Radical, Pure, Roger Williams

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…

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