Separation of Church & State History

historical printed constitution preamble
An early printing of the beginning of the US Constitution

Image: Library of Congress

A history lesson and historical perspective

What does “the separation of church and state” mean? The earliest mention of it comes from Roger Williams, a Puritan minister who founded a new form of government based on this idea. Williams referenced ‘a high wall’ between church and state to keep the ‘wilderness’ of governments out of the affairs of religion. Essentially, he wanted to stop the chaos and immorality of government from invading the purity of a person’s conscience and their freedom to find their own truth or salvation.

Today, we view the US Constitution’s First Amendment as preserving our religious liberty by preventing the government from establishing a religion or not preventing the free exercise thereof. But even more profoundly, the form of government that the Constitution creates was designed to limit the authority of the government to civil issues only. It does this by making the people the sole authority of the government. As a result, it protects everyone’s individual liberty to worship (or to not) however they choose without the government being allowed to intervene.

Divine Right to Rule

Before the founding of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (today known as the State of Rhode Island), governments claimed to derive their authority from a god. In some cases, the supreme leader of a country was considered a god (ancient Rome, or Japan until 1945, for example), a political system called a theocracy. So, if any inhabitant of that country dared to question the authority of a law or magistrate, (government official) they could be accused of defying the law of their god or gods. Historians refer to this system of power as “the divine right to rule.”

In the few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, many European kings chose to adopt Christianity as the official religion of their kingdom. Over the centuries, Christianity became the dominant political structure that bound these kingdoms together. During the reign of Henry VIII, Pope Leo X granted him the title Defender of the Faith. It was an effective tool to solidify England’s bond to Spain and other Catholic nations. In this way, political power was consolidated across Europe.

Much to the dismay of European powers, Henry broke from the Catholic political structure and established the Anglican Church or The Church of England. Henry argued that he didn’t need the Pope’s permission because he ruled “by the grace of God alone.” Starting in the 1530s, Henry ruled England as both the king and the head of his own church. England had a representative body, Parliament, but it could only meet when the King or Queen allowed it to. By the early 1600s, it was well accepted in England that the government carried out the will of the Christian God through the king and his church.

But a group of religious radicals disapproved of the practices of the Anglican Church, believing that they were too ritualistic. They argued that their own, simpler and more spontaneous way of worship reliant on the word of God, or the Bible, was the true way. With their words as well as acts of civil disobedience, sedition, treason, and violence, they insisted on worshipping how they saw fit. In the eyes of the king, they were challenging both the spiritual authority of God and the political and spiritual authority of the King. As a result, many were given the opportunity to establish a new colony in North America.

Puritans in America

In the Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and other colonies, Puritans set up new governments with the same source of power - religious authority. These governments claimed that their right to rule was granted to them by the Christian God, and therefore they had absolute power to punish people for their thoughts, beliefs, words, actions, and even their bad luck. People were humiliated, shunned out of town, fined, beaten, mutilated, tortured, and killed. These acts of punishment weren’t for violating civil laws, but interpretations of divine laws.

In 1636, this punishment happened to Roger Williams.In the winter of 1636, Roger Williams was banished from his home in Salem for preaching “new and dangerous ideas” such as religious freedom and spiritual equality. With his arrest imminent, he fled. His goal was to reach New Amsterdam (New York) where he would be free to practice his religion. Instead, he was offered refuge by the Narragansett in a place called Moshassuck. Roger renamed it Providence and, before long, several English families were living there.To protect their individual freedom to follow what faith was right for them, Williams and his followers chose to create a government that had limited powers. This was a radical new idea. The laws of this government would only address civil matters. This government would derive its authority from the people who lived there. It would have the power to decide issues such as taxes, public works projects, property laws, and military affairs, and would have no authority at all over religious or spiritual matters. And, because they needed a fair way to make decisions without drawing on a religious belief that not everyone believed in, they chose to use democracy.


Most people believe their god is flawless. If a government claims to derive its authority from a flawless God, then any decision made by the head of state must also be flawless. Therefore, the power of that government is unlimited. Roger Williams argued that this mistake in logic was responsible for the death of millions of innocent souls whose only crime was having their own, unique conscience.

But when the power of government is limited to only civil matters, it becomes possible for democratic systems to emerge. In democracies, citizens or their representatives make decisions. Because people are imperfect, this system allows for flawed or less-than-perfect decisions. And bureaucracies and democratic systems can be repaired and made better over time.By limiting the power of government to only civil matters, everyone is free to worship according to their own conscience. The government doesn’t require that its citizens believe that it has the authority of an almighty force or deity to create and enforce laws. The consent of the governed, or the people, is enough.

The Constitution

Thomas Jefferson, in his letter to the Danbury Baptists reiterates 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..

Is it possible that Jefferson was inspired by Roger Williams to use the “wall of separation” metaphor? We may never know. The First Amendment prevents the government from creating or establishing a religion, and thereby prevents the power of the government from expanding beyond civil matters. The First Amendment also protects people’s right to worship however they choose, or to not worship any God at all. Protecting people’s right to decide what is right for themselves regarding religion and spiritual matters without government interference is a key foundation of our democracy. In 1788, our nation’s Constitution was ratified with the opening words,
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This sentence assures all the world that the United States government derives its authority from “the People,” and that in striving for “a more perfect Union,” it is flawed and can and should be changed to reflect the will of the people. These aspects of the Constitution were designed to ensure our liberties into the future.

Last updated: October 31, 2023