Where did Separation of Church and State Originate?


Leonard Verduin



...This was the situation commonly, the leaders of the Reformed Churches putting forth every effort to get the civil power to suppress all other religious factions and the magistrates refusing to cooperate in this illiberal program. We find, for example, the States General administering a severe rebuke for the city of Aerdenberg, which was walking in the treadmill of the Reformed pastors:[1]

We have learned with surprise that contrary to our resolution announced to your honorable body by our clerk, Jan Bogaerd, you still hinder the members of the fellowship of the Anabaptists . . . in the freedom of assembly and exercise of their religion. Whereas we desire that the aforesaid shall be allowed to enjoy just as much freedom . . . in their mind and conscience and assembly, in Aerdenberg as elsewhere . . . therefore we instruct you to govern yourselves accordingly.

The Prince of Orange had to come to the rescue of these Anabaptists in a similar way in 1578; a second time in 1579. His successor, Maurice of Nassau, had to repeat the orders in 1593.

We see that whatever tendency there was toward religious toleration in the areas where Protestantism was "established," this tendency characterized the secular power rather than the consistories [Protestant Leaders]. This situation has led a modern investigator to declare that "It is certainly wrong to attribute to any of the Reformers an attitude of religious voluntaryism which modern countries take for granted.[2] The Reformers can hardly be quoted in support of religious liberty . . . . They were horrified by the implications of the free Church." [Franklin Hamlin Littell, The Free Church (Boston, 1957), p.18.]

This is a strange situation indeed - the magistrate preparing to give the societal compositism of the New Testament a try and the clergymen resisting it! Yet that is the situation. Hear the Reformed pastor at Middelburg, Johannes Seu, declare as he urges the local ruler to "do his duty" by enforcing religious uniformity:

How can there be a quiet and a peaceful life and how can a country flourish if its citizenry is divided by diverse conceptions of religion? There is nothing so baneful for the community as disunity, diversity, and contention in matters religious. Therefore a magistrate must stand guard diligently that false doctrine and heresy are precluded and eliminated, for these are the well-springs of all disunity among the citizens . . . . It is as clear as the noon-day sun that unity achieved by the sword of the magistrate is the one and only beginning, the middle, and the end, of peace and prosperity in the land. [Quoted in No. 1172 of the Knuttel Collection of Dutch Historical Tracts (Copy in general Library of the University of Michigan).]

There were also some, happily, who continued in the spirit of the days before the coming of neo-Constantinianism. One such was Huibert Duifhuis, a native son of and minister in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. He had declared in a sermon,

"Let the civil rulers permit no one to mislead them so as to employ force in matters of faith and of conscience, nor to persecute any for such matters, seeing that these things belong to God."

For this the prevailingly sacralist Church took action against him. At the meeting of Classis in 1578, they read for his benefit from Beza. Duidinis listened just long enough to identify the work. Then he interrupted with, "If those are your sentiments then my soul may not linger in your council; with such I do not care to be identified." Thereupon he walked out of the meeting unceremoniously. One of the leading ministers, Hendrik Alting, asserted that the forty-sevenyear-old Duifhuis was "a wolf in sheep's clothing, whom men should first resist in private and who, that failing, should be brought to the attention of the magistrates." In due course of time Duifhuis was deposed.

His views are taken for granted among Protestants everywhere today; they are part of the heritage of freedom, so that it has been said:

These views are on the North American continent among those truths which we hold to be self-evident: the voluntary Church, the separation of Church and State, and religious liberty. From the days of Constantine . . . these principles, to us so cardinal, had been in abeyance. [Roland H. Bainton in Recovery, p.317.]

How came these "self-evident truths" to be held on the North American continent? That is a study by itself. No doubt the erosion of sacralism in the New World was - like all erosions the result of a variety of causes; but among these the pioneering by the Stepchildren [Anabaptists] deserves a prominent place. No one has seen this more clearly than that great student of social history, Ernst Troeltsch, who wrote of the New World:

"Here those Stepchildren of the Reformation [Anabaptists] have at long last had their history-making moment . . . . Here the end of the medieval idea of culture was effected and in the place of the coercive culture of the State-Church came the beginning of modern culture separate from the Church." [Ernst Troeltsch, "Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus fur die Entstehung der Moderne Welt," in Historisch Zeitschrift, 1924, 63.]

As another German scholar has put it in this century:

"To a modification of the Protestant conception of the State the Anabaptists drove the Protestant State-Church proponents; and in so doing they have rendered the Reformation a stupendous service, a service for which they have not as yet been given the praise which in the forum of history is rightly theirs." [Friedrich Lezius, Der Toleranzbegriff Locjes und Pufendorfs (Leipzig, 1900).]

Certain it is that the arguments employed by the men of the Second Front [Anabaptists] had much to do with the development on these shores of the "self-evident" truths of the voluntary Church, separation of Church and State, religious liberty. When one reads, for example, William Penn's "The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience once more briefly debated" (1687) it is as if one hears voices from the past, the voices that emanated from the Second Front.

History seems to have established beyond reasonable doubt that, as a recent Calvinist authority has pointed out: "Every religious cultus that gets tied up with coercion must of necessity become corrupt." The Reformers' collaboration with the secular power, the consequent resurgence of "Christian sacralism," was a thing fraught with much evil. And certain it is that we today will be increasingly embarrassed by it. Equally certain is it that in our embarrassment we will find ourselves judging very differently concerning the "Stepchildren of the Reformation" [Anabaptists] than did our forebears. As we speak of Anabaptists we find ourselves unable to digest what our Reformed fathers wrote about them. We find ourselves adjusting our evaluation of them as did one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Olivianus, who had also been taught that the Anabaptists should be exterminated, but who, when he had listened to them, changed his mind quite radically concerning them. [3]

The American Protestant is certain that the magistrate is out of bounds when he with his coercing sword invades the area of religion - just as certain as were the Reformers that he belongs there. We are certain that such physical coercion is principally wrong. Even more passionately confirmed in this belief were the Stepchildren, who because of this conviction went by the spiteful name of Stabler. [In this program the "heretics," {Anabaptists} in some instances at least, adopted a distinguishing badge. In protest against the sword-wielding ones they themselves carried a harmless staff such as shepherds use. For this they were, in Reformation times, sometimes referred to as Stabler, staff-carriers. At the root of the German word Stabler lies the word Stab, meaning staff; with the suffix el it becomes little staff. Stabler, then, are people who carry a little staff. The Reformers And Their Stepchildren. Leonard Verduin. Page 64.]

We have discovered anew that voluntaryism is of the essence of the Gospel. This discovery has brought us close to the position held by the Stepchildren in their day. We live in a world where by legal enactment the only structurization of Christ's Church that is permissible is the structurization for which the Stepchildren agonized. And as we become acquainted with the Stepchildren as they really were we find ourselves saying what Castellio reportedly said to Beza:

With regard to the Anabaptists I should like to know how you know that they condemn legitimate marriages and the magistracy and condone murder. Certainly this is not to be found in their books and even less in their words. You have heard these things from their enemies, Beza: but if enemies are to be believed then know . . . that it is being said of your Farel that he has as many devils in his beard as hairs, and that whenever he eats he feeds the crumbs to these devils. Beza, I do not believe what you say about these Anabaptists.

America calls itself the "land of the free" and has shown itself to be willing to give all it has to preserve its "freedoms." One of these is the freedom to believe and to disbelieve. This is the fruitage of the vision for which the Stepchildren agonized; it is, as even foreign observers have noted, "not the progeny of the Enlightenment but rather the ripe fruit of the Freechurchism of the Left-wing reformers." If this seems far-fetched let it he recalled that the first voice to be raised against another variety of coercionism, human slavery, was a voice from the sector of the Stepchildren. As early as 1688 the son of a German-speaking Restitutionist, an immigrant who had come to these shores to find freedom of conscience, wrote back to his people in Europe: "Here there is freedom of conscience, as is right and proper; what there should be moreover is freedom from slavery." This was but an inference drawn from the voluntaryism for which the Stepchildren pioneered. Nor is it in any sense a mere coincidence that the State that took such a leading part in the abolition of slavery was that State that had been influenced greatly by the ideas of the Stepchildren-Rhode Island. [4] When it is recalled that bond-service was officially approved (in the ease of Saracens and other non-members of "Christendom," of course) in the heyday of "Christian sacralism," we begin to see a pattern, namely that the voluntaryism of the New Testament begets human freedom, even as the coercionism of "Christian sacralism" spawns servitude. The people who were spitefully called Stabler had a point to make. And they made it, even though it took a long time.


[1] In these years the Reformed Church leaders addressed an admonition to King Stephen of Poland, urging him to suppress the Catholic religion, an admonition to which that liberal monarch replied with a firm refusal, saying that one of the things he refused to reign over was men's consciences. His reply, a classic of liberal thought, has been printed and discussed by H. Q. Janssen in Bijdragen tot oudheidkunde en geschiedenis, inzonderheid van Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen, Deel III.

[2] There is sound truth in the words of William Warren Sweet as he asserts: "There is a widespread notion among Protestant groups that the separation of Church and State, and thus religious liberty, was one of the immediate products of the Reformation, that the early Protestants were advocates of a large tolerance, and that religious liberty was but the logical development of the principles held by all the reformers. Just where this notion arose is difficult to say, and no reputable historian of our times would endorse it, The fact is that the rise of Protestantism was accompanied by an unprecedented outburst of intolerance . . .

(Religion in Colonial America, p. 320). One can and should tone down the idea of an "unprecedented" intolerance, for there had been outbursts of intolerance far more ruthless; but one can hardly quarrel with the assertion that the Reformers were not protagonists of religious liberty. For that we must go to the camp of the Second Front [Anabaptists].

[3] In the year 1598 the Oberrat of the city of Heidelberg testified that he "Weisz sich sonst wohl zu erinnern das D. Olivianus der meinung gewesen, inen die kopf herunder schlagen zu lassen; ist aber uf dem creuzenachischen hofgericht einer andern und miltern meinung worden." [Quellen IV, p. 217.] He was referring specifically to the Stepchildren.

[4] It is refreshing to see a European scholar Emil Brunner recognize that the end of Constantinianism with its Zwanggleichschaltung was not in the New World simply occasioned bv the Aufklarung but that back of this development was "zum Teil auch die christliche Kirche selbst." (See Brunner's pamphlet on Die Christusbotschaft und der Staat p. 45f.) Brunner says in this connection that "der erste Toleranzstaat ist bekanntlich eine christliche Grundung, der kleine Neu-England-Staat Rhode Island." It is significant that it was precisely this "kleine Neu-England-Staat Rhode Island" that had been most deeply influenced by the heritage of the Stepchildren.


The Reformers And Their Stepchildren. Leonard Verduin. The Christian Hymnary Publishers, P.O. Box 7159, Pinecraft, Sarasota, Florida 34278. Copyright 1964 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Reprinted 1991 by The Christian Hymnary Publishers with permission of the copyright owner. Pages 89-94.