Church And State In America

Roger Williams, and the history that set the table.

Roger Williams (National Park Service)

Roger Williams (National Park Service)

Soul freedom sounds like a pop song, but it was hot philosophy 400 years ago, in the pre-dawn of the American republic. Today, we struggle over church and state in marriage, reproduction, education. We cite Thomas Jefferson and separation of church and state.

But long before Jefferson there was Roger Williams, fighting for Soul Libertie. Warning that when church and state entwine, it is the soul that suffers. The church that should be wary. In our time of Romney, Santorum and Obama, this history resonates.

This hour, On Point: Roger Williams and the creation of the American soul.

-Tom Ashbrook


John Barry, author of Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Review of Book “But can one be devoutly and deeply religious and still believe in the separation of church and state? Many people throughout the world, and especially Muslims, would likely say “no.” If religion and the worship of God are truly important, indeed, the most important things in the world, then the state, they say, must be involved. The conclusion seems obvious to such believers: since the spread of atheism does in fact injure them, the government must protect and promote religion and the belief in God.”

New York Times “Should you find yourself in front of the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence, look up and east, and tip your hat — real or imagined — to Roger Williams. A 35-foot statue of the Protestant theologian (1603?-1683) stands high in Prospect Terrace Park, with right hand extended, as if blessing the city he founded.”

Smithsonian “Williams had a great facility with language—a great curiosity for language—and  began trading with Indians and trying to learn their language.”

The Nation “The founder of Providence was the first to see that religious freedom, and separation of church and state, was intimately connected with political freedom.”


Chapter 1

This is a story about power. Those who know of Roger Williams generally think of him only in terms of the relationship of church and state, and certainly he is a central figure in the history of that debate. But he also came
to have a deep understanding of political power, of the collision between England’s “antient rights and liberties” and a government justifying its acts by “reason of state,” i.e., the national interest and national security, and by
the theory of the divine right of kings, a concept which King James injected into English jurisprudence. Williams, although not a lawyer, also came to have a deep understanding of the fundamental precepts of English law. This
book explores these questions by describing the evolution of these ideas in him and his translation of them into concrete form. Like most ideas, they evolved out of the interplay between his thought and his personal experience.
The personal experience included, during his teenage years when his views were forming, exposure not only to Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon but to King James and his son King Charles, to their Privy Councils and courts,
and to the leaders of Parliament. While trying to bring his ideas into fruition as an adult, he routinely dealt with and developed close friendships with such men as John Milton and Oliver Cromwell. One cannot know what precisely
he took from such experiences. One cannot know the heart and mind of Williams or any other person. But one can stand where he stood, see what he saw, know much of what he heard and read, and thus come to some understanding
of his perspective. This much is clear: his personal history was well grounded in English religious, legal, and constitutional history, just as was the larger history of the English Puritan exodus to America, complete with their
vision of themselves as a new Chosen People. Religion and politics were ever mixed. As the historian Alan Simpson noted, “It is in the midst of the struggles between king and Parliament that the English [Puritan] discovers his mission. The confused strivings became fused with a providential purpose: a way is being
opened for the establishment of Zion.”

This English history laid the foundations of American history; in particular, it built the infrastructure of American culture. Roger Williams was born probably in 1603, at a time when England saw itself as surrounded by enemies without and riven by enemies within. International rivalries threatened to— and did— erupt into war, but even greater turbulence was being generated at home as the nation endured the death throes of feudalism
and the birth pains of capitalism. Normally one could find peace from the attendant turmoil in the economy and society in religion. Instead, religion itself stirred that turmoil, for the history of the Reformation in England was

The English Reformation began roughly one hundred and fifty years before Luther, when John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and foreshadowed Luther in his criticisms of the Catholic Church. Wycliffe, later called “the
Morning Star of the Reformation,” died in 1384; forty- four years later and a decade after declaring him heretic, the Catholic Church ordered his body disinterred and burned and his ashes thrown into a river. England did not
take another major step toward Protestantism for nearly two centuries, when Henry VIII, whom the pope had called “Defender of the Faith,” wanted a male heir but failed to get papal approval to annul his marriage in order to wed
again. So he decreed himself head of the Church of England and independent of the pope’s authority. Parliament soon confirmed him in this and made a national hero of the long- dead Wycliffe.

But this English church superimposed a theology based on such Calvinist principles as predestination on a largely Catholic structure. From its beginning, then, English Protestantism contained within itself tensions identical to those which would ignite the righteous slaughters of religious war on the European

When Henry’s daughter Mary became queen, she returned the nation to Catholicism and married Philip, a future king of Spain. The marriage appalled all of England, for Spain was England’s great and feared rival. Philip spent only
fourteen months in England before returning home— he never set foot in England again. Meanwhile, in a reign of only five years, Mary burned three hundred Protestants at the stake, including Thomas Cranmer, who had been
archbishop of Canterbury. In doing so, she also burned a horror of Catholicism into the psyche of English Protestants, a horror kept alive by John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a multivolume history that recounted in graphic detail the stories of each of those killed by Mary.

Across the Channel, far worse slaughters were occurring. The single deepest river of red that fl owed into that sea of blood occurred in 1572, when on St. Bartholomew’s Day French Catholics suddenly fell upon their Protestant
brethren and slaughtered them. Catholic histories generally put the number of victims at fifteen thousand; Protestant histories claim as many as one hundred thousand were murdered.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul by John M. Barry Copyright © 2012 by John M. Barry

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