Hero of the First Amendment: Roger Williams

First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:  “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.”

As I write this, it is Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day/Wren Day/the First Day of Kwanzaa.  It is the day after Christmas.  Some people think there is a war on Christmas.  Some people say the United States of America is a Christian nation. Others say it isn’t a Christian nation.  The First Amendment, quoted above, clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  This is generally referred to as the separation of church and state, a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.  But Jefferson wasn’t the source of this idea.  He got the notion from Roger Williams.

Image result for roger williams

“When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness, as at this day.”

Roger Williams, as most of us learned in elementary school, was the founder of Rhode Island.  Roger Williams was born in London, circa 1603 (his birth records were destroyed in the Great Fire of London and the exact date is unknown).  He was educated at Cambridge University. Although ordained into the Church of England, he came to believe the church was corrupt and in need of reform.  He also — and this was one of the leading principles of his life — believed the church should be separated from the state.  Even in 2016, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is technically head of the Church of England, and in the 17th century, the ties between monarch and church were far stronger.  At that time the notion of cuius regio, eius religio (that the citizens of a nation should follow the religion of the nation’s ruler) was taken for granted.  

Williams became a Puritan.  He and his wife left England and came to Boston in 1631. Continuing his soul-seeking, left the Puritans and became a Baptist for a time. His religious and political opinions affected not only his ability to keep a job, but led to his being convicted of sedition and heresy in 1635.  Banished from Massachusetts, he went to what is now Rhode Island, creating a safe haven for those “distressed of conscience.” His settlement welcomed Christians of various denominations and beliefs, including Baptists, Quakers, Anabaptists, Antinomians, and Jews.Williams knew Anne Marbury Hutchinson and her sister Katherine Marbury Scott and may have been influenced by their religious opinions. (Disclaimer:  Katherine Scott is my ten-times-great-grandmother.  Her son-in-law, Christopher Holder, my nine-times-great-grandfather, was arrested, flogged, and jailed for being a Quaker preacher in a Puritan town.)  Eventually Williams decided not to be affiliated with any church, although he continued his personal quest for becoming closer to God his entire life and was active in preaching and prayer until his death.

“Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

Williams despised forced worship.  Freedom of religion and freedom of conscience were critical to him; he referred to the attempt of the state to compel belief as “rape of the soul.”  He also believed that a state could and should enforce civil order and justice without being based on Christianity, a belief most of his contemporaries found ludicrous at best and heretical at worst.  Although he had originally intended to be a missionary to the Native Americans, he came to believe that the Native Americans were entitled to their own culture and beliefs.  He firmly believed that the king did not have the right to grant their land to English settlers without their knowledge and consent, and always insisted on paying tribes for their land.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams was a clergyman, a writer, a linguist, a merchant, a peacemaker, a philosopher, and a colonial leader.  He and his wife, Mary Bernard Williams, had six children, all of whom were born in North America.  He died in 1683.  Like his contemporary Anne Hutchinson, he was one of the founders of the principles of religious freedom and tolerance in this country.


“The sovereign power of all civil authority is founded in the consent of the people.”

“God is too large to be housed under one roof.”

“There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes that Papists, Protestants, Jews, and Turks may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for turns upon these two hinges: that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ships prayers or worship, nor be compelled [restrained] from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.”

“That cannot be a true religion that needs carnal weapons to uphold it.”

“It is less hurtful to compel a man to marry someone whom he does not love than to follow a religion in which he does not believe.”

“Men’s consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged, or constrained.”



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