In her book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008), Martha C. Nussbaum alerted me to the importance of Roger Williams to the American system. It was John M. Barry’s book on Roger Williams that deepened my understanding of Williams’s place in our history.
Williams was born in 1603, twenty-nine years before the philosopher John Locke and 140 years prior to Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the primary architects of the church-state relationship that is basic to the American system. A well-educated and well-placed Puritan theologian, Williams was a major player in one of the most tempestuous periods of English history.
He stood alone in political and philosophic history in his claim that individuals should be granted freedom of conscience in religious matters. Williams founded the North American colony that came to be known as Rhode Island, which was the first (and for a long time the only) place in the world where there was a clear separation of government and religion.
Williams pursued his ideas at great personal risk, both in England and the North American English colonies. Despite the strange name and convoluted character of his most extended book (The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, discussed in A Conference betweene Truth and Peace), Williams anticipated the principal ideas in John Locke’s A Letter on Toleration (1689) and laid the groundwork for the work that Jefferson and his contemporaries did to establish religious freedom in the new American nation.
Barry describes the way things were in English society (which was similar to the rest of the “civilized” world of the time). Four features marked that world.
- It was believed that the viability of the state required uniformity of religious belief and practice.
- The highest-ranking political ruler determined the religion that would be recognized and enforced throughout the realm.
- The stability of the political order required that the state enforce conformity and suppress dissent.
- This enforcement depended to a great extent upon harsh punishment, including: arbitrary imprisonment in life-threatening conditions, mutilation (cutting off ears, splitting noses, boring holes in or cutting off tongues), banishment (as in the case of Williams, when John Winthrop forced him out into the New England wilderness in the dead of winter, with death a strong possibility), and public execution by torture.
The social systems of England and the colonies were tightly intertwined and in full agreement on the four elements listed above. The primary difference was that the colonies were able, because of the ocean between them and England, to maintain their own Puritan version of this system.
Williams’s revolutionary contributions can also be summarized in a few points.
- He came to realize that religious belief is individualized and widely variant.
- Therefore, to require uniformity of belief and practice violates the basic structure of a person’s life.
- The intertwining of religion and politics corrupts both partners and leads to cruelty and violence throughout the society.
- The proper way to organize society is to allow freedom of religion, except when religious practice would threaten public order within respect to civil matters.
Barry frequently refers to sharply contrasting views of society, John Winthrop’s “City Set on a Hill,” that organized the state according to theocratic principles found in the Old Testament, and Williams’s view that called for “utter separation of church and state and individual rights” (p. 386).
In his early years, Williams learned about power, politics, and religion by working under Edward Coke, one of the central players in English politics. He observed closely and learned from Francis Bacon, one of Coke’s principal antagonists. He was closely associated with Henry Vane and Oliver Cromwell and with two generations of the Winthrop family.
Williams also devoted time to learning about the Indian tribes that surrounded and to some degree interpenetrated the New England colonies. He lived with them, learned their language, and established strong friendships with chiefs. In fact, it was this well-established friendship that enabled Williams to survive during the winter of his banishment.
Barry’s analysis of Williams’s life and times, and his exposition of the development of Williams’s ideas, acknowledge the gradual process by which his initial intuitions shaped his theology and political action. Williams remained an intense Puritan theologian to the very end, but in contrast to all of the others, he saw the difference between religious conviction and political systems.
More than any other, he was the one who developed a way of life that still is unique, often threatened, and much in need of constant protection and renewal. Political debate in America is confused enough these days, that a new Roger Williams would have much work to do!