· · · RHODE ISLAND · · ·


The Boundary of Religion

It has fallen out sometimes that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship.… All the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for turns upon these two hinges: that none of these Papists, Protestants, Jews or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s private prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.


Roger Williams believed in the separation of Church and State … for religious reasons. A devout Puritan minister, he fervently believed that Christians violated the word of God when they mandated religious acts.2 Williams’s views were too pure for the Puritans. They kicked him out of Massachusetts. In the wilderness lands of the Narragansett Indians, Williams arranged to create a haven for people of all faiths (and of no faith), which came to be called Rhode Island.

The story of Rhode Island’s founding for purposes of religious freedom typically omits Williams’s religious motive. Teaching his reasoning in a public school risks, ironically, crossing the boundary between church and state. Aside from that, his religious motive has often been omitted because it makes his achievement less purely secular, less “American.”3 The American quest for a purely secular government reveals the odd couple who became the nation’s cultural parents: the Enlightenment and the Puritans.4 Consequently, the church/state conflicts Williams confronted in creating Rhode Island continue to this day.

Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1683) (photo credit 1.1)

One of the first issues Williams faced began as soon as he arrived in Massachusetts in 1631: who owns the earth? Did the king of England, ruling by divine right, have the authority to claim possession of land upon which non-Christians lived? Williams maintained that the answer was no. Here again, his reasons were religious: a state that, on the basis of Christianity, asserts authority over a land where non-Christians live violates the Christian (meaning Puritan, as interpreted by Williams) necessity of separating church and state.

Williams’s view was not likely to sit well with British authorities, upon whom the Massachusetts colonists depended for protection. Williams also believed that the Puritan Church, to remain pure of the corruption in the Church of England, should officially separate from the national church—also a view that Massachusetts officials wished he would keep to himself. In 1633 Governor John Winthrop noted in his journal (referring to himself in the third person):

Mr. Williams also wrote to the governor … very submissively professing his intent … [and] offering his book, or any part of it, to be burnt.

In 1634 the governor noted:

Mr. Williams of Salem [has] broken his promise to us, in teaching publicly against the king’s patent, and our great sin in claiming right thereby to this country.

And the year after that:

The governor … sent for Mr. Williams. The occasion was, for that he had taught publicly that a magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man, for that we thereby have communion with a wicked man in the worship of God, and cause him to take the name of God in vain.

Williams was driving the governor crazy. He was also genuinely angering fellow ministers and others in the colony’s power structure. This time around, he was put on trial for advocating against the Church of England, against the colony’s religious laws, against the use of oaths in the name of God prior to giving testimony, and against England’s right to the land. In his defense, Williams stated, “I acknowledge the particulars were rightly summed up, and I also hope that … through the Lord’s assistance, I shall be ready … not only to be bound and banished, but to die also, in New England, as for most holy Truths of God in Christ Jesus.”5

He was convicted.

The court ordered Williams to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony within six weeks. Technically, he was banished for religious reasons. In reality, he was banished for secular reasons. His views undermined British authority. Here again, the events have frequently been told in a way that flips their religious/secular basis. In this instance, however, the story was given its secular spin not by post–Revolutionary War Americans but by the Puritan colonists as justification for his banishment.6 Ironically, among those same colonists were some who privately sympathized with Williams—including none other than Governor Winthrop himself. “When I was unkindly and unchristianly, as I believe, driven from my house and land,” William revealed some thirty-five years later, “Governor Mr. Winthrop privately wrote to me to steer my course toward Narragansett Bay.”7

Williams arranged with the local Indians to build a homestead on a plot of land on Narragansett Bay’s northeastern edge. But, as he soon learned from another private friend, this location had a boundary problem. Massachusetts, at that time, comprised the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony, and the governor of the Plymouth Colony informed him that he would have to leave there, too. That governor also turned out to be a secret sympathizer. “I received a letter from my ancient friend, Mr. Winslow, then governor of Plymouth,” Williams later recollected, “advising me, since I was fallen into the edge of their bounds, and they were loath to displease the Bay, to remove but to the other side of the water and there, he said, I had the country free before me.”

Williams consequently relocated to the bay’s western edge, where, to accommodate the arrival of his followers, he arranged with the Narragansetts for a larger area upon which to settle. Because the land he was accorded resulted from acts of kindness by native peoples and colonial governors—all ostensibly enemies—Williams accorded it a special name: Providence.

During the time that Williams was arranging to relocate outside the boundaries of the Plymouth Colony, another group of exiles arrived from Massachusetts. Anne Hutchinson had been banished after Williams, in her case for religious beliefs that undermined the power of ministers (as opposed to Williams’s beliefs, which undermined the power of magistrates). Williams welcomed Hutchinson and her followers. As he set about establishing Providence, she and her followers paid the Narragansetts for the use of land on a nearby island in the bay, known to the Indians as Aquidneck and to the British as Rhode Island. To this day, the official name of Rhode Island is “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” And to this day, its constitution asserts religious freedom for religious reasons. “We, the people of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” it begins, “grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and to transmit the same, unimpaired, to succeeding generations, do ordain and establish this Constitution of government.”

Original Rhode Island and Providence plantations

This intertwined religious/secular duality that remains in Rhode Island’s constitution also characterized Williams’s efforts to establish the colony and form its government. The Narragansetts’ permission to use the land carried as much weight with England as did Williams’s opinions about England not having the right to claim Indian land. For Williams, however, this was a solvable problem. He would simply follow the words of Christ (Matthew 22:21) and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. The problem had to do with identifying Caesar. The king was Charles I, but royal authority in England was under attack in a civil war being led by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan.

In 1641 Williams opted to render unto Cromwell after Parliament enacted laws restricting the authority of the king—notably, the king’s power to dissolve the Parliament and his authority over the colonies. Still, Williams had to proceed carefully. Cromwell, like the Massachusetts Puritans, believed that Christian governments were required to protect the word of God. When Williams arrived in London in 1643, he stayed at the home of Henry Vane, a longtime friend and highly influential Puritan in Parliament. Vane disagreed with Cromwell about many things, including separation of church and state, and in time he would find himself imprisoned by Cromwell after the king had been beheaded and Cromwell had become lord protector of Great Britain. But at this early point in the struggle against the monarchy, the two had joined forces. Through Vane’s offices, Williams got what he wanted:

By the authority of the aforesaid Ordinance … the Lords and Commons, give, grant and confirm to the aforesaid inhabitants of the towns of Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport, a free and absolute Charter of Incorporation, to be known by the name of the incorporation of Providence Plantations, in the Narragansett-Bay in New-England, together with full power and authority to rule themselves, and such others as shall hereafter inhabit within any part of the said tract of land, by such a form of civil government as by voluntary consent of all, or the greater part of them, they shall find most suitable to their estate and condition.

Cromwell died in 1658, and two years later the monarchy was restored under Charles II. Williams was now unsure of the validity of the parliamentary patent granting his colony its land—land that Williams theologically doubted England even had the right to grant. But once again he deemed it best to render unto Caesar—even a Caesar claiming a Christian divine right to rule. Fortunately, Charles II, uncertainly perched on the throne, was not looking for fights. Newly chartered Connecticut, however, was—since its borders included present-day Rhode Island. But Connecticut, being a Puritan colony, limited its protests when, in 1663, Charles II issued a royal charter to Rhode Island. What particularly irked Connecticut was that the boundaries of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations were enlarged by Charles to include other outcast communities that, over the years, had settled near the communities founded by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. The new boundaries were, with some later adjustments, the shape Rhode Island has today.

In his later years, Williams faced a fundamental church/state challenge in his relations with the colony’s Quakers. He had participated in a public debate of theological issues with the Quakers at their settlement in Newport. Many of the Quakers in attendance, adhering to the Inner Light that was central to their beliefs, began to pray aloud when he spoke, thereby preventing him from expressing his beliefs. Williams subsequently urged Rhode Island’s government to suppress those who would suppress others. The younger generation now running the colony opted instead to take their chances, even with religious expressions others considered rude or potentially dangerous.

From the founding of Rhode Island to the present, Americans have wrestled with the question, in what instances does divine authority negate civil authority? The fact that, under the Constitution, Americans agree on the validity of the question has not resulted in agreeing on the answer. From prayer in school to the teaching of evolution, to polygamy, same-sex marriage, medical decisions, and even the performance of autopsies, nearly every aspect of life in the United States has confronted questions of divine versus civil authority.

Did Roger Williams know the answers? If he did, it resides in his one work that seemingly has nothing to do with church or state. In 1643 he published A Key into the Language of America: Or, An Help to the Language of the Natives in that Part of America Called New England. The title suggests that the book is simply a guide to the language of the region’s Indians. Each chapter presents a group of indigenous words and phrases, explaining their meaning within the context of the tribe’s culture, noting their differences from European culture, and concluding with a scriptural reference placing that aspect of the natives’ culture within the context of Christian precepts. Williams’s “dictionary” was in fact a profound effort to increase understanding between the colonists and their Narragansett neighbors. As such, the most significant statement in A Key into the Language of America is its opening words: “I present you with a key.… A little key may open a box, where lies a bunch of keys.” In the life of Roger Williams, there is a key.

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