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    Despite their good intentions and experience of being persecuted, the Pilgrims were not above persecuting others. Among the many imports brought to the colonies from Europe was the doctrine of union of church and state. Through the governments and courts the Puritans imposed their convictions upon one another, and life in the New World began to resemble the brutal history of the Old.

   Rules existed for seemingly every aspect of life, with penalties for everything from major crimes to lesser "evils," such as observing Christmas, wearing lace, or kissing in public.1 One law common throughout the colonies was mandatory church attendance. Those who did not attend the meetings of the official church could expect fines, or imprisonment. Another common law required all public officials to be members of the official church.

   Although these laws were intended to promote morality and truth, the effect was the opposite. As the colonies filled with thousands drawn to America by less noble motives than the Pilgrims, the churches became filled with the ungodly and indifferent. Those seeking political power took the necessary step of joining the church, often without partaking of its spirit. Gradually, the power of the church became diluted, and the seats of government increasingly filled with pretenders. 

   Only ten years after the founding of Plymouth, a pastor named Roger Williams came to America. He belonged to the Baptist faith, one of the groups that arose from the Separatist movement in England. Like their namesakes, the Anabaptists, they generally believed that only those with an intelligent faith and personal experience with God should be baptized. They reasoned that the baptism of nonbelievers eroded the faith, and resulted in a Christianity lacking authenticity and power. A church that acquired members against their free will and intelligent consent would gradually become a mere cultural form, as many of the churches of Europe had become.

    Williams saw further than many of his Baptist brethren. It was not enough to emphasize the baptism of believers, if belief itself was forced on people. He reasoned that all people had a right to relate to God according to their own conscience and will. This meant they could choose which church to attend—or even to not attend at all. He believed that all matters of religion should be free, a concept he called "soul-liberty." The common practice of requiring the ungodly to profess religion simply drove them into hypocrisy, something worse than not professing faith. In his words, "The public or the magistrate may decide what is due from man to man, but when they attempt to prescribe a man's duties to God, they are out of place, and there can be no safety."2

   This position put him in direct opposition to many pastors, who were supported by their congregations, and were not fond of voluntary attendance. Eventually Williams was banished for his radical teachings on this and other subjects, forcing him to flee to the forests during a cold New England winter. He was given refuge by an Indian tribe, and from them purchased the land that would become the city of Providence.

   Williams established a colony where true freedom of religion could be practiced. This was the birth of the state of Rhode Island, which became a haven for others who were persecuted and oppressed. Williams made his mark in history as "the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of liberty of conscience."3

   The principles governing Rhode Island were so powerful that they were soon enshrined in the United States Bill of Rights, securing the way for new religious movements to grow, protected by national law.

1. For some examples, see Henry William Elson’s
History of the United States of America.

2.W .Carlos Martyn, The Pilgrim Fathers of New
England,—A History, volume 5, p. 340.

3.George Bancroft, History of the United States
of America, part 1, chapter 15.

 

 

 

 

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