Parable of the Ship by Roger Williams, 1655

Roger Williams’ 1655 Parable of the Ship is used as an illustration of separation of church and state, liberty, and the common good.

The Garden of Religious Liberty

To set the stage, let’s start in 1655 when the Providence colony surprised the other colonies by welcoming Jewish settlers. Most know that the Puritans fled England for religious freedom. What most don’t know is that they wanted the freedom to practice their version of religion their way. They persecuted anyone who refused to practice their way. Puritans in the new world punished citizens for such things as refusing to take an oath, or refusing to attend church, for not praying with their family. If you’re a woman, it was worse. Your husband literally owned you and could beat you; you could not speak in church, etc. Many were persecuted with such penalties as jail, banishment into the wild, flagellations, ears cut off, tongues bored, and death. With this context it’s no surprise to learn that the colonies took great offense when Roger Williams welcomed Jewish settlers into his neighboring Providence colony.

Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636. Later, in 1655 he visited the new Jewish settlers in Newport. The response from the other colonies was the charge that he advocated infinite liberty of conscience, which he did. Roger Williams’ response is legendary. He wrote a famous letter which contained a parable that has stood the test of time. His famous parable is a short story in which papists, protestants, Jews, and Turks all live and work together for the common good.

Here is the relevant passage–edited for clarity:

“…There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, …and is a true picture…[of a] society. …papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; …All …I pleaded for… [were these] two hinges –

[FIRST] that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

[SECOND] …the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course, …and also command that justice, peace, sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help…towards the common …defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws …if any shall mutiny …if any should preach…that there ought to be no commanders or officers…the commander …may judge…and punish such transgressors…” –Roger Williams, 1655.

This parable has become known as “The Garden of Religious Liberty,” and it is a powerful illustration of Williams’ vision of a society in which people of all faiths can coexist peacefully and respect each other’s beliefs. Williams argued that religious liberty was not just a matter of individual rights, but also a crucial component of a stable society. He believed that the state had no right to dictate religious beliefs nor practices, and that individuals should be free to follow their conscience and worship as they saw fit, or not at all. This was a radical idea at the time, but it has become a cornerstone of American democracy.

Williams’ vision of religious freedom was not just theoretical; he put it into practice in Rhode Island. The colony became a haven for religious dissenters of all kinds, including Quakers, Baptists, and Catholics. It was the first colony to guarantee freedom of conscience in its charter, and it became known as a place where people could practice their faith without fear of persecution. Williams’ legacy has been felt throughout American history, from the First Amendment to the Constitution to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. His vision of a society based on tolerance, respect, and freedom of conscience remains a powerful and inspiring ideal for people all over the world.

The story in the letter has become known as the Parable of the Ship and is used as an illustration of separation of church and state, liberty, and the common good.

The American Tradition of Separation of Church and State


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