We recently took a cruise out of Galveston. The ability to drive to the port and to board a ship is another advantage of island life. Cruising delights the senses by providing a place to lock up your cellphone. We visited some Caribbean Islands, ate too much, drank too much and read some books.

I would highly recommend John M. Barry’s “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.” Williams was a well-educated member of the English middle class. He fled from England to New England in the early 17th century to avoid religious and political turmoil.

Williams was neither a Pilgrim nor a Puritan. Within months of Williams’ arrival in Boston, he fell into conflict with John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Plantation, a colony. Williams was offered a post as “teacher” of the Boston Church, but declined because he wouldn’t work in a church not yet separated from the Church on England.

Williams went further and argued the government had no right to enforce the “First Table” of the Ten Commandments. The First Table regulates ones’ duty to God: “to have no other God before Him, to make no graven images, to not take the Lord’s name in vain, and to keep the Sabbath holy.” In 1631, this virtually amounted to treason, not only in New England but in most of Europe. Penalties included cutting off ears, imprisonment, and sometimes death.

After extended arguments with plantation leaders, Williams was banished from Massachusetts. He was forced to flee south in the dead of winter where he was saved by members of the Wampanoag tribe. After many perils, Williams established an independent government in Rhode Island and Providence Plantation. The basis of this government was subsequently echoed in our Constitution.

Williams agreed God gave us the Ten Commandments, but he argued that government is a human institution and therefore subject to flaws. He would disagree that any rights such as enumerated in the Constitution are God given rights. He reasoned these are the product of human thought and therefore subject to interpretation, elaboration, and error. Moreover, the government shouldn’t attempt to promote or enforce any religious position.

He would argue, as have the courts, each person has the right to pray and worship as he chooses, but this cannot be part of a government institution. He based this argument on the belief that government derives its sovereignty from the people, and not from God. This means “The (authority of) government … extends no further than over the bodies and goods of their subjects, not over their souls.”

Williams deeply believed both in the grace of God and the fallibility of people, including his own. Thus if one believes the state derives its authority from the people, then the state must be just as fallible. Hence the state shouldn’t involve itself in religion, because this involvement inevitably corrupts religion. Put simply, in Williams’ words: “…forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Dan Freeman is an occasional columnist and lives in Galveston.


(10) comments

Carlos Ponce

From the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
First Amendment:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
"no law respecting an establishment of religion" No state established church like the Church of England.
" or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.." Congress cannot make a law telling you when to follow your religion, nor how. This applies to events bout inside and outside a physical church. Even today, each house of Congress begins each session with a prayer. Prayer in a government sanctioned activity does not violate the Constitution but a "free exercise" of religion, chosen by the participants. The First Amendment implies FREEDOM of Religion, not freedom from religion.
Roger Williams was not present nor alive at the penning of the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution, nor the Bill of Rights.
A lot of people have misconstrued Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" in his "Letter to the Danbury Baptists". Read the letter. In it, Jefferson advocates "free exercise of religion". That "wall" reference was against a state government (Connecticut) establishing a state church barring the practice of Baptists - something permitted at the time by Connecticut. At the time, individual states could and did establish state religions, something the Federal government could not do. While Jefferson sided with the Danbury Baptists, there was nothing he could do about it as President. The state of Connecticut would have to resolve the issue.

Carlos Ponce

This applies to events both inside and outside a physical church.

Jim Forsythe

While Muslim terrorists kidnapped and killed innocent people around the world as they do today, Thomas Jefferson knew exactly how to end radical Islam’s bloodshed – with a classic American take-no-prisoners smackdown.

As president, Jefferson wrote to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut,
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State
Part of the reason that President Jefferson read the Koran. was to understand others.
President Jefferson welcomed the first Muslim ambassador, who hailed from Tunis, to the White House in 1805. Because it was Ramadan, the president moved the state dinner from 3:30 p.m. to be “precisely at sunset,” a recognition of the Tunisian ambassador’s religious beliefs, if not quite America’s first official celebration of Ramadan.

Carlos Ponce

As you put it "Part of the reason....".

Bailey Jones

Another book worth reading is "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders" by Denise Spellberg. It covers how Islam figured in discussions of religious freedom. Islam, then as now, was a major force in the world, even though there weren't many Muslims in the US (not counting the thousands of Muslim slaves who had their religion stripped from them along with every other aspect of their humanity. Jefferson thought enough of Islam to buy an English translation of the Koran. It's interesting and instructive to read the arguments of the day, which haven't changed much. On one side you had the argument that religious freedom was just that - and meant the free practice any religion, even Islam. On the other side you had the argument that true religious freedom was a bridge too far - and would permit the practice of Catholicism, Judaism, and (gasp!) Islam. I like George Washington's remark, made while trying to locate labor to work on his estate, writing in 1784, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists."

Carlos Ponce

"Jefferson thought enough of Islam to buy an English translation of the Koran."
While ambassador to France, he and John Adams (ambassador to Great Britain) met the the ambassador from Tripoli (one of the North African Muslim pirate countries). "They asked him why Tripoli attacked ships. Why attack the United States? They had no previous interactions. Why the hostility? Why did they choose America as an enemy?"
The Tripoli ambassador replied, "That's what we do. We are commanded to do so by Allah." Jefferson later wrote to John Jay Secretary of Foreign Affairs), "It was written in their Koran that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman (Muslim) who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to Paradise."
He read the Quran to understand the Muslim religion. Later as President, Jefferson mobilized the Navy to put an end to the Barbary Coast Pirates. The Marine song resounds with "to the shores of Tripoli". In battling the pirates, the Marines wore a thick leather strap around their necks to counter their practice of beheading their enemies with swords. Hence the term "Leathernecks".
Jefferson's reading of the Quran had more to do with "know your enemy" than religious freedom.

Gary Scoggin

Oh Lord, not another Muslim rabbit hole, please.

Carlos Ponce

There are Muslim rabbits?

Jim Forsythe


Carlos Ponce

I didn't know about Muslim Rabbits. I knew about the Jewish Rabbis though.

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