Freedom of Conscience

The American concept of freedom of conscience is rooted in the Puritan’s quest to practice their religion freely and their desire to promote religious tolerance.

The liberty America’s Puritans sought was the freedom to live and worship as they believed God intended. Religious liberty meant liberty for themselves in a society of saints whom God had blessed. From the very beginning, however, strangers lived in their midst — dissenters like Quakers and Baptists who did not share their vision of God’s kingdom in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The clash of the saints and the strangers eventually helped spawn a revolutionary new idea of religious liberty, an idea that goes much beyond the Puritan vision of liberty for themselves alone. That idea held that freedom of conscience must be extended to people of all faiths and none. The story of Puritan leader John Winthrop and the first great dissenter, Roger Williams, shows how this deeply American idea of religious liberty first emerged in the New World.

“A City Upon A Hill”
Before reaching the shores of New England in 1630, Governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the ship Arbella and reminded his fellow Puritans of their God-given mission in the New World. The sermon Winthrop preached that day, A Model of Christian Charity, set forth a vision of America that has profoundly influenced this nation’s self-understanding throughout its history.

Winthrop’s listeners, like their leader, had left England behind in order to establish “a City upon a Hill” for the entire world to see. … The foundation and authority for the new society would be an agreement between God and the people of God. “[W]e are entered into covenant with Him for this work,” preached Winthrop.

America was for them, as it was to become for others, a land of liberty from the persecution they had experienced in the Church of England. In New England they could practice their faith freely and establish congregations untainted by what they believed were the corruptions of the Anglican communion. The congregations they envisioned would consist only of “visible saints,” those who had inwardly experienced God’s call and lived in a manner consistent with it.

Establishing a Covenant Community
Puritans made clear distinctions between church and state, between ecclesiastical and civil authority. Although the clergy had no formal authority in political affairs, however, they did exercise considerable informal influence as spiritual leaders and were frequently consulted about matters of state.

Also, the separate areas of authority for church and state in Puritan Massachusetts did not preclude the state from involvement in religious matters. … This required, first and foremost, that all the laws of the community be grounded in what Puritans believed to be God’s law.

A Troublesome Dissenter
The first dissenter to challenge Winthrop’s vision of God’s purpose arrived in 1631, less than a year after the landing of the Arbella. He was a young Puritan minister named Roger Williams. A talented and brilliant man, he was offered the prestigious post of teacher in the Boston church. Much to the amazement of Puritan leaders, he turned the offer down.

Williams’ rejection of the Boston post, like everything else he was to do in the New World, rested upon his deeply-held religious convictions. He took the quest for purity in the church a step further than most Massachusetts Puritans by criticizing the Boston congregation for not separating completely from the Church of England.

This demand seemed a dangerous idea to a fledgling colony concerned with keeping its royal charter.

Roger Williams expressed his separationist ideas without concern for the political consequences or for his personal loss of position or money. His only abiding interest was to protect the “Garden of the Church” from being overcome by the “Wilderness of the World.” His concept of an uncorrupted church required a complete separation of church and state.

While Williams did grant that God approved of government, in general, he denied that any particular government could have divine sanction. Civil government originates in a covenant of the people; it has no divine authority. No government, therefore, can establish churches or control religion.

This challenge to civil authority in matters of faith was one of the key charges that led to the banishment of Roger Williams from Massachusetts in 1635. Winthrop supported the banishment in order to protect the colony. Despite their differences, the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Soon after, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, a colony based on his vision of soul liberty. In an extraordinary break with the past, Rhode Island became the first colony with no established church and the first society in America to grant liberty of conscience to people of all faiths and none.

Thus, the Puritan demand for religious liberty for themselves became, in the vision of Roger Williams, a requirement of religious liberty for all. The extension of liberty to include not only ourselves but all others, even those with whom we disagree, has become a central American conviction. It is this principle of full freedom for people of all faiths and none that was embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

This background information is excerpted from “John Winthrop and Roger Williams: An Argument Between Friends” that appeared in Living With Our Deepest Differences: Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society, published by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in 1990.