Roger Williams: First Call for Separation of Church and State in America

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,

The church of the Jews under the Old Testament…and the church of the Christians under the New Testament…were both separate from the world.  When they opened a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God always broke down the wall, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness, as at this day.  If God is ever pleased to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be peculiarly walled in from the world unto Himself. [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. An Introduction to Popular Sovereignty
2. Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies: The Dilemma of Religious Laws and Dissent
3.  The Two Kingdoms Doctrine : Religious Reformers Recognize the Civil and Spiritual Kingdom
4.  The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief & Religious Tolerance in America
5.  Roger Williams: His Quest for Religious Purity and Founding of Rhode Island
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 & His Letters Concerning Toleration
13.  The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in Early 1700s America


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

Purpose/Objective:  Students identify and evaluate the arguments for and against government regulation of religion by early Americans including Puritans Roger Williams and John Cotton.

Suggested Readings:
1) Chapter 4 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text.  Students read sections 4.4, 4.6-4.8, 4.13-4.15.
2) Paper/handout titled Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath (AHEF).  Paper available to download from member resources,
3) Related Posts/Videos:
a. Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies: The Dilemma of Religious Laws and Dissent
b. Roger Williams: His Quest for Religious Purity and Founding of Rhode Island
c. Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
d. The First experiments in Freedom of Belief and Religious Tolerance in America
4) Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience Discussed, and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered, 1644.
5) John Cotton, The Bloudy Tenent, Washed, and made white in the bloude of the Lambe, 1647.
6) Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody:  by Mr. Cotton’s endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lambe, 1652.
7) Optional:  Online essay on Williams and Cotton, The Root of American Religious Liberty, Liberty Point Institute,

Activity 1:  Comparison/Contrast Venn Diagram and Essay.
1) Have student groups read selections from Williams and Cotton that address the role of church and state and argue for and against separation.  Students might be assigned to read different sections from the essays, take notes, and then report to the group.  Have students, working in groups or individually, organize the main ideas of the readings in a comparison contrast chart or venn diagram.  See the “Venn Diagram” in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 320.
2) The above reading activity and chart may be used to write a comparison/contrast essay or for an in-class discussion.

Activity 2:  Mock Debate on Church and State.
The above reading could be the basis for a class mock debate.  Students on two panels could research, take notes, role-play, and argue the positions of Williams and Cotton.  See the “Class Debate Rubric” in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 321, as relevant.  However, because this is a mock debate, assessment should be based on students’ knowledge and understanding of the historical arguments and positions taken.


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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