Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Roger Williams and religious liberty

.... Today, in our mostly secular societies, we assume that separation protects the state from the church and so it does. But the reverse is also true. When the Founders drafted the Bill of Rights, in the late 18th century, they aimed also to protect the church from the state.

The First Amendment begins with the ‘establishment’ and ‘free exercise’ clauses, which prohibited the recognition of an official church or national religion and prevented the federal government from regulating religious life. .... It also meant that, when the state fell into disrepute, religion was not dragged down with it; hence the absence of anti-clericalism in American history. Instead of weakening religion in America, then, the separation of church and state has actually created space for a vibrant and voluntarist religious life. ....

The central figure in Barry’s drama is Roger Williams, a Puritan minister and Cambridge graduate, who emigrated to America in 1631. Williams settled in Massachusetts, but chafed under the strict conformity of life under the New England Way. Drummed out for views that even the Puritans found too radical, he fled into what the colonists called ‘the howling wilderness’. Warned by his friend John Winthrop that he was about to be deported to England, where he faced arrest and probable execution for views deemed treasonous, Williams slipped into the dead of night, using a raging blizzard for cover, and headed south. After 75 miles of trudging through deep snow and canoeing through ice-ridden waters, he stopped on the shores of Narragansett Bay. Grateful to the mercies of a loving God, he named his new settlement Providence.

Like most Puritans in England, Williams had resented Bishop Laud’s Church of England and bridled at the abuses of power by Charles I. Yet, unlike most Puritans, he also resisted the rules imposed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had fled repression in England only to find it in New England. Determined to avoid the abuses of power he had found in London and Boston, Williams embedded both religious liberty and participatory democracy in the charter of the new colony he founded, Rhode Island, most notably by prohibiting the establishment of any official religion. In Rhode Island colonists were free to believe in anything or in nothing. It is here, Barry argues, that we find ‘the creation of the American soul’, which grounded religious and political freedom in individual autonomy. .... [more]
My denomination's first church in North America was organized in Rhode Island in 1671.