Colonial Activist for Church-State Separation

For decades in the United States groups of ego-centered religionists have been demanding that their brand of religion be jammed into the mechanism of national government. None of those holy howlers seem to be aware that the call for church/state separation was originally championed by a truth-seeking religionist. That man was Roger Williams who fled England in 1631 to put down roots in the “new world” where he hoped to worship God in his chosen way (Calvinist-Puritan). Earlier, in 1630, one thousand persons under the leadership of John Winthrop had established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in an effort to distance themselves from the tyranny of the crown, which they regarded as practicing corruption through supervision of the Church of England. Williams, with his family in tow, arrived in Boston in February of 1631.

The form of faith which Williams hoped to find available in the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not measure up to his idea of proper spiritual conduct. He was appalled that the people of the Boston congregation had never publicly declared their repentance for their former communion with the Church of England. He therefore took his spiritual opinions to Salem where he had obtained a pastorate position. But there, too, Williams soon alienated the civil authorities by daring to accuse them of exceeding their proper jurisdiction in their inflicting of punishment on those who broke the rules for observing the Sabbath. Such conduct, Williams declared, was a violation of ecclesiastical authority. The civil authorities were not amused, and promptly expelled Williams, and he sought refuge in Plymouth. Christian charity and forgiveness struggled to assert itself in Salem, however, and Williams was grudgingly permitted to return to Salem in 1633.

Ah, but Williams’ spiritual conviction (or maybe it was ego) had not softened. To his credit Williams acknowledged the equality of spirit before God which is within everyone, and that democratic perspective of fairness toward others led to serious conflict with the Massachusetts Bay government. William dared to question the validity of the Massachusetts Bay charter under which the colonial authorities had taken possession of the land of the Indians without giving any form of compensation. Williams also noted that the colonists had an authoritarian practice of faith imposed upon them that was much like the tyrannical imposition from which the colonists had fled England. This assessment caused the government piety to hit the fan in 1635 and Williams was banished from Massachusetts by the order of the General Court and warned that he would be deported to England if he continued his disruptive behavior.

Williams apparently said to himself the Puritan equivalent of WTF, and with a few devoted friends took off in midwinter for Narragansett Bay where, in 1636, he purchased land from the local Indian chiefs, and founded Providence, Rhode Island. The government that he then established was founded on complete religious toleration. Along this spiritual journey, Williams had embraced the belief in submersion baptism, and in 1639 was himself baptized and then baptized others. Thus was founded the first Baptist church in the colonies. But Williams continued to be spiritually frustrated, and doubt crept upon him over the validity of his own baptism, which agitated him to the point that he withdrew from the church that he had founded! He did not, however, waver in his basic Christian principles.

Through the following years Williams would journey twice to England; first in 1643 to obtain from the crown a charter for the Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay. By this time the theocratic governing body in Massachusetts looked upon Rhode Island as infected with spiritual pestilence and proceeded to march through Providence and by force of arms seize what is now Warwick. Only the English Parliament, which supported Massachusetts, could stop the power play, and England itself was in a civil war because of the state-controlled Church of England. Religious freedom was not understood intellectually, and Christians in England slaughtered other Christians simply because they chose to worship differently. But somehow Williams managed to procure legal charter from Parliament, and it confirmed to him the wisdom of keeping church and state separate.

The second journey to England was in October 1652, again to seek renewal of colony charter. By that time King Charles II ruled over England, and the king confirmed Rhode Island’s charter. Notable in the king’s approval of the colony charter was the affirmation that no person was to be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.” Wisdom was beginning to evolve. During both sojourns in England, Williams wrote a number of dissertations, notable among them was a treatise on the nature and jurisdiction of civil government entitled The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause Of Conscience Discussed (Old English spelling).

After Williams returned to Rhode Island in 1654, he was elected president of the colony, and served in that capacity until 1657. During his presidency, in 1656, heavy persecution of the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, in Boston had resulted in Quakers seeking refuge in Rhode Island. Williams had always remained steadfast in his guiding principle of religious tolerance, and he refused to persecute the refugees. In Williams’ view, the state could not prevent error in religious interpretations of God’s laws, and by the same measure, religious dogmatists (with their tendency to err) could not be expected to reliably direct tolerant workings of government policies over the wide diversity of people which God had fashioned.

It is interesting to note that in the later part of his life Williams accepted that institutions which were formulated by faith systems did not really function as expressions of God’s will. It seemed to him that it was only within each individual’s personal essence that life’s higher potential could be achieved. During the remainder of his life Roger Williams, a former pastor, continued to advocate separation of church and state; but he was never again a member of any self-serving church.

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