Roger Williams: Soul Man: How an Eccentric 17th-Century Preacher Helped Bring Religious Liberty to America

Article excerpt

Edwin S. Gaustad is a professor of history and religious studies emeritus at the University of California, Riverside. He is an expert on Roger Williams, the 17th-century religious liberty pioneer and founder of Rhode Island. Gaustad is the author of several books, among them Church and State in America.

In his new book, Roger Williams (Oxford University Press), Gaustad examines the life of an important but often overlooked figure in the struggle for religious liberty and church-state separation in America.

Williams in 1644 warned about creating an opening "in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." The language is similar to the "wall of separation between church and state" metaphor employed by Thomas Jefferson 158 years later, although there is no evidence Jefferson knew of Williams' phrase.

In this interview with Church & State, Gaustad discusses the life and ideas of Roger Williams. The book is available at online sellers such as amazon.com or at major bookstores.

Q. Who is Roger Williams and why should Americans of today care about him?

A. Williams was a 17th-century English clergyman who became part of the "great migration" to Massachusetts in the early 1630s. Americans today should care about him because he took major steps to move America, early on, from the medieval to the modern world. Because the notion of a separation of the civil from the ecclesiastical estates was such a novel one, such an unsettling one, Williams had to return again and again to that startling theme. He believed the private sanctuary of the soul should never be invaded by the clumsy, brutal hands of the state. The liberty of the soul was "off limits" to the reach of the civil magistrate.

Q. You've written about Williams quite a bit. What accounts for your strong interest in him?

A. My interest in him relates principally to his historic contributions to religious liberty--a full freedom in matters of the soul.

Q. When most Americans think of religious freedom, they think of figures like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Why have the accomplishments of Roger Williams been overlooked?

A. It helped that both Jefferson and Madison were presidents of the United States, and therefore hard to overlook. Also, they were deeply involved in the critical founding years of the new nation. Williams' only possible competitor in the 17th century on matters of religious freedom was William Penn, who arrived in America a half-century later. He is better remembered because his colony was a very successful one, and his name is "built in" to that colony's history.

Q. In what way were Williams' views on the relationship between religion and government so unusual for the times?

A. Williams advocated the scariest political heresy of his day: namely, that a civil institution could survive without the supporting arm of the church. He was alone in this view in all New England, alone in most of the other colonies, and certainly alone in his own homeland of England.

Q. Williams declared that all who sought to live in peace could come to his Rhode Island colony regardless of what they believed about religion. It was a noble sentiment. How did it work out in practice?

A. Rhode Island did well as a sanctuary for all those persecuted for cause of conscience: for example, Quakers and Jews. But his fellow citizens were often quarrelsome, bickering and uncivil--to Williams' disappointment and dismay.

Q. Rhode Island's Royal Charter of 1663 guaranteed all residents the right to "freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernment. …