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Forced Worship Stinks in God’s Nostrils (Roger Williams)

At Eagle Eye we love history. Themes that run through past civilizations always seem to emerge in the present. Religion and government and the influence each has on the other is one such theme that is talked about now but certainly is not a new debate in this country. Here is the brief story about Roger Williams.

When most of us look back in history, it is nice to imagine that we’d be one of the good guys, a hero who fought injustice, that we’d have courage and moral insight. Roger Williams (1603 – 1683) was that guy. Let’s be clear, though. Williams was a stiff-necked, rock-ribbed Separatist. So maybe he was not much fun to hang out with on a Saturday night, but his religious convictions inspired North America’s first advocate for a separation of church and state, a champion for religious freedom, and friend of the native tribes.

Shortly after arriving in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams refused work as a priest, claiming that the puritan church in Massachusetts Bay was not separate enough from the Anglican Church. Salem was too liberal, also. And further (Williams was a man of so little compromise that you get the feeling that there was always an “And further…” to his objections), he rejected the notion that civil authorities should intrude in religious matters, like enforcing the Ten Commandments among the colonists. He also began to question whether the charter of the colony was even valid, since the land should have been purchased from the Indians and not taken. Additionally, he called the king a liar.

The Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony eventually had enough of Williams, but when the authorities came to expel him, they discovered only an empty house. Williams had already left in the middle of a blizzard, burning with a fever. He walked south for over a hundred miles and founded Rhode Island. Under Williams’ leadership, Rhode Island was the only New England colony to embrace religious tolerance. Williams advocated what he called “soul liberty” and said that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” He also established a separation of church and state since he felt that political power would corrupt religion – he had seen too much of that in England. He also maintained friendly relations with the Narragansett tribe that lived around Providence, and edited the first dictionary of Native American languages.

It is helpful today to remember that a deeply religious man first promoted our country’s tradition of religious toleration and liberty.