The Church – State Debate Begins
By Walt Pontynen and Karen Scott
The long, stormy voyage across the Atlantic came to an end on February 5, 1631 when Roger Williams, in search of freedom, landed in the New World. He and fellow Puritans fled England to find sanctuary from religious intolerance and persecution. The Puritans envisioned a new land – a New Canaan – where the church and state, in covenant with God, would create a perfect Church of England. Heavenly blessings would flow to their “City on a Hill.” The colony, established only a few months before Williams’ arrival, was meant to be, in the words of the Puritans, a “model of Christian charity.”
Unlike his fellow Puritans, Williams had no ambition to perfect the Church of England. He was not looking for a place where religious uniformity was enforced. Williams desired a refuge where the soul was at liberty to search for God and to worship Him as the spirit directed or not to worship at all. As a result, Williams’ sanctuary was of short duration. In less than five years, his radical ideas would again make him an outcast.
In New Canaan, a close connection existed between religious and civil authorities. Church attendance was required, but membership was limited to the elect whom God had specifically chosen to inherit heaven. Only church members could hold public office. Blasphemy and swearing were prohibited while the Sunday Sabbath was strictly enforced. The Puritans were preparing for a millennium of righteousness here on earth that would precede the Second Coming of Christ to which only the elect could look forward. They believed that unity of church and state was necessary to bring this about.
On the other hand, Williams’ view of events just prior to the millennium was significantly different. He did not believe that a union of church and state would usher in a period of peace and righteousness. On the contrary, in Williams’ view, the Book of Revelation taught that persecution and slaughter of the faithful along with calamities and chaos preceded the millennium. Only the faithful could look forward to the return of Christ and their eternal reign with Him.
These contrasting pre-millennial viewpoints still exist. There are those who believe that the state will assist religion in preparing the world for the millennium; others believe the state will assist the anti-Christ in persecuting the righteous.
To quote the Puritan, the “fundamental task of the state [was] the establishment of pure religion and the reformation of corrupted religion.” The “magistrate’s highest and noblest calling [was] the suppression of heresy and the protection of religion.” The unrepentant could justly be deprived “of the common air of the world by death.”
This was not the New World envisioned by Roger Williams, a God-fearing, seeker of truth and of the will of God. At an early age (about 10 years) he became a follower of God when “the Father of Lights and Mercies touched my soul with a love to himself.” From then until the end of his life, he sought to live a life portraying God’s love and freedom to others. The God he knew would never exercise force or coercion to obtain followers.
Williams’ beliefs differed from his fellow Puritans in numerous ways. Williams believed that Christ had died for all, not just the elect. Williams advocated total separation from the “polluted” Church of England. He further raised the hackles of New Canaan’s establishment by declaring that, “the magistrate has no power to enforce religious demands. The laws of the First Table . . . belong to the realm of religion, not politics.”
In Williams’ view, the state could only assist the church “in the sense that it maintains peace and order.” And the church could only assist the state “in the sense that it may cast a blush of civility and morality upon the citizens.” Williams envisioned God’s church as a garden with a “hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world,“ thus originating the concept of separation of church and state in America.
To Williams, forced belief and worship were spiritual rape. It was “requiring an unwilling Spouse to enter a forced bed, which even the Indians abhor.” He further irritated the authorities by proposing that the Indians should be paid for their land.
Williams’ heretical utterances were tolerated for about four years. His radicalism and persuasive personality threatened the entire Puritan enterprise. In the fall of 1635, the Massachusetts General Court found that he had “new and dangerous opinions” and ordered that he leave the colony in six weeks.
However, with winter approaching, the sentence was suspended until spring, provided that Williams kept still. Williams’ passion for “soul libertye” made this impossible. In January 1636 the authorities, meeting in secret, determined to immediately return Williams to England.
Alerted of his impending arrest, Williams plunged into the wintry Massachusetts’ wilderness rather than face an unknown but dire fate in England. For 14 wintry weeks he was at the mercy of the elements, dependent upon the benevolence of Indians he had previously befriended. Later Williams would write, “God makes a Path, provides a Guide, And feeds in Wildernesse!”
In the spring of 1636, Roger Williams arrived at the headwaters of Narragansett Bay. Here he founded a new colony based on “soul libertye.” In contrast to the other Puritans, he purchased his land from the Indians at a fair price. Roger Williams named the village “Providence” in recognition of God’s care for him during the last few months when he had “No house, but hollow tree! In stormy Winter night no fire, No food, no company.”
Unlike the other colonies, one was not molested or threatened due to religious beliefs or lack thereof in Roger Williams’ Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. No church or religion was granted state-backed preference. Settlers of all religions or of no religion were welcome. Rhode Island was a refuge for Baptists, Jews, Quakers, Catholics and Seventh Day Baptists. Because Rhode Island welcomed anyone and everyone, the other colonists knew it as the “sewer of New England.”
The establishment of Rhode Island did not end the controversy between Massachusetts Bay and Roger Williams. The conflict became a duel of words between Williams and John Cotton. Cotton, a Puritan minister and a leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was the moral voice for many of New England’s colonists. He had arrived two years after Roger Williams and became one of his major antagonists.
Over the next several years dynamic and often heated letters and books regarding church-state relations were exchanged between Williams and Cotton. Their dialogue marks the first time in America that two great intellects directly tangled over the issue of proper church-state relationships, issues that are very much alive today.
Cotton’s major premise was that the “fundamental task of the state is the establishment of pure religion and the reformation of corrupted religion.” In performing this duty, Cotton contended that, “the civil sword may be used against Christians embracing false doctrines.” To Cotton the very survival of civilization “depends upon this right.” Liberty of conscience was only “for those who truly feared the Lord.”
In contrast, Roger Williams’ fundamental belief was that a “Hedge” or “Wall of Separation” existed between the “Garden of the Church” and the “Wilderness of the World.” When a gap opens in the hedge or the wall, the garden becomes a wilderness.
Williams declared, “The sword may make a whole nation hypocrites, but it cannot bring one soul in genuine conversion to Christ.” He wrote that, “books written on behalf of peace and liberty are written in milk, while books proposing conformity and persecution are written in blood.”
Williams asked, “Are we not obliged to listen to the fearful cries of many thousands of men, women and children, fathers, and mother, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, old and young, high and low – who have been plundered, ravished, famished, slaughtered and murdered!”
Rhetorically, he inquired, “Who is to decide who truly fears the Lord?” And then declared, “To deny liberty to all non-Christians, is to confound both Heaven and Earth.” To Roger Williams, “soul libertye” was for all, Christian or non-Christian, believer or non-believer, for the papist led by the anti-Christ or for the despised Quaker and Jew.
Some have contended that Rogers Williams’ hedge or wall was a one-way barrier meaning that the state could not inflict its will on the church, but the church could use the state to achieve its goals. Williams’ metaphor of a ship at sea contradicts this concept and provides further insight into Williams’ church-state philosophy.
“There goes many a Ship to Sea,” he began, “with many a Hundred Souls.” The ship was a metaphor for the state and its passengers included “Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks” whom the ship’s captain could not force “to come to Ship’s Prayers or Worship,” nor could they be compelled to forsake “their own particular Prayers or Worship.”
However, Williams added, “not withstanding this Liberty, the Commander of this Ship ought to command, the Ship’s course; yea and also to command that Justice, Peace, and Sobriety, be kept and practiced . . . .” It was clear that the captain “may judge, resist, compel, and punish such Transgressors.”
Williams said nothing about assisting any of the different religions or all of them. According to Williams “the Civil Magistrate’s power extends only to the Bodies and Goods, and outward state of men.” This the magistrate was to do for the Christian or non-Christian. But the magistrate was to leave their souls to God. In turn the Christian was to obey his rulers, but this obedience was confined to civil affairs only.
This concept was foreign to the prevailing thought of the day, which was that church and state must be united in order for either of them to survive – there must be religious uniformity. The Puritans came to the New World not for religious freedom for all, but freedom only for themselves so that they could form a pure church that would be a light to the world and be embraced unanimously by mother England. A spiritually blessed England would then lead the world into the millennium.
Williams came to the New World in search of a place where liberty of conscience in religious matters was recognized as a fundamental right not to be tampered with by the civil magistrate. Rhode Island was founded on this principle. To Williams this was “the lively experiment.” At times it was indeed lively, and at times it was considered a failure. Many in New England despised Rhode Island.
Over time Roger Williams’ principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state triumphed. During the post-revolutionary period, two Baptist ministers, Isaac Backus and John Leland, adherents of Williams’ church-state separation philosophy, combined forces with rationalist leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in an effort to end the establishment of religion in the United States.
As a result of this alliance between religious and secular forces, the United States became the first nation without a national church. Additionally, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution recognized religious liberty as a fundamental freedom. By 1833, all the individual states had ended their establishments of religion.
In contrast to Williams’ triumph, the historian, Vernon Parrington, observed that the “dreams and aspirations” of New Canaan’s advocates “lie forgotten in the grave of lost causes and forsaken faiths.” Unfortunately, in recent years the idea of a New Canaan has been resurrected and it principles incorrectly portrayed as the “traditional values” upon which the United States was founded.
To give this rebirth credence, Williams’ principles are being trashed as either the inventions of an anti-clerical Thomas Jefferson and bigoted, anti-Catholics or as the modern inventions of ungodly, secular humanists and a liberal judiciary. Such statements are intellectually dishonest. Roger Williams was not a secular humanist. His love and reverence for God never left him. He was an individual completely committed to seeking God’s truth while constructing on a solid biblical foundation a system of religious liberty for everyone.
- Our main source for Williams’ life and quotations is Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991)