William G.McLoughlin, professor of history, Brown University, has suceeded in producing a most extensive monograph on the struggle for religious liberty in New England and his most ambititious work to date. The author’s painstaking research has been exemplary. The result is a meticulous narrative of two–hundred years of religious dissent, told in thirteen chapters consuming some thirteen–hundred pages of text in two hefty volumes with copious footnotes. At the outset, McLoughlin asserts that he undertook this study to clarify the confusion in regard to the history of separation of church and state in America.
This confusion, he holds, is the result of two basic misunderstandings regarding the formation of the concept of separation during the colonial era: The first misunderstanding is based on the theory that separation as we know it today came primarily, if not entirely, from the rationalistic spirit of the Enlightenment and that it received its essential exposition from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in Virginia. The second misunderstanding derives from the very different assumption that separation sprang principally, if not wholly from the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation (brought to America by the Baptists and the Quakers) and that it received its essential exposition from Roger Williams in Rhode Island in the 1630's. (p. xv) McLoughlin is quite sure that the vision of full religious liberty and complete separation of church and state only gradually emerged, since “the fight for religious liberty was primarily a neighborhood affair—a series of dialogues and face to face confrontations in church, parish, and town meetings which continued over two hundred years” (p.xvii).