The story of Baptists in America begins with Roger Williams’ experiment in Rhode Island. Regarding the Baptists, Williams felt "they come nearer to the ways of-the Son of god . . . and make the fairest plea for the purities and powers of Christ Jesus." According to Governor Winthrop, "Mr. Williams rebaptized himself and some ten more" in March 1639, marking the establishment of a Baptist congregation in Providence, the first Baptist church in America. However, some Baptist historians dispute whether this was the first Baptist congregation in America. More importantly, the notion that Roger Williams was ever a baptized believer is uncertain, despite his association with the Baptists at Providence and his endearing friendship with physician John Clarke, leader of the Baptists. While Williams demonstrated a fondness for Baptists, he also registered some concern about an emphasis on radical congregational autonomy without any connection to apostolic succession. Whatever Williams’ formal connection to the Baptists, it is known that he never again affiliated himself with any church on a regular basis after he voluntarily left their company. Williams became a "seeker" numbering himself among the eschatological witnesses concerned with a restitution of an authentic church in preparation for Christ's millennial return. Until that restoration, conscience compelled him to abstain from sacraments in any of the apostate churches in the world.
Williams spent his remaining years supervising a trading operation at Wickford Point, mediating disputes between colonists and Indians, and obtaining a charter from Parliament for Rhode Island, which was not accomplished until 1644. Once the charter was obtained, the general assembly of Providence elected the original Rhode Islander as its chief officer. To his credit, Roger Williams maintained a sense of religious vocation throughout his life. His task as eschatological witness resulted in numerous publications. Williams proved to be a prolific writer. It was not until his return to England in 1643 that he put his ideas concerning separation and liberty in print. Except for George Fox Digg's out of his Burrowes (1676) published in Boston, all of Williams' titles were published during two extended visits to England: the first in 1643-44; the second in 1651-54. Williams’ celebrated plea for religious liberty, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, was published in London three months after the patent for Rhode Island was obtained from the Parliament. The volume was condemned by an official act of the House of Commons and ordered to be publicly burned. Later, in The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody (1652), Williams argued that Jews, Catholics, Moslems, and Arminians should be given unqualified religious freedom.
Rather than attempting to present a comprehensive treatment of Puritan theology, it is appropriate to examine three select theological notions in an effort to illustrate that the source of Roger Williams’ separatist ideas were essentially religious. That religious source was undeniably informed by a biblical theology, committed to the Reformed tradition of Calvinism and given concrete expression in Puritanism. His views on religious liberty were consistent with his own high Puritanism. Theologically, Williams is to be distinguished from other Puritans by the intellectual consistency with which he carried to conclusion some of the implications of assumptions common to them all. The first issue examined is theology (doctrine of God); the second is ecclesiology (doctrine of the church); and the third is eschatology (doctrine of last things).
A generation before Roger Williams was born, nonconformists in England were objects of physical persecution by the crown. Queen Mary I (r. 1553-1558), frequently referred to as "Bloody Mary," attempted to restore papal authority to England after Edward VI's death. During the Marian persecution some three hundred Protestants were killed, including high church officials such as Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley. The martyrdom of these non-conformists was graphically canonized in the popular Fox's Book of Martyrs in order that subsequent generations, which included Roger Williams, would know of the witness for authentic faith. Some eight hundred nonconformists sought refuge in Geneva, where they observed first hand John Calvin's theocratic experiment to reform the city. The Puritans were impressed not only with Calvin's experiment to make Geneva a model for Protestantism, but with his theological reflections as well.
The most salient feature of Calvin's theology was the sovereignty of God. By placing such a radical emphasis on God's sovereignty, the most minuscule possibility of works righteousness on the believer's part could be overcome in the salvation process. Some Calvinists would argue that even the desire for a response of faith was a result of God's activity, not men. Calvinism, as formulated in the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), developed predestination notions that included a theory of limited atonement as well as a doctrine of irresistible grace. For the Puritans, such a theological outlook was expressed in terms like "election," "chosen," and "covenant."
Like the Reformed tradition of Calvinism, Puritan theology began with an understanding of the sovereignty of God.
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All other doctrines were but footnotes to an extended explanation of God's sovereignty. As Williams enumerated,
First, of an appearance of that Arminian Popish doctrine of Frewill, as if it lay in their own power and ability to believe upon the Magistrates command since it is confessed that what is subject to by and without faith it is sinner, be it never so true and holy. Second, since God only openeth the heart . . . it seems to be a high presumption to suppose that together with a command restraining from, or constraining to worship, mat God is also to be forced or commanded to give faith, to open the heart, to incline the will.
As Church historian LeRoy Moore explains, "the key to Williams as a man and the basis for all his writings--[was] this utter dependence upon the absolute sovereignty of Jehovah God" In light of Williams’ acceptance of Puritan theology, which included the doctrine of election, it should not be surprising that he had nothing but contempt for any coerced faith, manipulation of conscience, or any form of compulsion in matters of faith, whether that conformity was demanded by the state or the apostate church. Such ideas were merely the logical entailments of what he thought was meant by God's sovereignty. In regards to being theologically consistent concerning God's sovereignty, Roger Williams was a Puritan of the Puritans. In effect, he was more of a Calvinist than the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, including John Cotton.
In essence, Roger Williams’ whole case for separation of church and state--as well as for the ordering of his entire life in general--was grounded in nothing other than a strenuous allegiance to divine sovereignty. "His whole plea," as Moore reminds, was "a defense of the divine honor, an appeal that man in no way restrict the free operation of divine grace." The root of the conflict with the Boston leadership was that the magistrates had assumed a divine prerogative that belonged only to God. If Jesus were King of his Kingdom, then neither John Cotton nor any civil magistrate would be able to assume that privilege. So, unlike Enlightenment thinkers, Williams’ argument for separation did not begin on anthropocentric grounds, but on theocentric footing.
Like other Puritans, Roger Williams’ understanding of the church was informed not only by a conception of the church's unique covenant role in history, but by biblical metaphors as well. Among his favorite images were "the Bride of Christ," "the New Israel," and "the Kingdom of Christ Jesus." These three descriptions reveal something of the richness of the doctrine of the church. These depictions suggest that the church has both particularistic and universal components; realistic as well as mystical elements. While Williams understood the nature of the church in both senses, it is the broader meaning that he had in mind when he wrote, "What Land, what Country now is Israel’s Parallel and Antitype, but the holy mystical Nation of the Church of God, peculiar and called out to him out of every nations and country. . ." To the extent that the authentic church is mystical and ecumenical, as it increasingly became in the development of Williams’ thought, a physical union of the church with the state becomes a metaphysical impossibility. Puritan ecclesiology harbored the seeds that sprouted into an inevitable separation of the institutional state from the mystical church. What remained was the experience of Roger Williams to cultivate the intrinsic ideas.
The emphasis on the church as "the New Israel"--as distinct from the ancient Israel which was a national church -- recurred frequently. For Williams, that ancient alliance between typological church and state belonged to a distant dispensation which was no longer binding. As a consequence, Williams argued, "the Lord Jesus has abolished that national state and instituted and appointed his worshippers and followers to be the Israel of God, the holy nation and proper antitype of the former Israel . . . " Understanding God's design in the ancient church is instructive since its unique relation to the world helped inform Williams’ understanding of both the apostolic and modem church. Israel was to be a people separated from the world. God had intended there to be a "wall of separation" between the ancient church and the world. Williams declared, "The Church of the Jews . . . and of the Christians . . . were both separate from the world . . . and . . . they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the church and the Wilderness of the world . . . ."
Contrary to God's design that the church be "separate from the world," the presence of a "gap in the hedge" has resulted in an apostate church. It is clear that Williams regarded the alliance of the church and the state as the greatest disaster to ever befall the "Body of Christ." Williams traced the origin of the apostasy to the alliance effected between the church and the state in the fourth century. Modem critics of culture-religion would have no difficulty in accepting Williams’ assessment that
Since the apostacie of Antichrist, the Christian World (so called); hath swallowed up Christianity . . . The Church and civil State, that is the Church and the World are now become one flock of Jesus Christ; Christ’s sheep, and the Pastors or Shepherds of them, all one with the several unconverted, wild or tame Beasts or Cattell of the World and the civil and earthly governors of them; The Christian church or Kingdome of the Saints, that stone cut out of the mountains without hands .
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. . now made all one with the mountains or Civil State from whence it is cut or taken: Christ’s lilies, garden and love, all one with the thorns, the daughters and wilderness of the World, out of which the Spouse or Church of Christ is called.
Separatism, in Williams’ ecclesiology, necessarily entailed a limited role for the state. That limited role was set forth in Williams’ explanation of the two tables. Separatism connoted that the jurisdiction of the state's magistrate does not extend to laws of "the first Table" (i.e., the first four of the Ten Commandments, those dealing with man's duty to God). Rather, a magistrate's proper role is limited to "the second Table" (i.e., the remaining six of the Ten Commandments, those concerning man's relationship to man) which "contains the Law of Nature, the Law Morall and Civil." Implicit in Williams’ distinction was a differentiation between sin and civil crime. Sin is that spiritual alienation of man from God which may or may not be manifest in criminal action against society. Williams extended the logic of his argument to assert that violations of "the first Table" in no way threatened the interest of the state. He dared say:
. . . Original sinner [does not] remotely hurt the Emil State. Tis true, some doe, as inclination to murder, theft, whoredom, slander, disobedience to Parents and Magistrates: but blindness of minds, hardness of heart, inclination to chose or worship this or that God, this or that Christ, besides the true, these hurt not remotely the civil state, as not concerning it, but the spiritual?
Consistent with the doctrine of the two tables and growing out of his allegiance to divine sovereignty, Williams insisted that God does not need the coercive help of the material "sword of steel" to assist the "sword of the Spirit" in the affairs of conscience. In the concluding lines of The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody, Williams asked rhetorically, "Can the sword of steel or arms of flesh make men faithful or loyal to God?" The question was answered eight years earlier in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, as Williams argued that "faith proceeds alone from the Father of Lights . . . A sword of steele compels . . . to a worship in hypocrisy." In the earlier treatise, Williams mused:
If Jesus Christ were present . . . and the question were proposed what Religion would (he) approve . . . The Papist Prelatists, Presbyterians Independents, &c. would each say, of mine, of mine. But put the second question, if one of the several sorts should by major vote attain the Sword of Steele . . . what weapon doth Christ Jesus authorize them to fight with in His cause?"
Williams did not lack an answer to these queries. He continued, "The most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian conscience and worship . . . are only to be fought against with that Sword which is only (in Soule matters) able to conquer, to wit, the Sword of Gods Spirit, the Word of God." Williams reminded that Jesus "never appointed the emil sword for . . . antidote or remedy, as an addition to those spirituals."
For Williams, while it is beyond the jurisdiction of the state to legislate regarding sin, it is well within its sway to legislate concerning "the second Table." In fact, this is the state's proper role. Some of Williams’ fellow colonists confused their liberty of conscience with licentiousness of behavior, which yielded the winter riots of 1654-55. In response, Williams addressed the town of Providence with an unforgettable metaphor:
There goes many a ship at sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth . . . It hath fallen out sometimes, that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, many be embarked in one ship . . . None . . . [can] be forced to come to the ship's prayer or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any . . . Notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship's course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help, in person or purse, toward the common charges of defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commanders and officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no master nor officer, no laws or orders, nor corrections nor punishments . . . in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel and punish such transgressors according to their deserts and merits.
Additionally, Williams contended that the biblical pattern of the apostolic church was congregational and functioned without the benefit of state consultation or financial assistance. Williams wrote that "the first churches of Christ Jesus, the lights, patterns and presidents to all succeeding Ages, were gathered and governed without the aid, assistance, or countenance of any Civil Authorities”. To allow the state to support the ministry of the church was contrary to the original plan whereby the ministry was either self-supporting or maintained by the contributions of the saints. A ministry supported in any other way was a "hireling" ministry.
The continuing problem which plagued Williams was that of discovering the exact nature and form which God intended for the church and ministry in his day. Since the time of Calvin, disputes raged over the "Form of the Church and the Administration thereof . . . ."Until that day when a true church could be a reality, Williams taught that the reformation of the church was incomplete. He held:
The finishing of the Testimony must (probably) be general, not only in England, but in the rest of the Protestant Nations: which finishing of the witnesses (probably) will consist in the matters of the purity of his worship, and the Government of the Lord Jesus in his own holy Appointments and Institutions.
The Puritans were millenarian. One need only recall the fanatical appeal of the Fifth Monarchy Movement among English Puritans and Separatists which led to an attempt on the life of Charles I as a reminder of the pervasive presence of seventeenth-century chiliastic notions. Puritans believed themselves a part of the 144,000 of God's elect as prophesied in Scripture. The elect were to participate with Christ in a thousand-year earthly reign which would precede the Last Judgment. Millenarian beliefs for Puritans were espoused not as an afterthought to complete a theological system, but as integral to a comprehensive religious schema. Such a view provided the theological matrix for understanding the providential development of world history as well as a sense of personal responsibility to man and to God within a framework of cosmic significance. Millenarian eschatology enabled the Puritans to perceive themselves perched on the precipice of a cataclysmic moment in history--perhaps even history's final stage--during which God was directing the reformation of the church and society out of the corruption into which they had fallen during the Middle Ages.
Like other Puritans, Roger Williams held millenarian views. Again, Williams’ millenarian piety differed from other Puritans to the degree that the logical implications of such views enabled the visible sign of the Covenant--the purified church in the Commonwealth--to be replaced with a rather invisible eschatological hope. The greater Williams’ anguish over the impurity of an apostate church, the greater necessity for a dependency upon an apocalyptic expectation in a millennial hope that God would restore the fortunes of the elect through the Parousia.
Williams explained his reluctance to evangelize Native Americans in terms of a combination of his lament for the apostate church and his hope engendered by millenarian piety. His own testimony was that he could have "brought thousands of these Natives, yea the whole country," to some form of Christianity. But he did not do so because such conversions would have been merely external or in some degree false--in his own term, an "Antichrist conversion." Implicit in Williams’ reluctance was that an authentic conversion could not be manipulated. He refrained from converting the Native Americans not out of respect for their religious views, as some cultural relativists might have done, but rather out of his deep sense of the present impurity of an apostate church and his hope for its approaching reunion with the true Christ. Williams argued:
Whether Gods great business between Christ Jesus the holy Son of God and the Antichrist the man of sin and Sonne of perdition, must not be over, Zion and Jerusalem be rebuilt and re-established, before the Law and word of life be sent forth to the rest of the Nations of the World, who have not heard Christ: The Prophets are deep concerning this.
Williams’ millenarian views enabled him to leave the church of the commonwealth in order to be an eschatological witness (martyr). As he became increasingly skeptical concerning the possibility of the earthly realization of the Puritan Commonwealth--apart from some apocalyptic intervention of God--his view of his own task within the larger scheme took on a different meaning. Rather than participating with a visible congregation in the organization of society, as stated in Mr. Cottons Letter . . . Examined, Williams now considered his spiritual task to be numbered among the faithful martyrs. God's glory awaited in Christ's coming rule:
In him [Christ] thou seekest in these searching times, mask'st him alone thy white and soules beloved, willing to follow and be like him in doing, in suffering: although thou find'st him not in the restoration of his Ordinances, according to his first Patterne. Yet shoult thou see him, raigne with him, eternally admire him and enjoy him when he shortly comes in flaming fire to burne up millions of ignorant and disobedient.
Against the backdrop of an apocalyptic event in history with the imminent return of Christ, Williams continued the depiction of his assignment as eschatological martyr.
However, another dimension of Williams’ eschatology became evident, that is, his pessimistic view of history. In contrast to the general tenor of Enlightenment thought, Williams’ view of history as informed by eschatological visions was far from optimistic. Williams wrote:
My end is to prepare the Servants and Witnesses of Jesus (what Truth sorer of his they testify) for that great and general and most dreadful slaughter of witnesses, which I cannot but humbly fear, and almost believe, is near approaching, and will be Ushered in provoked and hastened by the proud security, worldly pomp, fleshly confidence, and bloody violence of God's own children, woefully exercised each against other, and so rendered woefully ripe for such an Universal and dreadful Storm and Tempest.
While Williams’ world may have lacked purity and order and thus gave way to a justified pessimism, it never lacked meaning. Williams’ conviction that he was among the eschatological martyrs commissioned by God to purify Christianity for its millennial restoration enabled him to place his individual activities within a meaningful framework.
Whatever Williams did as a citizen that led to the implementation of separation of church and state must be seen against a backdrop that maintained a religious faith in an eschatological hope for history. Even his designs for the evangelization of Native Americans must be seen in this fashion.
In the development of Western political thought, a variety of arguments have been fashioned that advocate the institutional separation of church and state. Contributors to such arguments include Marsitus of Padua, William of Ockham, Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. A prominent place on any such list must be reserved for Roger Williams. It was Williams whose ideas on religious liberty, secured by institutional separation, were implemented in the royal charter and constitution of Rhode Island. Observers who track the development of political ideas usually cite Rhode Island as "the first secular state of modern times."
Unlike others who have made arguments for separation, the foundation for Williams's argument was theological. The argument was shaped by his own Puritan experience. Few Puritans shared the conclusion that a secular state was necessary to secure religious liberty. The thought of Roger Williams should be distinguished from other Puritans only by the degree to which his conscience was willing to press to conclusions those assumptions common to them all. In examining select theological notions, such as theology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, it has become evident that Puritan thought shaped by Williams's hands labored in favor of separation. With the Marian persecution of Puritan forefathers as well as the banishment from Massachusetts Bay as a backdrop, it is not surprising that an emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God led Williams to a position of utter contempt for any manner of coerced faith. Likewise, the trek from St. Sepulchre's parish to Pembroke's Anglicanism, to a Puritan chaplaincy in Essex, to disputes with fellow nonconformists at Boston, to a brief association with Baptists at Providence, and finally to a conception of his role as a "seeker" and eschatological witness, served only to confirm the continuing apostasy of the church, which for Puritans had existed since the fourth century. Since no physical manifestation of an authentic church could be found, the significance of those biblical metaphors that emphasized the universal and mystical nature of the church gained importance. If the authentic church was understood as mystical rather than physical, one must necessarily reason that any arrangement with the state no longer made metaphysical sense. Similarly, as covenant hopes for the success of a Puritan Commonwealth dwindled, the fortunes of the elect came to reside with God's cataclysmic intervention into history from beyond history. And, to the extent that God's ultimate solution for transforming society transcends history, one must conclude that the role of the historical church functioning in harmony with the state for the glory of God is not only diminished, but becomes irrelevant.
So, how does one measure the impact of Roger Williams's theological argument for institutional separation of church and state upon that more important document--the Constitution--drafted some 150 years after the founding of Rhode Island? Unlike Williams, the framers of the Constitution were guided by eighteenth-century Enlightenment notions rather than seventeenth-century Puritan ideas. As a consequence, the point of reference for the framers at Philadelphia was anthropocentric, not theocentric. The drafters of the Constitution spoke often of the natural rights of man, but seldom of the sovereignty of God. The Enlightenment view of history was optimistic, not pessimistic. Perhaps these differences have caused more than one historian to suggest that any influence Roger Williams may have had on the United States Constitution, particularly the religion clauses of the First Amendment, was minimal. Such historians point out that the negative appraisal of Williams given by William Bradford, John Cotton, and Cotton Mather was the prevailing assessment in America well into the nineteenth century.