Looking at the debate over the role of religion
in public life which goes back four centuries...
If the news pundits and commentators are an
accurate gauge then America is polarised - more than anyone can
remember. Controversy over moral and religious issues such as
abortion, marriage, and the Pledge of Allegiance - 'under God' - has
pitted Americans against each other to an unprecedented degree, or
so it may seem. Based on the tenor of talk shows, web 'blogs' and
political strategists, it would appear that America is moving into
dangerous, uncharted territory in its national discussion.
But these debates are really nothing new. Four
centuries ago, the early Americans were arguing over the same
underlying issues: what is the place of religion in society? To what
degree do we separate church from state? How does society tolerate
people of different faiths - or no faith at all?
'It all boils down to the basic question,
"What kind of nation are we, and what kind of nation are we
going to be?" said Charles C Haynes, senior scholar at the
First Amendment Center. 'In the 1600s, the argument was even less
friendly than today.'
The debate between John Winthrop (1587-1649), the
first governor of Massachusetts, and Roger Williams, (1613-1684) a
founder of Rhode Island, embodies the early clash of philosophy
between church and the embryonic American state. Winthrop and
Williams were both Puritan, a form of Christianity derived from the
teachings of church reformer John Calvin. While Winthrop sought to
keep his Puritan colony tightly knit and free of dissent, Williams
advocated freedom of conscience and complete free exercise of
Winthrop and Williams emerge as archetypes in the
ongoing debate in America regarding religion in public life. In the
seventeenth century, the terms of the debate and the posturing of
opposing camps were much the same as they are today. In modern
terminology, Winthrop would represent the conservative side, and
Williams the liberal, 'progressive' or even radical view. Both men
were deeply committed to their Christian faith, but their
interpretations of the Bible led them to very different conclusions.
'These were two very different visions of what kind
of society could be built in this place,' Haynes said. 'If you go
back in history, you can see how the same debate has echoed
throughout the centuries.'
Winthrop and Williams, despite their philosophical
differences and occasional exasperation with one another, maintained
friendship and civility - in contrast to today's modern shout-casts.
'It was an argument between friends, and Winthrop and Williams
remained friends throughout their entire lives. But their visions
were very different,' Haynes said.
The Lenni-Lenape were distributed as shown in this map, located
mainly in New Jersey and adjacent territories, while Dutch
settlers were attempting to control Long Island, and British
colonies were spring up around the edges, including those of
Maryland to the south-west, Pennsylvania to the west,
Connecticut to the east, and Massachusetts to the north, above
the Mahican and not shown on this map) (click on map to view
John Winthrop, first British governor of the Puritan colony of
In the 1600s, the argument was even less friendly than
it is today.
Charles C Haynes, Senior Scholar, First Amendment Center
City on a hill
In the spring of 1630, with a royal charter in
hand, Winthrop led a fleet of eleven vessels and seven hundred
passengers from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Sailing on
board the Arabella, Winthrop delivered his landmark sermon, A
Model of Christian Charity, in which he spelled out the mission
he and his followers were about to embark upon:
Thus stands the cause between God and us: We
are entered into a covenant with Him for this work; we have taken
out a commission. ...For we must consider that we shall be as a city
upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us. We have professed to
enterprise on these actions upon these ends.
Winthrop's language echoes the New and Old
Testaments - especially Deuteronomy and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
Many of his followers saw Winthrop as a modern-day Moses, leading
his people into the new promised land, the 'new Israel.'
'John Winthrop was giving his fellow Puritans a
vision of their mission: "We are a special nation; we are an
example to the world,"' Haynes said. 'They thought of themselves
as chosen agents of God, modelling themselves on the Hebrews, and
entering into a covenant with God. It's a partnership with God, and
God is investing in the community.'
Winthrop's sermon continues:
If the Lord shall please to hear us and bring
us in peace to the place we desire, then He hath ratified this
covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict
performance of the articles contained it. But if we shall neglect
the observation of these articles which are the ends we have
propounded... the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us.'
Winthrop's language reflects the Puritans'
particular interpretation of Calvinist philosophy - that God has
chosen an 'elect' group of people to receive His grace. God's
selection is determined by God alone and not by one's deeds,
petitions. or by performing particular rituals. Rather, one's deeds
were taken as evidence of whether or not one was a 'visible saint' -
a member of the chosen elect. Godly deeds were taken as a good
indication of one's standing with God. But one could never know with
complete certainty whether or not one was 'chosen', which led to a
certain level of anxiety, Haynes said.
'This is the heart of the Puritan paradox: If you
are a Calvinist and believe that the elect have already been determined,
then why should you be worried? Calvinist liberation is the idea
that there is nothing you can do for your salvation - that this is
solely in the hands of God. But the Calvinist anxiety is that if you
don't appear to be saved, then you probably aren't,' Haynes added.
'Winthrop's words tap into the Puritan anxiety: If
you live up to what God requires, you will be blessed. If you fail
to live up to it, you will be cursed. If you are chosen for this
special mission, then you have an obligation to live up to what God
In his sermon, Winthrop goes on to define his
vision of community and man's obligation to his fellow man:
Every man might have need of others, and from
hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bond of
brotherly affection ... always having before our eyes our commission
and community in the work, our community as members of the same
Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower – little did they realise what
horrors awaited them on the coast of the New World (Courtesy of
the Library of Congress, LC-USZ61-206)
Konrad Meyer's nineteenth century depiction of Church reformer
and theologian John Calvin
Here, the covenant is a collective one: for a good Puritan to live
up to his covenant, he must be concerned with the welfare of the
community and how others are living up to the covenant. 'What one
person does affects what others in the community are doing; otherwise
stated as "You will be punished for what I am doing",'
'This philosophy translates into the moral
underpinnings in the nation's laws; it has shaped our concern for
education and our sense of purpose; it has shaped our priorities and
what we do in the world and how we are connected to one another.
Much of theology has gone out of it, but not the ideas and the
philosophy,' he said.
City on a hill in dissent
Dissent came to the Massachusetts Bay colony, and
it didn't take long to arrive. In 1631, Roger Williams set sail from
England to Massachusetts in search of new spiritual soil. He took
his first job as 'teacher', or assistant minister at the First
Church in Boston.
'He astonished them almost at once by calling them
a false church,' wrote historian Martin E Marty in his book,
Pilgrims in Their Own Land. 'True Puritans,' he insisted,
'must separate from the whorish Church of England; yet Bostonians
clung to it, hoping to reform it from a distance.'
Although the Protestant Reformation had freed
England and northern Europe from the Catholic Church, it did not
break the bond between church and state. Established state churches
- whether Protestant or Catholic - were still the order of the day.
Williams believed any
society founded on a state religion is corrupt: The state
corrupts religion, and then religion corrupts the state.
Charles C Haynes, Senior Scholar, First Amendment Center
Williams was a radical separatist; he believed the
true church must separate from what he regarded as the irreformably
corrupt Church of England. Winthrop, on the other hand, hoped to
purify the Anglican Church, but he did not want to create a
confrontation with the crown. But for Williams, the Reformation was
incomplete and Christianity was tainted so long as the state was
'Williams believed that any society founded on a state
religion is corrupt: the state corrupts religion, and then religion
corrupts the state. And a state which denies freedom of conscience is
corrupt,' Haynes said. 'Williams believed that you cannot be a true
Christian unless it is an act of conscience.'
Williams was searching for the true church he
believed was lost all the way back in the year 313, when Roman
Emperor Constantine bestowed imperial favour on Christianity,
creating a 'Christian Empire' and setting the blueprint for a
thousand years of medieval Christian Europe. Church and state
'For Williams, the worst word in the English
language was "Christendom". When Christianity becomes
Christendom, it is no longer Christianity; it is a corruption,'
Haynes said. 'When people are Christian because the state is
Christian - and it is to one's advantage to be a Christian - then
they are hypocrites. Or, when people refuse to become Christians,
the result is "rivers of blood".'
Williams dramatically made his case for the cause
of conscience in his 1643 publication, Queries of Highest
Oh! since the commonweal cannot without a
spiritual rape force the consciences of all to one worship; oh,
that it may never commit that rape in forcing the consciences of
all men to one worship which a stronger arm and sword may soon
(as formerly) arise to alter.
Williams developed these ideas further in his
landmark 1644 treatise, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution,
in which he makes the following proclamations:
First, that the blood of so many hundred
thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the wars of
present and former ages, for their respective consciences, is not
required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.
The doctrine of persecution for cause of
conscience is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying
for vengeance under the altar.
All civil states with their officers of
justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are
proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or
defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.
God requireth not a uniformity of religion
to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced
uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war,
ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants,
and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.
It is the will and command of God (since
the coming of his Son, the Lord Jesus), that permission of the most
paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worships,
be granted to all men...
More than a century before the beginnings of the American
Revolution, Boston was already a bustling city with a busy
port and an independent entrepreneurial spirit (although
this harbour scene by W J Bennett actually dates to 1833)
Radical separatist Roger Williams preached amongst the native
Williams' detractors, particularly John Cotton of the Boston church,
argued that the state must protect itself from heretical practices,
Papists, and evil in general. Cotton wrote an answer to the Bloudy
Tenent called The Bloody Tenent, Washed, And Made White in the
Blood of the Lambe, to which Williams responded with yet another
treatise with an even longer title. Even Williams' friends, like
Winthrop, could not fathom the type of religious freedom Williams
'People thought Williams had to be out of his
mind,' Haynes said. 'The form of liberty he advocated was dangerous.
Surely the state has the right to defend itself against evil.'
Williams believed that the community, as a matter or
priority, had to protect the individual conscience. His argument for
freedom of conscience was grounded in a theological proposition:
'Williams believed that God created every human being
with liberty of conscience,' Haynes said. 'God created human beings
with the capacity to turn toward God or turn away. Society or
government may not interfere with what God has done. People in any
society have the right to be wrong. If they chose to turn away from
God, that is between them and God. Williams had a supreme confidence
that "God can take care of God".'
This opinion stood in sharp contrast with the
general view of the day, which was more concerned with uniformity,
according to Winthrop's vision of a community 'knit together'.
Williams, on the other hand, argued for a completely free exercise
of religion - even for Quakers, Catholics, and Jews - a revolutionary
idea at the time.
'Free exercise means that the state does not have
control of religion, and no one else had imagined that a state could
exist with that,' Haynes said. 'People thought free exercise meant
Free exercise is to be distinguished from its
lesser cousin, toleration, which could always be withdrawn at the
whim of a particular regime. 'Williams believed that in the hands of
government, toleration is a "weasel word",' Haynes said.
'Toleration means that government can allow something one day and
then disallow it the next. Toleration means that the state still has
control over what is Christian and what is not, and it can stamp out
what is not in its purview. In terms of personal virtue, Williams may
say that toleration is good; but in the hands of government, it is
But Williams was also a man of his time. He thought
the Catholic Church was evil, and that the Quakers were wrong. He
argued vigorously with the Quakers throughout his life.
'He thought that everyone should understand the
Gospel the way he understood it,' Haynes said. 'He was not the
founder of ACLU, and he had no love for all different groups. He
debated against the Quakers to the end and tried to convince them
that they were wrong and he was right. The fact that Williams urged
tolerance of groups which he opposed made his argument for religious
liberty even sharper.'
Embryo of the First Amendment
This Quaker couple dressed little
differently from other members of their level of society,
although they may have erred towards a less flamboyant
approach than some of their peers
In tracing the birth of the First Amendment, the
most logical place to start is with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison
and the other Founders. But the basis of religious liberty in
America goes back much further, and it begins in these early
The core idea behind the First Amendment - that the
government should never interfere with an individual's freedom of
conscience - comes from Roger Williams.
'He was the first to use the term, "the separation
of church and state",' Haynes said. 'The First Amendment - specifically
the first sixteen words - takes us all the way back to Williams. Williams
wanted people to go to church on their own free will, and not be coerced.
This is where we get "free exercise thereof". Williams argued
that you can't have free exercise if you have an established church. He
believed that we must build a "hedge of separation between the
garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world". Otherwise
there would be no chance of having the garden if the state is
Williams spent most of his life searching for pure
Christianity and the 'true church'. He became a Baptist, but later
withdrew from any congregation and became a kind of sect unto
himself, or a 'seeker' of his day.
By the time the first US congress convened to pass
the Bill of Rights in 1791, Roger Williams was a faded memory in
colonial history, and he did not emerge as a popular character for
name-dropping among the 'Founders'.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it
free from the doctrines and commandments of men.
Williams' role in shaping what was to become the
First Amendment was important but indirect - primarily through his
influence on political philosopher John Locke, who was influential
among the Founders; and Isaac Backus, an important spokesman for
religious freedom during the Revolutionary era and the founding
Backus, a Baptist minister from Massachusetts,
argued for the separation of church and state and against taxation
for the support of the established church of Massachusetts, the
Congregational Church that had been handed down from the Puritans.
'God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left
it free from the doctrines and commandments of men,' Backus wrote in
An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppression
of the Present Day (1773). 'The requiring of an implicit faith,
and an absolute blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience -
and reason also.'
Like Williams more than a century earlier, Backus
used a basic theological argument: interference with the human
conscience is an offence against God, and attempts at such
interference represent the worst kind of oppression. A similar
argument cropped up later in the landmark Virginia Statue of
Religious Freedom (1786), which begins:
Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind
free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments
or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits
of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the
Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind,
yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.
Isaac Backus, a Baptist minister from Massachusetts, was an
important spokesman for religious freedom
The author of the statute was Thomas Jefferson -
not one for making theological arguments, but his core plea is for
the cause of conscience, just as Williams had pleaded more than a
century earlier. James Madison, who steered Jefferson's bill to
passage in the Virginia assembly, took the ball and ran with it
when the time came to draft the US constitution and the First
Amendment - of which Madison was a principal author.
The genealogy of the ideas which Jefferson and
Madison permanently imprinted on the United States goes back to
early colonial America, the radical wing of the Protestant
Reformation, and the dissenting Puritans - of whom Williams is the
primary - and perhaps still the most radical spokesman.
'Roger Williams believed the same Reformed
Protestant doctrines that his principal opponents believed. But he
applied them with a boldness and moral imagination quite beyond the
point to which his fellow Puritans were willing to go, and with
practical results for political life,' wrote historian William Lee
Miller in his book, The First Liberty: Religion and the American
The legacy of Winthrop's covenant
Williams' stubborn dissents and pointed arguments
carried the essential pollen for what would later develop into the
fruits of the First Amendment a century and-a-half after his time.
But it is Winthrop's vision of a 'city on a hill', as expressed in
his Model of Christian Charity, that remains the dominant
ideal in America.
'You see these ideas throughout American history
and still today,' Haynes said. 'If there is any one document that
echoes out throughout our history to the present time, it is this
Winthrop is a favourite for politicians to quote.
Ronald Reagan built his presidential career around the image of the
'city on a hill'. Presidents who don't give a 'city on a hill'
speech are said to be lacking 'the vision thing'. George H W Bush
wasn't able to capture Reagan's aura. Bill Clinton talked about a
'new covenant', but didn't get far with it. George W Bush dusted
off 'Providence', which he often invoked in his formal speeches,
including his 2005 State of the Union Address. And Barack Obama, in
his first debate with Senator John McCain said that, as president,
he would 'restore that sense that America is that shining beacon on a
'You could take any election cycle, and things from
Winthrop's sermon will be there,' Haynes said. 'I don't think that you
can be elected president of the United States without some kind of
"city on a hill" speech. It resonates with Americans.'
Each political party claims Winthrop, but each
party emphasises different aspects of his philosophy. Republicans
emphasise the 'city on a hill', while Democrats emphasise the notion
of community being 'knit together'.
Missing from Winthrop's speech are words such as
'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' - so dominant in today's
political dialogue, but not part of the Puritan reality.
'They [the Puritans] were after religious freedom
for themselves, but not for other people,' Haynes said. 'Conformity
was built into their society because much of what they envisioned
depended on people having a shared understanding of what their
society was going to be about.'
Politicians who invoke Winthrop today conveniently
omit the lines immediately following his city on a hill clause:
If we shall deal falsely with our God... We shall
shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their
prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of
the good land whither we are going.
Only the 'shining city' side of divine Providence
is trumpeted on the political stump. But without a complete
understanding of Winthrop's meaning, and without Williams' view
towards balance, the 'shining' vision can easily degenerate into
arrogance, self-aggrandisement, and the chauvinistic notion of 'God
on our side'.
According to Williams' interpretation of the Bible,
neither New England nor any other colony or country could ever be
God's approximation of a 'New Israel'; nor could the people of any
country claim to be a special nation of 'God's chosen people'. But
since being special and 'chosen' is far more politically attractive
than the alternative, the selective Winthrop vision has won out.
Washington DC, the capital of the United States, was
specifically constructed for the purpose between 1790-1800,
capped with what could be described as a 'shining beacon
upon a hill'
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and
third US president
James Madison, fourth US president and 'Father of the US
I don't think that you can
be elected president of the United States without some kind of
"city on a hill" speech. It resonates with Americans.
Charles C Haynes
Witch trials, civil liberties, and the Puritan legacy
The Puritans are generally not looked upon
favourably in history books, popular culture, and the media. The
Puritans are most commonly known not for Winthrop or Williams
but for the infamous Salem witch trials, in which about twenty-five people,
mostly women, were executed for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
Despite the excesses of the witch trials, it was
the Puritans themselves who put a stop to it. Increase Mather, a
Puritan clergyman and president of Harvard College (now Harvard
University), played a prominent role in exorcising the witch
hysteria. Spirits In his published sermon, Cases of Conscience
Concerning Evil Spirits, Mather argued against the use of 'spectral
evidence' in the courtroom. Evidence had to be tangible. Mather's
conclusion remains an important lesson in American criminal
It is better that ten suspected
witches should escape than that one innocent person should be
Revulsion at the witch trials led to important
legal reforms and the expansion of the rights of the accused. Thanks
to this, Puritan theology inadvertently led to the development of
important political and religious rights in America.
'The Protestant reformers, and particularly the
English and colonial Puritans, for all their zealous narrowness and
for all their participation in intolerant episodes, still
promulgated principles that sometimes led by implication beyond
their own behaviour: every man his own priest; justification by
faith; the Bible as the sole authority; the gathered, congregational,
non-hierarchical, internally democratic church. These religious
ideas had unintended social and political consequences - unintended
and unwelcome to some; welcomed and explicitly affirmed by others,'
William Lee Miller wrote in The First Liberty.
The most important lasting legacy of the Puritans,
Haynes said, is government by constitution, which comes from the
Puritans' idea of a covenant - forming a compact or a charter.
'We are a chartered people; we are not a tribe,' he
said. 'The idea of covenant in the 1600s was to become the idea of
constitution in the 1700s. It is a religious idea that became secular.
In many ways we have the Puritans to thank for our constitution.
Unfortunately this history - and the legacy of Winthrop and Williams
- is lost to most people.'
Morbid interest in Puritan excesses tends to
obscure their important contributions and ongoing influence on
American society, Haynes contends.
'Most textbooks treat the Puritans as cartoon
figures and stereotypes. The history books usually tell us how
narrow-minded they were and just how "puritan" they were;
or, one of my favourite definitions, "Puritanism is the
haunting fear that someone somewhere might be happy". But
the Puritans were not as dour as they are often depicted in
textbooks. There was rum in the bottom of those ships; and they
had sex, and they enjoyed it,' he said.
Haynes believes that in order for Americans to
truly understand themselves, it is important to reach a balanced
understanding of the Puritans.
'It is wrong to read through the lens of our
stereotypes. It does us no good to demonise the Puritans because it
hurts our self-understanding as a people,' he said. 'The Puritans
deeply shaped our culture. We are all heirs to their legacy, and we
are all deeply influenced by the Puritans in many ways we don't
know. I think that all Americans are Puritans in some ways. If
we distort them, we will have trouble understanding ourselves
After the seventeenth century, the Puritans
evolved and faded into America's increasingly diverse tapestry.
But their strands remain deeply woven in American society.
'Their principles were to become long-lasting
emphases in American church life and theology not only because they
were so effectively institutionalised in a region destined to wield
major influence in a growing nation; but because, in a somewhat
modified form, they were also perpetuated by contemporary Anglicans,
Presbyterians, Baptists, and even Quakers. They would become part
of the westward-surging Methodist tide and would also make their
way into many communions of continental heritage,' wrote Sydney E
Ahlstrom in Theology in America: A Historical Survey.
Puritans were not as dour
as depicted in textbooks. There was rum in the bottom of those
ships; and they had sex, and they enjoyed it.
Charles C Haynes
Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits by Increase
Mather in 1693 in response to the Salem witch trials
The downside of the Puritans' legacy also remains
deeply ingrained within the nation's fabric, and is often expressed
in certain forms of intolerance and fear of the 'other,' which began
with the hatred of Catholics, Haynes said.
'Every time the nation faces a serious crisis, you
see this anxiety come to the surface,' he said. 'A lot of the
rhetoric that used to be directed against Catholics you can now hear
about American Muslims - that they can never be good Americans
because of what they believe.'
After the 11 September terrorist attacks, the Reverend
Jerry Falwell, along with televangelist Pat Robertson, blamed the
devastation on atheists, abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, the
American Civil Liberties Union, and the People for the American Way.
'Jerry Falwell's choice of words was so unfortunate;
but if you go back to Winthrop's language, you can see an old theme:
"If we live up to what we are to be and what God requires, we
will prosper. If we fail to obey God, we will be destroyed",'
Haynes said. 'Since 11 September, many people are afraid that we've
fallen away and should return. They believe that we are losing ground
because we have fallen away from the source of our liberty and who we
are as a people.'
After the American Civil War (ACW), many people
similarly believed that the devastation was caused by disobedience
to God and a breach in the covenant.
'The ACW was seen by many Americans as God's
judgment on America, and many people believed that the appropriate
response was to amend the constitution to include God and Jesus
Christ. This came close very close to passing. They felt that the
judgment of God on our nation had to be corrected, because of the
great defect in the constitution in omitting God,' Haynes said.
During the Cold War, fear of atheistic communism
prompted the US congress to insert the phrase 'under God' in the
'Pledge of Allegiance'. Recently, with lawsuits aimed at removing
the phrase, many fear the consequences if it is removed.
'Why should we care about prayer and the pledge? A
strong segment of the population sees the United States as a
God-blessed nation; that our liberties are inseparably linked to
God's gift and his involvement in the American experiment. You don't
have freedom unless you acknowledge the God who gave it to you. And
if you deal falsely with God, you will be destroyed,' Haynes said.
The Puritans left a deeply-ingrained legacy in the fabric of the USA
'Many Americans feel the Puritan anxiety of the
removal of God's blessing on America. This is a culture war issue
in the deepest sense, because all could be lost. We need to have a
level of perspective on these themes and realise how long we've
been struggling with them and why they are so important to so many
people,' he said.
In 1635, Massachusetts general court found Roger
Williams guilty of contempt and banished him from the colony. So
Williams went next door to Rhode Island and founded Providence in
1636. Williams governed the colony under the mandate of religious
liberty - 'a haven for the cause of conscience'.
'Rhode Island was the first spot in human history
in which one's standing in civic order was completely disconnected
from one's standing in religious community,' Haynes said. 'At the time,
people thought you couldn't set up a society without an established
religion. Williams opened up the proverbial Pandora's box.'
Martin Marty wrote in Pilgrims in Their Own
Land that Rhode Island became popularly known as 'Rogue's
Island', because it attracted so many misfits. The colony also
became a haven for Quakers and Catholics - the most controversial
and hated religious groups in the colonies at the time. Williams
was not fond of either, but he insisted that they must be allowed
- and not merely tolerated, but given completely free exercise.
'Among the people who came [to Rhode Island], the
Quakers pushed even Williams to the limits of tolerance,' Marty
wrote. 'Always the Quakers kept nettling Williams, but he defended
their right to propagate their views.'
Williams believed that free exercise was God's
mandate, and he advocated free exercise on theological grounds.
'Williams argued that God required it,' Haynes said. 'Even if you
didn't want Catholics and Quakers in your mix, you had to do it.
Williams proclaimed, "Here is a haven for the cause of
conscience, not the sewer of New England".'
In 1654, the first group of Jews to come to North
America arrived in New Amsterdam (later to become New York). The
governor, Peter Stuyvesant, was hostile toward the émigrés and
forced them into ghettoes. Four years later, another group of Jews
arrived on Rhode Island. Williams granted them free exercise and
spared them persecution.
'The treatment of Jews is a test in particular for
a person who held intensely to the truth of the Christian revelation,
as Williams did at the time, and among the folk with whom he lived,
when religious beliefs were taken as seriously as some economic,
political and scientific beliefs are taken now,' William Lee Miller
The book, Pilgrims in Their Own Land, by Martin Marty
In an age in which Jews were subject to mass
expulsions, pogroms, and other forms of oppression, most synagogues
were designed with trap doors for quick escape. But the Jews of
Rhode Island were never forced into such a precarious situation - a
fact which Haynes said is important to remember in the current
political atmosphere in the world.
'Yes, we have a long way to go in the US; but
despite all of our faults and problems, here is something to think
about: the Jews have never had to use that trap door... That is
who we are at our best. That is why I think the First Amendment is
America's greatest gift to world civilisation; and that is the
legacy of Roger Williams,' Haynes said.
From Winthrop & Williams to the Tea Party
The role of religion in public life and the notion
of pluralism - and just how much of it we can tolerate - were
critical issues four hundred years ago, just as they are today.
An explanation of the origins of religious liberty
in America could begin at many points, most obviously with the
Founders - Jefferson and Madison in particular. Benjamin Franklin
had much to say about religion and public life, and he offers a case
study of an exemplary citizen who set the blueprint for what it is
to be an American.
Benjamin Franklin was such an archetypical
American, and he was the father of the country in so many ways,'
Haynes said. 'His way of thinking about his life, his
transformation, and his melding of the Puritan way of thinking with
the Enlightenment really set the stage.'
But the origins go even further back, to the two
conflicting visions of the 'city on a hill' as embodied by Winthrop
and Williams. They are enduring archetypes to this day.
'These two visions of America continue to shape and
frame the debate,' Haynes said. 'In our society, we are struggling
deeply about how to deal with religion in public life in the
most religiously diverse nation in the world. We really have to deal
with these conflicts honestly and find out where they come from.'
The first chapter of American history - the
Winthrop-Williams debate in particular - is the logical place to
'If you think that religious liberty is difficult
and complicated, blame Roger Williams, because it starts with Williams
on Rhode Island,' Haynes said. 'That is the genius of the American
experience - never use the engine of government to deny people the
freedom to choose in matters of faith - Williams thought this was
the way. Our public square ought to be just like this.'
Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the USA, helped to draft the
Bruce T Murray is the author of Religious
Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and
Contemporary Perspective, which is available to read on the
University of Massachusetts website.
Ahlstrom, Sydney E - Theology in
America: A Historical Survey, Princeton University Press,
Marty, Martin E - Pilgrims in Their
Own Land, Penguin Books, 1984
Miller, William Lee - The First Liberty:
Religion and the American Republic, Paragon House Publishers,