling to survive the harsh conditions of New England and fearful that a hostile king would revoke their charter, banished Roger Williams in 1635. Once forced to leave Massachusetts, Williams founded the new colony of Rhode Island. In an extraordinary break with the precedents of history, the new colony had no established religion. Religious liberty was guaranteed to people of all faiths or no faith. Soon Jews, Quakers, and others not welcome elsewhere made their home there.

Few people in the seventeenth century imagined that this unprecedented experiment in Rhode Island could succeed. A society without divine sanction, especially one that allowed dissent, appeared to most observers to have written its own death warrant. But Rhode Island survived and soon became a haven for dissenters not welcome in Massachusetts Bay.

Roger Williams believed that many of the dissenters who flocked to Rhode Island were wrong in their religious ideas. But Williams’s views about other faiths, even his personal hostility to some, did not affect his wholehearted commitment to “soul liberty” for all who settled in the colony he founded.

God, Williams believed, had given people the right to be wrong.

Categories: Democracy, First Amendment

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