“Soul Freedom” versus “Christian Nation”: Exploring the Legacy of Roger Williams

While Becky Garrison was researching her most recent book she entered into an email discussion with Bill J. Leonard, founding dean of Wake Forest Divinity School. Their topic? The lost legacy of 17th century theologian Roger Williams, prophet of American religious pluralism.


BG: We’ve been exploring how Williams’ 17th century words of wisdom might shed some light on contemporary church-state debates as the United States heads into the 2010 midterm elections. For those who aren’t familiar with Roger Williams, why are you drawn to this historical figure?

BL: Because he saw what so few in his day understood: that governments should not privilege one religious community or belief system over another.

That the native Americans were the owners of the land and should be justly compensated for it, at the very least—that got him expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony. He wrote an early primer on Native American language.

That he anticipated American religious pluralism and freedom of religion in ways that seemed impossible in his era, even including ‘Turks,” Jews, native religion, and women preachers.

He helped to found the Rhode Island colony, the first to give full religious liberty to its citizens, as a “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.”

How do you think Williams’ would respond to the current assertion made by some religious conservatives that the United States is a “Christian” country?

He thought that the ideology of “Christian nation” was the worst kind of idolatry. and denied the idea on the spot, suggesting that there are no Christian nations, only Christian people, bound to Christ by repentance and faith, not by nationality. He rejected the idea that the state should privilege any single religious voice. At the same time, he was an unabashed sectarian, fighting over theological fine points with anyone who came along including the Quakers. He did not hesitate to disagree with those whose religious views differed from his own, but he was willing for them to be his neighbors.

Williams is known for coining the term “soul liberty.” How does this concept inform the formation of the First Amendment?

I’d prefer to speak of liberty of conscience that, from Williams’ perspective begins with the idea of uncoerced faith. Williams is no secularist. He was a person of faith, highly sectarian faith, that put great emphasis on the sovereignty of God as the center of the universe. Williams and other sectarians of his time—especially Baptists—believed that the church is to be composed of believers only—those who can claim an experience of grace in their hearts. Efforts to thwart divine activity in drawing people to faith—to usurp the work of the Spirit by enforcing certain faith perspectives—were human creations that were unacceptable. God alone is judge of conscience, and therefore neither state nor established church can (in terms of salvation) judge the conscience of the heretic (the people they think believe the wrong things) or the atheist (the people who believe nothing at all).

Conscience should be free under God to act on its own without state sanctions. Such secular sanctions destroyed or undermined faith, rather than enhance it. Williams anticipates religious pluralism on the basis of uncoerced faith, not secularism, years before John Locke’s more secular approach to such questions.

What can we learn from the Winthrop-Williams discourses that can help shape how we debate about the role of religion in the public sphere?

They reflect a sense of “gentlemanly cordiality” in 17th-century colonial life. Winthrop was a centerpiece of the Standing Order but he also had a populist side to him that apparently lent itself to speculation and debate without trying to burn people. There were small signs of this in Massachusetts Bay, but it was the exception. Also, Winthrop owned the store, so he could engage in sectarian debates as long as his way was the privileged way.

What can we learn from Roger Williams’ battles with John Cotton that we can apply to the current debates between Glen Beck and progressive Christians?

Cotton gets scared of where Williams’ views would take the society—he was correct in assessing what such views would do to the Standing Order and its approach to social cohesion. These views represent the prevailing views of the “Standing Order” in New England Congregational/Reformed Puritanism. Thus America was a “type” of Israel in which the state protected the elect from the evil possibilities of the totally depraved non-elect. Just as God chose Israel as an “elect people, and nation,” he chose the “new elect” who were “grafted on” in Christ. The orthodoxy of a “Christian society” was the source of spiritual and social stability in which moral society and true religion would thrive and be protected. New England was a “City on a Hill” whose witness would transform corrupt religion of the Old World. Without government sanctions, spiritual heresy and moral chaos would result. This would, for example, require the exile of heretics like Williams, and the execution of heretics such as Mary Dyer, hanged on Boston Common in 1660.

Williams and Cotton carried out a huge literary debate over these issues in a series of books related to these questions. Williams’ begins as noted above from the position that coerced faith—establishmentarian religion—privileged religious voice—is no faith; that there are no chosen nations after Israel, and that persecution of supposed heretics may be opposition to truth. He insists that government has no business trying to act for and as God in the world, determining which faith is correct or not, or privileging voice over against individual conscience.

In the “Beck debates” it is important to suggest that while everyone has a right to assert his/her conscience in the public square, no one religious voice, i.e. “Judeo-Christian” or other, should be privileged. If you want a literal interpretation of religion in the American colonies it would be better to say that America was founded as a “Protestant nation,” since Protestantism was the majority religion and implicitly privileged voice for years, but the founders—evangelical sectarians, secularizing deists, non-believers, establishmentarian evangelicals—reflected the transitional views of government and religion that characterized 17th and 18th century debates.

Thus, while Americans ultimately made religious liberty a constitutional right, American society has granted religious liberty grudgingly, often opposing pluralism in terms of new religious communions or divergent voices. This led to exile and imprisonment of Baptists, hanging Quakers, shooting Mormons in Illinois in 1840s, shooting Catholics in Louisville in 1850s, desecrating synagogues, mosques and certain sectarian/ethnic-based churches consistently. Faith communities and individuals of faith should exercise rights of conscience in the way the vote, pray, dissent, and act in areas of citizenship, but should not seek or desire government privilege in promoting their specific views.

How do you think Roger Williams would define “social justice?”

Again, Williams’ insights into the Native American, their religion and their tribal practices give us clues to his view of social justice. He listened to their religious views and sought to understand their practices, rather than dismiss them as pagans who had nothing to teach the European Christians. He advocated in behalf of social justice for the Natives rather than their exploitation by the new conquerors. He wrote that when Indians saw the cruel ways of “English, Irish men,” they responded “We wear no clothes, have many gods, and yet our sins are less. You are barbarians, pagans wild, your land’s the wilderness.” How did he see what few in his day saw as to the nature of exploitation and pillage that was occurring with Native lands and peoples? His sense of social justice was a major factor in his response to those specific and immediate issues.

How did he implement his faith into action without crossing over the church-state divide?

He was a strong separationist, even in the 17th century. He spoke unashamedly of his own faith, fighting in print and in debates with establishmentarians and sectarians alike; but he would not advocate sanctions against them for their beliefs or practices. He was in many ways the ultimate sectarian who ended up as a “seeker” waiting on a new revelation from God to straighten out all the misspent revelations that now confused true faith. But his idea that non-Christians had rights to practice and declare their religion in the public square was the radical pluralism of his day, anticipating that of our own.

Along those lines, what do you think Williams’ response would be to the formation of the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives?

I think that question moves Williams too closely to the democratic system that developed long after the colonial period and really is difficult to address. Williams did not anticipate American democracy—in terms of current post constitutional practices. Rather he anticipated American religious pluralism, even in ways that he himself would not have imagined at the time. Generally, however, he would probably favor gatherings where representatives of different communions sought to work together, but he would have been one of the obnoxious ones in the room, debating everyone.