Roger Williams: America's First Rebel

How an 'Altogether Revolutionary' Puritan Paved the Way for Religious Liberty

 

John M. Barry is the author of the new book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty (Viking)Barry talked with Church & State recently about Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and a great religious liberty pioneer.


Q. What sparked your interest in Williams’ place in American history?

A. Oddly enough, I started out planning to write a book on the home front in World War I and the war’s immediate aftermath. I was going to follow several characters, one of whom was Billy Sunday, the early 20th-century evangelist who also got deeply into politics. I planned to use him as a narrative vehicle to look at the role of religion in American public life.

While researching that subject, I began to think the whole book should be about church and state. And to understand the argument over that issue, I went back to its beginning. I ended up writing the whole book about that initial argument for two reasons. First, the argument hasn’t changed at all in 400 years and looking at it in its purest form helps us understand what’s at stake now. Second, it demonstrates that freedom of religion was and is intimately linked to freedom itself.


Q. People tend to think about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison when the subject of religious freedom and church-state separation comes up. Why does Roger Williams get overlooked?

A. We seem in general to think our own history started with the American Revolution. It’s as if the world didn’t exist until then. We also seem to think the Founding Fathers invented the Constitution from whole cloth, whereas actually they had a deep understanding of and learned lessons from what had gone before. That was the history which Williams lived through and helped make both in England and America.


Q. Williams spoke of the need for a “wall of separation” between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world. It’s phrase strikingly reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor. Yet there is no evidence that Jefferson knew of Williams’ writings. In light of that, what was Williams’ impact on the Founding Fathers?

A. His impact was both direct and indirect. First, Williams was an example, America’s first rebel, America’s first contradictor of authority. He was out there, part of the intellectual environment. Everyone knew who he was. His history was known. Second, in 1776, two biographies of Williams were published, one by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, reminding those active in politics of WiIliams’ contributions just as we ourselves were rebelling against Britain. Third, Willi­ams was a tremendous influence on John Locke, especially in the area of religious freedom. In fact, Williams went well beyond Locke, who did not want to grant toleration to Catholics or atheists. And Locke was in turn a huge influence on the Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson. Fourth, the charter of Rhode Island assured absolute freedom of religion in the colony. King Charles II – who reclaimed the crown in 1660 – liked Rhode Island’s charter so much that, even though there was no religious toleration in England itself, he inserted the same language into charters of several other colonies. In those colonies he did establish the Church of England, but their charters prohibited punishing religious dissenters. They allowed freedom of worship. So the idea got into the American bloodstream.


Q. Williams has been called “revolutionary.” What about him merits the use of that phrase?

A. In fact, John Quincy Adams called him “altogether revolutionary,” and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Williams believed in real freedom. He was not the first to call for separation of church and state, but he was the first to call for it who was not being persecuted at the time. Even more revolutionary was rejecting two ideas: first, that the authority of government came from God – which was almost universally held then – and second, that God punished sinning countries and rewarded godly ones. You heard that last line from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who blamed gays and the Supreme Court’s school prayer decision and the ACLU for 9/11. But most revolutionary of all was Williams’ declaration that “the sovereign, original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people,” and governments “have no more power, nor for longer time, than the people consenting shall betrust them with.” He was probably the first in the world and certainly the first Englishman – or American – to say that, which is hard to imagine since the idea is such a commonplace today.


Q. Tell us about Williams’ vision of separation of church and state. He seems to have seen a combination of the two as especially dangerous to the church. Why did he feel this way?

A. There’s the obvious New Testament verse about rendering unto Caesar, and he took that seriously. But it was more than that. He believed in a pure church, and he believed that any time you mix religion and politics, you get politics. To keep the church pure, he thought you had to keep it entirely away from the corruption of worldly affairs. He looked at both history and his own experience, and concluded this was true. England had been Catholic, then Protestant, then Catholic, then Protestant, all in a period of roughly half a century. He regarded all of those churches as corrupted by politics – and they were.


Q. “Secular” is something of a dirty word in American politics today with people like Newt Gingrich assailing “secular elites” and accusing President Barack Obama of favoring “secular” policies. What were Williams’ views on secular government?

A. Just as he wanted a purely religious church, he wanted a purely secular government. He rejected the idea that government should be “nursing father” to the church, i.e., help the church, an idea which nearly everyone else at the time believed in. He recognized that if a government was going to try to do that, then a human had to make a judgment about something to do with God. He considered this blasphemous – God was supposed to judge humans, not the other way around.

As a corollary to that, he rejected the idea of the government imposing a moral code, such as in Calvin’s Geneva, where playing cards, bowling and so forth were against the law. The government, he insisted, should only deal with civil, secular issues. In terms of law, government should limit itself to governing how people treat each other – murder, robbery and so forth – and stay away from limits on any kind of thought.

He would have opposed school prayer for several reasons. First, and most importantly, he said “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils” and called it “spiritual rape.” Second, he believed prayer was a solemn act requiring concentration and effort. 

Imagine a school filled with classrooms of 14-year-old kids, engaged in a prayer. How many of them are actually praying, and how many would be thinking about whether their makeup hid their acne, or stealing glances at the boy or girl a row over? The idea of prayer in that setting would have appalled him.

 He also said religion didn’t matter in running the government, any more than it mattered whether a Christian was captain of a ship. What mattered was whether the captain was a good sailor, not his religion. He said a Christian government official was “no more” likely to be good at governing than “one of any other Conscience or Religion.” Try saying that today and getting elected.


Q. What can today’s religious leaders learn from Roger Williams?

A. That mixing in politics corrupts the church.  That’s a statement of fact. This doesn’t mean that individuals should not bring their values into the public square, that one’s moral views shouldn’t inform one’s political decisions.


Q. What can today’s political leaders learn from Roger Williams?

A. That bringing the church into politics infringes on freedom. Wil­liams was one of the first and strongest defenders of free speech, even before his friend John Milton was. A little courage in politicians would be nice to see. Not every day, we can’t expect too much, just once in a while would be enough.


Q. It’s always dangerous to speculate about how historical figures might react to current events, but if Roger Williams could see America and its religious diversity today, what do you think he might say?

A. In this case, you can be sure he would applaud it. He specifically stated that “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian worships” should have freedom of religion “in all Nations.”


Q. What can we do to best keep alive the legacy and spirit of Roger Williams?

A. Understand what he stood for. That should be enough.