Rhode Island and Separation of Church and State

A minister and a theologian, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, nevertheless believed that the secular and religious spheres should be kept entirely separate.  He maintained that civil authorities had no jurisdiction in matters of religion.  His preaching of this in the theocratic Massachusetts Bay colony got him expelled in the dead of winter, and he would surely have died were it not for his friendship with the Native Americans.  He founded Providence, the future capital of Rhode Island, as a place where all religions could live together in a civil society, thereby creating the modern concept of separation of church and state.  Indeed, he once wrote:

There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or human combination, or society.  It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal, I affirm that all the liberty of conscience I ever pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

How shocking it is, for us of the 21st century, and yet still struggling with such problems, to look back four centuries and find a man more advanced than many of us today.


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