How a Very Religious Nation Produced the First Secular State

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As the end of the twentieth century races toward us, it's hard to escape the feeling that history is about to turn a very significant corner. One of the compelling questions that many people ask is, “Is this the end of the age?” Several Christian writers and radio preachers have recently announced the date of Christ's return, and many more will offer their opinions as the millennium proceeds. But one of the most overlooked mysteries of the end of the age is the reuniting of Christianity with a one-world government.

Roger Williams

Three hundred years ago Roger Williams had remarkable insight into the relationship of the church and the state. More than anyone else in history, he was the one who took a stand and would not allow church and state to blend in some unholy alliance that would eventually turn and persecute anyone who could not, for conscience sake, capitulate to its demands. This had been the pattern over and over in European history, and Williams was determined that it would not happen where he governed in the infant state of Rhode Island.

We hope in this paper to begin to unfold the mystery of Williams's insight into why the separation of church and state must be upheld. Only then can the necessary forces1 grow and develop which will culminate in the apocalypse that brings Christ back and that ushers in the Millennial Kingdom.

Since colonial times, prophecy about the “last days” has been the fertile ground from which hundreds of millennial sects have arisen, each freshly applying the patterns and prophesies of the apocalypse to the events of its day.2 Inevitably, people's fears and expectations of what the Bible predicts have made their mark on American politics.

The Promised Land

The first of the American millennial sects was the Pilgrims. They came in hope of finding the “promised land,” a place where the righteous could live in peace and bring in the kingdom of God. The Pilgrims thought they were establishing a New Israel and almost voted in Hebrew as their national language. Many who settled here thought they were the descendants of Abraham. They had come to this land in faith, looking for “a city with foundations, whose architect and builder was God.”3 The combination of a sense of prophetic destiny and the need for an ordered society brought about a unique relationship between church and state. In fact, it is because of the strength of this relationship between American politics and religion that the founding fathers formally disestablished religion to produce the first secular state in history.4

Author and political observer Garry Wills makes this very point:

In the middle of the seventeenth century, Rhode Island had given greater protection of freedom of religion than any other government in what was then known as Christendom. Nor was this an aberration. The process by which those zealous for religion separated it from government presented in microcosm the process that would be worked out in America over the next centuries. The secular state came from the zeal of religion itself. It was the most religious community [Rhode Island] that produced the most religiously neutral state, just as — a century later — it would be a very religious nation that produced the first secular state. This [occurred] because they were following the logic of the position that Roger Williams, with his genius, had arrived at by way of Augustinian reflection on the world, the gospel, and government. Those reflections were not as distant from the later arguments of Jefferson and Madison as scholars have made them.5

The Stone Kingdom

The insight of Roger Williams is important in three very significant areas: First, he saw more clearly than anyone else of his time the significance of the Stone Kingdom that the prophet Daniel predicted would come about “in the days of those [ten] kings.”6 Second, he saw that the restoration of the true church would come about when true apostles would once again raise up the foundation of the early church and bring to full maturity what had begun in the first century.7 Third, he saw that the end-time church could only flourish in a “pre-Constantine” political structure where the affairs of the civil government were completely separate from the affairs of the church.

According to Daniel 12:4, the prophecies concerning the Stone Kingdom were to be sealed up until the last days. This is why Roger Williams, in the seventeenth century, was unable to understand them completely. However, for us at the end of the twentieth century, the picture is coming into focus and we are able to interpret more clearly what Williams could only sense back then.

Even though Roger Williams didn't see everything clearly, he nevertheless was the one who had the greatest insight in how the relationship between church and state should be. He believed that no state government should ever interfere with an individual's private acts of belief. To him these acts were private matters between the individual and the Spirit of God. He believed that true belief grew out of an inner conviction that no man could force upon another. He believed that the Indians in New England could not and should not be coerced into European beliefs — “they must judge according to their Indian or American consciences, for other consciences it cannot be supposed they should have.”8 Thus, Williams understood that any establishment of religion by any government imposes the conscience of one person, or one set of persons — the ruler or his magistrates — on everybody else.

Williams knew that if religion and politics were not separate, the church would continue to be corrupt in the New World just as it had always been in Europe where the two had been combined since the days of Constantine. He saw that, according to the teachings of the Bible, the church was to be separate and distinct from the society around it. He knew this was the only way it could be a “light to the nations.” He also knew that what he saw around him in seventeenth century America was not the church of the New Testament. He believed that when the Roman emperor, Constantine, made Christianity the state religion, the church lost its illumination and ceased to be the church. To him, history proved through all the bloodshed and disunity expressed in the name of Christ, that Christendom is not the church and that it never can be.9

Prophetically, he saw that the day would come when the God of heaven would raise up the righteous root of the early church to demonstrate the life of the kingdom to the whole earth. He believed the day would come when the God of heaven would raise up apostles who would restore the pattern and purity of the early church.10 Roger Williams wanted to establish civil government that would separate the spheres of authority of the church and the state so that when that time of restoration would come, the true church would not be polluted by any establishment of religion nor would it be stamped out by the intolerance of government to something radically different than the mainstream culture or religion of the day.

Prophetic Destiny

The separation of church and state, so clearly understood by Williams, Madison and Jefferson is what has allowed the idea of a “prophetic destiny” to flourish and develop to the present day in this country. Jefferson and Madison did not believe that separation would lessen the impact of Bible prophesy or religious expression on our nation. “Churches freed from the compromises of establishment would have greater moral force, they argued — and in this they proved prophets.”11 Neither did they believe that separation would lessen civil governments' ability to rule over the affairs of the state. They believed the ability to rule would be enhanced if the civil authorities would rule by natural law as dictated by each man's conscience instead of being coerced into running the affairs of government with legislated church doctrines. Therefore, it seemed necessary to them that the separation be maintained in order for civil government to keep order and maintain peace and for the “prophetic destiny” of America to be fully realized.

The Myth of Separation

There is a strong movement currently forming in America, primarily from the evangelical Christian Right, to expose what they call “the myth of separation” between church and state and to bring this country back to its roots as a “Christian nation” where politics and Christian principles go hand in hand. This movement is a reaction to the long-standing view from the left of strict separation,12 a view which in many ways has robbed America of the fundamental moral foundation of civil government that this country had at its beginning. There are grave dangers to both positions and both represent important elements of the forces at work to bring about the climax of human history in this age.

In colonial times, the Christian religion was an integral part of the culture of the people who settled in America. Christian principles were voluntarily accepted by the dictates of individual consciences. It was in this cultural context that the people saw the danger of establishing any particular denomination as a state religion. But increasingly today, the culture is voluntarily rejecting the principles of Christianity because of the inconsistencies, confusion, division and hypocrisy in the church.

To quell this avalanche of moral breakdown, the “Reclaim America” element of the Christian right is subtly advocating establishing, not a particular denomination, but the Christian religion. This, in effect would be a return to the same type of establishment initially enacted by Constantine, which Williams, Jefferson and Madison agreed was the beginning of the fall of the Christian church from its purity.13 How this movement to re-establish a Constantinian Christianity fits into the prophesy of the end times is a primary subject of this paper. It makes the understanding of government proposed by Williams, Jefferson and Madison even more profound and even more urgent as we have entered the new millennium.

  • 1.
    The beast, the harlot, and the Stone Kingdom.
  • 2.
    Garry Wills, Under God, Religion and American Politics, pp.20,24.
  • 3.
    Hebrews 11:10
  • 4.
    Wills, op. cit., p. 353
  • 5.
    Ibid, pp. 352,353.
  • 6.
    Daniel 2:44
  • 7.
    Hughes, American Quest for the Primitive Church, pp. 42,46
  • 8.
    Wills, op. cit., p. 371
  • 9.
    Hughes, op cit, p. 41
  • 10.
    Ibid, p. 42
  • 11.
    Wills, op. cit., p. 25
  • 12.
    David Barton, The Myth of Separation, p. 32
  • 13.
    Wills, op. cit., p. 368