January 2017 Church & State - January 2016

R.I. Officials Invoke Roger Williams To Spur Development

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The governor of Rhode Island hopes the state’s history as a beacon of tolerance and religious liberty will draw new business opportunities to the state.

“Young people want to live in a place that’s tolerant and diverse and inclusive,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said recently during a visit to the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence. “This is part of who we are. It’s not a fad or something temporary. It’s ingrained in who we are as Rhode Islanders.”

The Associated Press reported that Raimondo contacted officials at PayPal, a popular online money transfer site, after the firm decided not to open a branch in North Carolina because of the state’s infamous “bathroom bill” aimed at the transgender community. Raimondo referenced Williams’ ideals in her pitch.

Rhode Island was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, an iconic Puritan minister who was later briefly a Baptist and after that a free-spirited Christian outside denominational bounds. Wil­liams founded the colony as a haven for people seeking religious liberty.

Williams was a Puritan minister in Boston’s theocratic Massachusetts colony, but he rubbed officials the wrong way there by constantly challenging the oppressive union of church and state there.

When the colony’s General Court decided in 1635 that all men should swear an oath of allegiance ending with “So help me, God,” Williams objected. He asserted, “A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man,” he wrote, because that would compel the oath-taker “to take the name of God in vain.”

Officials in Boston soon grew weary of Williams. He was judged guilty of “disseminating new and dangerous opinions,” and plans were hatched to send him back to England by force.

Williams and a few followers fled the city. He had a good relationship with the local Native American tribes and spoke several of their languages. Aided by the tribes, he found a good piece of land south of Boston, purchased it from the natives and founded the city of Providence.

In Williams’ Providence, all people were free to worship, or not, as they saw fit. This included Quakers, a group Williams personally didn’t care for. Quakers had run into problems in Boston – four were executed there from 1659-61. But they worshiped unmolested in Williams’ new city.

From his perch in Providence, Wil­liams continued to provoke advocates of church-state union. One of his most well-known saying is, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

In 1644 he penned a book, The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for cause of Conscience, in which he spoke of the need for “a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Although the phrase is similar to Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 metaphor of the need for a “wall of separation between church and state,” there’s no evidence that Jefferson knew of Williams’ writings.

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