Roger Williams: Father of Religious Freedom in America

Roger Williams came to the New World in 1631 with much the same hopes as the first Pilgrim Separatists. His heart’s desire was to see a pure church raised up, with no ties to the Church of England and its corruption, compromise, and oppression. Ironically that desire is what led to his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the end of 1635. His outspoken zeal for “soul liberty” proved too radical for the Puritan leaders of the colony, who had brought with them the same spirit of religious intolerance from which they had fled.

Slipping away just before his arrest, Roger Williams fled into the wilderness and found refuge among the Indians. In later writings, Williams recalls how he was “denied the common air to breathe... and almost without mercy and human compassion, exposed to winter miseries in a howling wilderness [for fourteen weeks] not knowing what bread or bed did mean .” During this time, whatever shelter he found was in the dingy, smoky lodges of the Indians. Their hospitality to him in his time of need was something he sought to repay with kindness all the rest of his life.

In early 1636, Williams purchased land from the Indians and with a few friends founded a settlement they called Providence Plantations , which soon became a refuge for those “distressed of conscience.” Williams eventually obtained a royal charter for the colony, which later became the State of Rhode Island, based on this mandate:

No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion ... but that all persons may ... enjoy their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments.1

What is most significant about the royal charter is that it acknowledges at the foundation of Rhode Island’s government two important principles: republicanism (democratic governments made up of representatives elected by its citizens) and religious liberty . These principles characterize our American government and are later expressed in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Neither republicanism nor religious liberty can be found in any of the charters of the other colonies in which the church and state were united. It is therefore easy to determine the original source of those principles which have protected our religious freedom and made America a refuge for the oppressed of every land. The nation’s debt to Roger Williams is a debt that can never be canceled.

The Bloudy Tenent

His bitter experience of the English Reformation, from the acrid stench of men burning at the stake in England to his banishment from Massachusetts, caused Roger Williams to write his famous Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience in which he argued his case for something hitherto unseen in the Western world -- the complete separation of church and state. The Puritan society of Massachusetts, through the civil magistrates, attempted to force its religious conscience on all who lived there. This was consistent with the whole bloody history of Christendom since the reign of Constantine. Such persecution revealed to Williams “that religion cannot be true which needs such instruments of violence to uphold it.” 2

In the great struggle of his soul, Roger Williams finally came to the conclusion that the true church had long ago ceased to exist on the earth:

The Christian Church or Kingdom of the Saints, that Stone cut out of the mountain without human hands, (Daniel 2) now made all one with the mountain or Civil State, the Roman Empire, from whence it is cut or taken: Christ’s lilies, garden and love, all one with the thorns, the daughters and wilderness of the World. 3

Christianity fell asleep in the bosom of Constantine, and the laps and bosoms of those Emperors who professed the name of Christ.” 4

So, when did the church die? The trail of evidence that proved the death of the church led from the Puritan society of New England all the way back to Constantine’s nationalization of Christianity in the fourth century. Since that time, Williams concluded, the world had been under the dominion of the “anti-Christian” Roman Catholic Church. 5 Gone was the cultural and spiritual wall that had separated His garden, the church, from the wilderness of the world. 6 As legal scholar Timothy Hall described it:

According to Roger Williams, there was no garden to be protected any longer. Weeds grew where cultivated flowers once bloomed. He did not advocate a wall between church and state; he mourned the wall’s destruction and the destruction of the church. There was no church left to be separated from the state. The most that true believers could do was wait in expectation that God would one day send apostles who would replant the garden.7

There are some who credit Williams with founding the first Baptist church in America, and point to the fact of his baptism in Providence. It is true that Roger Williams and eleven friends formed the first Baptist church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. Ezekiel Holliman baptized Williams by immersion in March of 1639. He had followed Williams from the Salem church where Williams had briefly taught several years before. Williams then proceeded to baptize Holliman and ten friends. Shortly after this, however, he came to a most remarkable conclusion, as one of those friends describes:

I [Richard Scott] walked with him in the Baptists’ way about three or four months, in which time he brake from the society, and declared at large the ground and reasons of it; that their baptism could not be right because it was not administered by an apostle. After that he set upon a way of seeking (with two or three other men that had dissented with him) by way of preaching and praying; and there he continued a year or two, till two of the three had left him. 8

Roger Williams’ actions declared what his later words would make abundantly clear: all Christian baptisms were and are invalid, unless apostles, like those of the first-century church, administered them. Roger Williams expressed this in his radical statement regarding the conversion of the Indians of New England:

How readily I could have brought the whole Country to have observed one day in seven; ... to have received a Baptism ... to have come to a stated Church meeting, maintained priests and forms of prayer, and a whole form of Antichristian worship in life and death ... Why have I not brought them to such a conversion as I speak of? 9 I answer, woe be to me, if I call light darkness, and darkness light ... woe be to me if I call that conversion unto God, which is indeed subversion of the souls of millions in Christendom, from one false worship to another, and the profanation of the holy name of God. 10

In Roger Williams’ eyes the church had died and would remain dead until God rekindled the spark of the early church through the love and authority of the apostles he would raise up at some point in the future. It did no good to try to convert people to a dead religion. Williams began to call himself a “waiter,” for he saw no alternative but to wait patiently until that restoration. 11 Meanwhile, he and the rest of mankind must find a way to live in peace and practice their diverse and divided religions according to the persuasion of their own conscience.

The Separation of Church and State

This conclusion brought Roger Williams to his understanding of the proper role of the state. He realized that the affairs of the state ought to be purely secular. He rejected John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” vision of the Puritan colony in Massachusetts, in which the civil government had the power to enforce religious correctness . He believed that no nation had a mandate from God to bring His redemptive plan to the world, 12 therefore the affairs of the state should be separate from the affairs of religion. Individual believers of all faiths should be protected from the tyranny that results when religion forms an alliance with secular government.

It was from this conviction that Roger Williams established the colony called Providence Plantations, which later became the state of Rhode Island. Nowhere in the colonies was there more personal freedom and acceptance of diverse religious expression. Williams believed that government in the nations was “merely human and civil.” He did not see civil government as redemptive. He recognized that the political skills and moral fortitude necessary to preserve civil peace might easily be found among Jews, or Turks, or Chinese as among people who professed Christianity. 13 As Timothy Hall observed, “Although they had the wherewithal to dictate the terms of Providence orthodoxy and thus erect their own brand of religious establishment, they declined to do so.” 14

One hundred years later, the foundation of secular government laid by Roger Williams in Rhode Island came together with the social and political views of John Locke, who lived in England in the mid-1600s. Locke proposed a radical view of government that consciously separated the realms of church and state. Locke and others like him in England who promoted this new model of government were not so much concerned about the purity of true religion. Although they came from a completely different perspective than Roger Williams, Locke and others contributed powerfully to the ideals that triumphed in the American Constitution.

In a letter written to the town of Providence in 1654 or 1655, Williams addressed in more general terms the relationship between civil duty and individual conscience. His analogy of the seagoing vessel has become perhaps the most famous excerpt of all his writings:

There goes many a ship to sea, with many a hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common; and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination, or society. It has fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews, and Turks, may be embarked into one ship. Upon which supposal, I do affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges -- that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship; nor, secondly, compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course; yea, and also command to that justice, peace, and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any seamen refuse to perform their service, or passengers to pay their freight; -- if any refuse to help in person or purse, towards the common charges, or defense; -- if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; -- if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commanders, and officers; -- if any shall preach or write, that there ought to be no commanders, nor officers, because all are equal in CHRIST, therefore no masters, nor officers, no laws, nor orders, no corrections nor punishments -- I say, I never denied, but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. 15

The civil government in the Providence Plantation had legitimate authority over religious conscience in certain areas basic to maintain civil order. However, Williams recognized that civil government’s authority over conscience was only within the specific scope of government’s ordained responsibilities. “He had confidence in the universal recognition of certain fundamental moral precepts whose violation could be punished as ’incivilities.’ He believed that there was ’a moral virtue, a moral fidelity, ability and honesty’ that all individuals, Christian and non-Christian, could recognize.” 16

Williams recognized that all men are accountable to the instinctive moral law that God has put in every man’s conscience, which is the basis upon which civil authorities can “praise those who do good and punish those who do evil.” His theory of government rested on both civil authorities and individuals of all religious persuasions respecting that covenant of conscience. He established in Providence the beginnings of a society in which the civil government could allow religious freedom of conscience, and individuals could respect the legitimate authority of the civil government. Without this mutual respect for the legitimate spheres of authority of each, democracy could not work.

These principles of government won the debate a century later in the drafting of the Constitution which established the legal foundations of the United States of America. In establishing the first truly secular 17 state Roger Williams opened the door to the freedom necessary for the restoration of the true church -- a land where every man’s right to grope for God would be protected. 18

In that protected ground, and in the fullness of time, “Christ’s lilies, garden and love ” could again be planted. But it would be another two hundred years before the fullness of time would come.

  • 1. Poore, B. P., compiler, under an order of the United States Senate: “Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States,” (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1877) Part II, p. 1596-1597.
  • 2. Roger Williams, Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644), p. 139
  • 3. Bloudy Tenent , p. 174
  • 4. Bloudy Tenent , p. 184
  • 5. Bloudy Tenent , p. 184; Williams, The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy , p.442
  • 6. Bloudy Tenent , p. 174
  • 7. Timothy L. Hall, Separating Church and State (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 25
  • 8. Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People , volume 1, page 222.
  • 9. The trust the Indians accorded him because of his friendship, fair dealing, and the effort he put in to learn their language, made him uniquely qualified to do this.
  • 10. “Christenings Make Not Christians,” The Complete Writings of Roger Williams , vol. 7, pp. 36-37.
  • 11. Hall, p. 27; Bloudy Tenent , pp. 293-294
  • 12. The Godless Constitution , p. 50-51
  • 13. Ibid , p.54
  • 14. Ibid , p.100
  • 15. “Roger Williams to the Town of Providence,” c. Jan 1654/55, in The Correspondence of Roger Williams , ed. LaFantasie, 2:423-24. For a similar use of the ship metaphor, see Williams, The Examiner Defended , p. 209.
  • 16. Hall, p. 110; Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy , p. 365
  • 17. Secular means not bound by religious rule; it does not mean Godless.
  • 18. Acts 17:26-27

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