Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty

The role of individual conscience and religion in American society has been debated since the arrival of the first English settlers. The original intent of the Puritans was to establish a theocracy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop, its first governor (1588-1649) envisioned it to be a “city on a hill.” Roger Williams (1603-83), a fellow colonist, however, challenged the right of the state to impose “the first four Commandments, which pertain to God,” in favor of an individual’s right to freedom of worship, or not to worship at all. After having been exiled for this ‘heretical’ notion, Williams founded Rhode Island Plantation to foster this vision of a strict separation of church and state.

In Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, historian John M. Barry contextualizes Seventeenth Century religious and political sentiments that were translated from England to her American colonies. The theology of the Reformation which rejected traditional authority had gained numerous adherents causing a factious effect on the hegemony of the Anglican State religion. England’s persecution of religious dissenters was the main reason for the Puritan exodus to the New World.

Barry contends that Roger William’s belief in the rights of individual conscience made Williams the progenitor of that which is quintessentially American. “For he knew that to believe in freedom and liberty required faith in the freedom of thought, of conscience. And that was soul liberty.”

Two great influences in William’s life, according to Barry, were the jurist Edward Coke (1567-1625) and the scientist Francis Bacon, who were political rivals at the Court of King James I and his son, Charles I (1625-49). Williams served as an amanuensis to Coke who challenged the prevalent political concept that the kings rule by Divine Right. Coke insisted that power came from the people and that the king was subject to the Common Law. For example, regarding habeus corpus, he said

The greatest inheritance that a man hath is the liberty of his person, for all others are accessory to it…. It is against law that men can be committed and no cause shown…. [I]t is not I, Edward Coke, that speaks it but the records that speak it…. The king could not imprison by word of mouth.

Francis Bacon, a political ally of the king, also affected Williams’ thought, not because of his political insight, but rather through his advancement of the scientific method which relied on experience to determine truth. Therefore, Barry observes that Williams,

Seeing both state and church as corrupt vessels, he had therefore, and with great reluctance, come to see that his own worship must be personal and individual, and not communal.

He further believed “that mixing church and state corrupt the church. He was saying that when one mixes religion and politics one gets politics.”

Americans have always jealously guarded their First Amendment right of Freedom of Religion. Yet, there exists a tension as to what role religion should play in the public square, if any at all. Williams’ strict separation is perhaps best expressed today by the Reverend Barry Lynn, who is a member of the United Church of Christ and heads Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Secularists also favor this approach. Both of these constituencies, however, have traditionally been in the political minority.

More in the mainstream, however, are those who believe like Winthrop that America is a nation founded upon a Judea-Christian ethic. The Founders, for example, viewed Christian values to be an important ingredient in shaping a virtuous citizenry. None, however, envisioned political leaders tethered to sectarian control. Washington believed that national policy needed to be rooted in private morality, which relied on the “eternal rules of order and right” ordained by heaven itself. Religion, he realized, reflects on the human condition and articulates values needed to build a good society. Jefferson, whose Christianity was unorthodox, to say the least, also realized the role that religion played in the formation of an ethical people. His edited New Testament is proof of his high regard for Christian ethics.

For the most part Presidents have followed Washington’s and Jefferson’s counsel regarding religious freedom and conscience rights. That is, until the election of Barak Obama. For example, in April, 2011, Obama urged the passage of a non-discrimination law that does not contain hiring protections for religious groups. And, of course, the 2012 HHS mandate that orders Catholic institutions to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their healthcare packages. These are clear violations of the separation of church and state according to any consistent interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Barry chronicles the cross oceanic drama between England and the colonies in the context of church-state arguments. He shows how the battle among Anglicans, Calvinists and the radically egalitarian Levelers was played out in the English Parliament, the Royal Court and in the Colonial Councils. Williams, according to Barry, played a special role in promoting the latter group’s cause for “individualism” which afforded no hierarchy between God and man. This minority position was not popular with either the kings, who favored a hierarchical Catholic model of the Church, or with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the Lord Protector of England, who favored a Calvinist synodal model for Church governance. Barry says it is a tribute to Williams’ sincerity and his ability to maintain relationships with England’s power brokers that enabled him to procure a Charter for his radically different colony.

Williams’ radical ideas on liberty, Barry contends, influenced Rhode Island’s decision to be the first state to declare independence from England, on May 4, 1776. Williams’ struggle for a society that guarantees religious freedom and respects individual conscience continues in the United States. As Barry says, “Freedom, he believed, was worth it, worth his life and worth far more than his life.” Americans continue to shed their blood for this today.

Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul:
Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty


Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976. He has authored or co-authored four books and over 320 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida.

  • We can look to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine for an even earlier
    argument against the idea of the divine right of kings. And earlier still to
    Aquinas for the idea that a king rules with the consent of the people.

    Although Williams made a case for freedom of conscience, his
    ideas work equally well– as you point out here– with making religion only a private matter. The problem
    we face right now—in the matter of the Obama health care mandate– is the
    failure to recognize the freedom and autonomy of the Church as an institution. This autonomy and the idea of  their being two spheres (not one) is perhaps
    best and most simply expressed in the phrase “Two there are.” These were the
    words of Pope Gelasius in the fifth century AD– though they do sound a bit
    like something  Yoda would say.

    • MAT

      Very good points. How to explain the “why” of Obama’s usurpation of these rights?

      • Tiredofthechickenlittles

        Catholics can STILL BE CATHOLIC people.  You are NOT losing your religious freedom.  My god.  Relax.  If you want to practice your faith, you can!  Really. You can.  NO one is telling you that YOU have to spend money on contraception.  Just stop providing insurance and let those who work for you get their insurance the same way lots of other uninsured will.  Medicare DOES work. 

        Saying that Barack Obama is USURPING the right of people to practice their faith is simply too much.  So much hyperbole.

        Look out! The Sky is FALLING!!!!!

    • Richard Vladimir

      The Founding Fathers did not see their Christian faith as a private matter.  While they abhorred the Church State of England, they felt that good government promoted moral and spiritual values.  I think the author could have done better pointing that out.

  • RuthJoy

    Mea culpa! Oops– “their” should be “there.”

  • TheZore5

    I was at Church this past Sunday (Catholic) and they prayed for religious freedom, defining it definitively as being an individual right. I thoughyt about this and came to the concelusion that if only individuals have religious freedom and Churches are not defined as individuals, then Church teachingswhich definitively define right and wrong behavior might be seen as being opposed to individual religious liberty and as even obstructiong religious liberty.  I agree that religious freedom has to be defined in a way that includes Church insitutions to

  • hombre111

    I have been writing a book centered in the 1830’s and was surprised to find that, around 1805, less than twenty percent of Americans were churched.  Then began great efforts, especially by Methodists and Baptists, at religious renewal.   And so it was only later that America became a profoundly religious nation, following the “individual conversion” model which gradually turned religion in to a private affair.   One of the strongest emotions was suspicion of any kind of union between church and state.  It was his meddling in politics and his efforts to create a theocracy on the American Frontier that brought Joseph Smith’s life to an abrupt close. 

    • Are you relying on Finke and Stark for your information? Some scholars criticize their research methodology.

      There is also disagreement as to whether or not religion was in
      decline after the Revolution. Some historians point out that the War
      interrupted church attendance, but does not indicate a lack of belief. Others
      note that even the unchurched were believers. See , for instance, Gilbert, “Editor’s
      Conclusion,” in Hyneman, The American
      Founding Experience, Waldron, God,
      Locke, and Equality, and  Finke and
      Stark, The Churching of America.
      Gordon S. Wood (The Radicalism of the
      American Revolution, 329) maintains that the “religious yearnings of the
      common people …remained strong [during the disruptions of the Revolution]….”
      Himmelfarb describes the data on churches as “ambiguous and contradictory.”
      Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity,

      • hombre111

        My study has more to do with the Burnt Over District in western New York state and the rise of millenial religions including the Universalistls and the Campbellites and the Mormons.   You are right:  if established religion was in decline, there was still an intense interest in religion and the search for some kind of new prophet or new revelation.  Joseph Smith fulfilled that longing. 

        The Universalits are interesting because they are a testimony to the suspicion many had for the teaching of the Congregationalists and other established churches, including their belief in salvation only for the few.  But even though they rejected established religions, they still had their Bibles, which they studied carefully. 

        The Campbellites came out of the Baptists as part of a general search for the “ancient church.”   This was part of the attraction of the Mormons.   The Mormons also appealed to a general sense that the Second Coming was imminent. 

        On the Frontier, where my studies focus, there was a growing demand for a separation of church and state.   I concluded that Joseph Smith was murdered because he turned the election in Illinois twice, and was starting to get involved in presidential politics.   He was also feared and hated because he was trying to start a theocracy.   I argue that the Whigs took advantage of this and manipulated his death through a local mob. 

        • Great topic. Best of luck on your book project. 

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    In the aftermath of the Wars of Religion in France, the Thirty Years War in Germany and the Civil War in Britain, many people came to the conclusion that religious differences were ineradicable and that the state should tolerate different religious opinions and worship, in the interests of public order and national unity.

    Over time, two models emerged: the confessional state, with an established church, dissent
    from which was tolerated and the secular state, professedly neutral as between rival religious groups.

    Dignitatis Humanae strikes a balance, on the one hand excluding coercion in matters of religion by the civil power (“Provided the just demands of public order are observed”)
    whilst “ it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ,” which is, of course, de fide.  I would note that “public order” (dummodo iustus ordo publicus servetur.) is a
    technical term in the Roman Law tradition and is wider than “keeping the peace;” its nearest English equivalent is “public policy.”

    The application of these principles to concrete situations is by no means easy and will depend, in no small measure on historical and cultural norms.