column: Roger Williams shaped the relationship between religion and government | Opinion
History buffs and Rhode Islanders have all heard of Roger Williams. Born in 1608 in England and baptized in the same London church as John Harvard (founder of Harvard University), Williams was an extraordinary American pioneer and religious man who sought to uphold the rights of individuals to peacefully obey the dictates of their own conscience.
Williams is best known and respected for championing the idea of religious freedom; he was a futurist ahead of his time. He felt that the government should not interfere with religious beliefs, and vice versa.
Williams found it morally unacceptable to legislate how people practice their religion. He felt that the relationship between man and God was so deep that the government should have no role in telling people which church to attend or what to believe. People brought their customs from Europe and proceeded to pass laws that required church attendance or incurred civil penalties.
Three Quakers were hanged in Boston for daring to believe that one could have a personal relationship with God, a concept considered heretical. Interestingly, they also believed in gender equality. Williams spoke out against such actions and moved to the Narragansett Bay area to organize the city of Providence.
Ensuring that all religions would be welcome was of utmost importance to this colony. He insisted that the new colony would not be dominated by any religion – demonstrating a kind of independence for which the United States has become an example to the world.
The Narragansett tribal historian told me that Williams was quoted as saying “it was wrong to make Indians pray to the God of a white man,” which infuriated powerful leaders. In addition, he believed that each person should be able to worship God as they wish.
Called a “seeker” of truth, Williams stayed away from descending religious movements and welcomed all religions to the colony.
Society in the 1600s was opening up to new ideas and practices – art, music, science, literature – which some believed stemmed from the new openness and religious freedom that was on the rise as a result of the Reformation. Democracy was born out of an unprecedented commitment to freedom of thought. Our government was created out of a need to balance justice with the newly recognized freedom to think as individuals in society as well.
Just like today, those days demanded that people stand up for their standards. The results were the establishment of numerous houses of worship. Our fundamental values are to live and to let live so that each one can practice – or not – his own spiritual quest. It is only in extreme circumstances that the government will step in to protect our health and safety.
As one of the most influential thinkers in shaping the principles that shaped our government, Williams championed the idea of keeping government out of the business of religion. Many belief systems can coexist in a harmonious and productive way. This principle is so important to identity as citizens of our country, yet it is so often disputed by those who assume, and therefore claim, that this is a country of one religion.
The long-standing American value is to be welcoming to all to show our patriotism by recognizing that many diverse practices and beliefs are represented in American society. We cherish our past when we embrace our commonalities to celebrate our unique differences. In doing so, we become a stronger people, not a weaker one.
Although we often credit Thomas Jefferson with putting forward the idea of keeping church and state separate, Roger Williams’ writings date from 50 to 150 years before that and 300 years ago. These pillars of thought form the fundamental principles that underlie the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
I find this information fascinating in light of the debates that are taking place on “what citizens are supposed to believe”. I think religious study belongs in the home and in the congregations. Spirituality is a personal journey best left to those who are not in a position of authority over us.
Many Catholics settled in Rhode Island, yet Touro Synagogue, the first Jewish synagogue in the United States, was founded in 1763 in Newport.
During a visit there in 1790, President George Washington received a letter from Moses Sexias, director of the Touro Synagogue, asking for the assurance of religious freedom for the Jews. Washington issued an unequivocal guarantee, returning a letter declaring that the new government “will give sectarianism no sanction, persecution no assistance.” Having bought the truth so dear, let’s not sell it cheap, ”he remarked.
Williams is my favorite settler because he made us remember the hard-fought “freedom of conscience” that is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. Our country will continue its heated debate but will remain notoriously pluralist.
Roger Williams’ contribution to our freedom from religious persecution is not so much a luxury as it is an essential part of freedom.
Darlind Davis is a freelance writer who lives in Pinehurst.