In 1640, thirty-nine male residents of Providence in what is now Rhode Island voted to ratify a system of government that allowed residents complete freedom of conscience in religious matters. The exact phrase they agreed to was “Wee agree, as formerly hath bin the liberties of the town, so still, to hould forth liberty of Conscience.”
This was the settlement of Roger Williams, the Baptist minister who had been expelled from Salem, MA and who championed religious freedom next door to John Winthrop’s Massachusett’s Bay colony. As Williams and other Rhode Island dissenters learned, the wrong beliefs earned you trouble not just with the ministers and the church but also with civil authorities.
Williams founded Providence in 1636 and deeded shares of the land to twelve other men in 1638. One of those men was John Throckmorton. Throckmorton, a direct ancestor of mine, came from England with Williams and was also one of the 39 residents of the city who signed the first charter guaranteeing liberty of conscience.
Doing a little Ancestry.com research, I recently discovered this direct line back to John Throckmorton and I must admit it gave me an irrational measure of pleasure. I have taken pretty clear stands for separation of church and state and vigorously opposed Christian nationalism. My David Barton fact checking work was partly motivated by passion for the belief in church-state separation. The current revival of Christian nationalism motivates me to counter it as I am able. Learning that a great, great, (five more greats) grandfather was involved at the beginning as a co-laborer and friend with Roger Williams is deeply satisfying.
Even after John Throckmorton became a Quaker, he stood up to Williams when Williams criticized the Quaker movement. It appears my ancestor was zealous to defend his independence of mind, even when his old friend came against him. Another plus in my mind.
Baptists Then and Now
The story of Williams and Great(x7)-Grandpa Throckmorton reminds me that once upon a time Baptists were known for their fierce dedication to separation of church and state. Now, they are known for these shenanigans:
Here is John MacArthur declaring that he doesn’t support religious freedom.
“I don’t even support religious freedom. Religious freedom is what sent people to hell. To say I support religious freedom is to say I support idolatry. It’s to say I support lies. I support hell. I support the kingdom of darkness.”
— David French (@DavidAFrench) January 10, 2022
John Leland, the great Baptist who preached in MA and VA, said:
No national church can in its organization be the Gospel Church. National church takes in the whole nation and no more, whereas the Church takes in no nation but those who fear God and work in every nation. The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.
Should one sect be pampered above others? Should not government protect all kinds of people of every species of religion without showing the least partiality? Has not the world had enough proofs of the impolicy and cruelty of favoring a Jew more than a Pagan, Turk, or Christian, or a Christian more than either of them? Why should a man be proscribed or any wife disgraced for being a Jew, a Turk, a Pagan, or a Christian of any denomination when his talents and veracity as a civilian, entitles him to the confidence of the public?
Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.
Many Christian nationalists today want the government to privilege Christianity. They don’t like what some people do in their private lives and want the government to legislate against it. Even though the state has no compelling interest in regulating this private conduct or conscience, Christian nationalists appeal to concepts like biblical law and biblical morality to suggest that the civil law should reflect their idea of what the Bible teaches.