1603 - 1683
A pursuer of religious freedomby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
In 1802 Tomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists, assuring that their rights as a religious minority would be protected from federal interference. In this letter he uses the well known phrase "high wall of separation” between church and state. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that Congress "shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. " The phrase “wall of separation” was later quoted by the US Supreme Court in 1878, and then in a series of court cases starting in 1947. What most people do not realize however is that 158 years earlier, Roger Williams, a preacher and the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, used similar wording when he warned people about creating an opening “in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
Williams was born in London at a time when the government still controlled religious activities, demanded that the people to do what it thought was right and forced the people to believe what it thought should be believed. The last man burned at the stake for heresy in London died when Roger Williams was about 9 years of age. Williams decided to follow his own understanding of the Bible rather than the religious authorities of his day. He was the first to create a government that allowed for separation of church and state in America. By doing this he influenced freedom of religion in the United States of America and he indirectly impacted religious liberty in many other countries today.
Roger Williams was born into an Anglican (Church of England) family in London around 1603. When he was 11 he became a Puritan against his father’s wishes. Later in his life he saw flaws in the Puritan’s point of view about the relationship between church and state. Mainly for this reason he rejected the Puritan’s point of view. After graduating from Cambridge University, he married Marry Bernard. In 1630 Roger Williams decided to move to New England because he felt that he could not work under William Laud, an Archbishop in the Anglican Church.
In 1631 Roger Williams and his wife arrived in Boston, under the leadership of John Winthrop. He was offered a position as a pastor in an “unseparated” church (i.e. still in communion with the Church of England). Williams declined the offer because he believed that civil authority should not be the same as the ecclesiastical authority and that people should have “soul-liberty”. His belief in this made his life more evident than many others of his time. In Plymouth, Roger Williams’ views were not agreed with by other members of the colony. For this reason, in 1633, he moved to Salem and there he was an unofficial assistant to the pastor of the church there, Reverend Samuel Skelton.
After Skelton’s death, in 1634, Williams became acting pastor and immediately got in to controversies with the Massachusetts authorities. He was exiled for spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions" that questioned the church. Saying good-bye to his wife and children, he sought refuge with his Indian friends in the Narragansett country. Later governor Endicott invited Williams to return to Massachusetts. Williams declined the offer saying, "I feel safer down here among the Christian savages along Narragansett Bay than I do among the savage Christians of Massachusetts Bay Colony”. Thankfully at this time Williams’ wife and children were able to come and live with him again.
Williams made a settlement on the Moshassuck River which he named Providence after the many “Providences of the Most Holy and Only Wise”. He purchased this land from the Massasoit Indians. In Proverbs 16:7 it says, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, He makes his enemies at peace with him”. At that time most Indians were enemies with the English. But because Williams, by studying the Bible, knew and did what was right, the Indians were at peace with him and were willing to sell him land to live on. With the land that was sold to him, he founded the colony of Providence, which is now the capital of the state of Rhode Island. It became a haven for Quakers, Jews and others fleeing from persecution because of the religious freedom given by the government he established.
God had given Roger Williams the gift of languages. He acquired familiarity with Latin, Greek, Dutch and French early in his life. During the time that he lived with the Massasoit Indians, Williams learned their language and used his knowledge to make peace between the Indians. Once he even protected the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Mathew 5:9 Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”. Roger Williams was a peacemaker.
In 1644 they declared, "It is ordered and agreed, that if any person or persons, within this jurisdiction, shall either openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or seduce others, or leave the congregation during the administration of this rite, they shall be sentenced to banishment." This meant that the Baptists, who practiced “believer’s baptism”, had to leave Massachusetts and go back to England. But instead, they found refuge in Rhode Island.
In Mathew 22:15-21 the Pharisees try to trick Jesus by mixing up God’s authority over our lives with the government’s authority to collect taxes. They asked whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus tells them that they are to give what is Caesar’s to Caesar and give what is God’s to God. Thus He was separating church and state. Roger Williams preached, “Persons may with less sin be forced to marry whom they cannot love, than to worship when they cannot believe." He did not approve of forcing people to believe. Williams believed that the government should have no part in religious matters. Thus Roger Williams, like Jesus, believed in the separation of church and state.
The impact of Williams’ view of government has allowed for a great amount of religious freedom in America. In the 1700s evangelical revivals occurred without funding or pressure by the government because of this freedom. In nations like Spain (Roman Catholic background) and Turkey (Muslim majority) similar principles of separation have also been applied in different ways.
The most striking difference is that Americans are specifically allowed freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. A Muslim in a public building could wear a headscarf in America, but not in Turkey. A Roman Catholic in Spain, could legally homeschool in America for religious reasons, but that right is not so easily allowed in Spain. Roger Williams stood for religious freedom, not state enforced freedom from religion.