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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Roger Williams: Hero or Villian?

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 as little toleration for those who disagreed with him as the Puritans had for his erroneous ideas. Isn’t this the same sort of intolerance masquerading as tolerance that we see today?

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 communion.
  • 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 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 p├Ždo-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 had been 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. ( e.g. the Synod of Cambridge, New England, 1646 concerning the power of magistrates in matters of the first table.) 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.

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 from state to state, egregious violations of all the commandments (except the 4th and 10th) 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 4th commandment. Violations of laws regarding the 7th commandment are rarely prosecuted and in many cases have been repealed. About all we really have left today are laws respecting the 6th and 8th 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.

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