The “Holy Commonwealth”

Charles Small Longacre May/June 2016
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    Upon his arrival in Boston on February 5, 1631, Roger Williams was welcomed with open arms, and the ecclesiastical authorities invited him to succeed Mr. Wilson (who was about to return to England) as a teacher in the Boston church. The Boston Puritans believed their church to be the “most glorious on earth,” and they were astonished because Roger Williams felt conscientiously bound to decline their invitation because that church was still “unseparated” from the Established Church of England and was under Bishop Laud’s control.

    Roger Williams, possessing the religious convictions which he cherished, had good reasons for refusing a pastorate in any church that was still officially connected with the Established Church of England. In his home district in England, from which he fled, he had just witnessed, before he sailed to America, the persecution in all its hellish cruelty, of Doctor Leighton, who had become a Puritan. Neal, in his “History of the Puritans,” tells of Doctor Leighton’s arrest and of the inhumane persecution that followed under Archbishop Laud’s ecclesiastical sentence pronounced against him, which provided that  he be “committed to the prison of the Fleet for life, and pay a fine of ten thousand pounds; that the High Commission should degrade him from his ministry; and that he should be brought to the pillory at Westminster while the court was sitting and be publicly whipped; after whipping to be set upon a pillory a convenient time and have one of his ears cut off, one side of his nose split, and be branded in the face with a double S.S. for a sower of sedition; that  then he should be carried back to prison, and after a few days pilloried a second time in Cheapside, and have the other side of his nose split and his other ear cut off, and then be shut up in close prison for the rest of his life.”

    Roger Williams had not come to America to place his head in that kind of ecclesiastical noose, and every freeman in America today justifies the exiled Williams for repudiating a church establishment which at that time was so cruel in its persecutions. He conscientiously refused the “unanimous call” as pastor of the Boston church because the Boston church still held connections with the Church of England, and because the church would not deny the power of  “the civil magistrate to punish any breach of the first table” of the Decalogue, and declare itself in favor of the principle of the separation of church     and state. His declaration that the civil magistrates had “no rights as such, to rule in spiritual matters,” struck the New England Puritans with wonder and amazement, as the whole system of the “Holy Commonwealth” of the Bay Colony was based upon the Bible as their statute book; and the Ten Commandments as  a whole, as they interpreted them, were the warp and woof of their whole social fabric as administered by the clergy and the magistrates. The Puritans believed, as many religious legalists believe today, that if the violations of the first four commandments of the Decalogue, which are purely offenses against God, are not punished by the civil magistrate, religion will be destroyed and civil society cannot exist. But Roger Williams believed that religion would flourish and the state would prosper when they are entirely separated from each other.

    By refusing the best “call” in New England, and asking the Boston church to separate itself from the state religion, Roger Williams created a dilemma for the Boston Puritans. They violently disagreed with him, and would have ordered him sent back to England, but they did not dare for fear of losing the friendship and support of Sir William Masham, a member of the company in England, Sir Thomas Barrington, Earl of Warwick, Sir Oliver St. Johns, Sir Henry Martin, and many other influential friends of Williams of England.

    In the meanwhile, Williams received a “call” from the Salem church to serve as its pastor, to the great alarm of the magistrates and elders at Boston. The court at Boston held a special session to consider the matter, and it decided to write a letter of warning to the Salem church and to Mr. Endicott to this effect, that whereas Mr. Williams taught that the Boston church should separate itself from the legal Established Church of England, and besides had declared his opinion that “the magistrate might not punish the breach of the Sabbath nor any other offense that was a breach of the first table,” therefore the court marveled that Salem would choose him without advising with the council, and withal desired that they would forbear to proceed till they had conferred about it.

    The Salem church, jealous of its independent rights, gave the magistrates and clergy of Boston the rebuke they so richly deserved, and insisted that Roger Williams accept their call and enter upon his charge at once, which he did. Here Williams preached his views freely, and the freemen of Salem welcomed him with open arms. But the spiritual dictators and autocrats of Boston hounded his steps and stirred up an active opposition against him in the colony outside the town of Salem. The cruel hand of persecution was lifted against him, and inside of six months he was forced to retire to Plymouth and seek refuge among  the Pilgrims, who held far more liberal views toward dissenters than did the Puritans.

    For the next two years, Roger Williams preached at Plymouth as assistant pastor to Elder Smith, and the independent colony of Plymouth protected him from persecution by Massachusetts Bay. His teachings were well received by the people of Plymouth, and Governor Bradford esteemed him highly. While here he did missionary work among the Indian tribes, and entered into a treaty agreement with Massasoit and other Indian chiefs, which laid the foundation for the establishment of Rhode Island a little later, when he was banished the second time from Salem. It was well for him that he stayed two years at Plymouth and won his way into their hearts, for his Plymouth friends served as a buffer ally between the Bay Colony and the Providence Plantation.

    The Pilgrims also had a union of church and state, and punished and persecuted those who broke the first four commandments of the Decalogue, but they were more mild and tolerant than the Puritans. Roger Williams became restless under the Plymouth theocracy, and hoped they would improve affairs. In the summer  of 1633 he received a second “call” to assume the pastorate of the Salem church, which he gladly accepted.

    The return to Salem marked the beginning of a series of controversies between the authorities of Salem and Boston. The Puritan clergy of Boston were so strongly Calvinistic that their new-founded utopia, which they styled the “Holy Commonwealth,” gave no quarter to religious dissenters. They believed that it was their duty to see that all men “obeyed the inexorable will of God,” not as each individual understood it, but as the Puritan theocracy interpreted it. This theory led to the justification of the most cruel persecutions ever perpetrated upon dissenters, except, perhaps, for the atrocities of the Inquisition.

    All this persecution was done in the name of God and for the good of the church and the state. The civil magistrate and the civil law were used as the vehicle to carry forward the dogmas and propaganda of the Puritan church. Theocracy and oligarchy combined to share the spoils of religious and civil power. The most powerful weapons they employed were the whipping post, confiscation of property, and banishment. They held that they were justified “to use the sword of the civil magistrate to open the understanding of the heretics,” in order to save them from hell-fire.

    Roger Williams charged that the New England clergy, “under a pretense of holy order in themselves, put over the drudgery of execution to their enslaved seculars.” “I affirm there was never a civil state in the world,” declared Williams, “that ever did or ever shall make good work of it, with a civil sword in spiritual matters.” Instead, the state should give “free and absolute permission of conscience to all men in what is merely spiritual.”

    Years later Cotton Mather remarked in his “Magnalia,” “There was a whole country in America like to be set on fire by the rapid motion of a windmill in the head of one particular man.” That man was Roger Williams, whose opinions relative to the limitation of civil magistrates in the exercise of their proper functions, excluding their authority in spiritual matters, had within two and a half years set all New England on fire, and what hurt most was that the common people heard him gladly.

    In April 1634, the magistrates ordered all Bay residents who were not freemen to take a Resident’s Oath, pledging themselves to submit to the orders of the General Court. On May 14, 1634, the court passed a new Freeman’s Oath, which required the freeman to pledge allegiance to the General Court and officers. The purpose was to eradicate all opposition to the “Holy Commonwealth,” and the penalty for refusing to take the oath was banishment.

    The new oath was evidently aimed at Roger Williams, as it sanctioned “the right of magistrates to punish for breaches of the first table and to rule in     religion.” Williams accepted the challenge, and denied the right of the state to enforce an oath which was in fact “a spiritual form and act of worship and prayer,” and he attacked its legality so vehemently that he swayed public opinion against it, and made it impossible for the court to enforce the oath. He became the people’s champion in the cause of liberty, and his victory made him very popular in Salem. The religio-political authorities of the “Holy Commonwealth” found metal of no common temper in Roger Williams.

    Some new occasion must be found to apprehend this “first rebel against the divine church order established in the wilderness.” They determined to subdue Williams or banish him. Through guile and threats, the General Court finally won John Endicott, Mr. Williams’ defender and friend, over to its side. By the same means, the court officials succeeded in turning the majority of the Salem church against him. Finally Roger Williams was summoned for trial on the charge of entertaining “dangerous opinions.” The Bay governor, twenty-five court magistrates, the deputies, and all the ministers of the Bay were present. It was the most spectacular assembly and trial, and the most far-reaching in its results, that ever convened in America, aside from the Continental Congress of 1776, which was made possible only by the courageous stand of Roger Williams at this eventful trial.

    The clergy as the advisers to the General Court gave an inquisitorial color to the whole procedure. They acted in conjunction with the court, at once as legislators, executives, and judiciary—judge, jury, and final court of appeal—in the trial of Roger Williams, against whom they were also the complaining witnesses. There was, for Roger Williams, no more hope of escape from this inquisition than there would have been if he had been held in the jaws of a crocodile.

    Governor Haynes, presiding officer of the court, was chief prosecuting attorney and the judge who was to pronounce the sentence. Roger Williams had no attorney to defend his case, as none, through fear, dared to defend him. Undaunted and alone, like Christ, he faced the inquisitorial court and stood in the “rockie strength” of his principles. He pleaded his case so eloquently and logically that he forced a division between the magistrates and deputies. Not for naught had he sat at the feet of Sir Edward Coke in the Star Chamber of England. With the courage of a Luther, he launched his broadsides against fifty of the ablest men of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    The ministers moved among the magistrates and deputies who were favorable to Mr. Williams to turn their votes against him. The lobbying was successful, and     the “holy brethren” rejoiced in securing his conviction.

    Before sentence of banishment was pronounced, the court gave him a chance to recant. Would he recant, or would he stand his ground like Luther? Upon his     decision depended the future of Rhode Island, yea, more—to a large extent the future of America and of the world. Worn out and desperate, through lengthy hours of disputation, would he lose heart and yield? Never! Never! He stood unshaken as the eternal hills in the “rockie strength” of his convictions. “I am ready . . . not only to be bound and banished, but to die also in New England” for the truth, declared Williams. So hour after hour he argued in defense of his principles, unsubdued and undismayed, till the sun sank into darkness and the weary court adjourned, hoping that he might recant on the morrow. In this hope they were disappointed.

    The next morning, October 9, 1635, Roger Williams made it known that he was as unshaken as the Rock of Gibraltar, and that he had faith to believe that the principles he advocated would triumph, even if he were killed.

    One of the laws enacted by the Massa­chusetts Bay Colony was: “If any person or persons within this jurisdiction . . . shall deny their [the magistrates’] lawful right or authority . . . to punish the outward breaches of the first table [of the Decalogue], . . . every such person or persons shall be sentenced to banishment.” As Roger Williams stoutly denied the jurisdiction of the civil magistrates in religious matters covered by the first four commandments written upon the first table of the Decalogue, he was condemned to banishment.

    It was well understood by the Puritans that the first table of the Decalogue embraced the first four commandments, and the second table, the last six commandments. Roger Williams pointed out that the first four commandments of the law of God enjoined purely spiritual and religious duties which the individual owed to God, and that the violation of these four commandments—namely, the refusal to recognize Jehovah as the one and only supreme God, the worshiping of images, taking God’s name in vain, and refusing to observe the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest—was an offense against God and religion which the civil magistrate had no right in justice to punish. He held that whenever a human being attempted to judge another individual in matter of conscience and religion, the judge was assuming the prerogatives of God and would have to sit as a discerner of the motives of a man’s heart, which required divine discernment.

    The first four commandments of the Decalogue prescribe a man’s duties toward God, and the last six, a man’s duties toward his fellow man. Therefore, Roger Williams contended, the civil magistrate, who rightfully could deal only with civil matters, had no authority in justice to enforce the commandments upon the first table of the Decalogue. If the civil magistrates and legislators had always recognized this line of distinction between the first and second table of the Decalogue, there never would have been formed a union between the church and the state, and religious persecution would have been impossible.The failure to recognize a line of demarcation between the duties we owe to Caesar and the obligations we owe to God has been the root cause of all religious persecutions, as well as of bitter experiences which have come to religion. Politics and religion never did form a friendly mixture, and the sooner the state and the church learn this lesson, the better it will be for both. Roger Williams finally demonstrated this truth in his experiment in Rhode Island by completely separating the church and the state and permitting the civil magistrate to function “only in civil things.”

    He was accused of advancing opinions that were dangerous to the peace and order of the commonwealth; but in Rhode Island he founded a community in which perfect religious liberty prevailed, and in which his doctrines and teachings were given free course; yet life, property, peace, and order were far more  secure than they were in Puritan Massachusetts, where life, property, and peace were frequently sacrificed for conscience’ sake. He demonstrated beyond question that his teachings promoted peace and order in the state, and that the charges against him were unsustained and his banishment was unjustifiable. It was thus that a kind Providence permitted the evil which befell him in Salem, Massachusetts, to enable him to work out a system of government in Rhode Island which not only constituted a requital for the injustice he had suffered, but served as a model for the American Republic.

    That sentence of exile, instead of being the doom of religious liberty in America, was its harbinger. It opened the door of opportunity to establish a model republic as an asylum for the oppressed of America and of Europe, where all could worship God unmolested, in harmony with the dictates of their own consciences. It enabled Roger Williams to do for America and for the world what would have been impossible within the Holy Commonwealth.

    The Honorable Oscar S. Straus, twice America’s ambassador to Turkey, and Secretary of Labor and Commerce in the Cabinet of the late President Theodore Roosevelt, fittingly spoke thus of Roger Williams: “If I were asked to select from all the great men who have left their impress upon this continent—if I  were asked whom to hold before the American people and the world to typify the American spirit of fairness, of freedom, of liberty in church and state, I would without any hesitation select that great prophet who established the first political community on the basis of a free church in a free state, the great and immortal Roger Williams.”

Article Author: Charles Small Longacre

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