AU Logo

Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
PO Box 210005 . Nashville TN 37221


Eschewing Obfuscation

Roger Williams - Freedom's Forgotten Hero
written by Charles Sumner

published in the April 9th edition of the Nashville Free Press


Continuing the historical analysis of the development of separation and church and state.

Insight into the thoughts of Roger Williams (1603?-1683) is provided in a letter which he wrote to the town of Providence, which uses a metaphor to clarify what he believed to be the boundaries between the power of the state and the conscientious rights of the individual. It appears to me to be a metaphor which is still useful over 350 years later, so I shall reproduce it here.

"There goes many a Ship to Sea, with many a Hundred Souls in one Ship, whose Weal and Woe is a true picture of a Common-Wealth, or an human Combination, or Society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarqued into one Ship. Upon which Supposal I do 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, secondly, compelled 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 to command that Justice, Peace and Sobriety, be kept and practised, both among the Seamen and all the Passengers. If any Seamen refuse to help in Person or Purse, toward the Common Charges, or Defence; - if any refuse to obey the common Peace and Preservation; - if any shall mutiny and rise up against their Commanders, and Officers; - if any shall preach or write that there ought to be no Commanders, nor Officers, because all are equal in CHRIST, therefore no Masters, no Officers, no Laws, nor Orders, no Corrections nor Punishments - I say, I never denied, but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the Commander or Commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such Transgressors, according to their Deserts and Merits. Thus, if seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the Father of Lights, let in some Light, to such as willingly shut not their Eyes. - I - remain, studious of our common Peace and Liberty, - Roger Williams."

Unlike other citizens of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams felt it was wrong to compel a person to believe anything. "The magistrate has no power to enforce religious demands," he said. Williams advocated what he called soul liberty, which we would call liberty of conscience. Other citizens wanted to create a "model of Christianity" in which no form of heresy was tolerated. The leaders felt it was the duty of the civil magistrate to punish religious failings, a position Williams firmly opposed. Williams believed absolutely in the separation of church and state, stating that when God's people "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 broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness." This phrase preceded Thomas Jefferson's use of the term "wall of separation between church and state" in a letter in 1802 to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut.

It was not just Massachusetts which denied religious liberty. Examples can be given from most of the 13 colonies. In Virginia, everyone was taxed for support of the Anglican church; you could only be married officially in the Anglican Church; ministers of other religions had to obtain a license to preach, and many were imprisoned or fined for violation; you could not travel the highway on the Sabbath unless you were traveling to or from church - which you had to attend once a month.



Why Do We Need a Progressive Newspaper?
published in the September 3rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Jefferson's "Wall of Separation"
published in the August 6th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Sage of Monticello
published in the June 18th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Enlightenment and Deism
published in the June 4th edition of the Nashville Free Press

America as a "Religious Refuge"
published in the May 7th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Conflicts over Religion and Government
published in the April 23rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Roger Williams - Freedom's Forgotten Hero
published in the April 9th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty in Colonial America
published in the March 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty Requires Government Neutrality
published in the February 26th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday
published in the February 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Is Posting the Ten Commandments Moral or Immoral?
published in the January 29th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Three-Minute Introduction to Separation of Church and State
published in the January 15th edition of the Nashville Free Press