The 17th century hero behind the separation of church and state

From the vantage point of 2012, the state of Rhode Island is an afterthought, except perhaps for those who reside within its borders. It is small geographically and seems to lack influence in just about any realm imaginable.

Yet during the seventeenth century, Rhode Island became a colony that defined religious freedom in the future United States of America. Its main city, Providence, did not achieve that name by happenstance. The leading citizen of Providence, Roger Williams, created something special for religious minorities, a category that would include the Jews.

Roger Williams (1603?-1683), whose life story is told by John M. Barry in “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty” (Viking, $35), is more than a footnote to American history. Still, it seems safe to state that many Americans who cherish religious freedom and secular liberty know little if anything about his remarkable legacy. He defied the conventional wisdom, he placed his life in danger, because of his principles. Those principles are easy to take for granted today. During Williams’ lifetime, however, they constituted heresy.

Author John M. Barry fell into the category of mere passing acquaintance with Williams’ legacy until he fully realized Williams’ contribution almost by accident—or maybe through a sort of mysterious providence.

Previously, Barry had written books of popular (in a good way) and relatively recent history, tackling, for example, the devastating Mississippi River flooding of 1927. What became the Roger Williams biography started out as an examination of the United States in 1919, at the end of World War I. Barry planned to build the narrative around Billy Sunday, an evangelist preacher whose fervor spilled over into politics.

As Barry delved into Sunday’s life to examine the intersection of religion and secular governance, “the more I was drawn to that subject itself,” Barry recounts, “and specifically to the source of the debate.” Barry determined the origin revolved around Williams and John Winthrop, Puritan governor of the Massachusetts colony. Winthrop’s vision embodied “a city on a hill, with its authoritative and theocentric state.” The Puritans envisioned a Christian nation, favored by God.

Williams demurred. His vision, in Barry’s resounding words, called for “utter separation of church and state, and individual rights.”

Barry posits, persuasively, that the seventeenth-century disputes he delineates are relevant now. King James, who died in 1625, cited “reasons of state” to justify expanding his authority during what he perceived as a time of terrorism. The Justice Department of President George W. Bush asserted the same arguments during the opening decade of the twenty-first century. The king and the president implied both wisdom and power emanating from the Almighty.

In contrast, Williams’ mentor Sir Edward Coke and Williams himself “fought to establish the power of habeas corpus,” according to Barry, believing that every person’s home is that person’s castle. No king, no president, no divine intervention should breach the doorway to the home, where the right of the individual, where the freedom of conscience, should trump mainstream church authority and over state power.

Williams was a rebel according to the standards of his era, but he was no anarchist and no atheist. As Barry shows, Williams had “absolute faith in the literal truth of the Bible, with absolute faith in his own interpretation of that truth, with absolute confidence in his ability to convince others of the truth of his convictions.” Yet Williams would refuse “to compel conformity to his or anyone else’s beliefs.”

Trying to establish Rhode Island as a colony of tolerance, and Providence as its epicenter, could have provided Williams full-time duty on the North American continent. But he could not divorce himself completely from England, because the Parliament wielded fearsome power over the colonies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most compelling extended passages in a wholly compelling book is set during 1644. Williams has made yet another arduous passage from Rhode Island to London hoping to solidify the future of the renegade colony. Powerful members of Parliament plotted against Williams, hoping to transfer authority over Rhode Island to the governor of Massachusetts.

“As to ‘toleration,’ the word itself seemed dirty…to Parliament,” reports the author. “It also seemed impossible. Where would one draw the line? Was toleration to be offered only those who agreed on all fundamentals of Calvinist theology? Was it to be toleration for the plethora of sects just beginning to emerge? That opened the way to chaos, error, and sin. Was toleration even to allow worship by Catholics, Turks, and Jews? That seemed utterly abhorrent. And atheists? That went beyond blasphemy. One shuddered at the idea.”

Williams was not a member of Parliament. But he could lobby to have his views heard. So that is what Williams did. Not only the fate of Rhode Island rode on the outcome—so, perhaps, would the fate of individual liberty in a new nation conceived because of tyranny back home in England.

Fortunately, Williams prevailed. Not easily, and he could never relax until his death.

Steve Weinberg is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.