Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Roger Williams: Justice Seeker & Defender of Religious Liberty

Roger Williams (c. 1603-1684) is best known for founding Rhode Island and for defending religious liberty and what came to be known as church-state separation. Some know that he founded the first Baptist congregation in North America (Providence, R.I.) in 1638, even though he, personally, remained a Baptist only briefly–becoming a Seeker awaiting a new apostalate since all churches of the current era were incorrigibly corrupt. Although a strongly orthodox Calvinist in his personal theology, Williams was a strong defender of individual conscience, including the consciences of Native Americans, Jews, and Quakers. Rhode Island became a haven for persecuted sects and oddballs.

What many people do not realize is the extent to which Williams was a defender of justice for the marginalized. When Roger and Mary (Bernard) Williams were banished from Massachussetts Bay Colony in 1635, the first charge against Williams was that he claimed that the Native Americans owned the land in North America and colonists should purchase it from them instead of appropriating it with approval of the English crown. (Later, Williams did purchase the land for Providence Plantations from the Narragansett Indians, but he also worked to secure a royal charter for Rhode Island.) Further, Williams’ first book, A Key to the Languages of America, was to enable better communication with the Native Peoples so that there would be fewer conflicts. When Roger and Mary were cast out into the Wilderness in the middle of winter, the Narragansetts helped them and made friends. Williams protected them making laws against enslaving Native Americans.

Williams’ defense of religious liberty and church/state separation was, in part, a peacemaking move. He noted how often “persecution for the cause of conscience” led to wars. The state could demand obedience only to the laws for the public good, but God alone was Lord of the conscience and people were answerable to God, not other humans, for their worship (or lack thereof). Govt., Williams’ argued, had no business in religion to support or hinder it, no matter how wrongheaded a religious view might appear. “It matters not whether it be the most papist [Catholic], pagan [Native American], Turkish [Muslim], Quakerish, or heretical opinions whatsoever, it appertaineth not to the earthly power” to attempt regulation. Notice that Williams defended views that he disliked: “papist,” “pagan,” “Turkish,” are terms to put down Catholics, non-Christians, and Muslims–but Williams defended their religious liberty anyway, precisely out of his deep respect for the sovereignty of God.

Contrast this with the Puritans who, proclaiming New England to be a “new Israel,” justified genocidal wars against the Native Americans as “Canaanites” who had to be driven from the land. Williams, though not a pacifist, replied with an approach to biblical interpretation that is vital for Christian peacemaking: namely, that since the coming of Christ, there are no “chosen peoples,” no nations that are God’s. The New Testament analogue to the Israelites is the church, scattered among all nations. Therefore, any attempt to apply biblical “holy war” passages about Israel directly to any moder nation, would be a distortion of Scripture. In the NT era, all peoples are potentially chosen, but only as individuals come to Christ. Coercion or violence in the name of promoting Christian faith is a blasphemy.

For more on Williams, see :

Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Classics of Religious Liberty 2 by Roger Williams (1603-1683), ed. Richard Groves. With a historical introduction by Edwin S. Gaustad (Mercer University Press, 2002).

Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Eerdmans, 1991.)

James P. Byrd, Jr., The Challenges of Roger Williams: Religious Liberty, Violent Persecution, and the Bible (Mercer University Press, 2002).

August 16, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, church history, human rights., religious liberty


  1. Thanks for this. Very interesting indeed.

    Comment by Jim | August 16, 2006

  2. I have quite a favorable opinion of Roger Williams, including his notion of Separation of Church and State. The only thing to note here being that church-state relations during the 30-years war were of a type that no one is advocating today.

    I am doubtful that he would embrace the modern meaning of Separation of Church and State that seems to honor a lowest common denominator in morality and excludes Christianity altogether from vast areas of our nations life.

    Comment by Looney | August 16, 2006

  3. Looney, we disagree that Christianity IS excluded from “vast amounts of our nation’s life.” Visitors are almost always struck by how religious this nation is (which is why our greed, materialism, and warmongering so confuse them).

    BTW, Williams corresponded with Richard Overton and the two may have influenced each other.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 17, 2006

  4. Perhaps. Still, the one-government/one-denomination 17th century model was what Roger Williams was opposing by advocating Separation of Church and State. I can fully agree with Separation of Church and State in that context.

    Today’s situation and the application of Separation of Church and State is so different that I don’t believe it only confuses to apply his rhetoric to today’s situation. Christian’s gripe is that the only way we can give our children a Christian education is to double pay school tuition. Having sent several kids all the way through public school and into college, they are constantly bombarded with governemnt funded, left-wing radical theology, but never given Christianity from a conservative perspective as more than a scoffing caricature. There are also a dozen or so public school teachers in my church that tell me how the rules tie their tongues.

    I agree with Jim West that Christians shouldn’t split off from society, but I will still claim that the pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction.

    Comment by Looney | August 17, 2006

  5. Michael, just one more data point: We have an Islamic charter elementary school here in my city of Fremont that runs on government funding. You probably have a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Separation of Church and State. Based on this example, however, the local Christians are most likely to deduce that Separation of Church and State is driven by opposition to Christinity and not based on any sensible logic.

    Another data point: I have seen Sihks picking up their children from fundamentalist Christian private schools.

    Comment by Looney | August 17, 2006

  6. “Having sent several kids all the way through public school and into college, they are constantly bombarded with governemnt funded, left-wing radical theology, but never given Christianity from a conservative perspective”

    Based upon my years as a public school student, parent of public school students and my one year as a teacher, I have a different opinion of this altogether.

    I sometimes object to public schools because of the RIGHT-wing teaching that goes on there – from support of the war, to expectations of saying the pledge of allegiance (which runs counter to my anabaptist beliefs), to materialism and consumerism and fossil fuel dependency issues, to dozens of other issues, I’m frequently having to check in on what my kids are “bombarded” with. But that’s what parents do, right? If I sent my kids to a “Christian” school (which I wouldn’t do), I’d be doing the same thing. It’s what we do to ensure our kids are learning what we want them to learn.

    I’m a public school supporter, but it may interest you to know that if I ever removed my kids from schools to homeschool them, it’d likely be because of them receiving too much Right-wing propaganda. How ’bout that!?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 17, 2006

  7. Michael,

    You’re writing these faster than some of us can read them!

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 17, 2006

  8. Looney, I would find an Islamic charter school using public funds just as much a violation of the “no establishment” clause as I would a similar Christian school. What our current rightwing Supreme Court will think, I don’t know.

    Dan, I’m sorry, but the rate of writing is about to slow down, at least for awhile. Agreed with your post about rightwing instruction in the schools: Have managed to protect Molly’s right to refuse the pledge (an oath) and usually teachers have allowed alternative projects to ones celebrating militarism. Less successful fighting the materialism and consumerism, etc.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 17, 2006

  9. Great, great post Michael,

    I as well am a huge fan of Roger Williams for all that he has done to create the separation of church/state as well as to give an open mind and heart to those voicing different theologies and opinions.

    I can’t help but wonder though: Williams was a Baptist for a short period of time and left to seek a purer church; do you think Roger Williams would be anymore inclined to be a Baptist today? Or would he still find the same (maybe more) corruption in all churches today as he was so offended by then?

    Comment by Kylehttp://wildbkw7.blogs.com | August 17, 2006

  10. Kyle,
    I must say that Williams was NOT one of those “all opinions are equal” types. He just thought that it was not the business of GOVERNMENT to combat error–that was to be done with the spiritual sword of the gospel. For instance, Williams REALLY disliked Quakers, not so much for their nonviolence (he was closer to this view than many have realized as the late James Wm. McClendon showed in several places), as for their doctrine of the Inner Light, which Williams believed undermined biblical authority. So, he wrote attacking tracts with titles like “George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrows!” (what a terrible pun!) and he challenged Quakers to public debate. (Early Quakers were much more like contemporary Pentecostals than the “respectable” Friends of today. Williams, a strong believer in rational debate, was thoroughly annoyed when, in the middle of point II, section B, sub-point3a, the Quakers in the crowd or even his opposing speaker would do things like drop to their knees and start praying loudly for God to open Williams’ blind eyes! It did not improve his opinions of them.) But Williams provided a safe legal haven for Quakers anyway and Rhode Island was soon, in his view, overrun with them.

    Would Williams seek a purer church today? Short answer: Yes. This is one of the areas where I am less sympathetic with Williams: His view of the Church is SO high that no actual community of believers can measure up. He thought the Baptists of his day were the closest to the biblical pattern, but he demanded perfection. In that, he reminds me of Will D. Campbell, contemporary self-proclaimed “Steeple drop out.” Campbell’s only remaining church is whomever drops by the farm or the spiritual community of scattered kindred souls everywhere.

    Churches frustrate me as much as they did Williams and do Campbell, but I am not awaiting any new apostalate to found a new, pristine, NT church. Despite sometimes being tempted to jump ship, I have remained a Baptist (though no longer a Southern Baptist, just, in Campbell’s words, a Baptist from the South) and committed myself to be with a particular faith community (Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty) and working through imperfect denominational structures like the Alliance of Baptists.
    I have more sympathy with my friends who jumped to OTHER imperfect traditions (Mennonite, UCC, Methodist, Disciples, Episcopal, to name a few where ex-Baptist friends dwell) than I do with those who decided to be lone-ranger Christians.
    In short, I don’t think the corruption of the churches is helped by a Roger Williams-like exit strategy. The NT churches certainly seem to have had many faults, judging by the complaints of the Epistle writers and the writer of Acts. So, would even a re-prisinated NT church be good enough for Roger Williams? I doubt it–and this is where I part company with the great Seeker.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 17, 2006

  11. Michael, I hope you get caught up on everything.

    The one point that I haven’t heard addresses on the separation of church and state topic is the ambiguity. At one extreme, we have North Korea, which clearly has a perfect implimentation of Separation of Church and State: All the churches are outside the state! At the opposite extreme, we have Iran, which could probably argue that they too have separation of church and state in that the church and state have different roles in society, although they are probably working off the same funding pot and share objectives – but they are still separate!

    Isn’t ambiguous law bad law? Shouldn’t the original wording of the 1st amendment be preferred because it is more precise and doesn’t give a blank check to which ever lawyers happen to be sitting on the Supreme Court at the moment?

    Comment by Looney | August 17, 2006

  12. Looney, I believe the ambiguity of which you speak stems mostly from the fact that the U.S. is far more religiously pluralistic as a society now than at its founding. In the late 18th C. as James Madison (major architect of the Constitution and ESPECIALLY of the 1st Amendment–although he had to be talked into seeing the necessity of a Bill of Rights) worked his strong separationist wording past other Framers at the Constitutional Convention who wanted people to have to affirm the Trinity (hard on Jews–and we had some even then) or belief in God or wanted restrictions on Catholics, Madison could work to strike all that down in favor of a vision of “benevolent neutrality” on the part of government. He foresaw a more pluralistic society (as did Jefferson, but he was in Paris during the Convention), but he could not have imagined the incredible kalaidescope of religious views we have in this nation, today. (Yes, over 80% claim to be Christians of some kind, and over 90% claim to believe in God–higher than any other industrial democracy–but that remainder contains not only atheists and agnostics, but an amazing number of religions.)

    Ambiguous law is usually bad law, but if everything were completely spelled out in the Constitution, this would never have survived our demographic changes.

    I am not claiming that I think the Court got every church-state case right. Far from it. But I think the main decisions have formed a fairly consistent picture–and this has not varied greatly no matter who was on the Supreme Court. Now, that would conceivably change if Scalia’s view of church-state relations were to become the majority, heaven forfend! (I’d offer an equally scary vision on the other side, but I have not seen a justice that would fit such a position.)

    N. Korea, like the old Soviet Union, has a system in which the government is actively hostile to religious faith. Same goes for China, though the restrictions are fewer than under the old guard Communists. That pattern has never prevailed in the U.S. and I cannot foresee a time when it will. We are far too religious a nation–a nation, as Toqueville famously remarked, with the soul of a church.

    Nor do I even see our government ever becoming aggressively secular like Turkey, with the army interfering often in politics to suppress religious parties, or even like France, which just passed a law banning Muslim headscarves in the public schools–a move that I would oppose as a violation of free excercise.

    I recommend Ronald B. Flowers, _The Godless Court? Supreme Court Decisions on Church-State Relationships_ (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994) for an overview of the major religion cases and the argument that, in the main, the Court has been quite consistet.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 18, 2006

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