Religious Liberty: An American Experiment

Two Views of Religious Liberty: Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island

Clock One fifty-minute class period

In this lesson, students will gain an understanding of the roles John Winthrop and Roger Williams played in American history. They will also compare and contrast competing models of religious liberty in the Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island colonies and assess the significance of each model to the American experiment in religious liberty.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


Many Europeans came to America for religious liberty. For Puritans like those who settled Massachusetts Bay, religious liberty meant the freedom to establish religious communities. Once settlers had formed societies that reflected their understandings of biblical law and precepts, they were reluctant to welcome those who did not share those understandings and who might compromise the particular religious character of their communities. By contrast, Rhode Island was founded on the express principle of religious freedom for all. Rhode Island welcomed people of every (or no) faith, including Quakers and Jews, who were not permitted religious freedom anywhere else in the North American colonies.


All the people of god within this Jurisdiction who are not in a church way, and be orthodox in Judgment, and not scandalous in life, shall have full liberty to gather themselves into a Church Estate. Provided they do it in a Christian way, with due observation of the rules of Christ revealed in his word. - The Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony in New England (1641)

[T]hey have freely declared, that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments… - Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1663)


  • Understand the place of John Winthrop and Roger Williams in American history.
  • Compare and contrast competing models of religious liberty in Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island.
  • Assess the significance of each model to the American experiment in religious liberty.


  • Essay: Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island—Two Models of Religious Liberty
  • Handout A: Club Identity Tickets
  • Handout B: Club Plans
  • Handout C: Reformers’ Plans
  • Handout D: Winthrop and Williams—Two Views of Religious Liberty
  • Handout E: Venn Diagram

Background 15 min

Have students read Essay: Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island—Two Models of Religious Liberty and answer the questions.

Warm-up 20 min

  1. As students enter, hand them a “ticket” from Handout A: Club Identity Tickets, including football club, literature club, music club, etc. Customize the groupings on the basis of existing student interests as much as possible. Limit the number in the Reformers group to four students.
  2. Seat students in groups based on their identities, and give each group except the Reformers a copy of Handout B: Club Plans. Give each student of the Reformers group a copy of Handout C: Reformers’ Plans and assign them each one role (football, literature, music, computer).
  3. Have students fill out their forms together, and have a spokesperson from each group except Reformers introduce themselves to the class.
  4. Next have the Reformers approach their respective groups and ask to join the club. Allow a few moments for discussion among the individual groups.
  5. Invite one group and the corresponding Reformer to perform a brief role play in which the Reformer seeks to be admitted to the group.
  6. Next, assume the role of a student and approach one of the groups as a potential member who does NOT share the club’s interest. For example, you wish to join the football club, but you don’t play the game. Or you wish to join the computer club, but you don’t know anything about using one. Engage in a few moments of dialogue.
  7. Finally, debrief the class with a large-group discussion to answer the questions:
    • How many Reformers were accepted into the clubs?
    • On what basis were they admitted/rejected?
    • How many clubs would have admitted the teacher (playing a student) as a member who did NOT share the club’s interest?
    • Should voluntary groups be forced to admit members who have the express goal of banning its basis for existing? Why or why not?
    • What about potential members who do not share the goals of the club, but who are not expressly trying to destroy its basis for existing? Explain.

Activities 20 min

  1. Distribute and, using available technology, project Handout D: Winthrop and Williams—Two Views of Religious Liberty.
  2. Beginning with the section on John Winthrop, read each selection aloud, going over the discussion questions as a large group as students complete their Handouts individually or in pairs. Continue with the Roger Williams section.
  3. Give each student a copy of Handout E: Venn Diagram and with the group begin to fill in the Venn Diagram. Reserve the rest for homework.

Wrap-up 10 min

  1. Ask students which model of church-state relations (Massachusetts Bay or Rhode Island) their groups from the Warm-Up tended to adopt.
  2. As a large group, discuss the questions:
    • The Puritans are sometimes criticized for a hypocritical approach to religious liberty—that they wanted religious freedom but they denied it to others. Is this a fair criticism? Why or why not?
    • Does it surprise you that Massachusetts was the last of all the states to disestablish its state church? Why or why not?
    • What was the express purpose of the colony of Rhode Island?
    • Why do you think the colonies, and, eventually, the states, followed the model of Rhode Island and not Massachusetts Bay?


Have students complete Handout E: Venn Diagram.


Have students research the 2009 Supreme Court case of Christian Legal Society Chapter v. Martinez. Have them assume the persona of either John Winthrop or Roger Williams, and write a brief editorial on the ruling.

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