History buffs and Rhode Islanders have all heard of Roger Williams. Born in 1608 in England and baptized in the same London church as John Harvard (founder of Harvard University), Williams was an extraordinary early American settler and religious man who sought to preserve the rights of individuals to peaceably obey the dictates of his or her own conscience.

Williams is most noted and respected for championing the idea of religious freedom; he was a futurist ahead of his time. He felt that the government should not interfere with religious beliefs, and vice versa.

Williams found it morally unacceptable to legislate the way people practiced their religion. He felt that the relationship between man and God was so profound that the government should have no role in telling people what church to attend or what to believe. People brought their customs with them from Europe and set about passing laws that required church attendance or incur civil penalties.

Three Quakers were hanged in Boston for daring to believe that you could have a personal relationship with God, a concept considered heretical. Interestingly, they also believed in gender equality. Williams spoke out against such actions and moved to the Narragansett Bay area to organize the town of Providence.

Of paramount importance to this colony was the guarantee that all religions would be welcomed. He insisted that the new settlement would not be dominated by any one religion — demonstrating a kind of independence for which the United States became an example for the world.

The Narragansett tribal historian told me that Williams was quoted as saying “it was wrong to make the Indians pray to a white man’s God,” which infuriated the powerful leaders. Further, he believed that every person should be able to worship God in the way he or she pleased.

Called a “Seeker” of truth, Williams remained apart from the top-down religious movements and welcomed all religions to the settlement.

Society in the 1600s was opening up to new ideas and practices — art, music, science, literature — that some say stemmed from the new openness and religious freedom burgeoning due to the Reformation. Democracy was born from an unprecedented commitment to freedom of thought. Our government was created from a need to balance justice with newly recognized freedom to think as individuals in society as well.

Just as today, those times required people to stand up for their principles. The results were the establishment of many houses of worship. Our basic values are to live and let live so that all may practice — or not — their own spiritual quest. Only in extreme circumstances shall the government intervene for the protection of our health and safety.

As one of the most influential thinkers to shape the principles that formed our government, Williams championed the idea of keeping government out of the business of religion. Many belief systems can coexist harmoniously and productively. This principle is so important to the identity as citizens of our country, yet it is so often challenged by those who assume, and thereby assert, that this is a country of one religion.

The longstanding American value is to be welcoming to all to show our patriotism by recognizing that many diverse practices and beliefs are represented in American society. We cherish our past when we embrace our commonalities to celebrate our unique differences. In doing so, we become a stronger people, not weaker.

Though we often credit Thomas Jefferson with advancing the idea of keeping the church and state separate, the writings of Roger Williams were 50-150 years before that and 300 years ago. These pillars of thought form the core principles underlying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

I find this information fascinating in light of the debates that occur regarding “what citizens are supposed to believe.” I feel religious study belongs in the home and in congregations. Spirituality is a personal journey left best to those who are not in positions of authority over us.

Many Catholics settled in Rhode Island, yet Touro Synagogue, the first Jewish synagogue in the United States, was founded in 1763 in Newport.

During a visit there in 1790, President George Washington received a letter from Moses Sexias, warden of the Touro Synagogue, seeking assurance of religious freedom for Jews. Washington issued an unequivocal guarantee, returning a letter stating that the new government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. Having bought truth so dear, let us not sell it cheap,” he remarked.

Williams is my favorite Colonist because he provoked us to remember the hard fought “liberty of conscience” that is more relevant today than perhaps ever before. Our country will continue its noisy debate but will remain notoriously pluralistic.

Roger Williams’ contribution to our freedom from religious persecution is not so much a luxury but an essential element of liberty.

Darlind Davis is a freelance writer who lives in Pinehurst.

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(3) comments

Kent Misegades

The founders, including Jefferson, never advocated for the elimination of religion from government - which at that time was understood to be Protestant Christian - but did oppose a requirement from the federal government of membership in a particular church. That right however was left to the states to impose if they do wished. None do today. They would be shocked today by the notion that Christian education and prayer is not included in government schools as it once was. Many founders rightly knew that self-governance would only work if Americans shared common morals, which only come from God. The erosion of morality is the root cause of all evils besetting our nation today.

Jim Tomashoff

One might also argue, more credibly, that the root cause of all evils besetting our nation today are ignorant fools who don't realize they are ignorant fools, Kent being just one example.

"Perhaps this is also worth noting: President James Madison was an example of one U.S. leader who ultimately came to think that the positions of Senate and House Chaplains could not be constitutionally supported, although whether he always held this view (and to what extent he believed it at various times during his life) is a subject of debate.[10] However it is clear from his "Detached Memoranda" writings during his retirement that he had come to believe the positions could not be justified:

"I"s the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress," Madison later wrote, "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative" So much for Kent's argument assertion on this score. As usual, he's wrong.

Sally Larson

Kent, Google this:

Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which declares that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,”

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