Roger Williams -“Early American Heroes of Religious Liberty” (Pt 2/5)

Concept of “Separation of Church and State”

Roger Williams

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is given credit for the phrase and concept of “separation of church and state.” That credit is largely misplaced.

The person most responsible for “separation of church and state,” is Roger Williams (1601-1684). Roger Williams made a “monumental contribution. . .  to the cause of democracy, not only in the United States but throughout the world.”  

“Forced” to Leave England

While serving as a chaplain in England, Williams became convinced that church and state should be separate. He saw that when religion and government were entangled, both were corrupted. Because of opposition to his nonconformist views he was “forced” to leave his native England.

Banished from Puritan Massachusetts

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Williams settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. In Massachusetts, Williams openly criticized the Puritan church-state system. He preached that religion should be free from civil authority.

The popular Reverend John Cotton counter-attacked.  Because of his unpopular views, Williams was banished from Massachusetts.

Established Rhode Island

Ultimately Roger Williams established the colony of Rhode Island as a landmark to democracy and religious freedom.  He consistently argued that there should be a hedge wall separating the “garden of the Church” from the “wilderness of the world.”  This “wall of separation” was necessary to protect the church from the corrupting influences of the state.

(Note: the original “separation of church and state” paradigm was to protect the church from the government, not to protect the government from religion.  Today’s debates have reversed the paradigm.)

Founded the First Baptist Church in America

Roger Williams established the first Baptist Church in America. Afterward, he became a Seeker

Published Plea for Religious Tolerance and Separation of Church and State

Williams was skeptical of the claims of all sects and creeds at that time. But, he accepted basic Christianity. He continued to argue that the state had no jurisdiction over religious conscience. Religious tolerance should include even Catholics and Jews.  

In 1644, Williams published “The Bloody Tenant of Persecution for Cause of Conscience,” his plea for religious liberty.  He wrote:
“[T]he blood of so many …. souls of Protestants and Papists, split in Wars ….  for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace ….  
“[C]ivil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state or worship….
“[A]n enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.”

Jefferson Adopts Williams’ Views

Since Roger Williams came up with the phrase and concept of a wall of separation between church and state, why does Jefferson get the credit?

After the Constitutional Convention, the Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut was troubled by rumors that a particular sect was going to be recognized as the official national religion. And, it wasn’t going to be Baptist.

Jefferson wrote a famous letter to alleviate their concerns. Writing to this Baptist congregation, and knowing that Roger Williams established the first Baptist Church in America, Jefferson paraphrased Roger Williams.

 “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Utah State Capital and Temple

Hence, Jefferson was borrowing the phrase and concept from Roger Williams when he wrote about the wall of separation between church and state.

Roger Williams deserves the credit. The great Roger Williams also deserves to be remembered and honored as an early American hero of religious liberty.

(Sources: Professor/LDS Patriarch/Friend Donald Skaggs, “Roger William’s Dream for America;” Brett London, “Religion and the Law: Cases and Materials,” 5th Ed., 1998, 8-9, 13-14; Dallin Oaks, ed. “The Wall Between Church and State, (1963); Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Conn, 1964, pp. 3-9.)

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