Alonzo Chappel, “Landing of Roger Williams,” 1857 (Wikimedia Commons)

[Roger] Williams described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as “the Wilderness,” a word with personal resonance for him. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world,” he warned, “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. … — John M. Berry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” SmithsonianJan. 2012.


Nov. 24, 2022. Notes for a post I never finished: I started it soon after Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization was handed down, but the hammer blows were coming down so hard and fast, I couldn’t keep up with them. They were more like hatchet chops, to quote one of the news accounts I was reading at the time, aimed at taking down the wall of separation of church and state. So I never got caught up, and the post never got off the back burner. But today I came across them when I was looking for the Roger Williams quote above, for a post on the US Supreme Court’s organizational culture of “unfettered and lucrative sucking up, lobbying, and currying of favor” (as court-watcher Dahlia Lithwick describes Justice Aliito’s latest ethical lapse) as the court cozies up to far-right religious groups.

I decided my notes were prescient, and worth publishing anyway. While the court hasn’t quite overturned the establishment clause at this point, Alito’s canoodling fits in with his pledge to “protect religious liberty” in the West and to “convince people who are not religious that religious liberty is worth special protection.” (Link HERE for notes on Alito’s speech and reaction to it.] The end result of this kind of thing, as Roger Williams and the Founders including Thomas Jefferson were well aware, it to discredit religion by injecting politics into it.

So I decided to go ahead and publish the notes. Link HERE and HERE for my thoughts in 2006, when I first started blogging, on how I could use the new (to me) medium to get my half-baked thoughts and miscellaneous information off the “scraps of paper, half-completed outlines, photocopied articles, printouts of old stories downloaded from newspaper websites and other ephemera” on my desk and into a medium where I could find it with a keyword search. And HERE (once I finish it and uplink it) for my thoughts on Roger Williams, Justice Alito and the latest hatchet blow to the wall of separation.


My historical research has always had a news peg, ever since I wrote my dissertation on the rule of law — a spellbinder titled “The Idea of Limited Government in English History Plays during the Reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603” — during the Watergate hearings. And this time appears to be no exception.

Roger Williams is one of my heroes, but I got interested in him in a roundabout, almost frivolous way. He has important lessons for us today — he founded Rhode Island colony in the 1630s as a haven for people of all religions, even those whom he thought foolish or condemned to hell — and in the process, he gave us the related notions of the freedom of religion and a wall of separation between church and state.

The church, he said in a convoluted metaphor that also involved a candlestick, was like a lovely garden; the wall, accordingly, was to protect the garden from the secular wilderness outside, not the other way around.

Which is something I think we all ought to keep in mind.

Williams’ metaphor been on my mind lately, since the US Supreme Court “[took] a hatchet to church-state separation” (to quote the Guardian) at the end of its last term, but I first started reading up on Williams because of a catchy title I dreamed up for an unrelated research project I was working on.

My project was a study of Swedish immigrants and how they adapted their Lutheran beliefs in the 1850s to American theological and religious norms of the day. Those norms included, on the one hand, the secular doctrine of the church-state separation and, on the other, a theology heavily influenced by the Calvinism inherited from early New England and the hellfire-and-damnation preaching of frontier evangelists. The tension between the two — not always very easily resolved — gave me the working title “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden.” (I blogged about it HERE and HERE a couple of years ago, and soon I had the title ready for a proposal I submitted for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library’s annual Conference on Illinois History.) I presented the paper via Zoom in October 2020 (see my notes HERE), and the rest, if you’ll forgive the pun, is history.

Here’s what made my title work: Swedish immigrants of the 1850s found a place in Roger Williams’ garden because it was religiously pluralistic, at least by the standards of the day. Religious pluralism is Jewish and Catholic immigrants came to similar accommodations at the time, overcoming varying degrees of opposition, even hatred, as they settled in ethnic enclaves.

Although 19th-century America was Protestant, it had no established state churches (the last one, in Massachusetts, was disestablished in 1833) and its federal constitution guaranteed the free exercise of religion..


Religious pluralism is notoriously difficult to define (Wikipedia lists several stabs at it, having to do with diversity, inclusiveness, freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Boston College’s Boisi Center paper on the subject says “pluralism is something that is achieved rather than simply given” and comes close to a workable definition when it says, “The ideal of religious pluralism becomes a reality when adherents of different faith traditions are free to express their beliefs in ways that uphold the peace and well-being—the common good—of society.”

And that freedom of religion traces back to Roger Williams.

A protege of Sir Edward Coke as a youngster back in England, Williams fled to America when King Charles I cracked down on Puritans in the 1620s. He settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony — established as a sort of model Puritan “City on a Hill” — but was soon banished by Gov. John Winthrop and the Puritan establishment.

So in 1636 Williams fled again, this time to the wilderness, where he bought land from the Narragansett Indians. There he set up a colony that would become Rhode Island. Having had quite enough of established churches by this time, he


From an interview with Catherine Brekus, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America
Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion (FAS): interview for the PBS series on God in America. A snippet for possible quotation later:

[…] the fact that most of the Catholic immigrants are rather poor and not exactly well organized to mount a coup on the American government.

But these are deep issues that go back to the Protestant Reformation; that from the time of the Reformation, Protestants identify the Catholic Church as the enemy, as the Antichrist. These attitudes come with them when they arrive in America. And when Catholic immigrants begin appearing, they are afraid that Catholics are obedient, first and foremost, to the pope, and that they cannot be good citizens, because if they have to choose between allegiance to the government and allegiance to the Catholic Church, they will choose allegiance to the Catholic Church. …


Stray quote from US Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., sometime in July. (Sound bites are all over YouTube so I can document it later if needed.)

“The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church,” Boebert told the crowd, which applauded. “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.”

And this, in the same sound bite:

“It was not in the Constitution, it was in a stinking letter and it means nothing like what they say it does,” she continued.

The “stinking letter” is Jefferson’s Jan.1, 1801, public Letter to the Danbury Baptists. The Library of Congress has it at

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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Citations and Further Reading

Catherine Brekus, interview, God in America, Public Broadcasting Service, 2010

Epstein, Lee and Posner, Eric A., The Roberts Court and the Transformation of Constitutional Protections for Religion: A Statistical Portrait (April 3, 2021). Supreme Court Review, Available at SSRN:

“God in America: “A New Light,” transcript, written by Sarah Colt & Thomas Jennings

Lauren Jackson, “The Court and the Culture Wars,” The Daily [online newsletter], New York Times, May 2, 2022

Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists: The Final Letter, as Sent.” Library of Congress Information Bulletin, June 1998

John McGreevy, interview, God in America, PBS, 2010

David Smith, “Alarm as US supreme court takes a hatchet to church-state separation,” Guardian, July 1, 2022

Conrad Swanson, “Lauren Boebert told congregation she’s “tired of this separation of church and state junk,” Denver Post, June 28, 2022

Wikipedia article on religious pluralism

[Revised and uplinked Nov. 24, 2022]

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