Capitols & churches: a hedge in U.S. history

capitols and churchesBy Gary Flanagan

Roger me this, Thomas me that. A 95-word sentence in the 1600s; an 83-word sentence at the beginning of the 1800s, both written in response to another letter. Now they are both reduced to a five-word metaphor, “separation of church and state.” These letters are where the separation of church and state originated in America.

Roger Williams founded the State of Rhode Island in the 1600s and was answering John Cotton from Boston when he wrote the 95-word sentence that described his interpretation of the relationship between church and state. One can read Williams’ letter at the following address:

Thomas Jefferson had just been elected third president of the United States when he answered a letter from the Danbury Baptists. His response included an 83-word sentence that described his thoughts on the separation. Some historians suggest that Williams’ words a century-and-a-half earlier influenced Jefferson.

The possible connection between Jefferson and Williams intrigued me as I tried to find the origins of the separation between church and state. A wall or hedge of separation between a church and a state. Wait a minute, there are hedges separating the Rhode Island State House and The First Baptist Church in America in Providence. Both founded by Roger Williams. Could that symbol still be intact almost 400 years after Roger’s words?

Are there other subtle symbols of separation or connection around each state Capitol and its closest church? Have you noticed symbolism around your Capitol or the churches you pass in your travels? I was about to discover many interesting twists to these questions.

Next week we travel to Washington, D.C. and see what I discovered as I started on my 51 capitol journey around America.

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