​A Matter of Principle

Charles Small Longacre July/August 2016

Roger Williams pioneered the way for the disestablishment of religion and the divorcement of the church from the state in America. The burden of his soul was that all men might be free to worship or not to worship God, as their own consciences dictated. He endeavored to reestablish primitive Christianity in harmony with the teaching and practice of the Author of Christianity. The burden of every sermon he preached, of every book he wrote, and of all his labors of charity, was to reveal the spirit of Christ to men, and lead them back to the true religion.

He spoke and wrote of Jesus Christ as the Author of all our liberties and the Deliverer from all our bondages. In appealing to the lawmakers and magistrates of his time to be tolerant toward all religious dissenters, Roger Williams cited the example of his Lord, saying: “Jesus Christ, the greatest statesman that ever was, commands a toleration of anti-Christians.” He quoted Christ as saying: “If any man hear My words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge [condemn] the world. . . . The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.” He showed that in spiritual matters God, and not man, was the judge in the last day, and therefore no man had a right to punish any man for his offenses against God and religion before the judgment day. The civil magistrates could punish men for civil offenses only—those that had to do with man’s relationships to man.

He argued that it frequently happened, and was at all times possible, that “followers of corrupt [heretical] opinions, whether they be pagans, Jews, Turks, or anti-Christians, may be obedient subjects of the civil laws.” Therefore he contended that so-called heresy should never be punished by the civil magistrate, unless the exercise of the heresy led to the violations of the rights of others, and the individual should not be punished for the heresy, but for the infringement of the rights of others.

In Roger Williams’ day, every man’s religion was prescribed by the state, and all had to attend church services on Sunday and give financial support to religion, whether they were members of the state church or whether they made any profession of religion. He vigorously opposed, not only compulsory church attendance on Sunday, and Sunday observance under duress of the civil magistrate, but the compulsory taxation of everybody to support religion or the state church. His ideas of a complete separation of church and state and of the free exercise of the conscience of the individual in religious matters were centuries in advance that has yet put all these fundamental principles of a complete separation of church and state into effect. Rhode Island was the only state that did it, and that state did it only as long as Roger Williams was the guiding spirit in its civil affairs. As soon as he relinquished his grip upon state affairs and passed off the stage of action, the State legislature enacted laws of religious intolerance, compelled all people to observe Sunday under the penal codes, and sent so-called heretics into exile. But as long as Roger Williams lived and had a controlling voice in the making of laws and the administration and execution of those laws, no man suffered for conscience’ sake, because there were no religious laws upon the statute books under which he could be prosecuted for his dissenting views in religious matters. There can be no religious persecution when the civil government is neutral upon all religious questions.

Roger Williams was so far in advance of the church and state leaders of his time, that to them he seemed not only a mere dwarf in the distance, but a consummate heretic. The church leaders of that day, aside from the Baptists, feared religious toleration and hated religious liberty. In following the teachings and example of John Calvin, who burned Servetus at the stake on a charge of heresy and who advocated the doctrine that “godly princes may lawfully issue edicts for compelling obstinate and rebellious persons to worship the true God and to maintain the unity of the faith,” the Calvinists and Puritans did not hesitate to shed the blood of those they called heretics.

John Cotton not only denounced Roger Williams’ views on religious freedom for the individual, but on democracy as well, saying: “Democracy, I do not conceive that ever God did ordain as a fit government either for church or for commonwealth. . . . As for monarchy and aristocracy, they are both of them clearly approved and directed in Scripture.” Nathaniel Ward, who styled himself a “Lawyer Divine,” and drew up the first legal code for Massachusetts Bay Colony, in replying to the argument that it was religious persecution to deprive the individual of his right to liberty of conscience in religious matters, said: “It is an astonishment to think that the brains of men should be parboiled in such impious ignorance.”

Religious liberty was a perfect stranger, not only in New England, but in every country in Europe and in every Christian denomination except the Baptists. The Protestant Reformers who had begun so nobly to proclaim the gospel of liberty, the absolute supremacy of the Word of God, the separation of church and state, a full and unrestricted freedom of conscience for the individual in religious matters, and noninterference of the state in matters of heresy, soon abandoned this exalted platform, established their own religions by law, and delivered heretics and dissenter to the state to be punished. Roger Williams, of all the great Protestant Reformers, stood alone in the integrity of his position, and finally worked out a concrete example of a free church in a free state, where no citizen was molested for holding and practicing dissenting views in religious matters. Williams never once abandoned his position on the total separation of church and state. Martin Luther, in the beginning of his Reformation work, said:

“No one can command or ought to command the soul except God, who alone can show it the way to heaven. It is futile and impossible to command, or by force to compel any man’s belief. Heresy is a spiritual thing, which no iron can hew down, no fire burn, no water drown. . . . Whenever the temporal power presumes to legislate for the soul, it encroaches.”

But Luther compromised this principle of religious liberty when he faced an emergency and accepted aid from the state, and when he received the support of the state he robbed the great Reformation movement of the glory and splendor of a great spiritual triumph through Christ and the power of His work. His later writings reveal that he completely abandoned the principle of religious liberty and the doctrine of a separation of church and state. In writing how dissenting preachers should be dealt with, he advised:

“Since it is not good that in one parish the people should be exposed to contradictory preaching, he [the magistrate] should order to be silent whatever does not consist with the Scriptures.”

Luther made his appeal to the civil ruler as the final judge and arbiter of truth, and believed that heretics should be delivered to the civil magistrate for punishment. When the Anabaptists in the lands of the Reformation taught the doctrine of immersion as the proper scriptural mode of baptism, and proclaimed infant baptism as utterly useless and without divine authority, the great Protestant Reformers applied the whip, the sword, the torch, as well as fines, confiscation of property, and the dungeon cell to these dissenters. When the Protestant sects resorted to the civil authorities to punish heresy, it was merely a case of religious tyranny changing hands under a new religious regime.

In writing to Menius and Myconius in 1530, Martin Luther favored applying the sword to the Anabaptists. He said:

“I am pleased that you intend to publish a book against the Anabaptists as soon as possible. Since they are not only blasphemous but also seditious men, let the sword exercise its rights over them, for it is the will of God that he shall have judgment who resisteth the power.”

Melanchthon, a colaborer with Luther, in a letter to the diet at Hamburg, in 1537, advocated death by the sword to all who professed Anabaptist views. Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, who perished with the sword, and whose statue in Zurich pictures him with a Bible in his right hand and a sword in his left, persecuted not only the Baptist, but all dissenting sects who disagreed with his views. Even John Robinson, the renowned pastor of the Pilgrims in Holland, who was far more liberal in his views than the Puritans, vigorously defended the use of the magistrate’s power in matters of church discipline “to punish religious actions, he [the magistrate] being the preserver of both tables, and so to punish all breaches of both.”

Roger Williams took direct issue with both the Puritans and the Pilgrims, and denied the right of the civil magistrate to legislate the first table of the Decalogue into civil law or have the civil magistrate punish any of the offenses against God as set forth in the first four commandments of the law of God. It was this doctrine of the intrusion of the power of the civil magistrate into the spiritual realm, which Roger Williams so vigorously opposed, and which he fought single-handed, and alone, that caused his banishment and the bitter persecution he had to endure everywhere in his day.

He invited the Baptists as well as the Seventh Day Baptists to come to Rhode Island, where they might enjoy their faith without civil molestation. He finally accepted their faith. He said: “I believe their practice comes nearer the practice of our great founder Jesus Christ than other practices of religion do.”

When Mr. John Clarke, Mr. Obadiah Holmes, and Mr. Crandall were appointed by the Baptist church of Newport, Rhode Island, to visit an old man of the Baptist persuasion near Lynn, Massachusetts, at his own request, the civil magistrates and Puritan ecclesiastics of the Bay Colony decided it was time to nip the spread and growth of Anabaptistry in the bud. They arrested and imprisoned the three men and sentenced them to be fined or whipped. It is recorded that “they refused to pay the fines, which would be acknowledgment that they were wrong.” Someone else paid Clarke’s fine, without his knowledge. Mr. Holmes was whipped so severely that for a long time “he could take no rest except by supporting himself on his knees and elbows.” Two of his friends, John Spur and John Hazel, who had expressed their sympathy for Mr. Holmes’ pitiable condition, were arrested and imprisoned. Mr. Clarke, concerning his own trial, said:

“At length the governor [John Endicott] stepped up and told us we had denied infant baptism, and being somewhat transported, told me I had deserved death, and said he would not have such trash brought into their jurisdiction.”

Roger Williams wrote a letter of admonition and Christian rebuke to Governor Endicott, setting forth the great doctrine of liberty of conscience in religious matters—of the equality of all men before the law, and of the “spiritual unlawfulness of persecution for cause of conscience.” In his letter to Endicott, he says:

“I speak of conscience, to persuasion fixed in the mind and heart of man. . . . This conscience is found in all mankind, more or less, in Jews, Turks, papists, Protestants, pagans, etc. . . . O, how comes it then that I have heard so often, and heard so lately, and heard so much, that he that speaks so tenderly for his own, hath yet so little respect, mercy, or pity to the like conscientious persuasions of other men? Are all the thousands of millions of millions of consciences, at home and abroad, fuel only for a prison, for a whip, for a stake, for a gallows? Are no consciences to breathe the air but such as suit and sample his?”

Again he affirmed in his letter to Endicott his well-known position, denying the right of the “magistrates dealing in matters of conscience and religion, as also of persecuting and hunting any for any matter merely spiritual and religious.” He sums up the essence of his argument on liberty of conscience in the closing paragraph:

“Sir, I must be humbly bold to say that ’tis impossible for any man or men to maintain their Christ by their sword, and to worship a true Christ, to fight against all consciences opposed to theirs, and not to fight against God in some of them and to hunt after the precious life of the true Lord Jesus Christ. O, remember once again (as I began), and I humbly desire to remember with you, that every gray hair now on both of our heads, is a Boanerges, a Son of Thunder, and a warning piece to prepare us for the weighing of our last anchors, and to be gone from hence as if we had never been.”

Roger Williams had advanced so far in “the life of love” which he advocated, and ascended so high upon the pedestal of “soul liberty” and civil and religious freedom in matters of conscience and religion, that he encountered an impossible task to lift up the church-and-state leaders to his level. But the torch of liberty which he held aloft and which shone so brightly in Rhode Island in his day was not entirely extinguished after his death. The first Baptist church of Providence of which he was the first pastor, still voiced the message of Roger Williams, of freedom of the conscience of the individual and of the separation of church and state. The Baptists carried that message to Virginia, where they suffered much persecution; and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became their attorneys and the defenders and champions of their cause for the disestablishment of religion. The ideas of Roger Williams found a rebirth in these two American champions of civil and religious liberty, and Thomas Jefferson gave expression to them in the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison in the Constitution of the United States.

Roger Williams conceived a republic “in civil things only” in Rhode Island; others extended it throughout the United States of America. He was the architect of a representative democracy; others followed his plans. He separated the church and the state completely; others hewed to that line of demarcation. He set the conscience of individual above governmental authority; others maintained its supremacy. He gave us a precious heritage of civil and religious liberty; and others have merely defended and preserved it to this day.

Article Author: Charles Small Longacre

Charles Small Longacre was editor of Liberty from 1913-1942. He wrote this in 1939.