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A Second Look at Roger Williams

Roger Williams is often regarded as a hero and pioneer for religious freedom. Just recently I read yet
another article by a homeschool graduate praising this man. But in my opinion, far from being the father
of religious liberty, Roger Williams was the spiritual father of pluralism in America– the idea that God does
not speak authoritatively in the civil arena. He denied that God’s law should be the basis of our civil order.
In so doing, he undermined objective truth (despite claiming to support it) because one can’t argue for an
objective truth without an objective standard of right and wrong. The only absolute standard of truth (and
hence right and wrong) is God’s law. Once God’s Word is discarded as the objective basis of civil law, we
are left with only man’s ideas –natural law (in the French enlightenment sense), diversity, equality,
majority opinion, or some other manmade standard.

Roger Williams wasn’t arguing simply for the right of Christians to differ; they already had that. Neither
was he arguing that the church and state should be separate institutions; they already were. He was
arguing against the authority and responsibility of the civil magistrate to enforce the law of God in society.

Today we are reaping the mature fruit of Roger William’s ideas when the Supreme Court strikes down
sodomy laws, restricts states ability to outlaw abortion, or refuses to allow prayer at official functions. A
nation either upholds God’s law or it upholds man’s law. There is no middle ground. It is not possible to
separate the State from religion. It will always be religious. It will always enforce some standard of law.
The question is: whose law will it uphold, God’s law or man’s law? Let me illustrate this from Roger
Williams himself.

Roger Williams wrote a private letter to John Cotton asking for his opinion on a matter respecting
freedom of conscience. When Mr. Cotton answered his questions in a private reply, Mr. Williams then
published Cotton’s response along with a counter-response attacking him as a man of blood. In the
preface to his book, The Bloody Tenant Washed White In The Blood Of The Lamb, Mr. Cotton wonders
how this is consistent with his position. If his private letter was full of errors, why punish him by publishing
it along with a scathing attack? Doesn’t he [Cotton] have liberty of conscience to believe as he sees fit?
Also, why publish something so unedifying? On the other hand if his letter was true, why attack him as a
man of blood? Roger Williams had less toleration for those who disagreed with him than the Puritans had
for his erroneous ideas. Isn’t this the same sort of intolerance masquerading as tolerance that we see

Mr. Williams was not a consistent theologian or even an exemplary person.

• He fled England in 1630 because be could not tolerate the Anglican practice of open

• He was offered a pastorate in Boston by the Puritans, which he turned down because he
could not tolerate their non-separatist congregationalism.

• He was critical of the Plymouth church for not being separatist enough.

• He returned to England and was critical of the Anglican Church for being too lenient.

• He returned to Salem where he accepted a pastorate. From his pulpit be began attacking the
validity of the King’s land patents. He accused the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay
authorities of essentially stealing the land from the Indians.

• He attacked the Anglican church for not being a true church

• He refused to take an oath, along with all the other residents of Massachusetts, to defend the
land against enemies because that was an act of worship and would involve him in worship
with unregenerate people. He essentially was denying that the civil magistrate was God’s
A Second Look at Roger Williams

servant, ordained to execute God’s vengeance on those that do evil (defined as breaking the
law of God) and possessing the power to administer judicially binding oaths.

• He taught that regenerate and unregenerate people should not pray together – including
spouses and children.

• He believed there should, therefore, be no prayer of thanks before meals.

• He nearly split the church with these ideas, committing the sin of schism. The church was
saved when he went on to claim that Massachusetts’s churches (of which he was a part) were
not true churches, causing people to leave him.

• He fled the state, with a few disciples, to avoid deportation to England by Massachusetts’s
authorities. There he was joined by the renegade antinomian, Mrs. Hutchinson.

• From Rhode Island he reversed his position on infant baptism rejecting pædo-baptism.

• He had all his followers re-baptized and then concluded that this baptism was not valid and
they would have to wait for another apostolic power.

• He withdrew from the church and decided that he could only take communion with his wife.
Then he reversed himself again, deciding that it was not possible for the church to achieve
purity in this life and renouncing his extreme separatism.

• He couldn’t agree with anyone, moving from England to Boston, to Salem, to Plymouth, to
England, back to Salem, and then to Rhode Island within a space of 6 years.

A better analogy for this man might be Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. They both rejected
lawful authority, led gullible disciples into exile, changed their beliefs with the weather, and rejected the
historic faith practiced by the church universal. I would note that this is very different from the reformers
who corrected serious errors in the church by going back to the historic faith, not inventing new ideas.
From the judicial safety of Rhode Island he wrote of Massachusetts, “My end is to discover and proclaim
the dying and horrible guilt of the bloody doctrine, one of the most seditious, destructive, blasphemous,
and bloodiest in any or all the nations of the world…” You would think he was writing about someone who
deserved to be drawn and quartered in the Spanish Inquisition instead of Governor Winthrop and his
fellow pilgrims who had merely excommunicated him for heresy and sought to deport him to England.

His book, the Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, spells out in detail his rejection of God’s law as the civil
law of the land. It was directly answered at the time by John Cotton and by several church councils.
Thankfully, for nearly 150 years, most Christians in America rejected his ideas. States required all
officers, from Notary Publics to legislators, to take religious test oaths affirming the deity of Jesus Christ
as the second person of the Godhead, and the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of
God. It wasn’t until the constitution was written that religious test oaths were removed from America.

One of the Anti-Federalists from Connecticut using the pseudo-name David, wrote, as his state was
about to imitate Rhode Island by adopting the US Constitution:

“We have now seen what have been the principles generally adopted by mankind and to what
degree they have been adopted in our own state. Before we decide in favor of our practice, let us
see what has been the success of those who have made no public provision for religion. Unluckily,
we only have to consult our next neighbors. Taught from their infancy to ridicule our formality as the
effect of hypocrisy, they have no principle of restraint but laws of their own making; and from such
laws may heaven defend us. If this is the success that attends leaving religion to shift wholly for
itself, we shall be at no loss to determine, that it is not more difficult to build an elegant house
without tools to work with than it is to establish a durable government without the public protection

A Second Look at Roger Williams

of religion. What the system is which is most proper for our circumstances will not take long to
determine. It must be that which has adopted the purest moral principles, and which is interwoven
in the laws and constitution of our country, and upon which are founded the habits of our people.
Upon this foundation we have established a government of influence and opinion, and therefore
secured by the affections of the people; and when this foundation is removed, a government of
mere force must arise.” Letter by David in the Complete Anti-Federalist.

In American jurisprudence, the 10 commandments were seen as the basis for all civil law. In many
cases the statutes directly quoted or cited scripture as part of the law. Although the laws varied a little
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from state to state, egregious violations of all the commandments (except the 4 and 10 ) were capital
crimes. Gradually the capital sentence was dropped from some of the commandments and then some of
the commandments themselves were dropped from our civil laws. The usual pattern has been to cease
prosecuting the violation of the law and then after years of disuse, to remove it. This pattern continues to
this day. Most recently states have repealed all laws regarding the 4 commandment. Violations of laws
regarding the 7 commandment are rarely prosecuted and in many cases have been repealed. About all
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we really have left today are laws respecting the 6 and 8 commandments- except that it’s OK to murder
people if they are not yet born!

Such is the legacy of rejecting God’s law as the civil law of the land.

Peter Allison

November 2005