By Steven Norris

     I have no doubt that this week (and its subsequent celebrations of independence) will be filled with discussions of freedom and liberty. For Baptists, freedom is at the core of our identity and has been a guiding star for our denomination since its inception.

     One of the giants in any discussion of religious liberty and Baptist life in America is Roger Williams. Though he only claimed the Baptist name for a short time, Williams’ indelible mark has stamped our denomination’s history in this country for good.

     Williams was the son of a merchant tailor and was educated at Cambridge. Having aligned himself with the Puritans during his college years, Williams forfeited appointment in the Church of England and was eventually forced to leave his homeland for the New World with other English Separatists.

     Williams and his wife, Mary, arrived in Boston in 1631. As Baptist historian, Bill Leonard, puts it, Williams “served numerous churches of the ‘New England Way’ until his views on church and state, Native American ownership of the American land, and other radical sentiments resulted in his being exiled into the ‘howling wilderness’ in 1635.”

     More specifically, Williams held a deep conviction that civil authorities might have power over the bodies and goods of its citizens but could not control their souls and religions. He advocated a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” For Williams that “wall” included the “two tables” of the Ten Commandments — separating laws regulating a person’s relationship to God and those between humans. Only the later could be enforced by the state.

     Williams insisted that God alone was the judge of one’s conscience and went so far as to argue that neither the state nor the church was in a position to persecute the heretic or the atheist. For Williams, religious freedom necessarily included the right to worship — or not worship — as one’s conscience dictated.

     When Williams and his family were cast out into the wilderness 1635, they were cared for by the Narragansett tribe of Native Americans in what is modern day Rhode Island. Williams insisted on paying the Narragansetts for the land which would become Providence Plantation (later the colony of Rhode Island). He would state of Providence, “I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” Scholars believe that it was in 1638 that Roger Williams founded America’s first Baptist church in Providence (which is still in existence today).

     Thus, a rugged commitment to religious liberty is one of the great gifts that Baptists have contributed to this nation. In the words of Bill Leonard, As to their presence in the public square, perhaps Baptists can claim no greater contribution than that of their support for religious liberty, not only for themselves, but for all persons.”

     I fear that Roger Williams is “rolling over in his grave” when he sees that liberty degenerate into the “right” of the majority to impose their views on everyone else. Where there is no autonomy, there is no authenticity.