As an opener for my Sunday school class I often have each person stand and give their name and some fact about themselves, such as home town, favorite musical group, etc. This past Sunday, I had each of them give their favorite character from American history. There were, of course, the usual names: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, along with a few others.
When I named Roger Williams as mine, I received blank looks from many, and requests for explanation. “Isn’t he the guy who wrote “King of the Road”? was one question (tongue-in-cheek, I hope).
Now, I’m not a scholar of history, but I do love to read history and biography and I do recall this fellow from way back in history class (6th grade?).
The following is not a deeply researched bit of scholarship, but only a few facts I’ve gleaned from a few books:
Roger Williams was a Puritan preacher in Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies in the early 1600s. He, however, ran afoul of the civil and religious authorities of the colony for preaching and teaching some dangerous doctrines.
He believed that the land they held was really the property of the natives and couldn’t be granted by some far-off king.
He believed that the civil authorities had no right to force some one to worship against his will. (Church membership was required of every citizen.)
He believed that while the civil magistrates had power over men’s bodies and goods, they held no power over men’s consciences.
For such radical ideas he was banished from the colonies and founded Rhode Island, which was the first colony to grant total religious freedom. The church he founded still exists in Providence, Rhode Island.
Williams was a devout Christian and a student of the Bible. He was not a secularist or Deist as were many who expressed similar ideas a century or more later, such as Jefferson and Payne. His desire was not to banish religion from public life, but to keep unbelievers out of the church. He saw the Puritans’ requirement of church membership for all citizens differently than the leadership of the colonies did. They saw it as purifying the state. He saw it as corrupting the church.
He felt that only by keeping the realms of God and Caesar distinct could the church remain pure. In fact, Williams is the first person (to my knowledge) to use the phrase “wall of separation” (over 100 years before Thomas Jefferson was born). Williams referred to it as “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” This was a very appropriate metaphor for his day, when a settler would clear out a piece of land and had to be constantly on the alert lest the wilderness should creep back in. And as this metaphor shows, he saw this wall as protecting the church from the world and not vice-versa.
That’s why Roger Williams is one of my heroes. Those who are concerned about the “culture wars” today, especially the church/state issues, couldn’t go wrong by reading a little about this man.
A couple of books I’d recommend:
Liberty of Conscience, Roger Williams in America,
by Edwin S. Gaustad
Separation of Church and State, Roger Williams and Religious Liberty,
by Timothy L. Hall
Correction/Clarification. Actually Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When he headed south to Plymouth, the governor there, though he was more sympathetic with Williams, asked him to keep moving, for fear of displeasing the other colony. The people of Massachusetts Bay Colony were Puritans, who still wanted to maintain ties with the Church of England; the people of Plymouth Colony were Pilgrims or Separatists who had broken free from the Church of England.