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
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
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.