Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom from Religion

Father John A. Kiley

Roger Williams established the historic First Baptist Church in America, which still meets at the foot of Providence’s College Hill. But Williams remained leader of that Christian community only for a few months. The Reverend Williams shunned organized religion and preferred instead the life of a “seeker,” the individual soul before God pursuing truth. Mr. Williams had good reason to spurn organized religion. He witnessed the Church of England’s bishops as ecclesiastical nobility, more concerned with power and prestige than with preaching and piety. Moreover, the very idea of a national church, a church allied with state, was unthinkable to Williams. Personal, individual freedom of religion was paramount in his mind. Leaving England behind and moving to Massachusetts did little to ease Williams’ uneasiness with organized religion. The authorities of the Congregational Church in Boston and Salem were just as intemperate of religious diversity and religious individuality as were the Pope of Rome or the Archbishop of Canterbury. The independent minded Williams sought refuge along the banks of the Seekonk River. Providence became his home.
Williams was well-versed in the Scriptures. He knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He clearly recognized the union of Church and state in the Old Testament. The history of Judaism was the history of Israel. Priest, prophet and king were of one accord. But, according to author Edward S. Gaustad, Williams could find no justification for a national church or a state church in the New Testament. Williams rightly noted that at no era of history had church and state been more separated than in Apostolic times, with the martyred infant Church on one side of history and the Roman Empire clearly on the other. The Apostolic Church in the mind of Williams was actually not a church at all. For him, Christianity began as a pastoral community, a voluntary association of like-minded believers, who gathered for prayer, reflection, and encouragement. Certainly, community leaders were chosen to hearten and guide the flock but, for Williams, a minister’s authority came entirely from a community’s favor, not from any ecclesiastical agent or political officer.
Williams’ appreciation of a freelance or Spirit-led Christianity, as opposed to a hierarchal Church, allowed him and his community at Providence to welcome other Baptists and especially free-spirited Quakers who fled oppression in Boston and Plymouth. Ann Hutchinson’s prayer meetings in her own Boston home were denounced by the Bay Colony and she fled, with Roger William’s help, to Portsmouth. John Clark, a Baptist minister also found the Massachusetts church more concerned about external works than interior grace. He fled to Newport. Samuel Gorton, another Massachusetts refugee whose independent notions were too radical even for Williams, retreated to Warwick.
The Sacred Scriptures to be proclaimed at Mass this coming Sunday would indeed be grist for the spiritual mills of Williams, Hutchinson, Clark and Gorton. St. Paul boldly advises the Roman community: “Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Yes, the Christian life would be so easy if believers did not have to worry about specific legislation, about sacramental rituals, about popes, bishops, priests, deacons, and parish councils. Organized religion can be so cumbersome.
Jesus too speaks glowingly of an idyllic community of believers who seem to get along just fine relying largely on the interior inspiration of the Spirit for guidance and direction: “Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The assorted founders of Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick had clearly been scandalized by organized religion. Yet freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Roman Catholics do believe, not in any national church certainly, but rather in the Universal Church, that is, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which, armed with Scripture and Tradition, with both internal discernment and external framework, has preserved the fullness of Revelation to the present day.