The Root of American Religious Liberty--Roger Williams

Drawing the proper boundaries between the realm of the state and that of the often powerful religious interests within it has historically been a critical challenge for civil rulers.

It is fair to say that bloodshed and strife have been common companions of the tensions often associated with the overlapped sovereignties of church and state. The simplest method of resolving these conflicting spheres of power, and that used most commonly by the foremost empires of the past, is to consolidate all civil and ecclesiastical power in the hands of a single emporer. This was the method of ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Israel1 , Rome, and many aboriginal societies.

With the founding of America and the "new world" a laboratory was created whose alchemists were willing to experiment with a formula that was not in the research notebooks of the church-state past. This boldness of experimentation was gradual in America, as disparate colonies with several established churches were transformed over the course of a century to a single nation with a Constitution forbidding establishment. Separating the powers of church and state has been America's unique addition to history's search for the optimal arrangement of governmental power.2 It is probable that America would have never moved so forcefully to its radical stance of separating church and state had it not been for the life and work of Roger Williams and James Madison.

Borrowing a term used of Wycliffe in relation to the Reformation, Williams would be the "morning star" of America's reformation of protecting civil and religious liberty, the precursor to James Madison and the continental divide of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The lifework of Roger Williams stands as an epochal gateway to the notion that there is virtue in separating the civil and religious spheres, and in bringing to the very forefront of civil discourse the notion of the primacy of religious liberty.3 In this Williams pioneered ground that had gone unworked by the Reformers.4


An effective way to trace some of Williams unique ideas would be to follow his ongoing debate with John Cotton. John Cotton was educated at Cambridge in the tradition of John Calvin. Upon his arrival in Boston he was called upon to help direct and arrange the civil and ecclesiastical affairs of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.5 The overwhelming number of settlers in the Bay Colony were essentially English Calvinists.6 As such they retained in their inheritance the notion that there was one Biblical truth and that civil power must enforce it. Dissent was viewed as false and dangerous. While the ordinary murderer destroyed a person in this life only, the heretic killed a soul forever.

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So while these Calvinists fled the Old World because of persecution, they had no intention of favoring religious freedom in America. Persecuted and persecutor alike agreed that liberty of worship should be forbidden. In holding to this doctrine, they would be defending the truth of God. John Cotton was one of the intellectual stalwarts of this group, "the most prominent minister in Massachusetts."7 The biographical intermingling of these two giants of America's beginnings, Williams and Cotton, includes associations both in England and Massachusetts. They had participated together in discussions about the proposed plantation in the New World while they were yet in England.8 Williams' American pilgrimage was marred with controversies that involved the Crown, the reformed church and the Puritan and even Plymouth leadership.

When the Bay Colony leadership, in 1633, proposed an oath of loyalty to its government from all citizens, Williams' rebutted by asserting that an oath is a religious obligation and should not be required of all men as not all men are religiously regenerate.9 The ministers of the Colony were convinced Williams was wrong; they considered his opinion seditious. The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was an enemy of the Puritans, and the Bay ministers were convinced that his persecutions of Puritan dissenters in England was going to spread to the New World. This was a time for loyalty oaths, and Williams' philosophical ruminations were a luxurious and deviant threat. There likely would have been a quick move to expel him from the Colony at this time had it not been for the interposition of John Cotton.10 Cotton remembered Williams' piety, soundness of doctrine, and eagerness to devote his life to God's truth. He was thus convicted that if the church would confront Williams rationally on this issue, he would see the errors in his ideas and cease his contrary disputations.

Meetings were held among the clergy to discuss the situation but no action was taken. In the meantime Williams was hired as teacher of the Salem school. Both the ministers and the magistrates of the General Court were angered at the Salem congregation's choice of Williams as teacher. Though the congregation showed initial loyalty to Williams, pressure from both the General Court and the ministers intensified. The General Court unseated all the deputies from Salem, and they refused Salem's request for a grant of land that was already within its boundaries, saying that as long as Williams was their teacher their request would be denied. The Boston Church sent a public letter admonishing the Salem congregation for electing and supporting Williams. John Cotton signed the letter with two elders. The Salem congregation weakened in its support of Williams, especially when Williams suggested the only solution to the unreasonable pressure was to break relations with the rest of the churches of the Commonwealth.11

Williams response was to withdraw from the congregation and resign his office as teacher. In his view he was standing for the "truth of God".12 On October 7, 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts gathered to hear the case of Roger Williams. Williams refused to retract any of his opinions. The ministers offered to allow a public disputation, in a month, so that he might see the errors of his ways. Williams chose to debate immediately. At the end of the debate with Thomas Hooker of Newton, Williams did not recant. The ministers and magistrates then ordered him to leave Massachusetts Bay. Williams' fabled flight southward resulted in the founding of Rhode Island, a colony with a charter giving preeminence to religious liberty. The banishment helped firm up and clarify Williams' advocacy of church and state separation and liberty of conscience.

To achieve a firm legal basis for his fledgling colony Williams returned to England. During this period began the written debates between Willams and Cotton. They began as a correspondence, with Williams writing to Cotton soon after his banishment, asking Cotton to comment upon the proper relationship between church and state. Cotton responded to Williams with a lengthy letter that was published without his authorization after Williams had arrived in England.13 Williams disclaimed any part in the publishing, but in any case, a transatlantic debate was initiated which informs church-state thinking to this day.14 Williams' The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for cause of Conscience (1644) and Cotton's The Bloudy Tenent, Washed, and made white in the bloude of the Lambe (1647) and then again Williams' The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody: by Mr. Cotton's endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lambe (1652) are the seminal works of this debate. It is to these and related writings by these two authors that we now turn our attention. Their common heritage is Puritanical commitment to biblical truth, and belief that civil order, like all earthly matters, must have its grounding there.

Also common to both men is the animation and gravity attending their correspondnce because it was more than just theoretical. America was the laboratory that gave both men the raw materials to be involved with the outworking of their theories. Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island were not mythic empires. Both were also conscious of the extent to which their debate ministered to the fractured church situation in their native England. Cotton thought his writing about the New England reconstruction could instruct the divided factions of the mother country, and Williams' writings were used by the Presbyterian faction, against the Independents (which included the Puritans) in the Westminster Assembly, his Bloudy Tenent becoming one of the most noted books of the Puritan Revolution.15

What are the major arguments used by each man in this critical debate? Because the writings are often verbose, rambling and repetitious it would be inefficient to simply provide running commentary on them. Several points that arise in the debates have been chosen as appropriate for either comparison between Williams and Cotton or because of their relevance to similar issues today. These points are

bulletthe theory of the state, the
bulletimplicit nature of man,
bulletthe place and theory of the church,
bulletthe interpretation of the Bible,
bulletthe relationship between the church and the state, and
bulletliberty of conscience.

THE THEORY OF THE STATE. Williams. Williams believed that the state draws its legitimacy from God, even if the rulers are oblivious to him. This is in harmony with the famous axiom opening Romans 13 which proclaims: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be {that is, the state and its government} are ordained of God."16 Williams writes in the Bloudy Tenent that "all magistrates are God's ministers...bounded to a civil work."17 The purpose that God has for the magistracy (the state) is "the preservation of mankind in civil order and peace (the world, otherwise, would be like the sea, wherein men, like fishes, would hunt and devour each other and the greater devour the lesser)."18 After positing that the state derives its power and legitimacy from God, he also adds "...also it is true, that of man."19

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Williams' elaboration here includes the assertion, radical for his time, that a magistrate's Christianity (or lack of it) does not affect or alter his civil duty or his ability:

...Now what kind of magistrate soever the people shall agree to set up, whether he receive Christianity before he be set in office, or whether he receive Christianity after, he receives no more power of magistracy than a magistrate that has received no Christianity. For neither of them both can receive more than the commonweal, the body of people and civil state, as men, communicate unto them and betrust them with. All lawful magistrates in the world...have, and can have not more power, than fundamentally lies in the bodies of fountains themselves, which power, might, or authority, is not religious, Christian, etc., but natural, human and civil. And hence, it is true, that Christian captain, Christian merchant, physician, lawyer, pilot, father, master, and (so, consequently,) magistrate, etc., is no more a captain, merchant, physician, lawyer, pilot, father, master, magistrate, etc., than a captain, merchant, etc., of any other conscience or religion... A pagan or anti-Christian pilot may be as skillful to carry the ship to its desired port as any Christian mariner or pilot in the world, and may perform that work with as much safety and speed...20

Williams' formulation here, singular amidst the Puritanism of his day, presaged the debate to come in the Constitutional and state ratifying conventions over the lack of reference to Deity in the Constitution and the inclusion of the religious test ban of Article VI. This ban on religious tests was "a bold and significant departure from the prevailing practices in Europe, as well as most of the states."21 While there were many voices at these conventions urging the traditional course be followed, of inserting references to Deity, and providing for a religious test, the fact that the unusual formulation involving their absence prevailed shows that somehow a different rationale had gained preeminence. The victory was the result, not of infidelity or Enlightened skepticism toward Deity, but an increased desire to protect religious liberty.22

The Fathers were learning, over a century later, an essential Williamsian tenet: The righteousness level of a state is measured by the righteousness of the individuals within it, not the righteousness of the language of its laws. The commitment to the Christian God was still implicit and not abandoned by this renewed commitment to religious liberty which left off religious tests. Some of the motive force of this new impetus toward real liberty must be accredited to Williams' singular and energetic apostleship of liberty. Williams' writings were influential in England in his day being widely read during the Puritan Revolution. As the ideas in these books became familiar to some of England's leading citizens, it is certain that they worked their way into the fabric of English society, including its educational system. The same could be said of Williams' writings in America.

While he was controversial in his day his positive reputation among later historians--above that of his opponents, including Cotton--is testimony to the power of his thinking. Williams' desire to treat as illegitimate any state attempt toward sovereignty in the realm of religious matters led directly to his view of having no religious test for office and granting full citizenship to all, no matter what their religious persuasion. Thus did he stress as one of the duties of the state the protection of its citizens and the procuring of a climate of liberty and peace to be enjoyed by all. This protection must be in a form that respects and embraces equally the various consciences and religious persuasions within it. Williams contention that a man need not be a Christian to perform responsibly the duties of state flows from his concept that the state cannot have any authority in the realm of religious commitment. The state was designed by God to minister to the material needs of man. Every person within its boundaries, whatever his religious persuasion, was part of the state and worthy of its protection. This was a radical proposition.

THE THEORY OF THE STATE. Cotton. Cotton's view of the state was rooted, as was Williams, in its legitimacy in God. Cotton's view was classic Puritanism. A theocratic view underlies his writings often drawing little distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical spheres. In practice the ministers and magistrates often discussed the same cases, judged by the same legal basis (the Bible) and looked to the same Supreme Authority. One place, however, where Cotton distinguishes distinctly between the spheres of church and state is in the banishment of Williams. Cotton writes:

But as for the true cause why I meddled not in his civil censure23 , it was chiefly because civil censures belong unto another kingdom than that which we [clergymen] are called to administer. Civil censures are not the weapons of our warfare.24

Cotton's says this after having talked of "church ordinances" being a "burden and bondage to his spirit".25 In this same writing he admits of letters written from churches to the Salem church accusing Mr. Williams. Cotton also admits that Williams' headstrong manner in responding to these church accusations was another occasion of his "civil" censure.

"But this carriage of his in renouncing the church upon such an occasion, and with them all the churches in the country, and the spreading of his leaven to sundry that resorted to him, this gave the magistrates the more cause to observe the heady unruliness of his spirit and the incorrigibleness thereof by any church-way, all the churches in their coutnry being then renounced by him. And this was the other occasion which hastened the sentence of his banishment, upon the former grounds..."26

Mr. Cotton had trouble seeing that he was not being consistent here. If the banishment was strictly civil, then it should not have used as evidence the fact that Mr. Williams had an obnoxious "church-way." Cotton obviously wanted to distance himself from the banishing of Mr. Williams, but his influence toward that end was extensive. Furthermore his language implies Williams was unreasonably disruptive in his manner which the record does not affirm. Williams was insistent upon his views and when it was apparent his views were inconsistent with those of the magistrates and that they could not persuade him, by reason, of their views their final source for accusation was that he was "incorrigible." This is an ad hominem formulation, shocking when one considers that its force of argument, to caricature, is like saying that someone is "incorrigible" because they refuse to receive Bill Clinton's view of health care or Ross Perot's view of NAFTA. Should the "incorrigible" then be banished?

INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE. Here is a critical divide. Williams and Cotton both had profound respect for the Bible and used it extensively in furthering their own positions.27 But whereas Cotton draws indiscriminately from the entire text of the Bible to advance his arguments and defend the Bay civil and ecclesiastical polity, Williams insists that the Old Testament must always be understood symbolically of the reality of the mystical relationship of Christ and His church, and that it cannot be used as a basis for ordering civil government in the present. To do such is to misunderstand God's major purpose in the elaborate legal structure in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and throughout the Old Testament generally. This is a major difference and essential in their respective biblical defenses of their theories.

INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE. Williams. In the introduction to his Bloudy Tenent, Williams stresses that Old Testament law cannot be used as an outline for civil government in the present. Jesus said of the Old Testament Scriptures, "They are they which testify of me."28 Jesus also said that Moses was writing of him (Jesus), in a prophetic way.29 Thus the Mosaic and Old Testament sections of Scripture must, in their ultimate meaning, be interpreted by the life of Christ, His spiritual mission and accomplishments. The Mosaic law is meant to be heuristic and symbolic, not descriptive, exhorative, or imperative. The New Testament is in a different category. It is descriptive of the spiritual kingdom into which members of the body of Christ are initiated. The physical nature of the Old Testament laws were meant to be metaphorical shadows of these New Testament realities. Williams writes:

To make the shadows of the Old Testament and the substance and body of the New all one, is but to confound and mingle heaven and earth together, for the state of the [Mosaic] law was ceremonial and figurative, having a worldly tabernacle, with vanishing and beggarly rudiments...30

Williams position here was substantive and pertinent, important into our day.

INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE. Cotton. Cotton uses Old and New Testament Scripture indiscriminately. For instance in his exposition of Revelation 16, the account of the pouring out of the seven vials, he writes:

"In old time, if a man played the false prophet, and suggested such devices as these [i.e., Roman Catholicism], the Lord judged him to death; this was His manner. And so in the New Testament [here in Revelation 16] as in the Old, He condemns all such to death, and He is most righteous in so doing. This is the sum."

"Therefore, by the ancient laws of that unchangeable God that thought it insufferable in those days, He thinks it insufferable now that priests and Jesuits should bring in other altars, other mediations and mediators, as prayers of saints and angels; the Lord looks at it as deeply meritorious of a bloody death, as in former times. He is the same God, and His zeal and jeolousy is deeply provoked against the like kind of viciousness now as it ever was then..."31

Cotton recognizes Williams differentiation but refuses to submit to it. His point is that God required capital punishment in the Old Testament and since Christ never expressly removed it in the New, who is Williams to do so?

For since God laid this charge upon magistrates in the Old Testament to punish seducers and the Lord Jesus never took this charge off in the New Testament, who is this Discusser [Williams] that he should leave this charge still upon magistrates which God laid on and Christ never took off?...For Christ came not to destroy the law of Moses (Matthew 5:17)...32

THE THEORY OF THE CHURCH. Cotton. Cotton's notion of the church was plainly that of the visible, organized body of believers, those who accepted the true methods of worship. In Massachusetts. The "true methods" included the form of worship the Puritans had legislated. Speaking of the fundamentals of the Christian faith Cotton writes:

Fundamental doctrines are of two sorts. Some hold forth the foundation of Christian religion...Others concern the foundation of the church, as the matter and form of it, and the proper adjuncts accompanying the same. (Emphasis added)33

Thus for Cotton the form of worship was so important as to be fundamental. If the church says tithe, and that is their form, that is fundamental to church membership. If the church says the communion is symbolic or if it says it is the real presence of Christ, then that becomes fundamental. It is axiomatic in this kind of arrangement that some people must act as judges of other peoples' spirituality quotient, of their ultimate relationship with Heaven. This was the basis for putting people in the stocks for not paying tither or for desecrating the Sabbath day. Once these human judgments have been made, the church of Christ is easy to delineate: It is all the legitimate members of the visible church, the ones who have brought their practice in harmony with the local worship.

THE THEORY OF THE CHURCH Williams. It is plain that Williams viewed the Church as an invisible body, being any and all who place themselves in God's kingdom by faith in the Christ. It is no denomination nor group of denominations, nor is it coeval with the membership of Cotton's church. Williams was convinced that the true Church was made up of those people who were being led by God's Spirit, whoever they were, wherever they were. Such members would not likely be involved in the civil persecutions characterizing the Puritan churches. The weapons of a true Christian's warfare would never be so carnal. The Crusades, for example, were an abomination to Williams as was the Roman hierarchy in its many uses of force.  

Williams-Cotton II.