Saturday, March 20, 2010

Influences of Roger Williams on Thomas Jefferson

Although he is not predominantly famed, Roger Williams can readily be considered the man who innovated the great disconnect between the state and the church. Jefferson and Madison are the American founders who receive the greatest credit for a strict separation of church and state in the new US government, however, their contributions were not necessarily original. Williams initiated a “cause of conscience” (1867, p. 3) that has permeated American hearts since his time. It is the object of this work to show Williams’ indirect influence on the writings of Thomas Jefferson.

It is quite obvious that Jefferson was deeply religious over at least one moral particular—namely that “all men are created equal” (Declaration of Independence, ¶2). Thus his views on the church involvement in government were reflected to promote religious freedom. One of his most famous letters on the subject is his reply to Danbury Baptists at the beginning of his administration. He said that the Establishment Clause in the first amendment of the Constitution (an amendment developed by Madison), effectively built “a wall of eternal separation between Church & State” (1802). The origination of this metaphor actually emerges from Roger Williams over a century earlier.

Williams came to America after witnessing persecution against his own teacher by the Church of England. Upon arriving in the Massachusetts Bay colony Williams was accepted as assistant Pastor in the Puritan church in Salem. It was a good step and an open environment for Williams to affect change among a somewhat intolerant religious community.

Although the Puritans and Separatists had deserted to America on the grounds of religious freedom they still had not purged themselves of inherited religious culture and ideals of the European faiths. Government and religion were deeply connected in Britain and Europe. For centuries, kings ruled over England claiming divine royal leadership. The Puritans, seeking for religious tolerance, came to America to merely “purify” the Church of England. Although they claimed a disconnection between state government and the church, there were still highly religious ideals that affected the community and certain legislative measures that affected the church. For example, all citizens were required to attend church and pay taxes that benefited the church. Government officials were to make oaths with God concerning their office. These close connections between government and religion were a few of the items that Williams found it his duty to preach against. Consequently, it was local legislation that banished Pastor Williams from the community.

Roger Williams can be conveniently considered “a nonconformist in a land of nonconformists” (Moore, 1965, pp. 58-59). Competing with the Puritan John Cotton on a principle of free conscience, Williams wrote some influential papers that almost mirror writings of Locke, Madison and, most importantly, Jefferson. It was in “Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered” that Williams penned the original metaphor of a wall of separation:

And that when they have opened a gap in the hedge or 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. (Levy, 1986, p. 184)

Historians speculate on the different meanings that Jefferson and Williams had intended to portray with the metaphor. Both men called for a wall to protect both the state from the church as well as the church from the state. Williams noticed, in the Puritan community, the danger of a church imposing legislation among citizens, yet he was more concerned with a government that imposed upon the church. Jefferson was concerned with the danger of a church imposing on the government. This is where Jefferson and Williams differed about the metaphor. For example, Jefferson was strictly against any religious national holiday, whereas Williams, being highly religious, was hypocritical in his intolerance of the “unorthodox” practices of the Quakers that had settled in Providence.

Despite these differences, the writings of Jefferson and Williams are deeply similar. Jefferson, in his letter to the Baptists noted that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship” (1802). Similarly, Williams stated that “man hath not power to make laws to bind conscience” (1867). Roger Williams also employed Jefferson’s ideal that “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions” (1802). Williams did not enforce obedience to the first four laws of the Ten Commandments or “the first table” (Moore, 1965, p. 62). These were commandments such as devotion and worship that dealt with personal opinions. Conversely, the “second table” of commandments that dealt with criminal actions such as stealing or committing adultery were enforced (Moore, 1965, p. 62-63).

Notwithstanding the many similarities between the two men, scholars agree that Jefferson was most likely not familiar with the writings of Roger Williams. At the time of the American founding in the late 1700’s, the name Roger Williams was not well-liked. He was remembered as an individual who was a radical that had personally defied the Puritan colony. Isaac Backus, one of the leading Baptist supporters of religious freedom, wrote an entire work that nearly copied the ideas of Williams; the work, however, never fully credited Williams (Moore, 1965, pp. 70-71). William Miller wrote, “The crotchety, disorganized, and insistently Christian writings of Roger Williams were not the sort of thing Thomas Jefferson was likely to read, but John Locke clearly had read them” (1985, p. 173). It is also known that Jefferson clearly read Locke’s writings on the natural rights of man.

Just six years after Williams’ death, John Locke published “A Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689). The letter is full of text that follows the ideals that Roger Williams had left behind. The subject of a free conscience was modeled by Locke: “Men cannot be forced to be saved whether they will or no. And therefore, when all is done, they must be left to their own consciences” (1689, ¶41). Locke argued for the natural rights of man. He explains in much detail the dangerous consequences of a government such as Massachusetts and those in Britain that infringed upon the natural rights of worship. He was right on with Williams. Nevertheless, there are some differences in the voice of the two men. Williams wrote from a religious viewpoint rather than political one. Locke wrote to a political audience that was not as inclined towards faith as was Williams’ audience. Leroy Miller designates Williams’ philosophy as “Let God be God!” while Locke’s as “Make way for Man!” (1965, p. 66).

Williams held two distinct roles. While (1) seeking to preach salvation, he acted as a religious leader. While (2) opting for religious liberty, he acted as a political leader. The roles were very different and the fact that he played both of them is ironic, seeing that his ideal world was a separation between the political and the religious. His motives were ultimately religious. Brilliance led him to discover that his preaching of salvation was in vain if religious liberty was not realized. He asked “Can the sword of steel or arme of flesh make men faithful or loyal to God? Faith proceeds alone from the Father of Lights.” (Moore, 1965, p. 64).

Jefferson may not have realized the importance that Roger Williams played on the early colonization of America. Jefferson also may not have known that his readings of John Locke were filled with the ideals of Williams. However, Jefferson did know that the spirit of America—liberty—was to be protected with all measures even if it meant erecting a “wall of separation” between church and state. The act of building this wall had already been started over 100 years earlier, brick by brick, by the revolutionary, Roger Williams.

Davis, D.H. (1999). The enduring legacy of Roger Williams: consulting America's first separationist on today's pressing church-state controversies. Journal of Church & State, 41(2) 201-213. Retrieved March 24, 2007, from

Jefferson, T. (1802). Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists: The draft and recently discovered text. Retrieved March 26, 2007, from

Levy, L.W. (1986). The establishment clause: Religion and the first amendment. New York:Macmillan Publishing Co.

Locke, J. (1689). A letter concerning toleration. (W. Popple, Trans.). Retrieved March 28, 2007, from

Miller, W.L. (1985). The first liberty: religion and the American Republic. New York:Knopf.

Moore L. (1965). Religious liberty: Roger Williams and revolutionary era. Church History, 34(1), 57-76. Retrieved March 26, 2007, from JSTOR database.

Williams, R., & Caldwell, S.L. (1867). The bloudy tenent of persecution. Publications of the Narragansett Club. (p. 3) Providence, RI:Stanford University Retrieved March 28, 2007, from


  1. Williams did not need to "respect" the Quakers, in fact he did not. Williams held that one was free to worship as they chose even if that worship took them straight to hell. Williams did however tolerate the Quakers, and they practiced their religion as unhinged as it was including nude marches through town. Respect and toleration are two different things.

  2. Peter Signor, San Jose, CAMarch 4, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    I'll admit, I am biased, because I am a descendant of Roger Williams. I love this article because Mr. Scoville gives Roger Williams his due as the founder of our heritage of freedom in the USA.
    I have not done my homework, so I apologize if historians have already noticed this fact: Roger Williams and John Locke both resided for a time at the Masham estate in the UK. If Locke had not already heard of Williams, he likely heard about him while in residence there.