Roger Williams and the Separatist Movement : Then and Now

The decline that began shortly after the Pilgrim’ first harvest celebration, which was filled with thanksgiving, can be best understood by looking at what happened in Massachusetts ten years later with the arrival of Roger Williams in 1631 (who would eventually become the founder and governor of Rhode Island). He was a staunch Separatist whose whole motivation was to see the reality of the true church demonstrated on earth. Williams did not believe that anything connected to the Church of England could possibly be the pure church for which he longed. This is the same view his Separatist brothers in Plymouth carried when they arrived in the New World in 1620 and endured the test of that first winter.

The Puritan colonists who had arrived in the ten years prior to Williams had no intention of establishing religious freedom for they had little value for any sort of religious toleration. They fused religion and politics, believing that God had given them the task of protecting and promoting their religion. They were determined to use the power of the state to enforce religious orthodoxy on every citizen.1 When they spoke of religious liberty, the Puritans meant the liberty to practice religion as they saw fit and to penalize anyone who disagreed with them.2

The conclusion that the life of the early church, described as the “primitive pattern of the Word of God,” was not and could not be sustained became painfully evident to those early Plymouth Pilgrims as they approached their second winter. Their Separatist ideals were not enough to overcome the power of self-life. The “primitive pattern of the Word of God” (recorded in Acts 2:42 and 4:32) was impossible for the first settlers because they didn’t have the spiritual foundation stone that could enable them to establish that pattern of life in the colonies. They learned the painful lesson that the best they could do was to try to emulate the “primitive pattern,” despite their strong belief in that way of life. Their faith and their desire was not enough to produce the same life of the early church. They were left disappointed, like Roger Williams when he realized that there was no true church actually living according to that “primitive pattern” anywhere on the earth. There was something missing in the foundation. As the apostle Paul wrote:

…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with the Son of God himself as the chief cornerstone… (Ephesians 2:20)

Roger Williams realized the contrast between true life and dead form increasingly as he saw the lifeless, disappointing, and sometimes deadly alternative to the “primitive pattern” emerging in the Puritan Church of Massachusetts Bay. Mildly reformed from the Church of England, the Puritans believed they had a mandate from God to form a Christian nation by connecting church and state. The American Puritans, like the Church of England they hoped to purify, had begun to wield the sword of the same religious intolerance.

Williams, unlike most of his contemporaries, never compromised his Separatist ideals. His views are summed up by legal scholar Timothy L. Hall:

Legal scholars have sometimes claimed that Williams’s view of church-state relations made the protection of the garden from the wilderness — or the church from the state — the principal aim. But that characterization fails to discern the true extent of his radical Separatism. According to Roger Williams, there was no garden to be protected any longer. Weeds grew where cultivated flowers once bloomed. He did not advocate a wall between church and state, he mourned the wall’s destruction and the destruction of the church. There was no church left to be separated from the state. The most that true believers could do was wait in expectation that God would one day send apostles who would replant the garden. Until that time, the world would be inhabited by Christians without a church.

Driven by this radical Separatism, Williams eventually abandoned any hope of finding a pure church. He associated for a few months with an infant congregation of Baptists but ultimately separated from them because even they could not claim to have preserved the legacy of the apostolic church. … He saw no alternative but to withdraw from his recently acquired Baptist brethren. They were trying to create a garden out of the barren wilderness of the world and had set upon an illusive quest for a church that had died and would remain dead until God resurrected it in the last days.3 [emphasis added]

Williams saw no alternative but to wait patiently until God sent apostles who had the power to start the new and true church. He knew that until that time there was no one available either to start a church or to sustain it.4 In the following quote, Roger Williams made clear his belief that there was no true church anywhere on earth:

In the poor small span of my life, I desired to have been a diligent and constant observer, and have been my self many ways engaged in city, in country, in court, in schools, in universities, in churches, in old and new England, and yet cannot in the holy presence of God bring in the result of a satisfying discovery, that either the begetting ministry of the apostles or messengers to the nations, or the feeding and nourishing ministry of pastors and teachers, according to the first institution of the Lord Jesus, are yet restored and extant.5

Since there was no true church nor apostles to gather God’s people, Williams saw that believers would have to live separately in a hostile “wilderness” of the world until a future day. Seeing this fact led Roger Williams to his brilliant understanding of the role of the state. He saw that the affairs of the state were to be purely secular. He rejected John Winthrop’s notion that gave American Puritans their sense of duty to try to construct a “city on a hill”, where civil governments would be given the power to enforce religious correctness. For Roger Williams, this situation was akin to what had existed in Christendom before the Reformation. He believed that no nation had a mandate from God to bring His redemptive plan to the world.6

Therefore, the affairs of the state should forever be separate from the affairs of religion. This meant that individual believers of all faiths should be protected from the tyranny of governments and that no religion should be given the opportunity to form an alliance with secular government.

Roger Williams established the state of Rhode Island with this in mind. Nowhere in the colonies was there more religious toleration and acceptance of diverse religious expression. In fact, it was the first state protecting freedom of conscience in 1,300 years.7 Williams believed that government in the nations was “merely human and civil.” He did not see government as redemptive. He saw that the political skills necessary to preserve civil peace might easily be found among Jews, or Turks, or Chinese as among people who professed Christianity. 8

One hundred years later, the foundation of secular government laid by Roger Williams in Rhode Island came together with the social and political views of John Locke, who lived in England in the mid-1600s. Locke proposed a radical view of government that consciously separated the realms of church and state. Locke and others like him in England, who promoted this new model of government were not greatly concerned about the purity of true religion — a completely different perspective than Roger Williams. However, Locke and others contributed powerfully to the ideals that triumphed in the American Constitution.9

What is the significance of Roger Williams today and what does it mean to us? There is hardly an accurate account of what those early Pilgrims stood for. The history books in public schools emphasize the life of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the foundation of America — remaining strangely uninterested in the earliest Pilgrim Separatists of Plymouth, much less the radical Roger Williams.

We must be forever thankful for the brilliance of Roger Williams. In establishing a secular state, he provided us with the freedom to fulfill what those early Pilgrims longed to see. Although no spiritual nation emerged from the rocky shores of Plymouth or Rhode Island, the Separatists and Roger Williams laid the secular foundation of this nation, America the beautiful, where their beliefs, as well as all other religious beliefs, would be protected.

No matter how hard he tried, Williams could not impart the Holy Spirit to people to give them the foundation upon which to build. It was not given to them or to their time. The missing building block — that essential cornerstone and necessary foundation stone — was to come later “in the days of those kings” (spoken about in Daniel 2:44, 7:24 and Revelation 17:12 as the Stone Kingdom). This Stone Kingdom is cut out of the mountain of the nations without human hands. No human institution could ever bring this about because it is the true work of God’s hand aided by angels (Hebrews 1:14).

The Pilgrims were not living in the time of “the restoration of all things” (Mark 9:11-12). As the story of that first harvest celebration in Plymouth revealed, the early Pilgrims tried, but could not do it.

Roger Williams established a state that protected man’s conscience, instead of imposed mandates of religious correctness. It enabled individuals to be ruled by the boundaries of conscience, providing man a basis to live by while waiting, like Williams, for the time in history when God would restore the “primitive pattern” of the church. The establishment of freedom of religion that separates church and state made the way for this pattern to be raised up at the appointed time (Daniel 2:28; Psalm 102:13-18).

The memory of what these first Pilgrims really stood for and how they were hated by the Christian establishment of England in the early seventeenth-century has faded. To be Separatist today in this country would be looked upon with disdain. It would probably invoke the label “cult”. The Christian Right is trying to rewrite history to erase all memory of what it means to protect rights of the hated minorities. They are agents tearing down the historic and established wall of separation intended to protect forever the rights of the Separatist. Without the protection of this wall, there is no hope and there will be no opportunity for a true separatist movement to emerge as a prophetic voice one day. This voice is what will rekindle the fire of the early church and bring about the reality of what those beloved Pilgrims gave their lives to see fulfilled.

If a true Separatist Movement were to emerge today, it would surely be despised like the Pilgrims were in England. They would be the outcasts, the ones who would not conform to the status quo of dead mainstream religion. They would be the ones, like Roger Williams, who would be banished from society for their disturbing and radical ideas of separation (if those rights were not protected and actually upheld under the First Amendment). Such persecution will be inevitable because these contemporary Separatists will rekindle the same fire that caused the early church to be despised. Being reviled is the response of darkness to the light (John 1:4). It was the response back then to their burning love of a common life that turned the world upside down. It will be the same when light appears again in the present darkness.

When the day comes that Roger Williams waited for, when true apostles are once again on the earth with true authority from God to actually baptize people into a radical new life, then those people will boldly take their stand as Separatists and will bring everyone’s remembrance back to the beloved Pilgrims. If we truly appreciate the lives and labors of those first Pilgrim Separatists, we must preserve the rights of religious freedom for which they stood. The Separatist courage we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day will not have been in vain. The hope and the opportunity for all men to gain the sweet life of “fellowship with their God and one another” will be preserved.

  • 1. J. Edward Evans, Freedom of Religion, (Lerner Publications Company, 1994), p. 15
  • 2. Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness, (W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), p. 47
  • 3. Timothy L. Hall, Separating Church and State, Roger Williams and Religious Liberty, (University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 26
  • 4. Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, pp. 293-94
  • 5. Roger Williams, The Hireling Ministry, in the Complete Writings of Roger Williams, 7 vols. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), p. 160
  • 6. The Godless Constitution, pp. 50-51
  • 7. See the article How a Very Religious Nation Produced the first Secular State.
  • 8. The Godless Constitution, p. 54
  • 9. The Godless Constitution, p. 72

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