Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty
John M. Barry
Viking Adult, 2012
Roger Williams’s life spanned the seventheenth Century. Born in 1603 in London and dying in 1683 in Providence, Rhode Island, Williams founded a colony of conscience that has helped define the soul of American religion. With that soul at another major crossroads, John Barry’s biography reminds the U.S. Church of a life and times 400 years ago that can help show the way as the followers of Jesus enter a new era.
Williams came of age in during the great religious wars of Europe. He witnessed first-hand the politics of the famed Star Chamber and with regularity the conflict between his mentor Edward Coke and Coke’s adversary, Francis Bacon. Williams fled to the New World in 1630 because of state persecution of Puritans.
The corrupting power of the State on the Church made such an impact on Williams that he was critical almost immediately upon his arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Colony mixing the two. After a few years of conflict with the colony that led to his impending banishment for sedition and heresy, he fled on foot to Narragansett Bay and founded what is now Rhode Island, establishing the first government that had religious liberty as a central tenant.
Williams went on to embrace believer’s baptism and found the First Baptist Church in America. He did not last long as a Baptist, declaring in 1639 that no institution could call itself the Church from the time the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion. He resigned as pastor that year and never again held a pastoral office. Williams’s search for the true Church led him on a path away from the established church of his day to independent congregationalists, and eventually to disassociate from any organized church.
This path is not dissimilar to that of many youngish clergy today who identify with the emergent movement. They’ve come to agree with Alban’s founder, Loren Mead, that there is an inherent conflict of interest in established denominations, as decisions regarding churches’ futures are primarily made by the professional class of clergy who have the most at stake professionally, personally, and financially. These young, emergent clergy dream of establishing new, independent ventures. Many, leave organized church altogether. Williams saw corruption in the relationship between Church and State. Today, another relationship allows corruption to exist.
Williams’s critique of the Church of his day echoes in our time. In the U.S. we have sought and mostly succeeded in maintaining a separation of Church and State. I imagine Williams would be pleased that the experiment begun in Providence has is now an important tenant of this country’s constitution.
I wonder, however, what Williams would say about the corporatization of congregations and denominations. Would he consider the values of Wall Street and business to be a corrupting influence on the Church as well? In Williams’s day, the Church used the crude methods of the State to punish nonbelievers and heretics; today it uses the more refined methods of business. Instead of losing a hand or one’s life, a heretic in the 21st century is punished financially, including losing his or her ability to earn a living.
Nation-states have been on the decline as more and more resources are privatized. The Church benefited financially from its relationship with the State and now the institution benefits from its relationship with business and the free market. We’ve come to assume that Church and State should be separate, and that is true. That belief was formed at a time when states held immense power, the industrial revolution had yet to take place, and businesses did not have the influence on society they do now.
Williams’s contention that the Church was corrupted ever since it became the state religion of Rome is one that raises profound questions about what it means to follow Jesus and to be the Church when it is so closely aligned with Empire, be it a state or a business.
As the U.S. economy grew in the last half of the twentieth century, so did the Church. As businesses grew larger, so did the Church. And the Church began to emulate business empires in its practices. As denominations and congregations then began to live through the inevitable economic decline, the model they’ve used to stay afloat is that of a business in decline. Many today question if those are the appropriate practices for an institution with claims to be the bride of Christ.
Williams was concerned that the State not interfere with the “first tablet” of commandments, those that dealt with the relationship between God and God’s people. Forced worship by the State was something to be avoided.
Today, the U.S. does enjoy freedom of worship. Its religious institutions however, have adopted practices that interfere with the “second tablet” of commandments, those that deals with the relationships between God’s people, one with another. The Church has adopted practices that focus on profit, or more politely, positive cash flow. The Good News has become displaced by good business.
It’s no wonder that the newest generation of believers is mostly classified as “nones,” “emergent,” and “spiritual, not religious.” They, as Williams before them, look to the church structures of their day and find no room for them as persons, no room for their ideas in a strict orthodoxy, and no room for their gospel practices where institutions have become corrupted by the practices of business.
May they have the wisdom to know when to walk away and the courage to form new communities of conscientious practice that will recover the good news and the soul of America as the Church emerges once again in this New World.
Fritz Gutwein is a contributing editor to Congregations.