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The Libertarian Origins of Rhode Island

[Conceived in Liberty (1975), chapter 21, “Suppressing Heresy: The Flight of Roger Williams.” An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]


“The Puritans in leaving England,” the historian Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker wrote, “fled not so much from persecution as from error.” It was to build a rigorous theocracy free from dissent that the Puritans built a colony in America. And yet a Protestant theocracy must always suffer from a grave inner contradiction: for one significant tenet of Protestantism is the individual’s ability to interpret the Bible free of ecclesiastical dictates. Although particular Protestant creeds may have no intention of countenancing or permitting dissent, the Protestant stimulus to individual interpretation must inevitably provoke that very dissent.

If the Puritans were so rigorous in suppressing idleness and frivolity on the Sabbath, we can imagine their zeal in rooting out heresy. As the Reverend Urian Oakes put it, “The Loud outcry of some is for liberty of conscience … I look upon an unbounded toleration as the first born of all abominations.” And the Rev. Thomas Shepard echoed that “’tis Satan’s policy, to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration.” The eminent Puritan divine John Norton, in The Heart of New England Rent, thundered against liberty:

We both dread and bear witness against liberty of heresy.… It is a liberty … to answer to the dictate of error of conscience in walking contrary to rule. It is a liberty to blaspheme, a liberty to seduce others from the true God, a liberty to tell lies in the name of the Lord.

As for liberty of conscience, Norton speciously claimed to be upholding it, but not the “liberty of the error of conscience”; in short, people were to be “free” to believe what Norton wanted them to, but were not to be free to differ. As early as 1631 the Puritan authorities revealed their position on heresy. In that year Phillip Ratcliffe was whipped, fined 40 shillings, had his ears cut off, and was banished for the high crime of “uttering malicious and scandalous speeches against the government and the Church.”

The first important case of heresy also came soon after the founding of the colony. To Massachusetts in early 1631 came the young Rev. Roger Williams, who quickly refused the coveted appointment of teacher of the Boston church. An individualist and a fearless logician, Williams had concluded that the Puritan church in Massachusetts, being Separatist de facto, should also be Separatist de jure: that is, should break openly from communion with the Church of England. In short, he pursued the Puritans’ logic further than they were willing to go, and thus embarrassed the Puritans a great deal. Beginning with this dissent, Williams quickly went on to strike hammer blows against the entire political structure of the colony. First he proceeded to deny the right of the civil authority to punish the infraction of religious rule or doctrine. This struck at the entire theocratic principle, and the General Court of Massachusetts declared in reply that it was clearly absurd to maintain that “a Church might run into heresy … and yet the civil magistrate could not intermeddle.” To the Puritans this was clearly a puzzling and astonishing doctrine.

Williams now accepted appointment as teacher of the Salem church, but his appointment was overruled by the General Court on account of Williams’s Separatist views and his dedication to religious liberty. Williams thereupon moved to the fully Separatist Plymouth, where he became assistant to the Reverend Ralph Smith, who had also been ejected from Salem for his pure Separatist views. But Plymouth itself was becoming less Separatist, and could not tolerate Williams’s libertarianism. As a result, Williams accepted in late 1633 a second call from Salem to be a teacher of the church. There he joined the senior pastor, Samuel Skelton, in attacking the growing practice of ministers in holding periodical joint discussions — a practice which they perceptively feared would grow into a form of snyodal quasi-Presbyterian control over the individual congregations. Only four years later, Skelton and Williams were proved right by the erection of a system of synods, which also resulted in joint ministerial advice to the civil power.

Williams proceeded to strike another fundamental blow at the social structure of Massachusetts Bay. He denied the right of the king to make arbitrary grants of the land of Massachusetts to the colonists. The Indians, he maintained, properly owned the land and therefore the settlers should purchase the land from them. This doctrine attacked the entire quasi-feudal origin of American colonization in arbitrary land grants in the royal charters, and it also hit at the policy of ruthlessly expelling the Indians from their land. Williams, indeed, was the rare white colonist courageous enough to say that full title to the soil rested in the Indian natives, and that white title could only be validly obtained by purchase from its true owners. The whites, charged Williams, lived “under a sin of usurpation of others’ possessions.” The denial of the king’s right to grant title to land he did not justly own, of course, hit directly at the basis of the Massachusetts charter itself, which, Williams argued, the colonists had a moral duty to turn from and renounce.

The infuriated authorities now moved in on Williams, charging him with subversive doctrine. Bowing to force majeure, Williams recanted and offered to burn the tract expressing his dissenting views.

But Williams was too much a man of principle to be suppressed for long, and by late 1634 news reached Boston that Williams was repeating his old subversive doctrines as well as adding the purist religious deviation from Puritan orthodoxy that oaths should not be administered by magistrates to unregenerate sinners. Williams also denounced the loyalty oaths coerced upon the mass of nonfreemen residents of the colony, in April 1634, as blasphemous; he refused to subscribe to the oath and urged his congregation to do the same. Williams did this despite the punishment for refusal having been announced as banishment from the colony.

A crackdown by the Massachusetts authorities was precipitated by Salem church’s appointing Williams as its chief minister in place of the deceased Skelton. The Massachusetts authorities now unanimously condemned Williams’s views as “erroneous and very dangerous” and denounced Salem’s action as “a great contempt of authority.” The Massachusetts clergy recommended to the General Court that this dangerous advocate of religious liberty “be removed.” Hauled into General Court in July 1635, Williams now remained adamant, even after several confrontations with church authorities.

The General Court now openly moved to undermine Williams with his home base at Salem, punishing that town by refusing to grant it title to land that it claimed at Marblehead Neck. Salem church struck back with an indignation meeting, which sent letters to the congregations of the other churches of the colony, urging them to “admonish” the magistrates and deputies for their “heinous sin.” The elders of the other churches made certain to suppress any potential upsurge of popular sympathy for Williams and Salem by not reading the letters to their congregations. Williams continued to strike hard, denouncing the oligarchy of elders for keeping information from the body of church members.

As the fierce conflict continued, Williams’s fearless spirit, the logic of Protestantism, and the dynamics of the conflict itself drove Roger Williams to the ultimate conclusion of Separatism: calling upon Salem church to separate clearly from the other churches of the colony, as well as from the Church of England. This was the straw that broke the Massachusetts camel’s back. The Puritan oligarchy now brandished its temporal sword, sending to Salem its Model of Church and Civil Power. The Model gave grave warning that the civil magistrates would strike down any “corrupt” or schismatic church. Independent churches would be suppressed; religious toleration could only end by dissolving the state as well as the church.

In September the civil power followed this by subduing Salem: the General Court expelled the Salem deputies and reiterated its refusal to grant the town’s land claims. The assistant ruling Salem, John Endecott, defended the Salem church but was promptly imprisoned until he recanted and was discharged. Under the severest pressure by the Puritan oligarchy, the majority of Salem church, as Williams was later to write, “was swayed and bowed (whether for fear of persecution or otherwise) to say and practice what, to my knowledge … many of them mourned under.”

With Salem brought to heel, it now remained only to suppress the isolated Roger Williams himself. Yet, when brought again into General Court in October 1635, Williams stoutly maintained all of his heretical and libertarian opinions. He refused to recant even when forced to debate with the Rev. Thomas Hooker, a leading Puritan divine. Thereupon the General Court ordered Williams expelled from the colony within six weeks. The sentence of banishment declared:

Whereas Mr. Roger Williams … hath broached and divulged divers new and dangerous opinions, against the authority of magistrates, has also written letters of defamation, both of the magistrates and churches here … and yet maintaineth the same without retraction, it is therefore ordered that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction.

The court agreed to extend the deadline for Williams’s banishment provided that he would not “go about to draw others to his opinions.” But the authorities were chagrined to find that even Williams in private was having a subversive effect. While Salem bowed reluctantly to the decision of the authorities — and received the Marblehead land in return — Williams himself separated from the Salem church, and others were moved to do the same.

Over 20 Salem families now prepared to follow Williams southward into exile and there build a haven of religious liberty. With the disappearance of the Council for New England in 1635, Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth were both virtually self-governing, and what is more, the land south of the Massachusetts grant and west of Plymouth became a tempting vacuum, not having been parceled out to any person or group. It was in this free area that Williams now prepared to found a new colony.

The Massachusetts authorities were greatly dismayed, because they had expected that Williams would be forced back to England. It was not enough to oust Williams forcibly from the land area assigned to Massachusetts; should he merely move southward, there would still be a danger that, in the words of Governor John Winthrop, “the infection would easily spread” to Massachusetts Bay. The General Court hastily sent a ship to Salem to arrest Williams and send him speedily back to England. But Williams bested his persecutors and fled alone into the wilderness. He trudged south through the snow and spent the winter among the friendly Narragansett Indians.

In the spring Williams was joined by four friends, and they proceeded to the northern tip of Narragansett Bay, where they founded the settlement of Seekonk. There they were soon joined by several more families from Salem. The great southward flight from Massachusetts had begun.

Williams’s travail had scarcely ended, however. Soon the governor of Plymouth Colony wrote to Williams regretfully advising him that Seekonk was still inside the Plymouth boundaries, and that Plymouth could not dare displease Massachusetts by allowing the little band to remain. So Williams was now banished from Plymouth as well; and the purchase of the Seekonk land from the Indians, the clearing of land, and the planting of crops had all been in vain.

Moving west across the Seekonk River, Williams left the jurisdiction of Plymouth and founded the settlement of Providence. In Providence Plantations, Williams and the others scrupulously purchased the land from the Indians, and determined to allow religious liberty in their new and spontaneously formed colony.

How Roger Williams was regarded by the frightened Puritan oligarchs of Massachusetts Bay may be seen from the historical account of the Rev. Cotton Mather, one of the main leaders of the later generation of Puritan divines: “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, Roger Williams.” And Mather realized that Williams’s doctrines were aimed at “the whole political, as well as the ecclesiastical, constitution of the country.” The reaction of the Massachusetts authorities to Williams’s flight was to step up their persecution of Salem Separatism. All meetings of Separatists were now outlawed.

Williams’s views, at least in these early days of his career, were notably libertarian, especially in contrast to those of other Americans of his time. But it must be recognized that Williams emerged as an embattled leader within the context of a Puritan and Dissenter movement in England, which in the 1630s and 1640s was rapidly becoming radicalized and increasingly libertarian. The libertarian movement reached its culmination — and was not to reach the same height again for well over a century — in the Leveller movement of the 1640s. Williams himself had participated in the emerging Puritan cause. A protégé of the great liberal jurist Sir Edward Coke, Williams owned opinions that had brought him into conflict with the ultra-Anglican and minion of the Stuarts, Archbishop Laud. Williams thus received his early ideological training in the liberal Dissenter movement.

Free and safe in a Providence enjoying religious liberty and separation of church and state, Roger Williams was later able to elaborate on his doctrines of religious liberty. His most famous theoretical work, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience Discussed, appeared in 1644. A sequel, The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody, rebutting the reply of the leading Massachusetts divine, Rev. John Cotton, appeared eight years later. Compulsory religion, Williams pointed out, violated the Christian tenet of love and, by “ravishing and forcing souls” and consciences, led to hypocrisy for fear of state punishment. Coerced religion, Williams declared, leads to sects “slaughtering each other for their several respective religions and consciences.” Again unusual for his time, Williams insisted that not only Protestants, but all religions must be completely free, including “the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships.” He added,

To molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrines or practicing worship … is to persecute him and such a person (whatever his doctrine or practice be true or false) suffereth persecution for conscience.

And this man of courage and principle nobly proclaimed the importance of cleaving to truth:

We must not let go for all the flea-bitings of the present afflictions … having bought Truth dear we must not sell it cheap, not the least grain of it for the whole world … least of all for a little puff of credit and reputation from the changeable breath of uncertain sons of men.

Roger Williams carried his principles of religious liberty into practice. There was no state church, and no one was forced to attend church. Williams himself was to change his religious views several times, becoming a Baptist for a few months, and then ending as a Seeker, who held to no fixed creed. Liberty has its own inner logic, and so Williams’s religious liberty in Providence extended also to women. One of Williams’s Salem adherents who had followed him to Providence, Joshua Verin, tasting the heady wine of religious liberty, grew disenchanted with Williams’s sermons and stopped attending church. This was perfectly legitimate in his newfound home, but Verin went so far as to prevent his wife from attending, even beating her to prevent her from going. Verin was therefore disfranchised by Providence in the spring of 1638 for restraining his wife’s conscience; he soon returned to Salem, where he could again exercise the Puritan role of despotic paterfamilias.

The logic of liberty had, as we shall see, even more drastic implications. For, as some citizens of Providence began to reason, if the conscience of the individual was to be supreme in religious matters, if the state was to have no power to interfere with any actions determined by his religious conscience, why shouldn’t his liberty extend to civil matters as well? Why shouldn’t the individual’s conscience reign supreme in all civil as well as religious affairs?

This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty (1975), chapter 18.
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