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by William H. Benson

February 3, 2011

     Roger Williams, the English Puritan clergyman, arrived in New England on February 5, 1631, just months after the colony’s inception. He was twenty-eight years old, educated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and married for a year. Jonathan Winthrop, the Puritans’ chief official, warmly welcomed Roger and his wife Mary into Boston, and asked him to serve as the colony’s minister and teacher.  

     Winthrop and the other Puritans were shocked when Roger turned down their generous job offer. Roger explained that he could not worship with them because they had not separated from the Church of England and furthermore they had not repented of their former attachment to the Church of England. Yes, they wanted to “purify” that church, which, for Roger, was not enough: he wanted separation.

     Jonathan Winthrop failed to understand Roger’s extreme form of Separatism. Quarrels erupted, and finally the Massachusetts Bay Colony governing officials banished Roger from their colony, forcing him to flee to the Narragansett Bay, and there, with the help of the Natives, he established his own colony, Rhode Island. He insisted that in his colony, “freedom of conscience” was the rule.

     Roger wrestled with questions concerning the relationship of the church to the state over the next four decades, and the contours of his thinking pushed the boundaries of Puritanism and Separatism to what Winthrop and the other Puritans believed were unsupportable conclusions.

     Roger was in a constant search for the pure church and never found it. He believed that no unregenerate or unsaved individual should be allowed to attend a worship service with the holy, the elect, the regenerate. This ferocious brand of separatism of Roger’s led to an exclusiveness that was absurd. The historian Edmund Morgan wrote that “Williams had clearly pushed the principle of separation to the point where the church was threatened with extinction for lack of suitable members.”

     He would create a church, such as with the Baptists, and then withdraw from it. He ended up late in his life in a sect with exactly one member, himself, even going so far, it was rumored, as to withdraw from taking communion with his wife, Mary, suspecting her of indiscretions. Harold Bloom, the Yale scholar, wrote that, “If there is any trace at all of this formidable individual left, it has to be his genius for schism.” Roger drew the line and separated himself from all that he perceived was unholy.

     Once a person starts walking down the path of Separatism, where does he or she stop?

     Roger further argued that the government should not participate in any of the several acts of worship, for those should be reserved for a church’s exclusive use. Taking an oath, such as that administered to a witness before testifying in a court, was an act of worship. Prayer conducted in a courtroom or before a legislative body begins its proceedings was also an act of worship. These acts of worship, Roger argued, should only be conducted within a church and among the elect, not in a courtroom, a town meeting, or a congressional body.

     His Puritan colleagues thought him mad, headstrong, exceedingly difficult, filled with strange opinions, calling him “a polemical porcupine.” Cotton Mather compared him to “a Dutch windmill so violently turned round in a storm that the stones themselves caught fire.”

     What is startling is that he ended up with the principle of separating the church from the state: he called for “a wall of separation” between the two. But it was not because he was an eighteenth-century citizen of the Enlightenment, like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, open to and tolerant of all religions, and believing none of them. One legal scholar wrote, “Williams did not advocate religious liberty out of a personal lack of faith but out of an exuberance of it.” The primary bent of this man’s mind was invariably steered toward religion.

     Williams thought deeply about four questions: “Why is religious persecution evil? What harm does it inflict on its victims and its perpetrators? Why should government not supervise religion? Does a stable society require some measure of religious homogeneity?” Unlike his contemporaries, he answered each of those four questions with a modern answer. One historian wrote, “The gods were pleased to have their jest with Roger Williams by sending him to earth before his time.”

     The First Amendment, written a century after Williams’s demise, echoed Roger’s arguments, and it established a wall of separation between the government and the church, and the controversies surrounding that Amendment still challenge us to maintain it today.    

     Perry Miller, the American colonial historian, wrote that Roger Williams possesses for American history, “one indubitable importance, that he stands at the beginning of it.” Indeed, how fortunate it was to have as profound a thinker on the issue of liberty of conscience, as was Roger Williams, at the very beginning point of America’s history.