Roger Williams: First Call for Separation of Church and State in America – Know why?

January 12, 2018

The separation between church and state that Americans know and enjoy in the United States today did not always exist in the early American colonies, much less in world history.  When the Pilgrims and Puritans migrated to America from England in the early 1600s, they came for religious freedom.  Yet when the Puritans set up their colony of Massachusetts, they followed (and struggled with) the combined state-church model which they had known historically for centuries in Europe.  For it was all they knew and had seen in practice.

When challenges of religious dissent and disagreement later arose in the American colonies, and as religious persecution persisted in Europe, some called for greater separation between church and civil government as a means for greater religious freedom.  The idea of separation had been broached by reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation, but the idea was not taken seriously or successfully practiced at that time.  This revolutionary idea, though, was later realized in America beginning with a man named Roger Williams.

Roger Williams, a Puritan pastor in Massachusetts, was an early proponent of religious tolerance in America in the mid-1600s.  He was the first American to really advocate for practical separation between church and civil state.  Know why?  To Williams, the Puritans in America did not adequately purify their colonial churches because they continued the old European combined state-church system.  He thought greater purity could be achieved by administratively separating the two institutions.  For example, the state, he thought, should not financially support the church or mandate/regulate religion.  Such separation would prevent corruption in the church and provide freedom of belief.  Williams supported this view from Isaiah 5:1-7, which describes God’s people as a “vineyard,” a pure garden enclosed from the wilderness of the world.

Williams wrote of a “wall of separation” to describe the church’s proper enclosure from the world.  Alluding to Isaiah 5 in a reply letter to Pastor John Cotton which appears in Williams’s 1644 The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered, Williams observes [bold text mine], 

Such a wall exists, Williams asserts, to protect the church from the world, including the civil government, and corruption.  Civil government, he believed, should regulate only civil offenses, not religious or spiritual matters.  Williams thus argued that churches and congregations should separate from what were thought to be impure state churches.   This new arrangement would, ultimately, allow for more religious freedom.

Williams was banished from the colony of Massachusetts in 1635 for his dissident views.  Yet his revolutionary view of separation took root and later became more widely accepted after he founded the tolerant colony of Rhode Island, in 1643, which had no state church.  Williams’s ideas, advocacy, and actions greatly influenced the future direction of the American colonies and, ultimately, the new nation.  His ideas also influenced British philosopher John Locke who was widely read by the American Founders.  In sum, Williams was a key figure who helped to end religious persecution and to lay the groundwork for the religious freedom that we citizens enjoy today in the United States.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.


Source for more information:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation; Longwood, FL:  Xulon, 2014, 2015.

Additional Reading/Handout:  Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath, American Heritage Education Foundation.  Paper available to download from member resources,

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Two Kingdoms Doctrine 
3.  Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws & Religious Dissent 
4.  The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief and Religious Tolerance in America
5.  Roger Williams and His Quest for Religious Purity
6.  William Penn and His “Holy Experiment” in Religious Tolerance
7.  Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
8.  Early Americans opposed Religious Persecution as contrary to the Biblical Teachings of Christ.
9.  Early Americans argued Religious Coercion opposes Order of Nature
10.  Early Americans Believed Religious Coercion Opposes Reason
11.  Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance within Civil Peace and Order
12.  Philosopher John Locke Defended Religious Tolerance
13.  The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s


Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 2, Activity 5:  Williams and Cotton Debate Separation of Church and State, p. 161-162, 163-164, 320-321.  MS-HS.

Williams and Cotton Debate Separation of Church and State… 


To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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