American Baptists did not have saints, but there was a theological progenitor—Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island after he was “asked” to leave Puritan Massachusetts. He established the first American Baptist church in Providence. Williams should be considered one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he seems to be almost unknown today. When I used to walk by the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison and 31st Street in Manhattan, I wondered how many of my fellow passersby had any idea who Roger Williams was. The hotel was built on land leased from the neighboring Baptist church, and, I once heard, was owned by the American Baptist Church. Times change. The hotel was sold, and now has what seems like a brand-tested name, The Roger.
Williams was a remarkable man. Unlike many of his American contemporaries of the early seventeenth century, he treated the Indians with respect and produced a primer of the complex Algonquian language. (Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language states that this work “is a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame, incidentally.”) But Williams should be better known because so much of his thought, expressed in his voluminous writings, broke from conventional thinking and was the foundation for many of the bedrock principles of this country—sovereignty in the people, equality of people, liberty of individual conscience, and separation of church and state.
Williams made the radical argument for his time that governments were not divinely inspired. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pick a government or endow rulers with authority. Instead, Williams contended, sovereignty is with the people. Just as people come together and join with God to form a church and then pick its ministers, the people come together to form a government and grant authority to the rulers.
This led Williams to reject the common notion of his time that the state must enforce God’s laws in order to prevent religious errors. Instead, since the state gets its powers from the people, government is invested with all the errors of the people. Any attempt to enforce religion by the state will always be error-filled and will, in essence, be an attempt for people to have sovereignty over God. Thus, long before Jefferson, Williams called for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a wall he called for to protect not the state, but religion. He believed that religion always suffered when it was protected or required by the state. For Williams, the church is protected by spiritual weapons and harmed by government efforts to enforce religion. God makes Christians; not a government. When religion and politics are mixed, the result is not true religion, but politics.
For Williams, religion was a personal thing. For Williams, personal conscience is God’s line of communication to an individual. Humans being imperfect, they might be wrong about conscience’s demands, but since the conscience comes from God, it is a sin for a person to act contrary to her conscience, even a mistaken one. If I (or the state or a religious leader) forces you to act in opposition to your conscience, I am forcing you to sin, and by forcing you to sin, I am sinning.
In other words, everyone must be allowed to worship as their conscience dictates, and no one should be required to worship against his conscience or to support religious practices that are against his conscience. Jesus did not force or coerce anyone to God. Man, then, can’t force anyone to faith.
A mistaken conscience can be corrected only by persuasion, not by force or coercion. An appeal to conscience, for Williams, required the related God-given ability of reasoning. Conscience demands proof, and proof comes from intellectual rigor. Proof has to satisfy reason or be from the Bible or from a writing that convinces an individual that it was divinely inspired. Williams rejected the Quakers who were led to Christ by a movement of an ill-defined spirit within the person. Such movement did not, could not, satisfy reason.
These views did not just lead to the separation of church and state but to the corollary precept of religious toleration. They led not just to liberty of conscience on religious matters, but on all matters. And since Jesus did not indicate that one soul mattered more than another and all individual consciences should be respected, it meant that society should treat all equally.
(I have refreshed my understanding of Williams’s life and teachings primarily from Roger Williams: The Church and the State by Edmund S. Morgan and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.)
These Baptist precepts have led me both to my religious sensibilities as a youth and to my political thinking as an adult. The religious and the American neatly coincided. Just as people come together with God to form a church, the people of America came together to form a country—“We the People . . .” Sovereignty does not belong to the authorities, but starts with ordinary individuals. Both the church and America are founded on freedom of conscience. Religion cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of individual reason and persuasion. In America, a political view cannot be imposed, forced, or coerced; it is the result of an individual decision. (To be continued.)