Thursday, January 27, 2011

Persecution for Cause of Conscience, circa 1644

Roger Williams was a Christian pastor and founder of Rhode Island. This old document deals with religious wars and differences of conscience in a very thorough way.  


Roger Williams (July 15, 1644)

First, that the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages, for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.

Secondly, pregnant scriptures and arguments are throughout the work proposed against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Thirdly, satisfactory answers are given to scriptures, and objections produced by Mr. Calvin, Beza, Mr. Cotton, and the ministers of the New English churches and others former and later, tending to prove the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

The entire document can be found at The Reformed Reader website, here.

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Your opinions, thoughts, and comments are most welcome.


  1. The American Puritans believed that the guidelines given by God in the Old Testament were still valid for Christians today. To that end, they established laws in the New World patterned after the Old Testament Jewish laws. They called their day of worship "the Sabbath," they punished people for various sins according to how the Bible set it forth (read Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter). They further were very concerned for the state of the Jews, wishing for them to be converted to Christ. They believed that once the Jews converted to Christ, Christ would return to set up his earthly kingdom. As a result, they had a special concern, honor and respect for the Jewish people and for Jewish ways of looking at the world.

    That's 17th century English Puritanism in America in a nutshell. They based their teachings from the writings of John Calvin and his Christian Institutes. Calvin, operating from the Reformation battlecry of "Sola Scriptura," set out to establish that everything a Christian church should do or believe was in Scripture alone.

    The mentality of Scripture alone, whatever it may have meant to Calvin and the other Reformers, meant essentially for the Puritans that the Bible was God's Word on virtually every subject. The idea of the Holy Spirit speaking to the church through prophetic visions, dreams, gifts, healings, miracles would have been off-limits (probably the crazy stuff those Anabaptists were into).

    Further, Scripture alone meant that everything in Scripture must somehow jive with everything else in Scripture--Scripture, as God's Word, was a closed and consistent system. So, if Jesus said in the Gospels to love enemies, suffer patiently, walk the extra mile, give a cup of cold water, etc., those teachings had to be examined in light of the Old Testament and synthesized with the Old Testament.

    That's where the Puritans came from, and in 1644, they're removed from Calvin by only about 100 years or less.

    When Williams comes up and says that the codes in the Old Testament concerning the establishment of a religious state enforcing "God's law" had been essentially canceled by Christ, useful now for symbol and for instruction, this no doubt made the Puritan fathers livid.

    Further, when Williams says that the harsh punishments and stiff penalties for challenging religious authority outlined in the Bible must be reinterpreted in light of what Jesus said, he's going against the idea that the Bible is a closed, consistent system. He's interpreting the Bible in light of the Gospel, not the other way around, which is how the Puritans generally approached things.

    In taking this position, Williams was resting in a long tradition. The Church Fathers and Doctors had long taken liberties with Scripture in light of the Gospel. They believed all of it was profitable, no doubt, but they didn't interpret rigidly or literally all the time. Augustine even said at one point that a Christian of sufficient maturity in his walk with Christ no longer needed Scripture!

  2. Great comment, Uncle Stanley.

    This is probably a too-long historical stretch, but I wonder if the tradition of avoidance-of-Puritanism and willingness to be small and different persisted in Rhode Island up through the Revolutionary period.

    Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the Constitution: maybe they smelled the same rat that Patrick Henry smelled down in Virginia -- the temptation toward centralized government. Just a thought.