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Martin Kelly

Roger Williams and the Separation of Church and State

By October 9, 2008

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Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 9, 1635. He had pushed forward his views of the need for freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. He was supposed to go back to England but instead fled to what is now Rhode Island. He lived amongst the Narragansett Indians and then founded Providence. This was the first colony to offer all its citizens freedom of worship and was founded upon the idea of separation of church and state.


October 10, 2008 at 4:53 am
(1) Steve Edwards says:

“The separation of church and state” is an expression taken from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from the 20th Century. It is not found in the U.S. Constitution. It is based on a misinterpretation of the Constitutional stipulation that the U.S. Government shall not establish a church. Unless he was a “time-traveler”; what relevance does Roger Williams have to this issue?

October 12, 2008 at 10:21 pm
(2) Doctor Abswernan says:

Well, Steve. It seems there was at that time a heavy influence of religion on the government back in Europe where Roger was from. Since he was also a member of a religious movement not approved by the powers that be back home, it seems he wanted to make sure that no one had to suffer such indignities as he had seem in the ‘Old World’ in the so-called ‘New World.’ Do you follow this line of thought so far?
If so then I would guess the rest follows. Although the situation has deteriorated greatly since then, we can still look back at Roger as having had a great idea at least. Hope this helps.

October 15, 2008 at 9:33 am
(3) Charles D says:

I always thought that Baptists traced their roots in the “New World” to Roger Williams? Certainly Baptists do not believe in “separation of church and state”, and neither did the Founding Fathers; they believed in no government established religion, which is exactly what you are saying in your rebuttal to Steve, Dr A. Roger Williams, as many in leadership in the New World (including leaders of the Mass colony by the time of the Revolutionary War), were fearful of a state religion, such as the Church of England, being established here, but they NEVER believed religion should be banished from the public square, nor denied its voice in the direction of the USA.

October 16, 2008 at 1:03 pm
(4) Jon Edwards says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free excercise thereof…” “Officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall be required as a qualification to an Office…” That “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution is often used ironically to indicate theocracy is legal. “Religion” and “no religious test” is more inclusive than “separation of church and state”. It would perhaps help the understanding of those who so often indicate there is no separation to actually read the Constitution and pay less attention to secondary sources designed to ignore the Constitution. Reading Williams, Jefferson, Madison might also be more definitive than accepting the possibly self serving declarations of many current Baptist “leaders” who are very opposite of Roger Williams.
The most influential of the founders were products of the Enlightment and its opposition to theocracy and sensible opposition based on historical knowledge of theocratic evils.
We should be active in making sure politicians seeking office abide by Constitutional prohibition of using government to promote religion; we should demand they abide by the oath to oppose theocracy. Perhaps education is the only solution to keep voters from supporting those who appeal to theocratic ignorance and keep so many from being bushwhacked and manipulated?

October 22, 2008 at 12:47 pm
(5) Carol says:

Best answer yet: The Separation of Church and State by David Barton at http://www.wallbuilders.com

November 18, 2008 at 8:06 pm
(6) Dan says:

I’m a student writing a paper on church-state relations and I came across James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.” In this document, Madison challenges attempts to teach religious classes in Virginia. He also calls for the free exercise of religion in the colony. Madison was influenced heavily by the Enlightenment but also studied theology at Princeton. As a young man, Madison was outraged that Baptists preachers were being jailed in Culpepper, VA. He writes to a friend describing religious persecution as a “diabolical, hell-conceived principle.” As the writer of the Constitution, this can give us some insight into what Madison intended by the wording of the First Amendment. The disestablishment clause does imply a separation of church and state, but the free exercise clause protects citizens’ rights to believe freely. I should also mention that found most of these arguements in a book written by J. Brent Walker, the head of the Baptist Joint Committee, so I’d say it’s safe to assume many Baptists leaders are still committed to Roger William’s belief in separation.

December 23, 2008 at 11:10 pm
(7) Jon says:

Steve, you’re full of it.

If Separation of Church and State was supposedly created from a 20th Century Supreme Court ruling, how do you explain the presence of a “wall of separation between church and state” in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1801? How do you explain James Madison arguing that the First Amendment should read: “Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law”? How do you explain George Mason arguing that “no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by Law, in Preference to others”? Clearly, separation existed long before the 20th Century.

Not in the Constitution? The phrase ‘separation of Church and State’ may not literally appear in the Constitution, but the meaning is evident through what does appear in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION”.

You’re not arguing against what separation is about but what you think separation of church and state is about. Unfortunately, history and facts don’t support your position.

December 23, 2008 at 11:12 pm
(8) Jon says:

Charles D said:

“Certainly Baptists do not believe in “separation of church and state”, and neither did the Founding Fathers; they believed in no government established religion”

Separation of Church and State is all about protecting religious freedom by not establishing religion! Are we talking about the same concept here?

December 25, 2008 at 10:39 pm
(9) Linda says:

I believe from what I have read, Williams wanted the churches in America to be separation from the church in England (which at that time was both church & state) and from Wikipedia… with his foresight of religious tolerance Williams’ settlement was based on a principle of equality. It was provided that “such others as the major part of us shall admit into the same fellowship of vote with us” from time to time should become members of their commonwealth. Obedience to the majority was promised by all, but “only in civil things.” In 1640, another agreement was signed by thirty-nine freemen, expressing their determination “still to hold forth liberty of conscience.” Thus a government unique in its day was created—a government expressly providing for religious liberty and a separation between civil and ecclesiastical authority (church and state)

April 30, 2012 at 12:47 pm
(10) Selah says:

I am grateful for a two fold blessings the day that Roger Williams arrived on the Lyon Ship it was a day of thanksgiving the colony was starving and that day was going to be an appointed day of fast and then the ship arrives it turns into a day of Thanksgiving it also brought this spiritual blessing with it that Rogers had the sword of the Spirit and was used to help bring about a freedom for seeking Rightoueness i see this as the greater blessing That Our father never leaves us and always gives us a path and a way out of Darkness That Very day the one TRUE God brought forth that Message he does not want a forced LOVE and LOVE does not kill or exclude the TARES till the Harvest!

August 29, 2012 at 10:53 pm
(11) Bill Long says:

Theologian Roger Williams in a message about 1663 used the phrase
“…a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world”.

In 1802, the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association wrote President Thomas Jefferson voicing their concern about the government interfering with their right to practice thweir religion. In his reply, Jefferson assured them that the Federal government would not establish a a favored religion and in this reply he used the phrase”….thus building a wall of separation between church and state”.

There have been a number of US Supreme Court Memorandum of Opinion that have referred to this letter and Jeffersons phrase. The First Ammendment provision concerning the government not establishing any religion has become synonomus with ” separation of church and state”.

February 2, 2013 at 5:04 pm
(12) Ron says:

Roger Williams wrote “The Bloody Tennent” published in London, England in 1652, a book advocating the “seperation of church and state” after he watched the hanging of the Quakers by Puritans in Mass. Please read it. When citizens of Rhode Island wanted Williams to expell and ban Seventh Day Baptists and Jews from entering the colony, Williams responded to their requests by saying, NO, they could enter into Rhode Island. John Locke wrote the Fundamental Articles of the Carolinas, the colony charter that granted freedom of conscience in matters of religion to its citizens. And Locke wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration in which he wrote that the duties of the religious cleric is fundamentally seperate and different from a civil servent of the government. Our Founders knew of these philosophical/political works.

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