More than once (reposted Wednesday), I’ve written about how this isn’t now, never has been and never should be a Christian nation. I’ve talked about all the things we’ve done as a nation that show we aren’t, and what it might look like if we, were a Christian nation. I’ve even shown proof in early documents that our founding fathers did not consider this a Christian nation. But, I’ve never said why I feel this way. That can best be done with the story of Roger Williams, an Anglican minister who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. He was born in London in 1603, had a spiritual conversion at age 11 and was educated at Cambridge where he became a Puritan. While I love H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism (“The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”), I cannot deny it’s role in helping found this country. The Puritan’s started out with the best of intentions, but we all know where that road leads. What happened to Williams shows that in stark detail.
When Williams arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded on the idea of religious freedom), he must have made a big impression because he preached and taught in several churches. He made very few friends among the authorities, however. Williams believed the church and state had no business in common; in fact, he was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation between church and state”, predating Jefferson’s use in the letter to the Danbury Baptists by 170 years. He spoke out against civil authorities punishing people for can only be called spiritual offenses such as idolatry and blasphemy. He was also appalled by the way the colonists stole the lands of Native Americans and called King James a liar for saying he was the first Christian monarch to discover the land. Eventually, Williams outspokenness was too much for the colony’s authorities and they reacted accordingly: he was called into court for his “erroneous” and “dangerous opinions” and was convicted of heresy and sedition. He was banished, but execution of the sentence was stayed because he was ill and winter was coming; provided, of course, that he quit agitating. He didn’t and fled one step ahead of the sheriff.
Eventually, Williams established the settlement of Providence which eventually became the colony (then state) of Rhode Island. It was here that he founded the first Baptist church in America. The colony was model of religious tolerance and anyone could be granted full citizenship with a majority vote of the heads of households, contrasting with the practice of the Massachusetts Bay Colony where only “the elect” (i.e. members of the Congregational church) were full citizens. Under Williams, the colony was also a haven for Native Americans. All in all, Rhode Island was the model on which the United States was founded. Not the Massachusetts colonies or the Mayflower Compact.
The moral of this story is that even deeply spiritual people can be corrupted by power. The Puritans, who left England in search of religious freedom, are proof of Shane Claiborne’s comment “Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful.”. Fortunately for us, the founding fathers followed Williams’ example and not the Puritans, making us a nation of Christians (and Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc.) and not a “Christian” nation.