Sunday, May 27, 2012


For those readers who missed or have forgotten last week’s column, “Freedom of thought too precious to be ignored,” go to your newspaper recycling pile and dig out last Friday’s paper. It will help you gain some insight on the freedom of religion that is little recognized today. The life and times of Roger Williams (1603-1683) and his contributions to the American ideals of the freedom of thought and faith needs to be told for every American generation. Freedom of thought and religion did not originate with him, but he gave the idea a great kick-start. History is littered with the sacrifice of many who envisioned the basic importance of individual freedom of thought and freedom of religious or non-religious practice. Roger Williams was anything but a nobody. He was born in England, graduate of Cambridge, and mentored by the famous jurist Sir Edward Coke. Later he gave the poet John Milton lessons in Dutch in exchange for refresher lessons in Hebrew. Williams knew Oliver Cromwell, the military and political leader whose revolt lead to the English Civil War (1642-1651). Williams was becoming a Separatist even before he left England for the Massachusetts colony in 1631. He wrote that the Church of England (Anglican/Episcopal) was irredeemably corrupt. He also found Congregationalists and later the Baptists short of his ideals of freedom of thought and practice. Such a stand was beyond comprehension to his generation. In October, 1635, Williams was tried by the Massachusetts General Court and convicted of sedition and heresy. The Court declared that he was spreading diverse, new, and dangerous opinions. The court ordered that he be banished. Williams was convinced nothing to be more precious than soul liberty and freedom of conscience. Foe him true religious freedom demanded that church and state be separated; everyone had the natural right to freedom of religion. He did not attempt to change the civil government to suit his whims. He did not necessarily agree with other’s theology or church practices, but he was not in a holy war with secularists. What we have today, over 350 years later, is the essence of freedom of religion, but not a lot of actual adherents. Take the example of the Amish faith. While society changes (some would say advances) the Amish stay with their horses and carriages, lack of many modern necessities, and simple faith. They are not threatened by the world around them. The Amish may not agree with President Barack Obama’s tolerance of same-sex marriage but it does not affect their daily chores or worship. They see Christians as living in an unfriendly world but are not shocked nor threatened by it. The rest of us are “fighting the good fight of faith” against a sinful and secular world that threatens our faith. “If we could only get God back in government,” say some insecure Christians. Those wanting to revamp the world to their interpretation of religion would make poor Amish believers. The Amish would go along with Roger Williams much more than many American Christians. Making America “Christian” is not the Eleventh Commandment. Living in this world does not mean we become a part of it. It would help if Christians learned to enjoy their faith more and spend less time trying to tear down the wall between church and state. --30--


Freedom of Thought too precious to ignore Providence, Rhode Island, had a unique beginning. Roger Williams’ 1630s “colony” was the first organized community that did not base its formation on a call from God. In addition, Providence Town was under no command from European kings or popes to bring the original inhabitants to Christianity. It was a time when the vast majority of Protestant and Catholic clergy were paid by governments for their services to God and country. The old saying, “He who calls the tune pays the piper,” was true in this case and still is. In New England, there were unnecessary burdens foisted on the believers by the clergy. For example: those who missed religious services were fined by the combined church-state system. Ministers were told where to preach in the early Puritan days. If a follower was excommunicated he or she could not even have conversation with town folks. Black-balled in the extreme. Roger Williams’ practical opinions on freedom of thought and speech caused him to be forced from his Salem church. The Puritans’ law was a combined church-state authority. The church elders kicked Williams out of church and the legal authorities banished him from living in Massachusetts. He was forced in the dead of winter to flee his home and family. He had learned the Indian’s language and was their friend. They saved him and he lived with the tribe before finally founding what is now Providence, Rhode Island. His colony in Providence (on land he purchased from the local Indians) provided not mere toleration, but an individual’s freedom from religious/state control and freedom of thought and speech. (For more, see the new book “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul” by John M. Barry.) Williams’ freedom of thought, speech and religion was a long-time in coming. He knew that such ideas had often led to torture and even death. Few clergy agreed with him, and certainly not Devine Rights kings. The Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut Christian leaders saw Williams’ ideas far too radical and definitely unscriptural; at odds with the Bible. The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors resembled a tenth century Christian crusade to save Jerusalem and the Holy Land. European Catholic missionaries were in the front lines in the conquistadors campaigns. They were not like today’ military chaplains; often ranked with commanding officers as they claimed innocent tribes for their faith and king. Popes even had the nerve to divide the South American peoples between Portugal and Spain. It was like a religious Olympics as Jesuits and Franciscans and lesser Catholic orders fought for the souls of the savages. (The 1986 movie, “The Mission,” with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons is about 18th century Spanish Jesuits protecting a South American Indian tribe from falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.) In 1644 Roger Williams wrote on the seriousness of freedom of the church from man-made government: “When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the wall itself …” (“The Complete Writings of Roger Williams,” New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.) The third president of the United States, and his contemporaries evidently had read Roger Williams’ books. Here is a quote from Thomas Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia:” “We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities ...” The freedom of thought, speech and religion was won for us by scores of men with convictions like Roger Williams. It is too precious to ignore. These freedoms are threatened today, not by politicians, atheists, or Muslims, but by those seeking to revive the old Puritan spirit. Britt Towery writes a weekly column every Friday. His e-mail: His latest book “Strangers in a Strange Land” is about Texans in China, 1912-1950