January 15, 2012


God, Government and Roger Williams' Big Idea: Banished from Massachusetts, the Puritan minister originated a principle that remains contentious to this day--separation of church and state (John M. Barry, January 2012, Smithsonian magazine)

In 1534, Henry VIII had rejected Roman Catholicism and turned the kingdom Protestant, and Parliament declared him head of the new Church of England; he executed those who opposed him as heretics and traitors. His daughter Queen Mary made England Catholic again and burned Protestants at the stake. Then Queen Elizabeth turned it Protestant and executed Catholics who plotted against her--including her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Her successor was King James, the Scottish Mary's son.

James was Protestant but moved the Church of England ever closer to Catholicism, inflaming Puritans. In 1604, believing the existing English Bibles did not sufficiently emphasize obedience to authority, he ordered a new translation; what became known as the King James Bible satisfied him on that point. In politics, he injected the theory of the divine right of kings into English history and claimed that "the monarch is the law. Rex est lex loquens, the king is the law speaking." Supporting him was Sir Francis Bacon, best known as a thinker who insisted that knowledge came from observation and who helped father the modern scientific method--but also a courtier and lawyer who became lord chancellor of England, second only to the king in the government.

Opposing James was Sir Edward Coke, arguably the greatest jurist in English history. It was he who ruled from the bench that "The house of every one is to him as his castle." Precedents he set included the prohibition of double jeopardy, the right of a court to void a legislative act, and the use of writs of habeas corpus to limit royal power and protect individual rights. Coke took a young amanuensis with him to the Star Chamber, to the Court of King's Bench, to the Privy Council, to Parliament, to meetings with the king himself. That amanuensis, whom Coke sometimes called his "son" and later put through the finest schools in England, was Roger Williams, who had been born into a middle-class family in London around 1603.

Coke's conflicts with King James and then King Charles ran deep and hot; in 1621, James sent Coke to the Tower of London. Prison did not tame him. Six years after his release, he wrote the Petition of Right, declaring limits on royal power; he maneuvered its passage through both houses of Parliament and forced King Charles to embrace it. Winston Churchill would call Coke's petition "the main foundation of English freedom....the charter of every self-respecting man at any time in any land."

But only months later, in 1629, Charles broke his promises and dissolved Parliament. While soldiers hammered on the doors of the House of Commons, the floor in chaos, its last act was to resolve that the king's supporters were traitors.

Williams was an eyewitness to the turmoil of that time, first as a youth accompanying Coke, then as a young minister and Cambridge graduate who served as trusted messenger between parliamentary leaders.

Without Parliament, Charles commenced an 11-year period of "Personal Rule," crushing political and religious dissent with a network of spies and transforming the Star Chamber from "the poor man's court" offering the prospect of equal justice into an epithet that now stands for the abuse of judicial power. It was this pressure that drove Winthrop, Williams and others to the New World, to Massachusetts.

In America, Massachusetts grew strong enough not just to slaughter Indian enemies but even to plan armed resistance to the king when it was rumored he would impose his form of worship there. It also grew strong enough to crush Rhode Island, which--peopled by outcasts banished from Massachusetts for religious reasons--it viewed as a pestilence at its border. Thus Massachusetts claimed jurisdiction, without any legal authority, over what is now Cranston, south of Providence, and in 1643 it seized the present Warwick by force of arms, its soldiers marching through Providence.

By then England was fighting a civil war, king against Parliament. English Puritans, whose support Massachusetts still needed, aligned with the legislators. That made Parliament the only power that could stop Massachusetts' imperial expansion. Williams sailed into that English caldron both to procure a legal charter from Parliament and to convince England of the rightness of his ideas.

Both tasks seemed impossible. Williams had to persuade Parliament to allow Rhode Island to divorce church and state. Yet Parliament was then no more receptive to that idea than was Massachusetts. Indeed, the civil war was being fought largely over state control of the Church of England, and European intellectual tradition then rejected religious freedom. As the historian Henry Lea observed in 1887, "universal public opinion from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century" demanded death for heretics. By 1643, hundreds of thousands of Christians had been slaughtered by other Christians because of the way they worshiped Christ. The historian W. K. Jordan noted, "No voice had as yet been raised in Parliament for a toleration of all Protestant groups," never mind Catholics, who were considered heretical traitors. Both king and Parliament wanted "a national Church which would permit of no dissent."

But Williams, both relentless and charming, advanced his arguments with passion, persistence and logic. Even his opponent Robert Baillie commented on his "great sincerity," called "his disposition...without fault." Williams also drew upon his many connections--including such men as his old friend Oliver Cromwell--pushing his views in the lobbies of Parliament, in taverns, in the great homes and palaces of London. He did anything to win favor, even securing a winter supply of firewood for London, cut off from its normal coal supplies by the war.

Most important, in early February 1644 he published a pamphlet--public debates then deployed pamphlets like artillery--in which he tried to make his readers live through his experiences, make them understand the reasons for his differences with Massachusetts, make them see the colony's hypocrisy. The people of the Bay had left England to escape having to conform. Yet in Massachusetts anyone who tried to "set up any other Church and Worship"--including Presbyterian, then favored by most of Parliament--were "not permit[ted]...to live and breath in the same Aire and Common-weale together, which was my case."

Williams described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as "the Wilderness," a word with personal resonance for him. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. "[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world," he warned, "God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse."

He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. Then and there, in London amid civil war, he argued for what he began calling "Soul Libertie." Baillie noted with dismay, "Mr. Williams has drawn a great number [of followers] after him."

Williams had one final argument on his side. Rhode Island could be a test, an experiment. It was safely isolated from England; if it was granted a charter and allowed an experiment in soul liberty, all England could watch the results.

On March 14, 1644, Parliament's Committee on Foreign Plantations granted Williams his charter.

The committee could have imposed a governor or defined the government. Instead, it authorized a democracy, giving the colonists "full Powre & Authority to Governe & rule themselves...by such a form of Civil Government, as by voluntary consent of all, or the greater Part of them shall find most suteable" so long as its laws "be conformable to the Laws of England, so far as the Nature and Constitution of the place will admit."

Even more extraordinary, the committee left all decisions about religion to the "greater Part"--the majority--knowing the majority would keep the state out of matters of worship. Soul liberty now had official sanction.

Thus Ike's statement of our civil religion:  "In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal."

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Posted by at January 15, 2012 8:40 AM

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