Note: We last heard from Ft. Sanders resident Bill Young as he pondered the potential clash between defenders of and objectors to a Civil War commemorative statue in his neighborhood. This week Young treks back to the time of Roger Williams and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here are his thoughts about that early church/state dispute.
Recently, a group threatened to take the city of Knoxville to court and force the removal of a plaque of scripture on a wall in the Knoxville Police Department’s headquarters at the Safety Building.
In the daily paper, Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney and the director of strategic response at the Freedom from Religion Foundation, had few things to say about why his organization wanted the plaque removed.
I agree with him – religion can be divisive. Indeed, a religious debate among colonial people of faith predated our U.S. Constitution.
The German theologian Martin Luther asserted Christians should esteem and honor persons in authority, and John Winthrop, the 12-year Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, agreed. He opposed unrestrained democracy and, although he had left England to pursue political and religious freedom, he advocated restricting voting rights to religiously-approved individuals.
Roger Williams, the founder of Providence Plantation, was a proponent of democracy.
The Charter establishing Providence Plantation granted the colonists “full power and authority to govern and rule themselves … by such forms, as by voluntary consent of all or the greater of them shall find most suitable.”
Therefore, I would argue one of the consequences of the divisive religious debate among colonial people of faith was the establishment of democracy in civil government – the invention of the American principle of the separation of church and state.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony, for all practical purposes, created a state church and implemented its own brand of religious intolerance. Roger Williams could not abide the Colony’s de facto state church and fell victim to its intolerance. He was banished from the Colony for sedition and heresy.
Williams was committed to the ideal of religious tolerance:
“It is the will and command of God, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Pagan, Jewish, Turkish or Antichristian consciences be granted to all men in all nations.”
Consequently, the Providence Plantation Charter (1644) deliberately omits gods or the divine.
And it was enacted 145 years before the American Constitution.
The American invention of the separation of church and state is at the root of our first freedom.
Roger Williams held that an unencumbered relationship with God was the path to salvation and perceived the sanctity of the church as the Garden of Eden and the world as the wilderness of Jesus’s 40 days of temptation.
Williams famously wrote, referencing Matthew 5:15: “When they have opened a gap … in the wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world. God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick and made his Garden a wilderness.”
Williams reasoned the church shall be totally separated from the state because if the sanctity of the church, even in the slightest measure, is encumbered by the state, then the church shall be corrupted.
Therefore, the principle of the separation of church and state is to protect the sanctity of the church from human’s imperfect creation, the state.
Some argue that the separation of church and state is not a gift from God, but rather, a product of the human mind.
I disagree. The architect of the separation of church and state and the founder of the First Baptist Church in American, Roger Williams, firmly believed the human mind was a gift from God.