Peter K. Chung
Revelation 12 provides a prophetic commentary on the Papal persecution of God’s people during the Middle Ages and God’s plan to deliver His people. In Revelation 12:14, the apostle John describes how the “woman” went to the “wilderness” to seek refuge from the persecution from the “serpent” for a “time, times, and half a time.” In Daniel 7:25, the prophet Daniel gives his description of the same historical time period, where the fourth beast with ten horns “wears out the saints of the most high,” with the identical time period stated in Revelation 12:14, of a “time, times, and dividing of time.” Thus, we can conclude that the “woman” that John in Revelation describes as being persecuted, and the “saints of the most high” written in the book of Daniel are one and the same.
In Revelation 12:15, John describes how “the serpent” seeks to sweep away God’s people with “water as a flood.” In prophetic symbolism, John describes “waters” representing “peoples, multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” During the Middle Ages, the Papacy influenced, many nations of Europe. In fact, HISTORY.COM states, “After the fall of Rome, no single state or government united the people who lived on the European continent. Instead, the Catholic Church became the most powerful institution of the medieval period. Kings, queens and other leaders derived much of their power from their alliances with and protection of the Church.” Thus, with the Papal church’s influence over the various nations of Europe, those who sought to remain faithful to God’s word were severely persecuted.
But when it appeared that God’s people would be wiped out by the immense church/state powers of Europe, “the earth helped the woman” by swallowing up the flood of nations seeking to destroy the faithful. In comparing and contrasting the term “waters,” which represents a diversity of nations, with the “earth,” in the book of Revelation; we can conclude that the earth, being the opposite of waters represents a region that lacked the diverse nation-states in Europe. But when did the “earth” help the “woman?” In view of this, we may infer that “the earth” that helps the woman must be a refuge from persecution from the papal church/state system. And with this, the arrival of Roger Williams to North America, and his introduction of the idea of the separation of church and state could be the fulfillment of the “earth” helping “Woman,” or God’s people from being destroyed, by the various church/state empires of Europe.
In December 1620, the Pilgrims arrived on the North American continent, specifically on the shores of what is now the state of Massachusetts. This band of believers made the treacherous voyage to the Western Hemisphere to escape persecution from the Church of England. Although the Church of England, broke away from the Papacy, it still retained the persecuting church/state system with the monarch of England as the head of the church. The Pilgrims were separatists who wanted a complete separation from the Church of England because it retained ceremonies of the Papal church.
Heavily persecuted by the King of England, they first escaped to Holland and then decided to embark on North America to start afresh in establishing their own, English-speaking colony. Yet the Pilgrims, in establishing their colonial government retained the church-controlled system that they were escaping from, to govern their fledgling colony.
Following the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Puritans followed, establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony in a region they called New England. The Puritans differed from the Pilgrims in that they sought to remain in the Church of England and to reform and purify the church from Catholic influence. But like the Pilgrims, the Puritans also continued to retain the church/state system of the Papacy, which led to those who differed from the New England church being severely persecuted and for some unfortunate individuals, executed. Of this Ellen White, writes, “A kind of state church was formed, all the people being required to contribute to the support of the clergy, and the magistrates being authorized to suppress heresy. Thus, the secular power was in the hands of the church. It was not long before these measures led to the inevitable result –persecution.” Thus, the relatively unpopulated North American continent did not appear to be a safe refuge for that escaping persecution. But all was not lost, with the arrival of a man, that would help fulfill the prophetic destiny of the North American continent as a refuge from religious persecution, his name, was Roger Williams.
Persecution by the Church of England
Roger Williams was a brilliant and well-educated minister who graduated from Cambridge University. As a child, Williams witnessed many executions of individuals whose only crime was that their conscience did not conform to the Church of England. Williams developed a deep sympathy for those punished for not conforming to the religion of the state. At the age of 18, Williams, recognized for his intellectual abilities secured a scholarship to be a court reporter transcribing court proceedings from the court of the star chamber in England. It was here, that Williams developed a hatred of intolerance as he transcribed cases in which individuals were punished for refusing to conform to the dogmas of the Church of England.
These embers of disdain for the evils resulting from a church/state system were further ignited when Williams witnessed his mentor, Sir Edward Coke, who sponsored William’s Cambridge education, imprisoned by King James for his liberal positions. The fire of disdain continued to grow hotter when James’s successor, Charles I, aggressively imprisoned, tortured and executed Puritan dissenters. This compelled Williams to join the Separatist-Baptists, whose very name captured the belief that an individual chooses to join a church by their conscience through baptism rather than being mandated by the sprinkling of water as an infant.
Williams’s position on the separation of church and state was solidified by hearing accounts of the Thirty-Years War, which raged throughout Germany and Bohemia; where princes loyal to the Papacy and princes loyal to Luther and the Reformation waged a devastating war, as nations holing to a church and state government continued its destructive work in Europe. Realizing that he himself would be a target for persecution, Williams accepted an invitation from the Puritan Church of Boston to be a minister, along with his wife Mary. The Williams’ arrived on the shores of New England on 5 February 1631, and with their first steps on New England soil, became the catalyst to fulfill North America’s prophetic destiny as a haven for those escaping religious persecution.
In describing Roger Williams’s arrival upon the North American continent, Ellen White states, “Eleven years after the planting of the first colony, Roger Williams came to the New World. Like the early Pilgrims, he came to enjoy religious freedom; but, unlike them, he saw–what so few in his time had yet seen–that this freedom was the inalienable right of all, whatever might be their creed…. Williams ‘was the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions before the law.’” Thus, when Williams stepped foot upon the soil of North America, he would begin the fulfillment of the prophecy of the “earth” that helped the “woman.”
As Williams and his wife began their new life in New England, his staunch position on the separation of church and state collided with New England’s established church/state system. In one of his sermons, Williams exclaimed, “According to Divine Law, officers of the crown cannot rightfully interfere with the right of a person to worship as he pleases!” He adds, “I affirm that there was never civil state in the world that ever did or ever shall make good work of it, with a civil sword in spiritual matters.” Williams thus asserted that magistrates lacked any authority to punish swearing, Sabbath-breaking, and other Christian conduct violations involving the first four of the Ten Commandments.
Williams’s uncompromising stance on the separation of church and state came to a head on 9 October 1635, when the General Court of Salem would give Williams six weeks to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he “divulged diverse new and dangerous opinions.” Williams ultimately left Massachusetts on January 1636, and wandered fourteen weeks in the heart of winter, finding refuge with the Narragansett tribe, located 40 miles southwest of Boston.
Williams’s belief in religious liberty for all was manifested in his treatment of Native Americans. The prevailing thinking for European Colonizers, be it Catholic or Protestant, was that Christians were far more deserving of the land occupied by Indigenous peoples because they were heathen and primitive. But instead of forcefully taking land, Williams bought land from the Narragansett Tribe. He established a small settlement called Providence that would become the Rhode Island colony, a haven for religious liberty.
Williams saw Native Americans as equal to himself. Of this, he wrote, “Nature knows no difference, between Europeans and Americans [i.e., Indians] in blood, birth, bodies, etc., God having of one blood made mankind.” Emphasizing his belief in racial equality with Native Americans, Williams exclaimed: “Boast not proud English, of thy birth and blood, thy brother Indian is by birth as Good. Of one blood God made him, and thee, and all, as wise as fair as strong as personal [i.e., a person with all the rights and dignity of a full human being].” Williams also resented the forced conversion of Native Americans, which the Puritans practiced with the establishment of praying towns that coerced Native Americans to accept Christianity and English culture. Williams observed that forced conversion breeds hypocrisy. In describing the dangers of forced conversion, Williams wrote, “Woe to me if I call light darkness of darkness light…. Woe to me if I call that conversion unto God, which is indeed subversion of the souls of millions in Christendom, from one false worship to another.” Thus, he never sought to convert Native Americans but sought to befriend them and win their confidence.
Williams’s exile and the subsequent establishment of the Providence Plantations, which would become the Rhode Island colony, allowed the persecuted to find refuge. Williams declared that the colony’s civil government lacked any authority over religion and everyone had the freedom to worship or not worship as they pleased. In his book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, Williams boldly declared, “Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most paganism, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries, and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, are able to conquer, to wit, the word of God’s spirit, the word of God.” With this thesis, Williams gave an extraordinary declaration that Atheists, Pagans, Muslims, and Jews, have the right to practice whatever their religious persuasion is, and the means for them to become Christian, was a conviction of a voluntary acceptance of God’s word described, as the “sword of the spirit.”
The fledgling colony attracted marginalized and persecuted religious groups throughout the English colonies of North America. The Quakers, whom Williams disagreed with theologically, found a safe haven from persecuting Puritans and Congregationalists. Jews also found a safe haven from the persecution they endured in New Amsterdam from the Dutch. Williams would organize the first Baptist church in America, whose theology was predicated upon the free will of believers to choose the rite of baptism by immersion as a declaration of membership to the church, rather than the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran adherence to infant baptism. When Williams was asked if his colony’s civil government would pass Sunday laws like the Puritans, Williams emphatically answered, “No!” Thus, a lack of a Sunday Law led many Seventh-day Baptists to find refuge in Rhode Island, and by 1671, enough members were in the colony to organize a conference. Ultimately, a Seventh-day Baptist was elected governor of Rhode Island.
Theology Based on Liberty of Conscience
The theology of Roger Williams was firmly entrenched in the liberty of conscience. He cited the parable of the “wheat and tares” in Matthew 13, to point out that punishment for sin can only be executed by God in the final judgment, and not any civil government, which cannot discern the inner motives of humanity. Williams observed: “Besides, God’s people, the good wheat, are generally plucked up and persecuted, as well as the vilest idolaters, whether Jews or anti-Christians; which the Lord Jesus seems in this parable to foretell.” Thus, the civil government possessed no authority to punish any matters of religious faith and practice.
Williams describes the authority of the civil government as the “civil sword.” He outlined the authority of the “civil sword, called the sword of civil justice, which being of material nature, for the defense of persons, estates, families, liberties of a city of a civil state, and the suppressing of uncivil or injurious persons or actions, by such civil punishment.” Of the limits of the Civil Sword, Williams states, “I say, cannot extend to spiritual and soul-causes, spiritual and soul-punishment, which belongs to the spiritual sword with two edges, the soul-piercing (in soul-saving, or soul-killing), the word of God.” Williams also observed, “But neither among these, nor in any other passage of the New Testament, do we find a prison appointed by Christ Jesus for the heretic, blasphemer, Idolater, etc., being not otherwise guilty against the civil state.” Williams also points out that the weapon wielded by the church is the “sword of the spirit.” In describing this “sword,” Williams states, “God’s servants are all overcomers when they war with God’s weapons, in God’s cause and worship: and in … Revelation 12, God’s servants overcame the dragon, or devil, in the Roman Emperors by three weapons–the blood of the lamb, the word of their testimony, and the not loving of their lives unto the death.” Thus, the civil government realm was to maintain public order and not use its civil authority to force individuals to a particular religion, while the realm of the church was to uplift the word of God that invite sinners to be transformed into saints.
Williams identified the dangers of a church-state system through a prophetic lens from the books of Daniel and Revelation. He identified the Papacy as the antichrist, and that “Papists, were inventors of persecution….” In almost Adventist-like commentary, Williams states that “the papists in their wars have ever yet had both in peace and war, victory and dominion; and therefore, if success be the measure, God has borne witness unto them. It is the truest, what Daniel in his eighth, eleventh, and twelfth chapters, and John in his Revelation, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth chapters, write of the great success of Antichrist against Christ Jesus for a time appointed.” Going back to the pages of the history of the Roman Empire, to when Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome; Williams observed, “The unknowing zeal of Constantine and other emperors did more hurt to Christ Jesus’ crown and kingdom than the raging fury of the most bloody Neros’.” Commenting on the inquisition, Williams exclaimed, “It is true, Antichrist, by the help of civil powers, has his prisons to keep Christ Jesus and his members fast: such prisons may well be called the bishop’s prisons, the pope’s, the devil’s prisons. These inquisition houses have ever been more terrible than the magistrates.” Thus, Williams saw, what Ellen White later affirmed, that a merged church-state system was the existential threat to true Christianity.
Williams also raised serious concerns about Christians seeking to petition the civil government to legislate their agenda. Williams states, “Where did the Lord Jesus or his messengers charge the civil magistrate, or direct Christians to petition him, to publish, declare, or establish by his arm of flesh and earthly weapons, the religion and worship of Christ Jesus? I find the beast and false prophet, whose rise and doctrine is not from heaven, but from the sea and earth, dreadful and terrible, by a civil sword and dignity. (Rev 13:2) I find the beast has gotten the power and might of the kings of the earth (Rev. 17:13).” He adds: “Oh! What is this but to make use of the civil powers and governors of the world; as a guard about the spiritual bed of soul-whoredoms, in which the kings of the earth commit spiritual fornication with the great whore (Rev. 17:2), as a guard, while the inhabitants of the earth are drinking themselves drunk with the wine of her fornication?” Thus, Williams, through a prophetic lens, saw the illicit union between a corrupt church and civil governments, as an affront to the principles of the kingdom of Heaven.
A Refuge from Persecution
Williams’ framework for religious liberty in Rhode Island was the blueprint for religious liberty in the United States and help fulfill its prophetic destiny as a refuge from persecution. The Constitution’s First Amendment channels William’s view of the separation of church and state, where the government will not establish a national religion to force its citizens to support and worship, nor would it restrict the expression of one’s religious preference. Of this, Ellen White writes: “The oppressed and downtrodden throughout Christendom have turned to this land with interest and hope. Millions have sought its shores, and the United States has risen to a place among the most powerful nations of the earth.” In this, Williams became the catalyst for the “earth” that helped “the woman,” where people came to North America, to have the liberty of conscience to learn Bible truth for themselves, which ultimately led to the rise of Advent Movement.
Today, the United States prophetic legacy of “the earth” that “helped the woman,” that Roger Williams established is increasingly under threat from prominent politicians and faith leaders from Protestant evangelical churches. Influential voices are decrying that the separation of church and state is fiction and that the United States should be a Christian nation to legislate Christian morality in response to the growing tide of immorality prevalent in American society. Of this, Ellen White fiercely warned: “When Protestant churches shall seek the support of the secular power, thus following the example of that apostate church, for opposing which their ancestors endured the fiercest persecution, then will there be a national apostasy which will end only in national ruin.” She also adds, “When the leading churches of the United States, uniting upon such points of doctrine as are held by them in common, shall influence the state to enforce their decrees and to sustain their institutions, then Protestant America will have formed an image of the Roman hierarchy, and the infliction of civil penalties upon dissenters will inevitably result.” Seventh-day Adventist religious liberty champion, A.T. Jones, while confronting a similar movement in 1888, declared, “Any law or any proposition that looks to the enforcement of Christian morality, or anything else that is Christian, is contrary to every principle of the doctrine of Christ. And to advocate any such proposition is logically to advocate the Inquisition.” Thus, the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued the legacy of Roger Williams, by being guardians of religious liberty and extending the time for the United States as the “earth” that helps the “woman” flee from persecution, before it transforms into the “lamb-like beast that speaks as a dragon.” A calling the church must continue to embrace in this time in earth’s history.
Peter K. Chung is a historian, Seventh-day Adventist Christian high school history teacher, and an associate speaker for Revelation of Hope Ministries. He also directs a podcast on civil and religious liberty and end-time events, Healing the Nations, and DocuDevotionals, a Youtube series that explores gospel lessons of hope, redemption, and victory through history, current events, and popular culture.