Church & State

RogerWilliams ReformWall 561

Roger Williams and the Pilgrims on The Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland. (Click for larger image; the Wikimedia attribution at bottom links to a high-resolution image.)

Lent is a time for us to reconsider our lives, and our faults.  One of the Deadly Sins is Pride.  I would offer that one of the worst prides is the pride of knowledge, because it generates closed-mindedness and limits our thinking.  This, in turn, leads us to create pain for our families, our friends, and our world.

On the other hand, open-mindedness requires humility, a constant admission that we don’t know much.  We certainly can’t understand what life is really about; none of us can understand a jot of the Mind of God.  Faith is humility.  Religion, to be bound to an idea that we will not question, can easily become pride.

One of the areas where we could use some open-mindedness and respectful conversation is over the separation of church and state.  This problem is important because it touches on humility and tolerance:  What reason is there for church and state to commingle, except for the state to enforce particular religious views and practices on unbelievers and other-believers?

Because, in fact, that exact problem is where the separation of church and state begins.  In the debate over this all sides have largely missed the origins, and reasons, for that separation.  The concept in America, and apparently in the world at large, does not start with the US Constitution nor the Founders.  It revolves around King James I, King Charles I, Cromwell, and starts in 1631 with the arrival of a devout Puritan in the New England colonies.

A couple of years ago I stumbled across John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.  As an interesting trivium, Barry is a half-time Louisiana resident with a home in New Orleans, and for several years he was a member of the Orleans Levee Board.[1]In 2006 renamed as the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.

If you are interested in history and the flow of ideas, Roger Williams is one of those gems you find and ask, “Why haven’t I heard about this man before?”  I began to wonder that, perhaps, he has been given short shrift because he was an American Puritan, and until the past few decades European scholars dominated historical thought.

Williams was the protégé of Sir Edward Coke, possibly the greatest jurist in the history of England.  Among other remarkable activities, Coke (pronounced ‘cook’) served as Solicitor General of England, as Speaker of the House of Commons, and prosecuted Guy Fawkes and the other members of the Gunpowder Plot.  In perhaps his most important contribution to history, he risked his own neck in declaring that the King of England was a subject of the law like everyone else.[2]Coke was also the fierce enemy of Sir Francis Bacon, the man who wrote the Novum Organum, which became the basis for modern scientific theory.  Both men were vying for power, position – and at one … Continue reading

Under Coke, Roger Williams was an eyewitness to the intrigue and machinations under James I and Charles I, and in particular he was present as James was attempting to inject the Divine Right of Kings into the English tradition.  Williams was also close friends with Oliver Cromwell and other principals in the English Civil War.  To our concerns here, he was a devout Puritan from his youth until his death, and an impressive religious and secular scholar, with a facility in several languages. Upon his arrival in the New England colonies he was eagerly recruited as a preacher and scholar.

That did not last very long.  Although he strictly obeyed all of the Puritan practices, Williams was the lone man in the colony who had personally witnessed the corruption of power, in both church and state, on all sides, at the highest levels of government.

Relations between Williams and the authorities broke down when the colonial government required everyone to take a Loyalty Oath.  Williams objected on religious, not philosophical grounds:  forcing people to swear to something they did not believe was taking the Lord’s name in vain, and he further argued that using religion to support the state violated the same Commandment.  Eventually, Williams had to flee for his life, and ultimately founded Rhode Island, which was the first political entity in the New World to protect freedom of thought and religion.

The picture above shows both Roger Williams and the Pilgrims.  In our histories we are taught that the Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom.  The facts do no bear that out.  The Pilgrims found religious tolerance in Holland, but they left because the Pilgrims did not wish to be tolerant of the other religions there.  They came to America and founded an intolerant theocracy, as Williams’ case demonstrates.  Indeed, the other New England Puritans tried repeatedly to shut down Rhode Island and have Williams and the other residents silenced, by death if necessary.  And soon after Williams’ death the Puritans’ religious intolerance exploded with the Salem Witch Trials.

Before he left England, Williams was also a close friend of John Milton; Williams used Milton’s printer for his publications, and he gave Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for Hebrew lessons.  That connection is critical.  I was taught in school that Milton’s Areopagitica [3]The word means ‘Ares/Mars Hill’, an outcropping below the Athens Acropolis, where the most important crimes were tried by tribunal, and the accused was guaranteed the right to be heard. laid the foundations for the 1st Amendment.  But some months before Milton published his influential tract, Williams published Queries of the Highest Consideration, in which he criticized Parliament for censoring the press.  So the modern origins for the First among our Amendments lay almost certainly with Williams, not Milton.  This is further supported by the fact that the Areopagitica did not address freedom of religion, a topic that Williams published on repeatedly.

We have also failed to attribute to Williams the concept of separation of church and state.  It was Williams who wrote the pivotal sentence, “When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world, God hathe ever broke down the wall itself, remove the Candlestick, et cetera and made his Garden a wilderness, as at this day.”[4]Williams, Roger (1644) “Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered.”

There are two points that merit consideration today.  First, Williams’s primary concern was not that separation of church and state was important to protect the state.  He argued that it protected the church.  His experiences in England had taught him the importance of keeping government out of religion.

Some have argued this protection should only work one way, the state should not influence the church, but the church should be free to influence the state.  Again, note my comment above.  What possible reason is there for this argument except to do exactly as the Pilgrims did, to use their freedoms to ultimately deny precisely those freedoms to others?

Williams was all too aware that the danger lies in power flowing either direction, and his own experiences bore out his concerns.  Barry eloquently sums up Williams’s thinking by noting that when you mix religion and politics, you get politics.

A second point of interest today, is that at least some of Williams’s thinking was influenced by his brother Sydrach, a world traveler.  It was his brother who told him of the intolerance he had seen in many Christian lands.

His brother then went on to describe the tolerance he had witnessed in Islamic countries, where the Muslims permitted all faiths, and described to Roger the advantages of such an approach.

There are constitutional scholars who discuss the Constitution as if it were created de novo, within a vacuum.  In considering this, we would do well to consider the legal saw, “When the law is on your side, argue the law.  When the facts are on your side argue the facts.”  Law can quickly become a football mentality, more interested in winning than progress.  Those that argue for strict constitutional interpretation typically find the law to be on their side, and that the facts are not so cooperative.

The US Founders were philosophers and scholars, and drew our Constitution from the whole wealth of the rich Western traditions.  We may not know of Roger Williams today, but the Founders most certainly did.

The beginnings of separation of church and state began with a strictly pious, but nevertheless fiercely independent American who had witnessed first-hand, as few in history have, the abuses and bloodshed that result when church and state overlap.  Through his writings and his struggles Roger Williams argued and demonstrated that if we do not protect the right of others to worship as they see fit, we imperil that right for ourselves.

Or as another man noted in a comment that would make an appropriate meditation for Lent: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

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Pictures courtesy of Wikimedia.


1 In 2006 renamed as the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.
2 Coke was also the fierce enemy of Sir Francis Bacon, the man who wrote the Novum Organum, which became the basis for modern scientific theory.  Both men were vying for power, position – and at one point, even the same woman – under Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Cromwell, and the associated turmoil of the 17th century.
3 The word means ‘Ares/Mars Hill’, an outcropping below the Athens Acropolis, where the most important crimes were tried by tribunal, and the accused was guaranteed the right to be heard.
4 Williams, Roger (1644) “Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered.”


  1. Vaughan

    Very interesting and timely thoughts, with an especially pertinent point concerning the intolerance of the religious-freedom-seeking Puritans, who only wanted freedom for themselves! Sadly, the ideals of almost all religions do not seem to filter through to regular practice by too many religious adherents.

    • Bookscrounger

      Actually, I’m wondering how we can get theatre troupes across the country to do revivals of The Crucible. With the raging paranoia and fear-mongering in politics right now, it seems appropriate.

    • Boomer

      Render to Caesar….. Mark 12:17—There is your answer!!! However don’t stop the practicing of religion—well except Islam!!!–Just kidding!!! So glad you started this!!

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