Rhode Island was first to grant religious freedom

Sunday, December 26, 1999

With the new millennium fast approaching, top-10 lists of the “greatest people” and “most important events” are springing up everywhere.

Religion got its own list earlier this month when journalists selected the leading religious events of the second millennium.

The top story? Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. That was the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, arguably the most significant upheaval in religious thinking and practice of the last 1,000 years.

Number two was the invention of printing with movable type, which made the Bible directly available to people in their own language.

The schism between Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054, the Holocaust and subsequent founding of Israel, the Crusades, and the expansion of Islam into Africa and Asia also made the top 10.

I am pleased to report that religious liberty in the United States made the list, coming in at number eight. It may surprise some people that the listing's description of the birth of religious freedom highlights Roger Williams, the intrepid Puritan minister who founded Rhode Island following his banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635.

Most lists ignore Williams and point instead to the contributions of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and to their successful fight for full religious freedom in Virginia.

But the religion writers got it right. Without taking anything away from the enormous contributions of Jefferson and Madison, the story of America's commitment to liberty of conscience begins with the radical experiment in Rhode Island.

In an extraordinary break with the past, that tiny colony became the first society with no established religion and the first place in the world to grant what Williams called “soul liberty” to people of all faiths and none. These twin principles of “no establishment” and full “free exercise” are now part of our nation's charter as the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment.

What many people don't know (because history textbooks largely ignore religious ideas) is that Williams' vision of soul liberty sprang from his deep religious convictions.

“It is the will and command of God,” he wrote, “that a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only in soul matters able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's spirit, the Word of God.”

In other words, Williams believed that God has given every human being the right to choose in matters of faith. The role of government is to guard that right and to stay out of religion. Only through persuasion — never through state coercion — should we seek to convince one another of the “truth” as we understand it.

Williams also pointed out the obvious: State involvement in religion has been a leading source of oppression throughout history, causing “rivers of blood” to be shed in the name of one religion against another.

Defending and protecting the rights of people with whom he deeply disagreed must not have been easy for Williams. Consider that he opposed the beliefs of Quakers, Catholics and others whose views he found contrary to his understanding of the Gospel. Consider that he worked tirelessly to persuade them to his view of scripture.

At the same time, however, he was convinced that God required him to work equally hard to protect their right to follow the “dictates of their conscience.” Guarding the rights of others — even those with whom you deeply disagree — is one of the most important civic virtues of any successful democracy.

Today, more than 350 years after the founding of Rhode Island, Williams' vision of religious liberty as a universal right for all people is one of America's greatest contributions to world civilization. It is the core principle that undergirds our messy-but-glorious experiment in freedom.

For his abiding commitment to religious liberty as an inalienable right and for his courageous work to establish the first “haven for the cause of conscience,” I nominate Roger Williams as the religious-liberty hero of the millennium.