Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence

Alonzo Chappel: The Landing of Roger Williams in 1636, 1857

It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the “priestcraft” were always in alliance with despots against liberty. “To effect this,” he said—privately of course, not publicly—“they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man, into mystery and jargon unintelligible to all mankind and therefore the safer engine for their purposes.”

The Trinity was nothing but “Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus…so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it.” Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it. It was thus no great task for him to urge, as he did in 1802, the building of “a wall of separation between church and state.” As he provocatively declared in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he was not injured by his neighbor’s believing in twenty gods or no god at all. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

But can one be devoutly and deeply religious and still believe in the separation of church and state? Many people throughout the world, and especially Muslims, would likely say “no.” If religion and the worship of God are truly important, indeed, the most important things in the world, then the state, they say, must be involved. The conclusion seems obvious to such believers: since the spread of atheism does in fact injure them, the government must protect and promote religion and the belief in God.

What if, however, there is the possibility of being extremely religious and yet at the same time believing zealously in the separation of church and state? Can those who are exceedingly pious accept the idea that the government has no role whatever in religious matters; indeed, accept the idea that government is ultimately the enemy of religion and thus a wall of separation is necessary to protect religion from the state?

That was the conclusion of Roger Williams, who was one of the most pious and provocative Puritans in the English-speaking world of the seventeenth century, a world full of pious and provocative Puritans. John M. Barry, one of the most talented of the distinguished nonacademic historians writing today, believes that Williams has taken on a new relevance for Americans presently confused about the division between church and state. Although Barry’s title seems exaggerated—Williams by himself scarcely created the American soul—he has written one of best biographies of Williams that we have. And that’s saying something, since Williams is surely the most written about figure in seventeenth-century America.

This in itself is remarkable, because, as one of his recent biographers, the late Edwin S. Gaustad, observed, we don’t know a lot about Williams’s life:

We do not know when he was born, nor exactly when he died. We do not know what he looked like. We cannot visit his home, for it went up in flames long ago. Although he was a preacher, no sermon of his survives.

Indeed, few of his writings still exist. As Glenn W. LaFantasie, the editor of Williams’s letters, pointed out, “great gaps in his surviving correspondence have meant that the story of his life and career must remain, in many respects, a broken chronicle.” In addition, Williams’s letters and writings were so often hastily composed and are so full of parenthetical asides, cryptic allusions, and convoluted prose that deciphering them is a nightmare. It is amazing that so many historians have been able to write about the man.

Williams seems to have been born early in the seventeenth century, sometime in 1603 or 1604. We don’t know much about his background or his youth. He grew up in Smithfield in London, in middling but certainly not lowly circumstances. His father belonged to the Merchant Taylors Guild, and he had an uncle who was high sheriff of Hertfordshire and another who was mayor of London in 1611. He seems not to have had a happy childhood. In nine surviving volumes of his writings and letters he mentioned his upbringing or his father only once. When he was nearly thirty, he recalled being “persecuted in and out of my father’s house these 20 years.”

He was obviously bright, a quick learner who picked up languages easily, including Dutch from his Smithfield neighbors. Sometime in his teens, his intelligence and his special skill in shorthand were observed by the great English jurist Sir Edward Coke, who apprenticed him and apparently grew close to the young man, according to one report often calling him “his Son.” Williams remembered Coke as a “much honored friend” who had left him with the “precious remembrance of his person, and the life, the writings, the speeches, and the example of that glorious light.” In 1621, Coke arranged for Williams to attend the Charterhouse School, where he excelled. In two years he mastered Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and earned a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge.


Although the evidence of Williams’s relationship with Coke is scanty, Barry makes a great deal of it. He spends the first six chapters, nearly a quarter of the book, describing the growing opposition of Coke and other jurists and members of Parliament to the prerogative and pretentions of the Stuart kings, first James I and then, after his death in 1625, Charles I. Throughout this well-told story of English constitutional history, Roger Williams largely drops from sight.

Although tracing influence is a tricky business, Barry is eager to engage in it. His rationale for his lengthy description of England’s constitutional crises that led to the Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649 is that Coke’s involvement, at least up to his death in 1634, would have taught Williams about power and its abuses. Indeed, at the outset Barry says that his book “is a story about power.” Not only does Barry want to emphasize Coke’s importance to Williams’s ideas, but he also brings in Sir Francis Bacon, whom Coke hated, as another possible influence on Williams. Bacon was obviously a great mind, and Williams would probably have read his works at Cambridge. But to assume, as Barry does, that Williams’s later use of facts and experience in refuting his opponents is evidence that “Bacon’s ideas eventually seemed to lodge in his mind” is a stretch.

The problem with Barry’s assumption about the influence of Coke and Bacon on Williams is that Williams became a Puritan and neither Coke nor Bacon was a Puritan. We don’t know why Williams became a Puritan. Indeed, explaining why some Englishmen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries became Puritans and many others did not remains a major historical problem.

Puritanism began in the late sixteenth century as a protest against the way the Church of England was being consolidated under Queen Elizabeth. It was a complicated movement composed of a wide variety of mostly Calvinist protesters ranging from those who would eventually become Presbyterians at one end to the most radical groups of Ranters and Quakers at the other. These extreme Protestants were convinced that the English Reformation was not being carried far enough; just how far to carry it separated them from one another. Not only did these Puritans aim to purify the English Church of rituals, sacraments, vestments, ecclesiastical hierarchies, the Book of Common Prayer, and other corrupt remnants of “popery,” but they sought as well to bring directness and vitality back into people’s relationship with God.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century these various Puritan strains and sects had become a beleaguered but powerful minority within England, deeply dismayed and angry at what they considered the wickedness that was corrupting their country and their church. Being persecuted made them acutely conscious of their difference from other Englishmen, of their being the godly, the saints, the elect, in contrast to the wicked, the godless, the reprobate surrounding them. Under the persecution of Archbishop William Laud, some of them began to leave England. In 1620 a small group of Separatists who actually had broken from the Church of England went to Plymouth in New England, some by way of Holland, and became famous as the Pilgrims. In the 1630s these few Pilgrims were followed by tens of thousands of Puritan migrants who had a congregational conception of church organization but wanted to reform the Church of England from within, not leave it.

Most of these migrants settled in Massachusetts Bay, just north of Plymouth, where they hoped to become “a citty upon a hill,” a model of righteousness for their brethren in England seeking reform. In Massachusetts Bay this once-persecuted minority of Puritans suddenly became the dominant religious establishment in control of a godly commonwealth. The Massachusetts Puritans, whose “vision,” Barry claims, “would define—and still defines—the national consciousness of the United States,” decided that they had to impose order and orthodoxy on themselves with an unexpected ruthlessness. In the worst of ironies, just as Archbishop Laud in England had tried to purge them from the Church of England, they now had to root out deviants within their own midst.

Roger Williams became the most famous of these deviants. He arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, a recent graduate of Cambridge and only in his late twenties. But having a reputation for being “a godly and zealous preacher,” he was immediately offered a plum ministerial post in Boston. To the surprise of John Winthrop, the governor of the colony, and all others, Williams turned the offer down.


He soon revealed the radical purity of his Puritanism. He had come to believe that no government could enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments, those having to do with the individual’s obligations to God—to have one God, to make no graven images of God, to be forbidden to take the Lord’s name in vain, and to keep the Sabbath. The state could enforce the other commandments, those that governed human relationships such as the prohibitions against murder, theft, lying, adultery, and covetousness. But, said Williams, the state had no authority to inject itself in any way into an individual’s relationship with God. This was a direct assault on everything the Massachusetts Bay Puritans were trying to do in their biblical commonwealth.

No one knows where Williams acquired these radical ideas. Barry strains to suggest that they might have come in part from witnessing Coke’s defense of individual rights against the state. But he also suggests a more likely influence: the early English Baptists who had worshiped secretly near Williams’s home in London. Whatever the source of his views, writes Barry, “this very first criticism of the Bay authorities expressed the essence of his later thought,” which

would eventually develop into a systematic and comprehensive formulation of religious and political freedom, of the appropriate exercise of power by the state and by the church, and of an individual’s rights and the limits on those rights.


Roger Williams University Archives

Roger Williams; etching by Arthur W. Heintzelman, 1936

Williams was such an attractive and learned man, with such a sweet and charming personality, that Winthrop and some others in Massachusetts were eager to straighten him out and keep him in the colony. Over the next several years Williams moved from Salem to Plymouth and then back to Salem, all the while trying to avoid a serious confrontation with the Massachusetts authorities. But he could not refrain from publicly voicing his bold opinions, which included not only his denial of the right of the colony to administer oaths of submission and punish breaches of God’s first four commandments, but also his idea that the English had no valid title to the land they occupied, since it belonged to the Indians. He even charged that the Massachusetts Bay charter was illegal and that the colony needed to get a new one.

Finally in 1635 the Massachusetts authorities had enough, and they ordered his arrest so as to send him back to England; some magistrates even wanted him executed. Warned by Winthrop, who seems to have kept his affection for the younger man through most of the controversies, Williams escaped in a raging blizzard in the winter of 1635–1636. He survived only because the Indians, whose ways and language he respected and learned, took him in. For fourteen weeks, he later recalled, he wandered “amongst the Barbarians,…destitute of food, of clothes,” not knowing “what Bread or Bed did meane.” During the worst of it, he said, “I have seen the face of God.” For the rest of his life Williams never forgot the persecution he had suffered at the hands of the Massachusetts authorities. By the summer of 1636 he had made his way to the head of Narragansett Bay, living on money provided by followers, and purchasing a large amount of land from the Narragansett Indians, he founded on part of it the town he called Providence.

Soon other dissidents arrived, seeking a haven for their unorthodox religious views, and formed settlements in the area that Williams had purchased. By the early 1640s there were several towns, with two of them on Aquidneck Island (later called Rhode Island), loosely held together often by the sheer force of Williams’s personality. The colony was isolated, shunned by the neighboring colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut. In fact, these other New England colonies formed an alliance in 1643 and threatened to gobble up the struggling Narragansett Bay towns.

This led Williams to return to England to acquire a charter in order to have some legal authority to protect the colony from absorption by its larger neighbors. Emphasizing his concern with bringing Christianity to the Indians (indeed, on the voyage over he composed a study of the Indians’ language and customs), Williams in 1644 received a charter from the Committee on Foreign Plantations, part of a parliamentary Puritan-dominated government that was in the midst of a civil war with the king. The charter said nothing about religion, but it did authorize the inhabitants to form whatever kind of civil government the majority found most suitable. In effect, writes Barry, “the committee explicitly authorized a fully democratic government.”

While in England, Williams published a provocative attack on Parliament’s role in religion. He began by pointing out that “it is a wofull Priviledge attending all great States and Personages, that they seldom heare any other Musick but what is Known will please them.” But more important than this pamphlet that pleased very few was a longer treatise, The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, discussed in A Conference between Truth and Peace, published in London shortly after he had departed for America. “He had to know,” says Barry, “it was the work of his life.”

By calling for the right of each person to decide how best to worship God without any interference from civil authorities, Williams staked out as radical a position as could be found amid the religious chaos of the English Civil War. With another shorter publication, Mr. Cottons Letter, Lately Printed, Examined and Answered, Williams took on John Cotton, the prominent minister at Boston who had been involved in his banishment. In these works Williams passionately denied that the state must be “the nursing father or mother” to the church. He now even denied the right of the state to pass moralistic legislation, such as forbidding gambling and card-playing. The church, he said, was not the center of society from which all else flowed, but merely a corporation or entity like other entities within society. This was truly radical, and it mocked the very meaning of Winthrop’s “citty upon a hill.”

Cotton replied to Williams’s attacks in 1647 with The Bloudy Tenent, Washed, and made white in the bloode of the Lambe, to which Williams responded in 1652 with The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy. With the legal patent from the Earl of Warwick and the Committee on Foreign Plantations in hand, the colony, composed of four towns—Providence, Newport, Portsmouth, and Shawomet (now renamed Warwick, to honor the man who had saved the colony)—in 1647 produced a sixty-one-page constitution and legal code that asserted the complete freedom of religion and reaffirmed the government as “Democraticall; that is to say, a Government held by ye free and voluntarie consent of all, or the greater parte of the free Inhabitants.” “This document,” writes Barry, “created the freest society in the world.”

Still, the four towns could not get along, and the colony was often teetering on the verge of anarchy. Popular government was not easy; one of the colony’s presidents refused reelection, saying the chief qualification for office was the ability to take abuse. With the colony’s neighbors again threatening it, Williams in 1652 once more went back to England. Only this time England was without its king. Charles I had been executed in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell was about to take over the state. Although Cromwell, like many other English Puritans, was by this time sick of religious strife and sympathetic to the idea of toleration, Williams was unable to get a new affirmation of the colony’s patent. In 1654 he returned to New England, leaving his colleague John Clarke in London to look after the colony’s interests. In 1663, with Charles II restored to the throne, Clarke was able to secure a charter from a court whose Catholic sympathies made it eager to promote toleration. With this royal charter the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations promised to become “a lively experiment” in religious liberty; at the same time the charter finally made the colony more or less secure from its many enemies.

The colony’s reputation as “the receptacle of all sorts of riff-raff people,” however, persisted and intensified. In 1657 Dutch authorities in New Amsterdam told their colleagues back in Holland that the colony was “nothing else than the sewer [their Latin reads latrina] of New England. All the cranks of New England retire thither.”

In the 1660s Williams tried to withdraw from politics, but he had to contend with an influx of more and more Quakers into the colony. He despised the religious views and the raucous behavior of the Quakers, and he debated them vigorously; but he never denied their right to their beliefs. In the 1670s his earlier dealings with the Narragansett Indians did not protect him from the violence of King Philip’s War. He inevitably tried to play peacemaker between Indians and colonists, but unlike his previous successes in that role, this time he failed. The Indians attacked and burned Providence, including Williams’s own house. He ended up helping his fellow Rhode Islanders to round up Indian prisoners in order to sell them into slavery. He died a few years later, sometime early in 1683.

Is it true, as Barry claims, that the lengthy struggles of Roger Williams for religious liberty recounted in his book “could not be more relevant today”? Is Roger Williams a better source of the idea of separation of church and state than Thomas Jefferson? Probably not. As W.K. Jordan concluded in his classic multivolume history of toleration in the English-speaking world:

Williams was not a great creative writer, nor can he be considered as an important contributor to the philosophical foundations of religious liberty…. His thought cannot be regarded as original, his defence of toleration was neither systematic nor complete, while the radicalism of his doctrinal position robbed him of decisive influence on the political and religious groups which were then founding a tolerant ecclesiastical Establishment in England.

Williams’s beliefs were too extreme, too eccentric, too individualistic to have much relevance today. He carried “separatism” as far as it could go. As early as the 1640s he had come to believe that belonging to any church was too much of a violation of his “Soul Libertie.” Consequently, he abandoned membership in all congregations and withdrew entirely from participation in organized religion—a radical position that Barry scarcely mentions. By holding that only he and his wife could constitute a church, Williams offered no realistic model for most people seeking solace in religion. As Glenn LaFantasie points out, “For the rest of his life, he would pray with his wife, but in his heart he was a congregation of one.”

Actually when all is said and done, neither Williams nor Jefferson was the source of America’s religious freedom. The multiplicity of competing sects and denominations in eighteenth-century America was the real source. When James Madison was shepherding Jefferson’s famous bill for religious freedom through the Virginia legislature in 1785–1786, the Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other sects who backed the bill paid no attention whatever to Jefferson’s preamble where he made the assertion, outrageous to most people at the time, “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

They simply didn’t care what Jefferson and Madison believed; all they wanted was an end to the Anglican Episcopal establishment in Virginia. And since in the atmosphere of competing denominations, no one of them could be guaranteed control of the government, they were willing (sometimes reluctantly) to neutralize the state in religious matters rather than risk one of their rivals gaining control of the government. That, as Madison but not Jefferson came to appreciate, was a far more important source of America’s religious freedom than the ideas of John Locke or Roger Williams.