Roger Williams and the Legacy of Separation of Church and State: An Analysis of the Views of Religion in Politics by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine.

Leonard O Goenaga


Professor Fatovic

October 6, 2008

Question 2: Roger Williams and the Legacy of Separation of Church and State: An Analysis of the Views of Religion in Politics by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine.

It has been commonly agreed upon that there exists a notion of the separation of church and state within the United States Government. Although nowhere within the Constitution is this exact phrase found, individuals argue that this separation is implied within the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The arguments over the interpretation of this important amendment have been numerous. In the search of explaining away this important first amendment, individuals and courts have searched the founding fathers for the surrounding narratives and possible explanations. In this search we find our first comments regarding a “wall of separation” between religion and government from a forward thinking religious outcast: Roger Williams. In analyzing Roger Williams’ pursuit of a separation between Religion and Government, and then analyzing the founding fathers who framed the discussion and pushed through this first amendment, we will arrive to a position as to how this important topic of separation of church and state found it’s form as the first amendment of the constitution, and how these founding fathers found their inspiration in the form of Roger William’s thought.

Before we first examine Roger Williams’ ideas and compare them to the ideas of Jefferson, Madison, and Paine, it is worth first mentioning John Locke’s idea of natural rights and the social contract. According to the Second Treatise, man had a rational consciousness that could not be turned over to the government by rational beings. This natural right of individual rationale and consciousness was something to be protected, and it is no stretch to say that Roger Williams may have shared Locke’s ideas of the natural right of consciousness and rationale in his writings. We see this idea of a natural right of consciousness developed in two of Williams’ ideas in particular. The first of these is the idea that civil governments could not punish religious infractions and the second of these is Williams’ concept of Soul-Liberty. On the topic of civil government and punishing religious infractions, Williams believed that the magistrate could not punish the disobedience of any of the first table of the 10 commandments (such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy). In The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644), Williams argued “all civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.” Williams advocated allowing individuals to follow their own convictions when it came to religious matters, even if this meant their convictions led them to believe in things he completely disagreed with. This meant that the civil authority could not also be the religious authority, which clearly differed with the model in England where the civil authority punished religious infractions.

In addition to his views on civil government and religious infractions, Williams also offers the important idea of Soul-Liberty. This idea is one of the foundations of the first amendment to the Constitution. Soul-Liberty is the idea that individuals should be able to follow their own personal convictions when it came to issues of belief and religion, without persecution of civil punishment. This idea of man’s natural right of consciousness is important, as it later influences the language and ideas of separation of church and state as found in Jefferson and Madison. In addition to ‘consciousness’ as a natural right, Williams uses the term “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” in his explanation of the separation between religion and other matters (Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered, Roger Williams, 1644). In Thomas Jefferson’s later writings, he uses the phrase of a “wall of separation between church and state”, which could be an indication of direct influence from Williams on the topic. The phrase “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” is quite important in linking Williams’ influence to Thomas Jefferson. As we later find in Jefferson’s letters explaining the first amendment to Danbury Baptists, we find him using the exact term of a “wall of separation between church and state.” In the same way we can afford Lockean influence on Jefferson’s idea of ‘life liberty and the pursuit of happiness [property],’ so could we honestly suggest, as we will later explore, that Williams influenced Jefferson’s ideas of separation of church and state.

In our search for evidence of Williams’ teachings within Thomas Jefferson, we have three solid sources in which to explore. The first of these sources Jefferson considered it to be one of his three greatest accomplishments: A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (also later known as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom). The second source we will explore is another document he wrote entitled Notes on the State of Virginia. After exploring those two primary sources, we will finally seek examples of Williams’ influence within Jefferson’s personal letters to churches and individuals.

In the first portion of A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1779) we find Jefferson’s argument that compulsory Religion is wrong. God made man free, and to force upon man religion is both hypocritical and against God’s created purpose of freedom. God had given man the freedom to accept him. He never forced man to believe in him, but instead created him with the free will to choose. The hypocrisy of forcing a population to believe in a God, who does not force himself upon individuals, is weak and should be rejected. In addition to this point, the second section argues that,

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burtherned 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civic capacities.”

This portion, which argued for the freedom of man’s consciousness to believe in what they wished without persecution, is noted to have later consisted of Jefferson’s prized Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In the third section of the document, Jefferson argued “…that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.” This again reminds us of both Locke’s idea of natural rights, and William’s idea of consciousness as a basis for man’s freedom.

A second source of Jefferson’s ideas of separation of religion and state is found within his document entitled Notes on Virginia. Jefferson opens up by discussing the realm in which government was designed to rule. Jefferson argued, “…our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could never submit.” This discussion of conscious is similar to those taught by Williams, and it is again another source of potential influence. In addition to this discussed realm of governmental authority, Jefferson also shares Williams’ idea of not enforcing the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. We find this similarity in this letter where Jefferson states that, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.” Jefferson argues, as Williams would, that the government exists to protect man and his rights. In punishing someone for blasphemy, he is not protecting man’s rights, but rather intruding on his conscious convictions. Jefferson would also argue that the government is in no position to judge and punish man by his convictions, as government itself is not infallible and given to error, as explained in Notes on Virginia’s comment regarding the error of Government entering a realm it had no jurisdiction in by proclaiming the world to be flat, whereas Galileo argued it was round. In this letter, we find three comments that echo sentiments set by Williams: those of the right of man’s individual conscious, the role of the government to not persecute but to protect its citizens, and the fallibility/hypocrisy of government enforcing religious dogma. It is also of interest to note that Jefferson calls for the sharing of truth not by “force,” but rather by “reason and persuasion… [as] the only practicable instruments,” of truth. This is again similar to Williams’ ideas discussed in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, the spreading of faith not by means of “stocks, whips, prisons, swords, gibbets, stakes, etc…but against these spiritual strongholds in the souls of men, spiritual artillery and weapons are proper.”

In addition to A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom and Notes on Virginia, there is a third source of Jefferson’s opinion on the subject of separation is his personal letters. We will review two in particular: his Letter to Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge Ephram Robbins, and Stephen S. Nelson, a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in the State of Connecticut (1802), and his letter To Rev. Samuel Miller (1808). It is within this first letter to the Danbury Baptists that we find our first reference to the 1st amendment making a “wall of separation” between church and state. This phrase is overtly similar to that used by Williams’ in his writings and quickly draws for us a bridge between Jefferson and Williams. In this letter, Jefferson argues

“that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction in the progress of those sentiments which tend to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” (1802 Letter to Danbury Baptists).

A second letter with evidence of possible Williams influence is found in Jefferson’s letter to Rev. Samuel Miller. In it, Jefferson discusses the government’s role in determining proper prayers and fasting. Jefferson argued that a governmental official may only indirectly suggest days in which to fast or pray, but that in the end the responsibility is solely left to the religious institution and the people. Like Williams, Jefferson does not “believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines…every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.” In addition, Jefferson continues by arguing that his reason concludes that civil powers have been given to the President of the U.S., and not any “authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents”.

In addition to Jefferson, Madison also shares and advances many of Roger Williams’ ideas. In Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Madison and others respond to a bill within the Virginian legislature that would have taxed property owners to “restore and propagate the holy Christian religion”. This targeted bill would have diverted these funds to the salaries of Christian teachers and other denomination-based programs. It is in response of this bill that this document was drafted. In this document we find various Madisonian views on the relationship between Religion and State. In addition, we also find possible links of Williams’ influence. Towards the beginning of the document, vocabulary similar to that used by Jefferson and Williams are found, where it argues that “the religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man, and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” After establishing this primal right and the jurisdiction of civil government, the document continues to discuss the equality of man in religion. Here, Madison argues for “that equality which ought to be the basis of every law…we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” Similar to Williams’ calls for religious purity, the document follows with arguing “if this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man.” It is for these reasons of man’s equality, and the equal freedom of all, that the document concludes, much as Williams would, that the Bill’s position of Civil Magistrates as judgers of truth as being an “arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of rulers in all ages throughout the world,” and “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” In addition, the document argues that there is no required prerequisite of governmental involvement in the “support of the Christian religion,” but rather that scripture teaches against such worldly influences.  Here again harkens images of Williams and his fiery language of Christian scripture teaching against worldly influences.  It concludes with arguing that the Bill and religion is not necessary for the support of Civil Government, nor is the opposite.

A second Madison source in which we find possible Williams’ influence is within the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Although originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison advocated it heavily. The document itself declared that no one should be forced to support any specific religion or denomination, and after its passage within the Virginian House it created a separation of church and state within Virginia. The document itself contains numerous ideas and phrases that reflect possible Williams influence by making the claim that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civic capacities.”

In addition to Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a third source is Madison’s personal letters to individuals regarding the topic of separation of religion and state. In Madison’s Letter to Baptist Churches (1811), he argued that a “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” This idea, again, is similar to Roger Williams call for separation on the grounds of keeping religion pure from the influence of government. A second letter we find more evidence is in his Letter to Edward Livingston (1822). In it, Madison again reiterates this idea of keeping religion pure from government by arguing that “Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.”

In addition to Jefferson and Hamilton, we arrive to Thomas Paine and his more extreme views on separation of church and state. Here we discover an extreme version of Williams preached vision, which focuses more on the purpose of separation between Religion and State because of religions evils, than because of the necessary purification of Christianity. It is here we find a visible difference between Paine’s The Age of Reason and William’s writings. Paine’s book continues on to denounce Christianity as a whole, as well as God, and to continue with a full critique of Christianity. For this reason of siding with an argument of religions as being “set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit,” we can see where Paine would differ with Jeffersonians and Williams, as the latter two could agree with an important role of religion in social society. Paine then continues on to critique Christianity and argues for Deism, leaving us with little to associate Williams. Instead of keeping the two separate for their essential purity, Paine holds a firm belief of the ‘evils’ of religion, and as such its necessary separation from the state.

After having analyzed Roger Williams ideas of total equality, as well as rights based on his idea of Soul-Liberty/consciousness, and his explained jurisdictions of civil government, it is evident that Williams’ ideas may have influenced Jefferson and other founding fathers and thinkers. Having analyzed various documents written and supported by Jefferson and Madison, as well as their personal letters to individuals, it is clear that Williams’ concepts of the importance of man’s consciousness and Soul-Liberty, as well as the limited jurisdiction of civil government over religious affairs, influenced these founding father’s views on the separation of church and state. In addition, these founding fathers went as far as using similar vocabulary and phrases such as ‘consciousness’ and ‘wall of separation’. Jefferson and Madison built upon the ideas laid beforehand by Williams, emulating his points and his ends of preserving the purity of religion and the state by keeping the two separate from one another. Unlike Paine who argued for the separation of church and state because of the evils of religion, Madison and Jefferson carry Williams’ ideas by arguing for the separation of the two for religions preserved purity and man’s equality. In conclusion, having analyzed these various documents, and the phrases and ideas in which they contain, we can safely conclude that Jefferson and Madison carried on Williams’ ideas of a secular government, resulting with the 1st amendment, and the American tradition of preserving the two through a “wall of separation.”


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