Biographical article of the 17th century Puritan minister, Roger Williams, founder of Providence Colony in New England, and his influence on the concept of separation of church and state in America.
Even the most bitter opponents of Roger Williams recognized in him that combination of charm, confidence and intensity a later age would call charisma. They did not regard such traits as assets, however, for those traits only made the preacher more dangerous in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. With someone like him, they could not compromise.
For his part, Williams was not about to compromise, either, despite his benevolent intelligence and Christian charity. The error, he believed, was not his, and when convinced he was right he backed away from no one.
So the conflict between Williams and his accusers nearly 400 years ago was inevitable. It was also thick with history, for it concerned both the relationship between church and state and defining the very nature of state power. Its repercussions would be immense and reach into the present.
The American part of the story began when John Winthrop led 1,000 men, women and children to plant the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. These Puritans were disgusted with what they regarded as corruption in the Church of England and the tyranny of the crown. Seeking simple worship and personal intimacy with God, Puritan ministers were compelled—upon pain of imprisonment—to wear the surplice and use the Book of Common Prayer, and their congregants were compelled to participate in what they regarded as rote worship. As they set out from England that April,Winthrop reminded them of their purpose, to establish a “citty upon a hill” dedicated to God, obeying God’s laws and flourishing in God’s image as a model for all the world to see.
Williams, who had developed a reputation for scholarship and piety as a clergyman in England, brought his family to the colony a few months later.Winthrop hailed him as “a godly minister,” and the Boston church immediately offered him a post, the greatest such position in English America. But Williams declined, spurning the church as insufficiently committed to the proper worship of God. This astonishing charge would put him at odds with the colony’s leaders till the day he died.
Williams did not differ with them on any point of theology. They shared the same faith, all worshiping the God of Calvin, seeing God in every facet of life and seeing man’s purpose as advancing the kingdom of God. But the colony’s leaders, both lay and clergy, firmly believed that the state must prevent error in religion. They believed that the success of the Massachusetts plantation depended upon it.
Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, “stincks in God’s nostrils.” At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church.
The dispute defined for the first time two fault lines that have run through American history ever since. The first, of course, is over the proper relation between government and what man has made of God—the church. The second is over the relation between a free individual and government authority—the shape of liberty.
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