In the United States we often take our freedoms, such as the freedom of religion, for granted. What we experience in this country has existed but a brief moment in the overall history of the world. Prior to people like Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, the very concept of freedom of conscience hardly existed. I was first exposed to Roger Williams while I was in college. As a history major, I had to take several political science classes and I also had to read the writings of many philosophers who’d had an impact on the development of the United States. So, I read quite a bit of what Roger Williams wrote.
Roger Williams was born in London, England around 1603 and was baptized in the Church of England. He received his education at Cambridge, where he seems to have displayed a talent for languages and quickly learned Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Dutch and French. In fact, he gave lessons in Dutch to the poet John Milton (who wrote Paradise Lost) in exchange for a refresher course in Hebrew.
Although he took Holy Orders in the Church of England, he had become a Puritan while he was at Cambridge, which prevented him from ever getting a position in the Church of England. He married in 1629 and by 1630 he joined other Puritans in emigrating to America, where he wound up founding the first Baptist Church in what became Providence, Rhode Island.
Around 1611, the General Baptists in England were apparently the first group to propose the concept of separating church and state. In fact, two of those early Baptist pastors died in prison for that belief.
What is “separation of church and state?” Primarily, it means that the state does not fund religious institutions. It also means that the state does not tax them, since taxation can be a means of controlling or influencing such institutions. Separation of church and state also means that the state has no control over the beliefs or practices of religious institutions or the citizens. It means that the state cannot force or encourage people to believe or not believe anything regarding religion. And it means that the religious institutions have no say in the operation of the government.
For most of history, particularly in Europe, the churches were supported by state funds. In fact, even today, most European nations have official “state” churches whose operations are paid for by tax money. The Queen of England is required by law to be an Anglican, for instance, and the Anglican church is funded by the British government.
Although Roger Williams wasn’t the first to advocate the separation of church and state, he was the first to create a place where it could be practiced, the colony of Rhode Island, which he established in 1636. Most of Roger William’s contemporaries and critics regarded his ideas as a prescription for chaos and anarchy. They were convinced that each nation had to have its own national church and believed that dissenters—those like the Puritans and Baptists who refused to accept the state church—should be compelled by force to conform. In fact, the establishment of Rhode Island was so threatening to its neighboring colonies that they tried for the next hundred years to extinguish its “lively experiment” in religious freedom.
Roger Williams frequently wrote about his ideas on religious freedom. His most famous work was The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, published in London in 1644. It was the best essay on the concept of freedom of conscience that had ever been written up until then. It is that essay that I remember best from college. In it, he argued, rather colorfully, that the attempt to compel religious belief was like the “rape of the soul,” and he spoke of the “oceans of blood” shed as a result of trying to command conformity. The history of Europe up until Williams’ day was packed with religious wars and bloody persecutions.
Although Roger Williams believed that the moral principles found in the Bible were useful for civil magistrates, he pointed out that well-ordered, just, and civil governments had existed before Christianity ever existed. He argued that the only purpose of government was to maintain civil order and justice. He did not think it had any right to promote religion.
Roger Williams obviously had a profound effect on the thinking of many political philosophers, such as Thomas Jefferson and the authors of the American Constitution. Thanks to Roger Williams and those who followed in his path, the U.S. Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3 states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That statement alone demonstrates that the framers of the American Constitution were creating something radically new in the affairs of nations. Better known, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Roger Williams would have been pleased.
One other interesting thing to point out about the separation of church and state as it exists in America. In Europe, which today is still dominated by state supported churches, church attendance averages under 3 percent. Why? Because the pastors and churches get paid whether anyone shows up or not. In the United States, where the churches are left to their own devices to get their financial support, church attendance is around 50 per cent. The United States is the most religious of any modern, industrialized nation. Competition and free enterprise works, and not just in economics.