MONTHLY LECTURE - ALAN JOHNSON: “THE ARCHITECT OF FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE AND CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION: ROGER WILLIAMS’S LIFE, POLITICAL ACTION, WRITINGS, AND INFLUENCE”
This month’s lecture (virtual) is by PFC member Alan E. Johnson, an independent scholar and retired attorney who is the author of The First American Founder: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience.
Roger Williams (ca. 1603-83) revolutionized thinking about the role government should play in religion. Banished from the Massachusetts Bay theocracy for his controversial views, he founded the town of Providence and later co-founded the colony of Rhode Island on the basis of full liberty of conscience and complete separation of government and religion. Williams also insisted, contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy, that Europeans could acquire American land only through voluntary transactions with Native Americans.
This lecture will present the story of the dramatic life, thought, and work of a man who refused to accept the conventional wisdom of his time and who forged a new way of thinking that came to characterize the best in the American tradition. Among other things, it will discuss the influence of Roger Williams on later theorists (including John Locke), the US founding generation (including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison), certain US Supreme Court justices, and other thinkers and writers up to the present day.
As American diplomat (later US Secretary of Commerce and Labor) Oscar S. Straus concluded more than a century ago, Roger Williams "was not the first to discover the principles of religious liberty, but he was the first to proclaim them in all their plenitude, and to found and build up a political community with those principles as the basis of its organization" (Oscar S. Straus, Roger Williams: The Pioneer of Religious Liberty (New York, 1894), 233). Unlike many others, Williams advocated freedom of conscience not only for people of all religious views but also for nonbelievers.