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5 Brave Religious Leaders Who Fought Christian Theocracy in America

We shouldn’t overlook members of the Christian clergy who have buttressed the church-state wall.

Over the years, atheists, agnostics and skeptics of organized religion have taken a lot of high-profile stands in favor of the separation of church and state. Many Jews have been active in this area as well, and these days the ranks of church-state defenders are being augmented by Pagans, Wiccans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and other religious minorities.

But we shouldn’t overlook the many members of the Christian clergy who have buttressed the church-state wall and those who still do so today. In fact, we might not have that wall at all if it weren’t for them.

With that thought in mind, here are five preachers whose support for church-state separation is beyond dispute.

1) Roger Williams: The founder of Rhode Island was an iconoclastic preacher who absolutely hated the idea of combining church and state. Williams, a Puritan minister in Massachusetts, was either exceedingly brave or exceedingly foolish (or possibly both). In one case, he went on the warpath after he got wind of the General Court’s plan to require every member of the colony to take a loyalty oath to the governor ending in the phrase, “So help me, God.” According to Williams, it was dangerous to force a man to swear a religious oath.

“A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man,” wrote Williams, because it would cause the oath-taker “to take the name of God in vain.”

This and other pro-freedom outbursts did not endear Williams to the sour theocrats of Massachusetts. By 1635 the Puritan leaders had had enough of him. The General Court found Williams guilty of “disseminating new and dangerous opinions” and banished him from the colony. Williams was ordered to return to England but fled into the wilderness. He purchased land from some Native Americans and called his settlement Providence. (In the process, he ditched the Puritans and became a Baptist – briefly. Williams remained on a spiritual quest all of his life.)

You could always rely on Williams for some powerful rhetoric. “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God,” he once declared. In his 1644 treatise, The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Williams warned against opening “a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” – a phrase that anticipated President Thomas Jefferson’s call for a “wall of separation between church and state” by more than 150 years.

Williams called for “soul liberty,” and he meant it. In his colony, all who agreed to live in peace were welcome – even those whose religious views Williams personally found distasteful. Williams was no fan of Quakers, but in Providence, members of that denomination worshipped in peace. It was far better than what happened to them in Boston, where they were sometimes hanged.

2) John Leland: This fiery Baptist cleric and friend of Thomas Jefferson's holds a unique distinction in American history: He helped smash state-established churches in three states. A native of Massachusetts, Leland relocated to Virginia where he worked alongside Jefferson and James Madison to end the state church there, mustering powerful arguments and lining up clerical allies. Years later, he returned to Massachusetts and worked for disestablishment in that state, seeing it become a reality in 1833. While living in Massachusetts, he undertook cross-border forays into Connecticut to assist forces there working to end the state church. They were successful in 1818.

Leland was a powerful orator who used his pulpit to promote religious liberty for all – and he meant everyone. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Leland insisted that even non-believers should have full rights. In a classic 1791 sermon titled The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, he asserted, “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 his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing….”

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