Roger Williams' passionate belief in keeping church and state separate is a puzzle to many evangelical minds. With intellectual roots firmly planted in the nourishing soil of the Old and New Testaments, he never strayed into the rocky fields of humanistic or pagan philosophy. Williams' authorities were Moses, Paul, and Jesus—not Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, or even Reformation theologians. Possessing the moral firmness and valor of an Amos or an Elijah, he challenged the waves of puritanic intolerance that strove to overwhelm him for his views on liberty of conscience.
He was praised by some as a paragon of religio-political enlightenment. He was damned by others as a pestiferous radical, a demented heresiarch ("carrying a windmill in his head"). It is only fair to hear Williams' fundamental views on religious liberty and separation of church and state in his own words.1
Though Roger Williams has long departed this life, his works live after him and his words stand imperishably on record. From these words we have drawn this hypothetical interview, allowing us to present his cardinal ideas.
Liberty: You are an ordained Baptist minister, with a mastery of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as several American Indian languages. You were also the royally appointed governor of the Rhode Island colony. So, with your permission, I will call you Governor Williams.
Williams: Yea, thou mayest so do, as that was the office I held for a longer period than I was a pastor.
Liberty: Governor Williams, what is the scope of civil government's proper authority?
Williams: Civil government is an ordinance of God, to conserve the civil peace of a people, so far as concerns their bodies and goods.2
Liberty: You say that civil government is an "ordinance of God." Does this mean that all governments have the divine right to operate as they will without the consent or redress of the governed?
Williams: Kings and magistrates are invested with no more power than the people entrust to them. The sovereign power of all civil authority is founded in the consent of the people.3
Liberty: To what extent, Governor, does the Christian church have the right or obligation to inflict punishments on the ungodly or heretical?
Williams: The Christian church [in its true identity] does not persecute; any more than a lily scratches the thorns, or a lamb pursues and tears the wolves, or a turtledove hunts the hawks and eagles, or a chaste and modest virgin fights and scratches like whores and harlots. The Christian religion may not be propagated by the civil sword.4
Liberty: But, Governor, do you see any grounds for an avowedly Christian government to penalize citizens who dissent from the established religion?
Williams: It is only the Lord who is able to give [unbelievers] repentance and recover them out of Satan's snare. To recover souls from Satan by repentance, and bring them from anti-Christian doctrine and worship to Christian doctrine or worship, in any measure of true submission, is the work only of an all-powerful God, which He performs by the sword of the Spirit in the hands of His spiritual officers. It is true, however, that the sword of steel may make a whole nation of hypocrites [yielding feigned submission to the dominant religion]. What woeful proof of this have the nations of earth given in all ages! Consider England. Within a few score years how many unsettling changes in religion has the whole kingdom made, according to the change of its rulers, in the various religions which they embraced. Henry VII finds and leaves the kingdom absolutely popish. Henry VIII casts it into a mould half-popish, half-Protestant. Edward VI brings forth an edition all Protestant. Queen Mary within a few years defaces Edward's work and renders the kingdom (after her grandfather Henry the VII's pattern) all popish. Mary's short life and religion end together, and Elizabeth revives her brother Edward's model, all Protestant. And some eminent witnesses of God's truth believe that before the downfall of Antichrist [which virtually all Reformers construed to be Romanism], England must once again bow down her fair neck to his proud usurping yoke and foot. It has been England's sinful shame to fashion and change its garments and religions with wondrous ease and lightness, as a higher power, a stronger sword has prevailed; after the ancient pattern of Nebuchadnezzar's bowing the whole world in one most solemn uniformity to his golden image. See Daniel chapter 3.5
Liberty: Commenting on Romans 13:1-6,6 John Cotton, your chief opponent in questions of church-state relations, wrote: "If the sword of the judge or magistrate be the sword of the Lord, why may it not be drawn forth, as well to defend His subjects in true religion, as in civil peace?" Do you agree with his reasoning?
Williams: Master Cotton will never prove from any of the books and institutions of the New Testament that unto those spiritual remedies appointed by Jesus Christ against spiritual maladies, He added the help of the carnal sword.7 The magistrates of whom Paul wrote were natural, ungodly, persecuting, and yet lawful magistrates, to be obeyed in all lawful civil things. This scripture [Romans 13:1-6] is wrested from the scope of God's Spirit, and the nature of the place, and cannot truly be interpreted to mean that the power of the civil magistrate may be exercised in spiritual or soul matters.8 Master Cotton knows that Jesus Christ commanded a sword to be put up when it was drawn in the cause of Christ, and added a dreadful threatening: that all who take the sword (that is, the carnal sword for His cause), shall perish by it.9 Accordingly, I affirm that there was never civil state in the world that ever did nor ever shall make good work of it with a civil sword in spiritual matters.10
Liberty: Some assert, however, that Christian leaders in government have an obligation to enforce the spiritual laws of the Bible, to "take the land back for God" as it were, and thus have a kind of theocratic government. They say that this is especially true of the United States, on the alleged grounds that it was established to be a Christian nation.
Williams: It is the will and command of God that since the coming of His Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most paganish or anti-Christian consciences, or worships, be granted to all men and all nations and countries; and that errors in religion may be fought against with the only weapon that is able to conquer in matters of the soul—the sword of God's Spirit, His Word.11 Further, if the civil magistrate be a Christian, a disciple or follower of the meek Lamb of God, he is bound to be far from destroying the bodies of men for refusing to receive the Lord Jesus Christ: for otherwise he would be ignorant of the sweet end of Christ's coming, which was to save the bodies and souls of men. Even if the civil magistrate is so gifted as to prophesy in the church, yet in the sphere of his civil duties he is forbidden to call down fire from heaven, that is, to procure or inflict any corporal punishment upon offenders in religious doctrine or practice, remembering Christ's admonition that He came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them.12
Liberty: History records your vigorous, even vituperative disagreement with the religion of the Quakers. And yet the colony over which you governed received and protected Quakers without any civil or religious curtailment of their liberties. Would you care to comment on this policy?
Williams: Against the Quakers I leveled nothing but the spiritual sword of God's Word, but, consistent with my doctrine of soul-freedom for each to worship in accordance with his own conscience, would not inflict civil encumbrances or penalties upon them.13 Conformable to our petition to Charles II, Rhode Island's royal charter reads, in part: "No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences of opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony."14 While I deplored and denounced the incivilities of Quakerism in my day (such as the going naked in public by some at sundry times), my position regarding their religious views was, "They will answer to God, at their own peril, in the great day approaching [that is, the day of divine judgment].15
Liberty: Many of your religious contemporaries accused you of sowing the seeds of anarchy and civil disorder by your doctrine of soul-liberty. What is your answer to that charge?
Williams: I gave my answer to this question in a letter addressed to the town of Providence in January 1655. Here is the text: That I should ever speak or write a tittle that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience is a mistake, which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case: There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes that Papists, Protestants, Jews, and Turks may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for turns upon these two hinges: that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ships prayers or worship, nor be compelled [restrained] from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add that I never denied that, 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 or defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny or rise up against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or write that there should be no commanders or officers because all are equal in Christ, therefore no master or officers, no laws nor orders, nor corrections nor punishments—I say I never denied that in such cases, the commander may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors according to their deserts and merits.16
Liberty: Is it possible for non-Christians and nonreligious people to be upright, law-abiding citizens and good civil servants?
Williams: Yea. There is a moral virtue, a moral fidelity, ability and honesty, which other men, besides church members, are, by good nature and education, by good laws and good examples nourished and trained up in; so that civil places and trust and credit need not be monopolized into the hands of church members (who sometimes are not fitted for public office), while all others are deprived and despoiled of their natural and civil rights and liberties.17
Liberty: What if a zealous Christian or a coalition of Christians declares that they feel conscience-bound to denounce and penalize the irreligious or those whose religious views and practices seem corrupt? Should conscience be their guide in this matter?
Williams: Such zealots may well ask themselves the questions that I urged Endecott, the persecuting governor of Massachusetts, to ask himself: "Is it possible that since I hunt, I may be hunting for the life of my Savior and the blood of the Lamb of God? I have fought against many differing sorts of conscience. Is it beyond all possibility and hazard that I have not fought against God, and that I have not persecuted Jesus in some of them?" Further, I told Endecott and his associates in government, "It is impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by their sword, and to worship a true Christ as they fight against all consciences opposite to theirs. For in this they fight against God and hunt after the precious life of the true Lord Jesus Christ. O remember whither your principles and consciences must in time and opportunity force you! 'Tis but worldly policy and compliance with men and times (God's mercy overruling) that holds your hands from the murdering of thousands and ten thousands, were your power and command as great as the bloody Roman emperors' formerly was. "Reflect upon your own spirit, and believe Him that said it to His overzealous disciples, 'You know not what spirit you are of.' Pray that no sleep may seize upon your eyes, nor slumber upon your eyelids until your thoughts have seriously, calmly, and unchangably fixed. "First, on a moderation toward the spirits and consciences of all mankind merely differing from or opposing yours with only religious and spiritual opposition; "Secondly, a deep and cordial resolution (in these wonderful searching, disputing, and dissenting times) to search, to listen, to pray, to fast, and more fearfully, more tremblingly inquire what the pleasure and mysteries of the Most Holy are."18
Liberty: Is the religious zealot therefore prohibited from expressing his passionate convictions in doctrinal and ecclesiastical questions? Likewise, is the political thinker to be restrained from the expression of his views?
Williams: Nay. In these reforming days we have begun to see an overthrow of the false notion that the two most dangerous enemies are (1) dissenting and nonconforming worshippers, and (2) liberty of free—really free—debates, disputes, writing, printing, etc. The Most High has granted a taste of these two dainties in some parts and will continue to advance them as the twin gods of ecclesiastical intolerance and carnal tradition are famished.19
Liberty: Shortly after you had arrived in Massachusetts, Governor Winthrop wrote in the first volume of his journal (1631), "At a court held in Boston, Mr. Williams had declared his opinion that the magistrate might not punish a breach of the Sabbath, nor any other religious offense, as it was a breach of the first table [of the Decalogue]." What is your response to his comment?
Williams: In June 1670 I wrote to Major John Mason and Governor Thomas Prence: "You know that all England itself, after the formality and superstition of morning and evening prayer, play away their Sabbath [Sunday]. You know yourselves that you do not keep the Bible Sabbath, which is the seventh day. You also know that the Romanists confess that there is no express Scripture for infant baptism or abolishing the seventh day and instituting the eighth day of worship, but that it is at the church's pleasure."20 But besides decrying enforced days of worship or any other religious observance, my aim is to lay bare and proclaim the crying and horrible guilt of the bloody doctrine of persecution as one of the most seditious, destructive, blasphemous, and bloodiest in any or all the nations of the world, notwithstanding the many fine veils, pretenses, and colors of not persecuting Christ Jesus, but heretics; not God's truth or servants, but blasphemers and seducers; not persecuting men for their conscience, but for sinning against their conscience; and like specious reasonings to justify the cruelty of intolerance.21 It is less hurtful to compel a man to marry someone whom he does not love than to follow a religion in which he does not believe.22
Liberty: How do you answer the contention that a false religion is inimical to society, and may be suppressed if it seduces people from a knowledge of the truth?
Williams: First, a false religion out of the church will not hurt the church, any more than weeds in the wilderness hurt an enclosed garden, or poisons hurt the body when they are not taken, and antidotes are received against them. Secondly, a false worship will not hurt the civil state if the worshipper breaks no civil law. As for those who would persecute others and exempt themselves from persecution . . . notwithstanding their confidence in the truth of their own way, yet the experience of our fathers' errors, our own mistakes and ignorance, the sense of our own weaknesses and blindness in the depths of the prophecies and mysteries in the Kingdom of Christ, and the great professed expectation of light to come which we are not now able to comprehend, may abate the edge, yea, sheath up the sword of persecution toward any.23
Liberty: What do you see as the greatest danger confronting organized Christian religion?
Williams: Invented devotions to the God of heaven; also violence and opposition toward the sons of men (especially if His sons) for dissenting.24
Liberty: Do you see any indications in Bible prophecy that the spirit of persecution among Christians and other religious groups will continue far beyond your day?
Williams: I am sure of two things: First, it is but little of the world yet that hath heard the lost estate of mankind and of a Savior, Christ Jesus; and as yet the fullness of the gentiles has not come, and probably shall not until the downfall of the Papacy. Secondly, the ministry or service of prophets and witnesses, mourning and prophesying in sackcloth, God has directly commissioned and upheld all during the reign of the beast and antichrist of Rome. This witness is probably near finished, and the bloody storm of slaughter is yet to be expected and prepared for. But this, and the time, and many passages in Revelation 13, are controversial, and something like that of Christ's personal appearance, the state of the New Jerusalem, and the new heavens and earth, etc. Meanwhile, all who are entrusted with spiritual and temporal talents must lay them out for the Lord and Master's advantage. I do not condone hostility toward any church simply to vent personal malice or umbrage. No man ever did, or ever shall, truly go forth to convert the nations, nor to prophesy in the present state of witness against antichrist, but by the gracious inspiration and instigation of the Holy Spirit of God. And when He send, His messengers will go, His prophets will prophesy, though all the world should forbid them. Howbeit, whatever tumults and strifes await God's witnesses, it remains clear that the doctrine of persecution for the sake of conscience is most evidently and lamentably contrary to the doctrine of Christ Jesus, the Prince of Peace.25
Liberty: It is evident from your writings that you have viewed the church of Rome in a critical, even condemning, light. Does your belief in freedom of religion extend even to the Catholic Church whose doctrines and policies you so blatantly disapproved in the 1600s?
Williams: In my plea for freedom to all consciences in matters merely of worship, I have impartially pleaded for freedom of the consciences of the Papists themselves, the greatest enemies and persecutors in Europe of the saints and truths of Jesus; yet I have pleaded for no more than is their due and right. Whatever else shall be the consequence of this plea, it shall stand for a monument and testimony against them and be an aggravation of their former, present, and future cruelties against Christ Jesus the Head, and all that uprightly love Him, His true disciples and followers.26
Liberty: Clearly you are a fervent believer in the Bible and a committed Christian. Describe your concept of the Christian church in its purity.
Williams: I believe and profess that the following blessed characters will be found written on the foreheads of those persons and churches which have come nearest to Christ: First, contentment with a poor and low condition in worldly things; Second, a holy cleansing from the filthiness of false worship and worldly conversations [ways of life]; Third, a humble and constant endeavor to attain (in their simplicity and purity) to the ordinances and appointments of Christ Jesus; Fourth, so far from smiting, killing, and wounding the opposites of their profession and worship, they resolve themselves patiently to bear and carry the cross and gallows of their Lord and Master, and patiently to suffer with Him. In the number of such poor servants of Christ, desires to be your unfeigned, though unworthiest of all His followers, Roger Williams.27
Liberty: Were you to make an open appeal to modern man, reflecting your most cherished values, what would it be?
Williams: How frequent, how constant ought we to be, like Christ Jesus our example, in doing good, especially to the souls of men and especially to the household of faith (yea, even to our enemies), when we remember that this is our seed time, of which every minute is precious, and that as our sowing is, so shall be our eternal harvest. For, so saith the Spirit by Paul to the Galatians: "He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting" (Galatians 6:8).28
Liberty: Thank you, Governor Williams.
Dear Reader: It is noteworthy that on a number of occasions after his banishment, Williams interceded on behalf of the Massachusetts Bay Colony with local Indian tribes which had determined to annihilate the colonists because of their mistreatment of the Indians, to whom they felt highly superior. Williams was never the target of the Indians' wrath because he always treated them with consideration, respect, and complete honesty. For this reason he was able to serve effectively as a peacemaker, though his negotiations were often intricate, precarious, and long. The Massachusetts colonists were at best grudgingly appreciative of his voluntary efforts, which had often saved their lives. Such is the churlish ingratitude of self-righteousness. Roger Williams was for peace, but his persecutors attributed questionable motives to him, and the most noble motives to their own malice and bellicosity. What a lesson in history! How apropos of our own day in which many a self-righteous moralist regards an opposing view as a form of pernicious heresy to be eradicated by all politically exploitable means.