Roger Williams: Did this Gentle Man Plant a Seed for the American Revolution?

Statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island. No one knows how Roger Williams original looked like, so the sculptor used another, more recent, Williams as a model.

Statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island.
Yes, that’s Ted Williams’ face.

Hear me out:  The concept of the separation of church and state is so deeply embedded in the American psyche that it was a catalyst that led not only to independence, but to American democracy itself.

Jefferson hardly invented the “wall of separation” phrase that’s in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.  He very appropriately repeated a phrase that was first uttered by Roger Williams in the 1640s.

Unable to come to an accommodation with the intolerant Puritans in Massachusetts (actually he fled from them), Williams obtained a charter from England with the intention to build a colony with a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes (sic) of the world.”

Rhode Island was born.

Let’s think about that. Jefferson well knew who first uttered that phrase one hundred and sixty or so years before, as probably did the congregants of Danbury Baptist.

The concept of a separation of church and state was well known in 1802.  And well it should have been. It took some time for Williams’ seed of religious liberty to sprout outside of Rhode Island, but when it did…

Wow!

That seed sprouted into the First Great Awakening.

The First Great Awakening was a religious movement that burned through the American colonies in the first half of the 18th century. At its core, it was a popular reaction against the theocracies that established authoritarian states in several New England colonies.   The common people insisted that they reserve the right to choose for themselves how they worshipped.  They won that contest against the theocrats, and won pretty handily at that.  In so doing, they built a resilient wall of separation between church and state.

No more theocracy:  The power of religion lay with the people and not the state.

From thereon in, the people of New England were psychologically prepared to rebel against unabridged authority, be it religious or political.

It was no coincidence that where the First Great Awakening initially caught fire, where the people rebelled against theocracy so they could worship in their own way, was also the land where British troops were first fired upon.

Hence Roger Williams, possibly the gentlest settler who walked the early American colonies, in his example of religious tolerance and protection for individual religious belief, greatly contributed to the defiant mindset (“Don’t tread on me”)  that eventually led to the American Revolution.

Certainly his principle of a “hedge or wall of Separation”designed to protect individual religious belief lives on today 370 years later. This wall is much older than Thomas Jefferson.

Today’s extremists, ignorant of this grand history, will continue to try to knock down this powerful wall that is so deeply embedded in the American character. In the long run, they’re not going to get very far with their muddleheaded quest.

Like those long ago New England colonists who battled for religious freedom, today’s Americans won’t let anyone take that freedom away from them.

Yes, these radical muddleheads will create chaos and pain in the attempt at weakening or destroying this wall.

But succeed?

I don’t think so.

A fine series on Roger Williams and his powerful but largely forgotten impact on today’s world is available on YouTube via the Center for Liberty of Conscience here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ur8gTAsGETI

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