Religious Liberty (Part 2)

Religious Liberty (Part 2)

This is part two of a series addressing the Baptist distinctive of religious liberty through a historical lens. In this article we see religious liberty become an American ideal through the influence of significant Baptists, such as Roger Williams. The purpose of this article is to further develop an understanding of religious liberty in America from its Baptist origins.

Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683)

James Calvin Davis has noted, "If we measure a thinker's importance to a tradition by his self-identification with it, then Roger Williams barely rates in the history of Baptists in America." Nonetheless, because Williams offered a theological defense of religious liberty, he represents an essential source for the American doctrine. Williams arrived in Boston in 1631 after spending some time in Holland. Being a Puritan by conviction, Williams was offered a ministerial position at the Boston church, which he turned down on account of what he considered to be theological errors they practiced in the Church of England. Williams's particular brand of Puritanism was that of the separatist, the same kind of Puritans called Pilgrims who landed in the New World at Plymouth. Williams lived with this group for a time.

While in Massachusetts, Williams was caught up in several controversies that ultimately led to his banishment from the colony. His most egregious offense was his objection to the conflation of religious and political authority.

Williams maintained that "clergy should not have a direct influence in civil matters, and civil magistrates should keep out of church affairs."

Through a series of providential events, Williams settled in what would eventually become Rhode Island. During two separate trips to England to establish a charter for the new settlement (1644 and 1652), Williams engaged in some of his most heated debates over the cause of soul liberty, or the liberty of conscience. 
The target he took aim at was the Puritan Minister, John Cotton. Cotton was the man chosen for the ministerial position turned down by Williams in Boston. During these trips, Williams published The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience and The Bloudy Tenet Yet More Bloudy.  In both publications, Williams directly addressed his convictions on the soul liberty of an individual. Williams was successful in establishing a charter for Rhode Island, and the first Baptist Church was established in the new settlement. The first building was later enlarged, and the current building was constructed in 1775.

On the church bell was engraved: "For freedom of conscience the town was first planted; Persuasion, not force, was used by the people; This church is the eldest, and has not recanted, Enjoying and granting bell, temple, and steeple."

Even though Williams did not remain a Baptist for long, his influence in early Baptist political theology was instrumental for later colonial Baptist leaders such as Isaac Backus. Additionally, the United States Congress has properly recognized Williams's contribution to the tenant, which has contributed significantly to America's exceptionalism. Furthermore, Williams was likely the impetus behind the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the establishment clause that prohibits the government establishment of and was undoubtedly an influence on the leaders of the Danbury Baptist Association.
As this series continues to consider the historical development of religious liberty as a Baptist conviction, we will undoubtedly begin to see major points of application for us today. In the next two articles we will be move through the 19th century and into the 20th century. In the final article we will focus on religious liberty in the 21st century and what the means for faithful Baptists today. 


“Congressional Record (Bound Edition), Volume 157 (2011), Part 7 - REMEMBERING ROGER WILLIAMS.” Accessed January 16, 2024.

“Founders Online: To Thomas Jefferson from the Danbury Baptist Association, [Aft ….” University of Virginia Press. Accessed January 15, 2024.

Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State, Revised edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

“Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (June 1998) - Library of Congress Information Bulletin.” Accessed January 15, 2024.

Jr. Early, Joe, ed. The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys. Macon, Ga: Mercer Univ Pr, 2009.

Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, 1st edition. Basic Books, 2010.

Kidd, Thomas S., and Barry G. Hankins. Baptists in America: A History. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Kidd, Thomas S., Paul D. Miller, and Andrew T. Walker, eds. Baptist Political Theology. B&H Academic, 2023.

Strickland, Arthur B. Roger Williams, Prophet and Pioneer of Soul-Liberty, 1st Edition. The Judson Press, 1919.

Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England, First Edition. New York: Scribner, 2018.

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