Roger Williams and Religious Freedom

American Minute with Bill Federer

An early Baptist dissenter who died in London’s Newgate Prison was Thomas Helwys, who wrote in 1612:

“The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.”

Thomas Helwys founded the Baptist faith in England with John Smyth and John Murton.

Thomas Helwys wrote in A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity:

“If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more:

for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”

Baptist John Murton was thrown in the Newgate Prison where his opinions were censored for being against the government agenda.

Roger Williams referred to him in The Bloody Tenet of Persecution For Conscience Sake:

“The author of these arguments against persecution … being committed (a) prisoner to Newgate for the witness of some truths of Jesus,

and having not use of pen and ink, wrote these arguments in milk, in sheets of paper brought to him by the woman, his keeper, from a friend in London as the stopples (ie. cork) of his milk bottle …

In such paper, written with milk, nothing will appear; but the way of reading by fire being known to this friend who received the papers, he transcribed and kept together the papers, although the author himself could not correct nor view what himself had written …

It was in milk, tending to soul nourishment, even for babes and sucklings in Christ … the word of truth … testify against … slaughtering each other for their several respective religions and consciences.”

Roger Williams himself was found guilty of preaching religious liberty in England and fled to Boston on FEBRUARY 5, 1631.

He pastored briefly before being banished in 1636 by the Puritan leader John Cotton, who himself had been persecuted by Anglicans in England.

Befriended by the Indians of Narragansett, Roger Williams founded Providence Plantation, Rhode Island — the first place where church government was not controlled by state government.

In 1639, Roger Williams, with Dr. John Clarke, organized the first Baptist Church in America.

Soon other dissenters arrived in the colony, such as Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, and Philip Sherman.

Dissident Minister Rev. John Wheelwright fled Massachusetts and founded Exeter, New Hampshire.

“Notorious disagreements” with Puritan leader John Cotton over the Massachusetts General Court censoring his religious speech led Roger Williams to publish The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Conscience Sake and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered in 1644.

In it, Roger Williams first mentioned his now famous phrase, “WALL OF SEPARATION”:

“Mr. Cotton … hath not duly considered these following particulars.

First, the faithful labors of many witnesses of Jesus Christ, existing in the world, abundantly proving,

that the Church of the Jews under the Old Testament in the type and the Church of the Christians under the New Testament in the anti-type, were both SEPARATE from the world;

and that when they have opened a gap in the HEDGE, or WALL OF SEPARATION, between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the WALL itself, removed the candlestick … and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day.

And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be WALLED in peculiarly unto Himself from the world,

and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the world and added unto His Church or garden … a SEPARATION of Holy from unHoly, penitent from impenitent, Godly from unGodly.”

Rev. Roger Williams was alluding to Isaiah 5:1-7, that when God’s people sin, He judges them by allowing his vineyard to be trampled by an ungodly government:

“My well-beloved hath a vineyard … And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine … and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem … judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard … When I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? …

I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I WILL TAKE AWAY THE HEDGE thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and BREAK DOWN THE WALL thereof, and it shall be trodden down …

For the vineyard … is house of Israel … and he looked for judgment, but found oppression.”

Roger Williams’ understanding was that if God’s people sin, God will let the government trample the religious rights of the church, in the same way that when Israel sinned, God let the surrounding nations invade and trample them.

This is seen in the Book of Revelations’ warning to the Church at Ephesus, “Repent and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”

But Roger Williams stated that if God’s people do repent, “He will restore His garden” protecting it as “walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world.”

This became a foundational Baptist tenet that government should be kept out of the church.

Baptist churches began in other colonies. James Madison wrote to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819:

“The English church was originally the established religion …

Of other sects there were but few adherents, except the Presbyterians who predominated on the west side of the Blue Mountains.

A little time previous to the Revolutionary struggle, the Baptists sprang up, and made very rapid progress …

At present the population is divided … among the Protestant Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists.”

Baptist minister John Leland, who helped start Baptist Churches in Connecticut, wrote in Rights of Conscience Inalienable, 1791:

“Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience.

If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”

Connecticut had established the Congregational Christian denomination as its official State Church from 1639 to 1818.

Prior to the 1947 Everson case, religion was under each individual States’ jurisdiction.

On October 7, 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association complained to President Jefferson of their second-class status in the Congregationalist State of Connecticut:

“Sir … Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty

-That religion is at all times and places a matter between God and Individuals

-That no man ought to suffer in name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions

-That the legitimate power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor:

But Sir … our ancient charter (in Connecticut), together with the Laws made coincident therewith … are; that … what religious privileges we enjoy (as Baptists) … we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights …

Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State;

but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth.

Sir … we have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State … May God strengthen you for the arduous task which Providence & the voice of the people have called you …

And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.”

On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote back agreeing with the Baptists:

“Gentlemen … Believing with you

-that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,

-that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship,

-that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,

I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights …

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”

In his 2nd Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson stated:

“In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government.

I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercise suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state and church authorities by the several religious societies.”

Jefferson wrote to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808:

“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from inter-meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.

This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States …”

Jefferson continued:

“Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General government. It must then rest with the States as far as it can be in any human authority …

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines …

Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets.”


bill-federer-2Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.