Mark Silk: “I get why Michael Tate Reed destroyed the Ten Commandments”


This monument was recently destroyed by a driver in a 2016 Dodge Dart

Earlier this week I wrote a piece on Arkansas’s decision to place a monument commemorating the Ten Commandments at the State Capitol in Little Rock. The day after the monument was erected, a guy named Michael Tate Reed drove his 2016 Dodge Dart into the monument and destroyed it.  Tate, who describes himself as a “pentecostal Christian Jesus Freak,” has a history with these monuments.

Over at his Religion News Service blog Spiritual Politics, Mark Silk writes:

…Be it noted that Reed is no anti-religious bigot bent on destroying the iconic expression of Judeo-Christian faith. He’s an apparently devout evangelical — “a born again Christian whos a pentacostal Jesus Freak,” as he put it on Facebook — albeit one with a history of mental illness.

Before destroying the monument, he wrote:

I’m a firm believer that for our salvation we not only have faith in Jesus Christ, but we also obey the commands of God and that we confess Jesus as Lord But one thing I do not support is the violation of our constitutional right to have the freedom that’s guaranteed to us, that guarantees us the separation of church and state, because no one religion should the government represent.

In other words, Reed harks back to the first era of American evangelicalism, when the likes of Roger Williams and John Leland made themselves obnoxious to the ecclesiastical powers that were in New England by vigorous advocacy of keeping church and state as far apart as possible.

Read the entire piece here.  Silk concludes that somewhere Williams and Leland are smiling.

The Author’s Corner with Linford D. Fisher

Linford D. Fisher is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This interview is based on his book Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father (Baylor University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF:In some ways, Decoding Roger Williams came to me, not I to it. In 2011, an interdisciplinary group of undergraduates at Brown caught wind of a mysterious book at the John Carter Brown Library (JCB), the margins of which contained undecipherable coded writing, purportedly by Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century religious dissident and founder of Rhode Island. The then-director of the JCB, Ted Widmer, invited the students to tackle the project by forming a group independent study project. Although I had to decline a formal supervisory role, I gave input into the early phases of the project and kept tabs along the way. Like everyone else, I was a bit skeptical that these undergrads could do what computers, professors, antiquarians, and linguists had failed to do previously, namely, crack the code.

You can imagine our surprise, then, when, in early 2012, the team began making real headway on deciphering the writing by a combination of statistical analyses and good old fashioned historical legwork. What they learned is that the marginal shorthand in the “mystery book” actually contained three separate sections of writing. The first section was comprised of notes on a popular seventeenth century travel book by Peter Heylyn. The third section contained notes from an early modern medical textbook. But the middle (second) section! This was the exciting part. As they began the slow process of translation/deciphering, they realized they had stumbled on a brand new essay by Roger Williams on the topic of adult baptism, one that had never been published nor even seen (or at least understood) by anyone else. 

In this new essay (dated c. 1680), Williams responds to a 1679 pro-infant baptism essay by John Eliot, the minister in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and missionary to Native Americans. Eliot, in turn, was responding to a 1672 anti-infant baptism essay written by John Norcott, a Baptist minister in London, England. In this new essay, Williams defends adult baptism and spends a whole page critiquing John Eliot’s evangelization program.

In September of 2012, one of the primary code-breakers, a mathematics concentrator named Lucas Mason-Brown, and I decided that the team’s findings deserved a wider audience. We began working together on a fuller reconstruction of the essay, with the eye towards both an academic article and a full book. Happily, we were successful on both counts. In April 2014, a co-authored essay appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly on just the Indian conversion section of Williams’ essay. And the book—which contains a lengthy introductory essay, the reconstructed Williams essay, and annotated transcriptions of the Norcott and Eliot essays—was picked up by Baylor University Press, and is due out August 1. For the book, we were also pleased to collaborate with J. Stanley Lemons, a retired Rhode Island College professor and knower of all things Baptist and Rhode Island.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF: Roger Williams retained throughout his life a strong belief in the importance of adult baptism (versus infant baptism). He also remained surprisingly critical of the widely-publicized attempts to evangelize Native Americans, especially with regard to the program under John Eliot in Massachusetts.

JF: Why do we need to read Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF: It is rare to find a new essay on an important colonial leader. Williams has long been an enigmatic figure, and this new essay helps make sense of 
him a bit more on at least two important issues (baptism and Indian evangelization). I also think Roger Williams is one of the most underappreciated colonial leaders. He was a little rough around the edges, yes, but he had a radical vision for church-state separation and full religious liberty (in both belief and practice) that was fully implemented in Rhode Island for the first time in the western world. In a day and age when religious intolerance repeatedly rears its ugly head in the US and abroad, Williams is refreshingly clear about how to handle religious differences: by persuasion, not coercion, suppression, or persecution.

We’ve also written the book in a way that takes the reader through the process of decoding the shorthand, so it is a neat window into early modern shorthand and cryptography. It’s not quite Da Vinci Code material, but it’s still fascinating. And for those who are interested in seventeenth century debates over baptism, the annotated transcriptions of the essays by Norcott and Eliot will be insightful. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LDF: I came to the field of history more generally through philosophy and theology as an undergrad. There was something about the study of the past that made me realize that nothing, really, is actually that new in terms of human experience, particularly with regard to religious debates. The past is interesting in its own right, of course, and yet it is also an incredible storehouse of human wisdom and experience, almost a crowdsourcing of the human condition. In my master’s program, I was initially more interested in the early modern period, particularly the era of the Protestant Reformation, but then I delved in more deeply into late nineteenth century American social reform in my master’s thesis. By the end of my first semester in my doctoral program at Harvard, however, I was hooked on early American history. I landed on Native American history for my dissertation topic because it seemed to me to be the underside of a colonial process that I thought deserved deeper investigation (published as The Indian Great Awakening in 2012). I still retain an interest in the wider early modern world, however, since I think most of American history is incomprehensible without a rich understanding of European history.

JF: What is your next project?

LDF: I am currently working on my next book, which is on Indian and African slavery in colonial New England and a few select English Caribbean colonies (Bermuda, Barbados, and Jamaica). Tentatively titled Land of the Unfree: Indians, Africans, and the World of Colonial Slavery (under contract with Oxford University Press), this book will explore the differences and similarities between the enslavement of indigenous peoples in North America and the Caribbean and the better-known rise of African slavery. The best part about the project so far is the requisite archival trips to the Caribbean. The worst part is the deeply disturbing and depressing nature of early modern slavery. But these stories need to be told.  

Thanks, Linford.  This is great stuff.  

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author’s Corner.

Thoughts on Hobby Lobby: Is a Corporation a Person?

The American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History asked me to write a short piece on the Hobby Lobby decision as part of a historians forum on the landmark Supreme Court case.  The forum also includes short essays by Ruth Bloch, Naomi Lamoreaux, and Alonzo Hamby.  My contribution is titled: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all corporations are created equal.” Here is a snippet.

But can a corporation have religious liberty? I obviously don’t know how Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson—the great early American defenders of religious liberty—would have responded to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, but there is little doubt that they would have considered such a proposal to be very strange. For these men, religious liberty was a very personal thing. Religious liberty was meant to protect deeply held spiritual convictions that found their home in the “soul” or “conscience.” Religious liberty was an inherently Protestant concept. It stemmed from the belief that people could read the Bible for themselves and draw their own religious conclusions. It has always been a religious idea applied to individual human beings. Can a for-profit cooperation have a soul? Can it truly practice liberty of conscience?
We might also ask, as political scientist Patrick Deneen has done so brilliantly, whether a big box store such as Hobby Lobby, located in a massive shopping center constructed on a slab of asphalt at the edge of town, can be considered a person. And if it is a person, can it exercise religious liberty? What happens to a traditional and historical understanding of a person—a human being embedded in political, religious, and local communities exercising virtues such as friendship, love, duty, and citizenship—when it is defined in the context of a soulless corporate world with the primary purpose of maximizing profits?
Read the entire post here.

Roger Williams in the Winter Woods

After he was banished from Massachusetts Bay in January 1636, Roger Williams was supposed to be escorted by armed guards to a ship that would take him back to England.  Ironically, John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, warned him that the soldiers were on their way to take him to ship. Williams heeded Winthrop’s warning and escaped into the New England woods.

Over at The Beehive, Dan Hinchen reminds us of William’s difficult journey.  Here is a taste of his post:

Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. “He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows.”
“But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford.” A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.
That Roger Williams endured his trek from Salem to Narragansett Bay is no doubt a testament to his personal relationships with the native peoples and their willingness to give him shelter. Yet, “There was no comfort in this shelter. For fourteen weeks he did ‘not know what Bread or Bed did meane.'”

Church and State in Newport

Great Friends Meeting House, Newport, RI

I just finished a rather full day of touring, speaking, and eating in lovely Newport, R.I.  If you are a regular reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you know that I am up here to participate in a panel discussion on religious freedom and the American founding sponsored by the Newport Historical Society.

The day began with a whirlwind tour of colonial and revolutionary Newport.  Until today I did not know that Newport has more pre-1776 buildings than any other city in America.  My tour guide was Katie Garland, a 2012 Messiah College graduate who is currently a graduate student in public history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  Katie is interning this summer at the Newport Historical Society and has quickly become an expert on all things Newport.

Katie took me to several important colonial and revolutionary sites including the Touro Synagogue (oldest synagogue building in the country and second oldest Jewish congregation), the Great Friends Meeting House (the oldest place of worship in Rhode Island dating back to 1699), the home of Calvinist minister Ezra Stiles, a 7th Day Baptist meeting house from the 1730s (which is part of the building that houses the Newport Historical Society),  the oldest lending library in America, the Newport Colony House (the site of the Stamp Act Riots in Newport), and several other buildings.  I also got my first glimpse of the famous Newport mansions.  Newport is loaded with early American history and I hope to come back soon.

In the late afternoon a crowd gathered in the Great Friends Meeting House for a panel discussion entitled “How Christian an Understanding?”  I was joined on the panel by John Barry, author of the best-selling Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul and Michael Feldberg of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.  The panel moderator was Daniel Cowdin of Salve Regina University in Newport. Ruth Taylor of the Newport Historical Society was the host for the event.

As might be expected, I spoke about some of the themes I wrote about in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  I reminded the audience to use the past responsibly when employing it in arguments about whether America was or wasn’t founded as a Christian nation.  The past can be both a guide for the present and a “foreign country.”  We should thus be careful how we use it in contemporary debates.  I then focused on three points:

1.  The fact the founding fathers, to a man, believed in liberty of conscience in matters of religion.

2. The fact that many so-called “founders” included either religious establishments or religious oaths for office in the state constitutions that they wrote.

3.  The fact that the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, which declared that there was a “wall of separation between church and state” that was “high and impregnable,” did not necessarily represent the way church and state issues had been handled, officially or unofficially, between 1789 and 1947.

John Barry discussed the career of Roger Williams and how he, despite his deep Calvinist faith, parted ways with the Puritans on the question of the separation of church and state.  I also learned that Barry ended up writing about Roger Williams after a false start on a book about Billy Sunday and religion and politics in World War I America.  It was good meeting Barry, especially after I reviewed Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul in Christian Century last year.

Before starting the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, Michael Feldberg was the long-time archivist at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.  Feldberg pulled no punches in arguing that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, at least demographically and culturally.  I also learned from Feldberg that despite Rhode Island’s staunch commitment to religious freedom, Jews were not permitted to vote in elections because they could not swear a Christian oath.  Feldberg is doing some very interesting work on the history of George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Touro congregation/synagogue and he will coming out shortly with a book on the subject.

After the event I said my farewell (at least for now) to Katie and headed off to dinner with the members of the panel, Ruth Taylor, and a host of dignitaries from the Rhode Island historical community.  It was fascinating to learn about their planning and preparation for the 350th anniversary of the original Rhode Island charter of 1663.

Back to Pennsylvania tomorrow, assuming I can get the slow leak in my car’s tire patched up.

Should Christians Embrace Secularism?

I ask this question today in an op-ed at The Washington Post(For some context, check out this post from yesterday).  Here is the piece:

I didn’t know what to think when Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University invited me to be the first plenary speaker at a conference called “Secularism on the Edge.” I am an evangelical Christian who teaches American history at a Christian college. In fact, I am writing this from a hotel room in Pittsburgh where I am attending “Jubilee,” an annual gathering of thousands of evangelical undergraduates from East Coast colleges and universities. In a few hours I will be conducting a seminar on how to integrate Christian faith with the study of history.

Though I do a lot of speaking at events that might be described as “secular” (American history lectures at colleges, universities, libraries, museums, etc…), I don’t normally get invited to public conferences devoted entirely to the subject of secularism.

For many of the culture warriors who share my particular brand of Christianity, “secular” is an adjective used to modify “humanism.” Secular humanists are often described as aggressive atheists and unbelievers who want to remove all traces of Christianity from public life. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jerry Falwell and other members of the emerging Christian Right warned evangelicals about an encroaching secular humanism that was creeping into American schools and threatening the Christian character of the nation.

As an evangelical believer, I, of course, see the world through the eyes of my Christian faith. I have many friends and acquaintances who do not believe in God, but I have profound differences with them about the origin, meaning, and purpose of life. If being secular means living in a disenchanted world in which God does not exist, or abandoning essential Christian beliefs such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ or authority of the Bible, then I am definitely not secular. But if secularism is something akin to what Berlinerblau describes in his book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom,” then there is much of it that I can embrace.

Let me explain:

For Berlinerblau, secularism is more of a political philosophy than a religious one. Secularists, he writes, “are often deeply suspicious” of “any and all relations between government and religion.” In other words, secularism is essential to religious freedom.

Many Christians have believed in this kind of secularism. Martin Luther taught his followers that God rules over two kingdoms. The secular kingdom should not be confused with the spiritual kingdom. One kingdom upholds the law and preserves the common good. The other kingdom is a heavenly one where Christians experience God’s grace and find salvation.

Or consider the Baptists. Ever since the devout Puritan exile Roger Williams wrote about “a hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world,” they have defended religious freedom. In colonial Virginia Baptists suffered immensely under a so-called “Christian state” controlled by the Anglican Church. It should thus not surprise us that when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison called for religious freedom and a largely secular state in post-revolutionary Virginia, Baptists rallied to the cause.

Anabaptists—those from the Mennonite and Brethren traditions who founded the college where I work—have long resisted the temptation to equate the kingdom of God and the nation-state. As a result, one would be hard pressed to find an American flag on the campus of Messiah College.

In 2011, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his provocative “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” urged his fellow Christians to abandon the notion that we can “change the world” through politics. He instead called for evangelicals to leave the political arena, stop trying to Christianize the nation, and practice their faith in the world through acts of Christian love in their local communities and neighborhoods. He described this approach to Christian living in the public square with the phrase “faithful presence.” 

Trying to convince evangelicals that Berlinerblau’s “secularism” is a theologically legitimate way of understanding the relationship between church and state will not be easy. The Christian Right has successfully demonized the word. Many of my fellow evangelicals firmly believe that God has a special plan for the United States and the founding fathers, as servants of God, set out to create a uniquely Christian nation, not a secular one. Such an assertion is problematic on both theological and historical grounds, some of which I look forward to discussing Wednesday at the Secularism on the Edge conference at Georgetown. I hope to see you there.

John Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College.

“Secularism on the Edge,” an international conference exploring secularism in the United States, France, and Israel, opens at Georgetown University Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. All events are free and open to the public. Visit the Web site for more details and follow the conference on Twitter @SecularismEdge for updates and live tweets of the events.

Jon Stewart on the Rhode Island "Holiday Tree" Controversy OR Did Congress Ever Meet on Christmas?


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Stewart has a lot right here, but he may be in error on at least one point.  David Bruce Forbes explains in a thorough post at Religion & Politics.

"Christian Century" Review of John Barry, "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul"

My review of Barry’s book appeared in a recent issue of The Christian Century.  Here is a taste:

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the members of the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association. The Danbury Baptists were a disgruntled religious minority in a state with a Congregational establishment. Though they were no longer required to pay taxes to support Connecticut’s Congregational ministers, they remained engaged in a battle for complete religious liberty through the disestablishment of Congregationalism in their state.

Jefferson sympathized with the plight of his correspondents. Though he had no power to change the religious laws of Connecticut, he did encourage the Danbury Baptists by calling for “a wall of separation between Church & State.” In 1947 the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with Jefferson. It concluded in Everson v. Board of Education that there is indeed a “wall of separation” between religion and government, and it is “high and impregnable.”

Most Americans do not realize that the phrase “separation between church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Nor did the concept originate with Jefferson. It stems from the work of 17th-century dissenter Roger Williams, who called for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” As John Barry argues, Williams thought that such a wall or hedge was absolutely necessary because the mixing of church and state corrupted the church. Williams, says Barry, believed that “when one mixes religion and politics one gets politics.”

Read the rest here.

Call for Papers: Religious Freedom and Toleration

Over at Religion in American History, Linford Fisher informs us of a very interesting conference to take place next year in Rhode Island.  Here is the call for papers:

No Person Shall Bee Any Wise Molested:
Religious Freedom, Cultural Conflict, and the Moral Role of the State 
A conference planned for October 3 – 6, 2013, in Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, organized by the Newport Historical Society, the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, Salve Regina University, the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, the John Carter Brown Library, and Brown University to mark the 350th anniversary of the 1663 Rhode Island Charter. 
What is religious toleration? What are its functions, effects, and limits in society? How has it manifested (or not) around the world in human history?
The 1663 Rhode Island Charter stipulated that no person “shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion.” This charter famously ignited the “lively experiment” that both reflected and shaped religious and political developments in the early modern world and has continued to influence global conversations about the role of toleration and religious freedom. The 350th anniversary of this charter provides a timely point of entry into a thoughtful consideration of a far larger set of questions about religious freedom in particular historical and present day contexts.
Far from exemplifying a simple narrative of “progress,” toleration and religious liberty have been contested, often resisted ideas that have proved surprisingly difficult to implement equitably. This is especially true when one looks outside the traditional boundaries of church-state relations to consider the lived experiences of religious dissenters, ethnic minorities, women, and enslaved and free people of color, including American Indians and indigenous populations around the world. The uneven adoption of such ideas in the early modern world, ongoing intolerance in the United States even after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, and the globalization and contestation of full religious liberty today suggest that a more comprehensive investigation of the meaning of religious liberty and toleration is an issue of particular urgency for the present.
Situated in historic Newport and Providence, Rhode Island, this conference looks at the sources, consequences, changing meanings, and lived experiences of religious freedom and intolerance. To that end, the program committee solicits panels and individual paper proposals that represent innovative research on the broad themes of religious liberty, toleration, intolerance, religious conflict, and the role of government in such contexts. Papers that cut across traditional lines of disciplines, geographies, and chronologies are especially welcome, as are papers that look at transnational and comparative contexts, local and international conditions of toleration, and the shifting boundaries between the public and the private. In addition to historians, the committee hopes to engage scholars from other disciplines, including (but not limited to) anthropology, ethics, literature, religious studies, political science, economics, theology, sociology, law, philosophy, and peace, conflict, and coexistence studies.
Possible topics include (but are not restricted to):
●       New perspectives on the 1663 Rhode Island charter—its context and consequences
●       Shifting meanings of religious freedom in specific historical contexts
●       Intersections of religious freedom or prejudice with race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexuality
●       Limits of religious freedom and expression
●       Economic, cultural, and political consequences of religious tolerance and intolerance
●       Conflicts over public space
●       Religiously inspired moral coercion
●       Nationalism, national identity, and transnational networks
●       Historical formations of the religious, the civic, the secular, and the state
●       Experience of the religiously unaffiliated, freethinkers, and the “nones”
●       Attitudes towards religion in secular culture
●       The interplay between law, policy, and religious coexistence
●       Lived tolerance and intolerance
●       Interreligious dialog and ecumenism
●       Instruments of religious intolerance in the twenty-first century
●       Governments and indigenous peoples
●       Literary and artistic boundaries of religious freedom
Please send a 500 word proposal and curriculum vitae for each participant to by February 1, 2013. Full panel proposals should be sent under one cover and should include a panel chair and respondent. Questions should be directed to the email above.
This conference is part of The Spectacle of Toleration: Learning from the Lively Experiment, a multi-year project that aims to open up an international conversation about toleration and religious freedom. In addition to the academic conference, The Spectacle of Toleration plans to provide several years of public programming. For more information, please see:

Roger Williams: Self-Made Man

At some point I hope the Christian Century will publish my review of Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.  But if you cannot wait that long for a Williams fix, I would encourage you to check out Jim Cullen’s post: “Tolerating Roger Williams.”  Cullen writes about Williams as part of his ongoing American History Now blog series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.  Here is a taste:

He founded – and in a half-century as a tireless administrator, solidified and protected – Rhode Island as a haven of tolerance. It’s important to make clear, however, that this was simply a means to an end: Williams wanted the right to worship as he (and he alone, as he refused to pray even with his wife) saw fit. He did help establish the first Baptist church in America, but his solitary spirit – what he himself described as “the restless unsatisfiedness of my soul” (Gausted 182) – a quickly asserted itself and he left it. Williams has long been recognized for his unusually good relationships with Native Americans, in part because he learned their language and bargained with them in good faith. But at some level he was comfortable with Indians because in their paganism they posed no risk of Christian hypocrisy. Figuratively speaking, he belonged to a congregation of one.

A Roger Williams Revival?

Over at Religion in American History, Linford Fisher writes about the renewal of interest in Roger Williams, the Puritan founder of Rhode Island and champion of religious liberty. 

Rhode Island has been celebrating the 375th anniversary of its founding (the anniversary was last year, but the party continues). John Barry’s recent book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul is getting a lot of attention. And several conferences on Williams are in the works.

Williams (and Anne Hutchinson) best represent the spirit of the American founders on religious freedom.  Yet many still insist on tracing the religious roots of the United States to the largely intolerant Puritans and Pilgrims.

Here is a taste of Fisher’s post:

There’s more one could say about how Roger Williams continues to inspire and haunt this great city. I’ll leave you with this. If you are ever at the John Brown House Museum on College Hill, ask the receptionist to see the Roger Williams root and hear its story. This experience alone will give you a sense of the staying power that Williams has had and will likely to continue to have in this endearing city and state. In the meantime, brace yourself for more national discussions regarding Williams, Rhode Island, and religious liberty (if nowhere else, on this blog in the coming weeks when I post my review of Barry’s book).

The Puritan "War on Religion"

The so-called Obama “war on religion” looks tame compared to the war on religion waged by the Puritans, those English Calvinists who settled New England in the 17th century and who are often linked by Christian nationalists to America’s “godly heritage.”  Of course the Puritans did not wage war on all religions, just the religions that they did not like.  Their wrath fell on any group that did not conform to the Calvinist congregationalism that informed John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill.”  Some Quakers, for example, that were executed for their beliefs.  Baptists were forced to flee Massachusetts and form the colony of Rhode Island.  One of those Baptists was Roger Williams, the subject of a new biography by John Barry entitled Roger Williams the State of the American Soul.

To help promote his book, Barry has published an article in The Los Angeles Times dealing with the Puritan “war on religion” and our contemporary understanding of such a “war.”  Here is a taste:

The church-state conflict began when Puritans, envisioning a Christian nation, founded what John Winthrop called “a citty upon a hill” in Massachusetts, and Williams rejected that vision for another: freedom. He insisted that the state refrain from intervening in the relationship between humans and God, stating that even people advocating “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships” be allowed to pray — or not pray — freely, and that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Yet Williams was no atheist. He was a devout Puritan minister who, like other Massachusetts Puritans, fled religious persecution in England. Upon his arrival in 1631 he was considered so godly that Boston Puritans had asked him to lead their church. He declined — because he considered their church insufficiently pure.

Reverence for both Scripture and freedom led Williams to his position. His mentor was Edward Coke, the great English jurist who ruled, “The house of every one is as his castle,” extending the liberties of great lords — and an inviolate refuge where one was free — to the lowest English commoners. Coke pioneered the use of habeas corpus to prevent arbitrary imprisonment. And when Chancellor of England Thomas Egerton said, “Rex est lex loquens; the king is the law speaking,” and agreed that the monarch could “suspend any particular law” for “reason of state,” Coke decreed instead that the law bound the king. Coke was imprisoned — without charge — for his view of liberty, but that same view ran in Williams’ veins.

Equally important to Williams was Scripture. Going beyond the “render unto Caesar” verse in the New Testament, he recognized the difficulty in reconciling contradictory scriptural passages as well as different Bible translations. He even had before him an example of a new translation that served a political purpose. King James had disliked the existing English Bible because in his view it insufficiently taught obedience to authority; the King James Bible would correct that.

Given these complexities, Williams judged it impossible for any human to interpret all Scripture without error. Therefore he considered it “monstrous” for one person to impose any religious belief on another. He also realized that any government-sponsored prayer required a public official to pass judgment on something to do with God, a sacrilegious presumption. He also knew that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. So to protect the purity of the church, he demanded — 150 years before Jefferson — a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

What Would Roger Williams Do?

Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, was one of America’s first advocates of the separation of church and state.  Williams was a devout Puritan Christian, but he also believed that religion and the government should remain separate. He thought that the “garden of the church” should not be corrupted by the “wilderness of the world.”  As a result, he called for a “wall of separation” between the two.

As Mark Silk reports, new Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee is taking the legacy of Williams very seriously.  In respect to the founder of his state, Chafee did not have a public prayer at his recent inaugural ceremony. 

The Catholic Church in Providence, Rhode Island is very upset with this decision and has denounced Chafee’s view of church-state separation.

Here is a taste from Silk’s blog post:

Williams was in fact a pretty truculent guy who wouldn’t join any church that would have him as a member. But he is rightly famous for his insistence on liberty of conscience–a stance that put him profoundly at odds with his Puritan neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut. His vision of a civil state had to do with keeping the government from pushing religion on the citizenry in any way, shape, or form. It was, he wrote, contrary to Jesus’ teaching “for the civil state to impose upon the souls of the people a religion, a worship, a ministry, oaths (in religious and civil affairs), tithes, times, days, marryings, and buryings in holy ground.”

Chafee chose to keep faith with this vision by foregoing a public prayer service on inauguration morning–out of “respect [for] the separation of church and state,” as his spokesman, Michael Trainor, put it in December. That explanation caught the attention of the Catholic bishop of Providence, Thomas J. Tobin, who took to his diocesan newspaper to denounce such church-state separationism. “By now,” he wrote, “you should be aware that the exact phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t found anywhere in our nation’s Constitution but rather was a principle that evolved later on.”