You might not expect the founder of the tiny state of Rhode Island to be perhaps the pioneer of American religious freedom, but Roger Williams’ ideas about the freedom to worship are foundational to our understanding of that right today. Williams was a man of conviction, and that was exactly why he seemed to find enemies wherever he went.
The concept of “separation of church and state” that we hear so much about is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but was first articulated by Roger Williams. Williams wrote in “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution” that true faith could only be arrived at when a person had freedom of conscience, something he was denied in Massachusetts.
He was a Christian, but in the 1600s that wasn’t a clear enough label. Williams sought freedom from the Church of England along with a group of Puritans who settled in the colony of Massachusetts in 1631. But William’s ideas were a little too free for the Puritan church leader’s liking, so he was exiled from the colony in 1635.
After his exile, Williams was then welcomed into the winter camp, and stayed there until spring. He purchased land from the Native Americans he had befriended, land that became Rhode Island. Sources tell us, “Williams wanted his settlement to be a haven for those ’distressed of conscience’, and it soon attracted a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals.
In August 1637, a new town agreement again restricted the government to ‘civil things’. Thus, Williams founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate, that provided religion liberty and separation of church and state.”
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