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First reading

From the U.S Constitution

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of people to peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Article VI

The senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures and all executive and judicial Officers both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States.



2nd lesson:  Mark 12:13-17/also Good Samaritan, 10 lepers, how Jesus was religious blind—save for hypocrisy


“Religious Freedom”



Text: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”


Sister Susie and Sister Maggie


In my first summer vacation in Divinity School I worked in the West Virginia Mountain Project of the Presbyterian Church–deep in the mountains where coal mining is the major occupation and unemployment then was 30%.


One of my tasks was to preach in a small Presbyterian church far up in a “holler.”  The members of the congregation would, at a time in the service, offer prayers.  Sister Susie was an elderly blind woman—a sweet and gentle soul.  Sister Maggie was a Calvinist of the old school.  She could pray some of the meanest prayers.


One Sunday night, following a Supreme Court ruling disallowing prayer in schools, Sister Maggie prayed first, wishing the worst possible eternal fate for the justices, and also she also had some bad things to say about the folks who were not at the service to hear this “young preacher boy.”


Sister Susie prayed next—balancing Sister Maggie’s vindictive prayers—“Dear Lord if we can’t read the Bible in the schools, then let’s read it more at home, and Lord maybe those folks who aren’t here are sick…”

I grew to love those people—and looking back thinking how kind they were to tolerate my Ivy League divinity school style beginning sermons.


This was the summer of 1963—the the issue of freedom of religion was then a hot topic—dating back on these shores to the first European settlers who came here to escape religious persecution in England.  However, what they sought for themselves was not extended to other brands of belief, worship, and practice.


An unsolved or resolved concern


I was an American history major in college—a subject I love—and early American history has been a major reading project since retirement.  Part of my thoughts this morning are an article I wrote for the now out of print publican Progressive Christian magazine.

About our readings


And then that first readingthose questions about religious freedom– bring to the forefront—as we all are aware—how freedom of religion is still on the front burner.

  • …and also the second reading the words of Jesus about “rendering to Cesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  I invite you to chew on that…
  • And as a starter for that  what John Milton said about that teaching: “my soul I have from God and I can’t render that to Caesar.” 408


Some historical context

The bulk on my “biographical sermon” is about a little known early American Puritan minister, or maybe the name is known– but little about him and his contribution is known.


Noble naysayer


My professor Sidney Alstrom called Williams the “noblest naysayer in American history.”


…. Roger Williams was the premier dissenter in the first chapter of European settlement in the Americas. Williams’ views of religious freedom and conscience place him far ahead of his times—even for many today.


Birth and early years

He was born in 1603 in England of commoner parents.  He grew up in Smithfield, near Smithfield Plain where religious dissenters were burned at the stake. Williams probably witnessed some of these executions. .


He went to Cambridge–a hotbed of Puritan thinkers and students.  The brilliant young man drank deeply of Cambridge Puritanism. He graduated in 1627 and took holy orders in 1629 (which he later renounced).

Puritanism and separatism

In some sense most English Christians (Protestants) were Puritans of a sort.  They had separated from the Roman church. In varying degrees, they wanted a purified church, However, the Church of England kept many of the practices of the Roman church, including membership by birth, many of its rituals, and a church where the King or Queen and the religious hierarchy replaced the Pope.

In the 17th century many or most Puritans stayed in the Church of England but practiced a precarious congregationalism within the larger church of bishops, wealthy and worldly clergy, and congregations that included saints, sinners, and the indifferent.

Some Puritans became separatists – separating from the Church of England, believing that a true Christian must renounce the Church of England as apostate.  Separatism in 17th century England was a crime.  Some separatists sought refuge in Holland, as did the famed pilgrims of Thanksgiving remembrance.

Most of the Puritans who came to New England in the 1630s had not renounced the Church of England.  They felt that distance (a dangerous ocean crossing) would be enough separation.  The authors of the Massachusetts Bay Company charter composed it in commercial terms.  However, they had other ends to pursue, in the words of Governor Winthrop’s famous ship sermon with text taken from the Sermon on the Mount “to be a city set upon a hill.”

They would build a perfect society and have a church made up only of the redeemed, which would show evidence (moral and spiritual) of their redemption.

A wild boar lands in Mass.

When Roger Williams came to the New England experiment in 1633 he came as a Puritan separatist.  Later he even criticized the Plymouth people for whom he was pastor for a short time because he did not feel they went far enough in separating.

On arrival, he refused a call to the pastorate of one of Boston’s major churches because the good folks would not openly renounce the Church of England.  He found a group at Salem who professed separatism enough for him to become their pastor.

By all accounts he was a warm, likable, and even endearing person. And by all accounts he had a way of inviting controversy. Soon he was in trouble with the ruling Mass.’ establishment regarding separatism and other issues of polity, doctrine, and freedom of religious expression.

One of his most unpopular views was that the King had no right to give the new world land to European settlers.  The land belonged first to Native Americans.  In the following decades, Williams was to become a voice crying in the wilderness in defense of Native Americans. He also became an expert on their languages and customs.  (A stunning linguist, as a young man he taught John Milton Dutch in return for Hebrew from Milton.)

“The wild boar is loosed”

One hundred years before Williams, another young man in late medieval Germany began to ask hard questions and challenge the religious authority of his time.  The Pope said of Martin Luther, “a wild boar is loose in the vineyard of the Lord.”

In the winter of 1635-36 the Mass.’ authorities had their own “wild boar loose in the vineyard of the Lord” and issued an order for his arrest.  Tipped off, Williams fled into the New England wilderness.

His banishment in mid-winter would have been a sentence of death.  He was rescued and befriended by Native Americans.   In decades to come he became their best white friend and protector. He was fond of noting examples of their fairness.

With the aid of his rescuers he made his way to what is now Providence, Rhode Island.  There he founded a truly religiously pluralistic society that gathered dissenting Puritans, Quakers, Jews, Catholics, atheists, and various other sectarian groups under its wings and common protection.  Williams raised the funds to purchase the area from the Native American chiefs.

Roger Williams regarded religious differences with words like “mercy, gentleness, reasonableness, and civility.” Civil authority was one thing and religious (“soul liberty”) quite another.

Pause for a moment—place your hands in front of you—now look especially at your right thumb.  We all know that no one else in this room has the same print as yours.  And that no one else has a print like yours or mine in the entire world. 

I believe this little exercise carries over to our religious or spiritual beliefs and practices.  And even if we are of the same faith—maybe for us liberal or progressive Christian—we still will have (if you will) different spiritual prints—what we think, what we feel, what we do or will not do, what songs we like…I could go on and on…and what Roger Williams called “soul liberty” should never, can never,  be enforced—and this is wonderfully written in our constitution–Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Williams returned to England in 1643 and obtained a charter for Rhode Island.  The charter made liberty of conscience official.  It contained the first official laws on American soil making slavery illegal. Williams made additional trips to his native country and in his later years was consulted by Parliament for knowledge about Native Americans.

The Puritan idea to its logical conclusions

Williams thought most of the religious beliefs of his fellow colonists were in error, but their errors did not mean they lacked conscience. One’s neighbor can be wrong about many things but still be a decent good person.

He believed that the second Table of the Ten Commandments which deal with horizontal (human to human relationships) was the moral foundation of a civil society.  These commandments, he believed, were rooted in natural law.  These laws may require force to protect one and all.  But matters of the soul (the first Table of the Ten Commandments) were strictly in the realm of government hands off—no established church, no tax breaks for churches, no penalties for not attending church, no religious tests for office holders, no penalties for blasphemy, etc. In the colonies this was revolutionary stuff!  (Even after the American Revolution there were established churches in some states as late as 1830!)


He founded the first “Baptist” church in America, but within months left.  “God is too large,” he said “to be housed under one roof.”


On conscience

Williams maintained the preciousness and dignity of the individual human conscience.  He believed that truth was not the basis of conscience.  The basis of conscience is the human faculty of finding truth. 

A forced religion prevents voluntary and sincere religious commitment.  Damage to the conscience is intrinsically wrong and a desecration of what is most precious in a human being.  Persecution comes from anxiety and insecurity on the part of those who persecute. Said another way, there is hidden unbelief in religious zealotry. He called violations of conscience “soul rape.” In Mass., said Williams, “they love freedom but only for themselves.”

Separation of Church and state

Many believe that Roger Williams more than Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers is the true father of religious liberty. He preceded them by 100 years! Noted biographer and historian Joseph Ellis puts it this way: “Williams understands what Thomas Jefferson was to proclaim over a century later about freedom and the human spirit.  The core of our liberal political heritage began as a religious argument about souls rather than citizens.”

Basis of religious liberty

This is one of the most important lessons he has to teach religious leaders and politicians today, especially those who decry the separation of church and state and wish to cross the lines.  Williams held that there is a profoundly religious reason for the separation! It violates the deepest tenets of true religion. (and drawing on our little thumbprint exercise, its expressions are individual)

Roger Williams stood almost alone in the American wilderness of his century – a noble dissenter and a needed example four hundred years later.


I have come to the end of this biographical sermon…and the time for some discussion of the questions.  I hoped to research each of the questions so I will follow an old rabbi.  One of his people asked him “why do you always answer my question with a question?  To which the rabbi replied “why not?”


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