Editor’s Note: Nurturing Faith Journal is an autonomous, national journal offering thoughtful analysis, inspiring features and helpful resources for Christian living. This is an excerpt from “‘A Most Flourishing Civil State’: How One Tiny New England Colony Defied Theocracy and Introduced Freedom to the New World,” by Bruce Gourley that will appear in the March/April 2024 issue. To learn more about the journal and subscription options, click here

Among the heretics banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony was Roger Williams, an unorthodox clergyman from the Old World. He was summoned, tried, convicted and sent packing in 1635 for his opposition to theocracy and advocacy for the heresy of universal freedom of conscience and religion— “new and dangerous opinions,” according to the Puritans. 

Equal freedom of conscience and religion for everyone? Williams, according to the opinion of bible-minded Puritan clergy and theologians throughout all of New England, was a madman, an emissary of the devil and they were glad to be rid of him. Or so they thought. 

Determined more than ever to bring freedom to the New World, the convicted and banished Roger Williams transformed himself into Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the first Baptist Church on the soil of what would become the United States of America. 

A friend to the Native Narragansett people, Williams, in 1636, obtained land from the tribe on which he established his new colony – initially known as “Providence Plantations.” The colony was founded on universal freedom of conscience and religion. 

Two years later, Williams gathered into a church several Baptists who had migrated from theocratic colonies to Providence Plantations in search of freedom. That church still exists today and is known as the First Baptist Church of America. 

In almost all the colonies, only properly-believing Christians had full rights as citizens. Not so in Rhode Island. A patent from Parliamentary England obtained in 1643 decreed that “by the voluntary consent of all, or the greater part of them, they shall find most suitable to their Estate and Condition; and, for that End, to make and ordain such Civil Laws and Constitutions” as desired. 

Three years later, Rhode Islanders did just that, to the horror of the rest of New England, establishing a secular democracy.

“Scandalous” can not begin to describe the 1647 “Acts and Orders” of Rhode Island that followed. Not only did Rhode Island’s diverse citizenry fail to crib their laws from the Old Testament—as did the rest of New England— but they also ignored religion altogether. To Puritans, civil laws not based on the Bible were inconceivable; to Rhode Islanders, a secular government was necessary to protect freedom and rights for all. They were the first to take such a bold step. 

Threatened by the arrival of actual freedom in the New World, the theocratic colonies doubled their efforts to dissolve Rhode Island. The following 15 years saw extraordinary unrest in England, including a Civil War, the dissolution of the monarchy, the declaration of an English Commonwealth and then the return of the monarchy. Against this backdrop, leading biblical theocrats and opposing advocates for freedom worked their connections in the Old World. 

Progressively, more seekers of true freedom deserted puritanical theocracies and poured into Rhode Island. This led to Roger Williams and his fellow citizens securing a permanent charter from England’s King Charles II in 1663 for their outlier colony, enshrining into law their “new and dangerous opinions.”  

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