March 8, 2013


by Ronnie Rogers

Ronnie Rogers is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, Okla.

It is important to recognize that the phrase ‘a wall of separation’ does not appear in the Declaration of Independence[1] or the Constitution.[2] As is rather well known, it is a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 missive responding to the Danbury Baptists’ congratulatory letter. The first time Jefferson was quoted in a Supreme Court case was in the 1878 case of Reynolds v. United States. However, the first time it was applied to states and expanded by the wording of the decision, which we have now come to know as the religious guillotine of “separation of church and state” or “the wall of separation” was in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education case (1947 – 330 U.S.1), in which the Supreme Court applied the establishment[3] clause to the states. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion conflating the First and Fourteenth amendments and thereby jurisdictionally established the mechanism for marginalizing religious expression in every hamlet in America.

Jefferson’s use of the phrase did not appear in a historical vacuum. The following will help to set the record straight.

Roger Williams, clergyman, staunch advocate of religious freedom, and “founder of Rhode Island”[4] used the phrase before Jefferson. He was a Baptist briefly. In order to properly understand Jefferson’s use of the phrase, one needs to be familiar with how it was used by Williams and others. In order to understand the metaphor, one has to understand the man and the times. Williams was a Puritan who eventually separated from the Church of England, then became a Baptist in 1639 for a short time, and later became a seeker.[5] Williams, unlike his Puritan brothers in Massachusetts, adamantly rejected the idea that the civil authorities had any jurisdiction over the church or spiritual matters. “Therefore he declared that the state should not undertake to punish such purely religious offenses as idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, or Sabbath-breaking. No attempt should be made to maintain religious conformity by law; nor should civil penalties be imposed on sinful persons. The entire religious realm should be removed from the sphere of competence of the state.”[6] These views kept him in constant conflict with the Puritan leaders, and in 1635 Williams was banished from the jurisdiction of the Bay colony.[7]

The theological basis for ‘a wall of separation’ grew out of Williams’ understanding of the church being based on the New Testament model instead of the Old Testament with theocratic Israel as the model. “Drawing upon the analogy of Eden, he spoke of the church or community of the faithful as a garden. Beyond its bounds lay the wilderness of the sinful world from which the garden was preserved by a wall of separation. Should the wall be breached, weeds from the wilderness would invade the garden and choke off its flowers.[8] (italics added)

Notice that a breach in the wall allowed the wilderness—government—into the garden—church, and not the other way around. Because Williams believed in the corruption of man, he did not believe in government coercion of the unregenerate to believe in the teachings of Christ, the declaration of an official state church, taxation of citizens to pay ministers, or the use of civil power to assure religious conformity or preserve the church from doctrinal error. Williams said, “So far as the natural man was corrupt and sinful, the power of the magistrate must be the power of Satan. How could the protection of the church safely be entrusted to such a power?”[9] Therefore, the wall of separation was a separation of institutions so that the government or world (wilderness) would not corrupt the church (garden).

Stow Persons sums up Williams’ influence: “In later times, when it became the fashion to extol Williams for his principles of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state, his fame was celebrated by liberals who would break the remaining shackles of official religious power over the state. But it was precisely the opposite situation that had concerned Williams. It was the release of religion from the incubus of state control for which he contended. Why? Because the state was the instrument of natural men. It was the wilderness, evil, and the domain of the devil. It tended, therefore, in the nature of things, to be corrupt. It was the corruption of the church by the world that stood out in Williams’ mind as the great fact of modern history.”[10] (italics added)

Therefore, in Williams’ original figurative expression, the wall was not to protect the wilderness—government and world—from the garden—church—but the very opposite. This fact is demonstrated by the Rhode Island Charter[11] and Williams’ service as the President of Rhode Island for three years beginning in 1654.[12] Along with his public ridicule of the Quakers’ beliefs and practices, Williams found them unfit for certain public offices because of their religious belief in pacifism, which would, in his estimation, make them poor governors.[13] “Williams himself linked religion to morals, and he expected magistrates in Rhode Island to enforce the second table of the Ten Commandments.”[14] Because Williams believed that the second table of the Ten Commandments was appropriate for civil law, but the first table was not, it seems that his message could be summarized as follows: the ‘wall of separation’ would be breached if the church and state were to become so intertwined that the state passed laws regarding the first tablet, which required observance or punishment by the state. For Williams, this would be the bloody persecution of conscience, which reminds us that just because a belief is religious, does not mean that it has no place in the public square.

Williams referred to the second table as “the doctrine of the civil state” and the first table as “the spiritual doctrine of Christianity.” [15] Therefore, the commandments dealing with men’s bodies, relationships, and things, e.g. adultery, lying, stealing, could become civil laws, but the first four commandments dealing with a person’s relationship and worship of God or no worship of God or worship of a different God than the state or everyone else could not become civil law that required citizens to obey or be punished.

Jefferson said essentially the same thing, “The legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” The Baptists said, “The legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”[16] These are the same as the second tablet. Jefferson said, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others….that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government nor under its jurisdiction.”[17] The first tablet dealt with worship and opinions, and the second with relations toward other men, which was appropriate for civil law as distinguished by Williams.

This division between the first and second tablet can be seen in the actions of John Leland, a Baptist preacher, who “emerged a leader among the Commonwealth’s Baptists.

John Leland said, ‘Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to this own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, for his religious opinions.’”[18]

The beauty of the First Amendment is that it protects the freedom of religion by making the subject jurisdictionally off limits (Congress shall make no law). The tyranny of the excessively reductive phrase “separation of church and state” is seen in the systematic evanescing of the value or place for religious thought in the public square of imposable knowledge.

[1] “The document marking our birth as a separate people, ‘appeal[ed] to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions’… [avowing] ‘a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” Kevin A. Ring, ed, Scalia Dissents: Writings of the Supreme Court’s Wittiest, Most Outspoken Justice, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004), 174.

[2] D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had never Been Born?, revised edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 75.

[3] About which Scalia says, “The Establishment Clause was adopted to prohibit such an establishment of religion at the federal level (and to protect state establishments of religion from federal interference).” Ring, Scalia Dissents, 183.

[4] Stow Persons, American Minds: A History of Ideas, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1958), 53.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Ibid., 52.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 54.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] “The Rhode Island Charter of 1663 noted the motivations of its settlers to pursue ‘the holie Christian faith and worshipp’ and acknowledged, in its 1663 Charter with the Providence Plantations, the purpose ‘to preserve them that liberty, in the true Christian faith and worship of God, which they have sought with so much travail.’” (Perry, 1978, p. 170), William F. Cox, Jr., Tyranny through Public Education, (Fairfax, VA: Allegiance Press, 2003), 126.

“The colony (i.e., Providence) earliest to claim independence of religion from civil government management is now known as Rhode Island. While contrary to the biblical mindset of most other colonies, this orientation was likewise based in the Christian religion. Their charter of 1663 read, ‘To encourage the hopeful undertaking of our said loyal and loving subjects, and to secure them in the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights, appertaining to them, as our loving subjects; and to preserve unto them that liberty, in the true Christian faith and worship of God’.” (Perry, 1978, p. 170), Cox, Tyranny, 127.

[12] Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 53.

[13] Kramnick and Moore, Godless Constitution, 58. Although Williams adamantly disagreed with the Quakers’ teaching and did not see them as fit for certain public offices because of it, he would not allow government to punish them for their beliefs. They were free to worship according to their conscience.

[14] Ibid., 60.

[15]Roger Williams, The Bloudy [Bloody] Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Richard Groves, ed., (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001), 146.

[16] Ibid., 49.

[17] From Jefferson’s writings, as quoted by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 182; see also the complete bill for establishing religious freedom in Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 133-135.

[18] John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable (New-London, Conn.: 1791) in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 184 as quoted by Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 167, footnote 47.

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

 characters available

Daniel Wilcox

Williams wanted to protect the church from state persecution; Jefferson wanted to protect the state from religious persecution.

Thus came freedom…

Opposites attract:-)

Daniel Wilcox

Ron F. Hale

Ronnie — I so enjoyed your article, a great piece of historical writing! Thanks!

R. Richard Tribble, Jr

Bro. Ronnie,

Your article is informative and well written. It shows how people will take words commonly accepted and redefine them. Williams stood against government involvement in the church but government liberals have captured his statements, redefined his meaning and therein applied their false caricature to the church and Christians having no place in our government or society.

We need more people to stand for truth and against this morbid erosion of biblical truth and resultant principles.

Thanks for the article.

Loren Hutchinson

What would you hope to be accomplished by “tearing down that wall?” What freedoms would be gained for the church that she doesn’t already possess? What benefit would it be to the Kingdom if the wall of separation was not there?

Is your essay an argument in favor of the church having more influence in the government? If so, it would seem that you want the state to help the church convey its message to the public and help shape public morality. Isn’t that exactly what Williams, Jefferson and Leland opposed?

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

 characters available