The history of America from the beginning was a struggle of opposing ideological perspectives over the role of the state’s power vis-à-vis the consciences of individual citizens. The 17th century Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony basically transported to America the same kind of religious, state intrusion into the lives of individuals they were trying to escape in England by requiring citizens to subscribe to the official state religion. Fortunately, there were courageous individuals there at the time, like Roger Williams (1603-1683), who strongly resisted such requirements. Williams, prior to coming to America, had been educated at Cambridge and worked for Lord Chief Justice Edward Coke. (1552-1634) Coke was the famous English jurist whose work provided much of the foundations of the Anglo-American legal system, and who famously “declared the king to be subject to the law, and the laws of Parliament to be void if in violation of "common right and reason”. No doubt Williams’ prior education and influences from Coke, and from others like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who taught him the way of learning through experiment and observation, helped temper his strong theological commitments in relation to his views about the proper relationship between the authority of the state and religion, and the extent to which the state could have control over the consciences of free individuals, what Williams called “soul liberty”. Williams himself did not have theological quarrels with the Puritans; however, he did not believe religious conviction could be coerced. It was on this moral and political basis, that Williams founded Rhode Island, the first state ever to have a constitution guaranteeing expansive freedom of conscience to individual citizens. Fortunately, the thinking of Williams became the mindset of the key founders, particularly Jefferson (1743-1826) and Madison (1751-1836), of the American constitutional system. (For a full account of Roger Williams’ life and influence, see the wonderful book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry)
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