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Updated on April 21, 2017 by Sarah Hartland Sarah Hartland

Courageous People Who Stood for Religious Freedom

We enjoy the freedoms and rights we do today because of heroic efforts by people of conviction in our history. As battles over religious liberty loom large, we are told that “separation of church and state” is the value that should reign supreme. But what about the courageous people who stood for religious freedom when the idea was still new? What were they fighting for? And how can we protect it now? These three Americans fought with courage and conviction for religious freedom. Here are their stories:

Roger Williams

A statue of Roger Williams overlooking Providence, R.I.A statue of Roger Williams overlooking Providence, R.I. 

You might not expect the founder of the tiny state of Rhode Island to be perhaps the pioneer of American religious freedom, but Roger Williams’ ideas about the freedom to worship are foundational to our understanding of that right today. Williams was a man of conviction, and that was exactly why he seemed to find enemies wherever he went.

He was a Christian, but in the 1600s that wasn’t a clear enough label. Williams sought freedom from the Church of England along with a group of Puritans who settled in the colony of Massachusetts in 1631. But William’s ideas were a little too free for the Puritan church leader’s liking, so he was exiled from the colony in 1635.

The concept of “separation of church and state” that we hear so much about is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but was first articulated by Roger Williams. Williams wrote in “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution” that true faith could only be arrived at when a person had freedom of conscience, something he was denied in Massachusetts.

After his exile, Williams was then welcomed into the Wampanoags winter camp, and stayed there until spring. He purchased land from the Native Americans he had befriended, land that became Rhode Island. Sources tell us, “Williams wanted his settlement to be a haven for those ’distressed of conscience’, and it soon attracted a collection of dissenters and otherwise-minded individuals.

In August 1637, a new town agreement again restricted the government to ‘civil things’. Thus, Williams founded the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separate, that provided religious liberty and separation of church and state.”

Anne Hutchinson

Statue of Anne Hutchinson outside Boston State House Statue of Anne Hutchinson outside Boston State House

Anne Hutchinson was one of the Puritans who followed John Cotton (an early colonial leader) to the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson and her family soon discovered that the Puritan community was just as restrictive as the Church of England. Puritans believed that it was necessary to follow a set of very strict rules to get into Heaven, and they ran their communities by those rules to establish holiness.

In contrast, Hutchinson believed only faith was necessary to get into Heaven, and that being a Christian enabled her to enjoy a personal relationship with Christ that was not dependent on the Church. This belief was unacceptable in a strict Puritan community like the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Puritans also believed that women were weak-willed, foolish, and designed solely to bear children and care for families. This attitude was in sharp contrast to Hutchinson’s upbringing, as her father taught her to think for herself.

Hutchinson believed: “Individual conscience was more important than religious law, that slavery was morally wrong and that Native Americans should be respected as much as Christians were,” all beliefs that ran in staunch opposition to the Puritan church leaders. Recognizing this painful discrepancy, Hutchinson started a women’s club, where women could gather and discuss Scripture.

“Individual conscience was more important than religious law, that slavery was morally wrong and that Native Americans should be respected as much as Christians were...” 

In 1638, colony founder John Winthrop and other community leaders realized just how large Hutchinson’s club had grown, and arrested her for heresy. She and her family were exiled and settled in East Chester, N.Y. Her legacy, though, remains in Boston, where a statue of her stands outside the city’s State House.

James Madison

Statue of James Madison in Harrisonburg, VA. Statue of James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va.

James Madison is often recognized as the “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” but he was also a father of religious liberty. Madison felt that religious liberty was indistinguishable from the “dignity of human persons,” and wrote that “religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” In other words, Madison believed that forcing someone to have faith was antithetical to faith itself.

Madison’s firm beliefs in the freedom to worship played out in his influence on the Virginia Constitution, and later the U.S. Constitution. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Virginia Constitution,

...contained a Declaration of Rights with a clause on religious liberty, penned by George Mason. The original clause declared that "all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience...." Madison didn't like it. He objected to Mason's use of the word "toleration" because it implied that the exercise of faith was a gift from government, not an inalienable right. Madison's substitute--"all men are entitled to the full and free exercise" of religion--essentially won the day.

In “Heroes of Religious Liberty Span Centuries,” Richard Garnett writes that Madison, “believed that a specifically ‘American model’ of religious freedom was emerging in our new nation and that it would distinguish us, shape us and strengthen us...it cannot be emphasized enough that the protections provided in our constitutional text and tradition are not accidents, anomalies or anachronisms. In our traditions, religious freedom is cherished – and protected by the secular authorities – as a basic human right and non-negotiable aspect of human dignity.”

Madison’s strong stance on religious liberty is one of the key reasons we can count “freedom of religion” as an American right.

Curious how religious freedom plays out today? Be sure to watch “God’s Not Dead 2,” now streaming on PureFlix.com, for a fabulous story about standing firm for religious liberty. You can watch it for free during your one-month trial.

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