The first Baptist in America, Roger Williams, was actually the first to use the phrase “wall of separation”. In his quote below, Williams compared the true church as a sort of garden of Eden, and he referred to this world’s secular realm as the “wilderness”. He stated:
“[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”
Williams was later to be banished from the colonies for his seemingly liberal and heretical views of a division between Church and State. Previous, such a secular approach to government had never existed because the Crown’s Head of State was ordained and was to dutifully and responsibly act as “Defender of the Faith”. Williams realized that a state-run religion would create a spiritually void culture of Christendom (in borrowing a term from Soren Kierkegaard), rather than, encourage true and genuine faith that would save one’s soul. Therefore, a joint State and Church was seen as an enemy of true and genuine faith. He believed to mix religion with politics would result in politics; and that to mix church and state would corrupt the church.
To this day, Baptists and Evangelicals believe that true religion must be voluntary and arise from a free conscience (thus, the Baptist doctrine of “Soul Liberty”).
Baptists had a very important role in the formation of the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state”. Thomas Jefferson made this phrase famous, and in part, it was due to the influence from the Baptists. Jefferson had written two letters. The first of the two letters was addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802, in which he mentioned this concept of a “wall of separation between church and state”. This letter was written in response to alleviate concerns that Baptists may have had about any creation of an official State Church. Baptists were not anti-religion (as some secularists may prefer to portray). Baptist believers loved religion and their Christian faith. What they abhorred was one official state religion, for fear that the State’s politics would interfere with the church’s affairs and cause corruption.
Today, some misinterpret the phrase “wall of separation” to mean that we are to keep all religious involvement outside of the public square for fear it might be perceived as it being sanctioned or approved by the state (example). However, this was not what Jefferson had intended; what he had intended was exactly the reverse. This revolutionary concept of having a “wall of separation” between church and state was made in response to the State’s intrusion upon the church’s right to determine its own affairs. It had over-stepped its bounds, as proven in the Crowns persecution of Baptist and Quaker believers. The one and only intent for this conceptual wall was to keep the government’s hands completely off how churches and what Christians believed and live out their faith.
After stating all of this, I would also opine that the State does have place to maintain religious liberties and freedoms for its people. Today, our courts have done a disservice by deconstructing the precedent of an accommodationist approach historically established by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the framers. The separationist approach will completely distance any concepts of religion from the public square; whereas, the accommodationist approach will not prohibit or inhibit religious ideas and speech from flowing freely in the public square (e.g., public prayer, reading of scripture, etc.). Personally, I prefer the accommodationist approach over the separationist approach. Keeping religion actively flowing freely in the public square creates a healthy religious atmosphere in society, which I feel would still be a good thing for today’s seemingly over-secularized western society.