The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Causes of Conscience, Roger Williams

Maura Jane Farrelly

Professor Maura Jane Farrelly, Brandeis University

Roger Williams was a Baptist, which made him a religious “dissenter” in England. Baptists, like Congregationalists and Presbyterians, were Calvinists – meaning their theology taught that human beings had no control over whether their souls were saved or damned.

Calvinists also believed that individual liberty was something God had given to all human beings, so that they would have the freedom to read the Bible and use their own reason (also a gift from God) to figure out what their obligations to God were.

Roger Williams migrated to Massachusetts from England in 1631. Unlike many of the English Calvinists in that colony, he was a Separatist, meaning he believed the Church of England was irredeemably corrupt and could not be fixed or “purified.” Most Baptists were Separatists, because they believed that any time a State supported a Church, it threatened the individual’s ability to read and interpret Scripture on his or her own.

Williams was banished from Massachusetts in 1635 because of his “extreme” ideas about church membership and relations with the Native American Indians. The following year, he and some of his followers purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and founded a community south of the Plymouth Colony called “Providence.” That community became the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Many years later, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson would use the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State” when writing to a group of Baptists about the First Amendment.

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Causes of Conscience was Williams’ response to the assertions of a Congregational minister in Boston named John Cotton. Cotton believed the government should play a role in securing religious uniformity in Massachusetts. Part of Williams’ response takes the form of a dialogue between “Peace” and “Truth” about the positions of a third entity, referred to as “the answerer,” who is John Cotton.

Questions to consider in this reading:

  • Why is it wrong for the State to persecute people for what they believe about God?
  • Is Williams a religious relativist?
  • Is Williams calling for religious liberty? Or religious toleration? What do you think the difference is?

The Bloudy Tenent[1] of Persecution, for Causes of Conscience

Roger Williams

1644

First, that the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists[2], 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[3], Mr. Cotton, and the ministers of the New English churches

Though he had adopted a Calvinist understanding of salvation, Roger Williams’ views on religious freedom were more extreme than John Calvin’s. Williams saw no circumstance under which it was appropriate for the State to punish or coerce a person for his or her religious beliefs. In contrast, Calvin allowed that there were some blasphemies that no magistrate was ever bound to ignore or protect. To that end, he supported the decision of civil authorities in Geneva to execute the theologian Michael Servetus in 1553 (although Calvin believed Servetus should have been beheaded, rather than burned at the stake). The formal charge against Servetus was that he denied the Doctrine of the Trinity, a core belief in Christianity that says God is three distinct “persons” in one being. Some historians feel, however, that the reason Calvin supported Servetus’ execution was that Servetus rejected predestination – a core tenet of Calvinism.

and others former and later, tending to prove the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Fourthly, the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.

Fifthly, all civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.

Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish[4], or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.

Seventhly, the state of the Land of Israel, the kings and people thereof in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor president[5] for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.

After Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, but before the election of Saul as King, the Jewish people were led by a series of theocratic Judges.

Eighthly, God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

Ninthly, in holding an enforced uniformity of religion in a civil state, we must necessarily disclaim our desires and hopes of the Jew’s conversion to Christ.

He’s not exactly a religious pluralist, is he?

Tenthly, an enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.

Eleventhly, the permission of other consciences and worships than a state professeth only can (according to God) procure a firm and lasting peace (good assurance being taken according to the wisdom of the civil state for uniformity of civil obedience from all forts).

Twelfthly, lastly, true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers[6] and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile…

TRUTH. I acknowledge that to molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrine, or practicing worship merely religious or spiritual, it is to persecute him, and such a person (whatever his doctrine or practice be, true or false) suffereth persecution for conscience. But withal I desire it may be well observed that this distinction is not full and complete: for beside this that a man may be persecuted because he holds or practices what he believes in conscience to be a truth (as Daniel did, for which he was cast into the lions’ den, Daniel 6), and many thousands of Christians, because they durst[7] not cease to preach and practice what they believed was by God commanded, as the Apostles answered (Acts 4 & 5), I say besides this a man may also be persecuted, because he dares not be constrained to yield obedience to such doctrines and worships as are by men invented and appointed…

PEACE. Dear TRUTH, I have two sad complaints:

First, the most sober of the witnesses, that dare to plead thy cause, how are they charged to be mine enemies, contentious, turbulent, seditious? Secondly, thine enemies, though they speak and rail against thee, though they outrageously pursue, imprison, banish, kill thy faithful witnesses, yet how is all vermilion’d o’er[8] for justice against the heretics? Yea, if they kindle coals, and blow the flames of devouring wars, that leave neither spiritual nor civil state, but burn up branch and root, yet how do all pretend an holy war? He that kills, and he that’s killed, they both cry out: “It is for God, and for their conscience.”

‘Tis true, nor one nor other seldom dare to plead the mighty Prince Christ Jesus for their author, yet (both Protestant and Papist) pretend they have spoke with Moses and the Prophets who all, say they (before Christ came), allowed such holy persecutions, holy wars against the enemies of holy church.

Here, “Peace” is lamenting the fact that peace is violated by both those who defend truth and those who deny it.  Note that throughout this essay, Williams assumes there is such a thing as “Truth” – and that anything that isn’t truth is falsehood. Something can’t be “somewhat true,” after all, any more than someone can be “somewhat pregnant.”

 

TRUTH. Dear PEACE (to ease thy first complaint), ’tis true, thy dearest sons, most like their mother, peacekeeping, peacemaking sons of God, have borne and still must bear the blurs of troublers of Israel, and turners of the world upside down… Yet strife must be distinguished: It is necessary or unnecessary, godly or Ungodly, Christian or unchristian, etc.  It is unnecessary, unlawful, dishonorable, ungodly, unchristian, in most cases in the world, for there is a possibility of keeping sweet peace in most cases, and, if it be possible, it is the express command of God that peace be kept (Romans 13). Again, it is necessary, honorable, godly, etc., with civil and earthly weapons to defend the innocent and to rescue the oppressed from the violent paws and jaws of oppressing persecuting Nimrods[9] (Psalms 73; Job 29). It is as necessary, yea more honorable, godly, and Christian, to fight the fight of faith, with religious and spiritual artillery, and to contend earnestly for the faith of Jesus, once delivered to the saints against all opposers, and the gates of earth and hell, men or devils, yea against Paul[10] himself, or an angel from heaven, if he bring any other faith or doctrine….

Again, some things are clearly true, and some things are clearly false. Williams merely believes that it is not appropriate to use physical violence to defend religious truth.

 

PEACE. I add that a civil sword (as woeful experience in all ages has proved) is so far from bringing or helping forward an opposite in religion[11] to repentance that magistrates sin grievously against the work of God and blood of souls by such proceedings. Because as (commonly) the sufferings of false and antichristian teachers harden their followers, who being blind, by this means are occasioned to tumble into the ditch of hell after their blind leaders, with more inflamed zeal of lying confidence.

Think about this in your own life… you’re never more aware of your identity as X (in this case, as a believer) than when you or the people who represent you are being persecuted for it.

So, secondly, violence and a sword of steel begets such an impression in the sufferers that certainly they conclude (as indeed that religion cannot be true which needs such instruments of violence to uphold it so) that persecutors are far from soft and gentle commiseration of the blindness of others…  On the other side, to batter down idolatry, false worship, heresy, schism, blindness, hardness, out of the soul and spirit, it is vain, improper, and unsuitable to bring those weapons which are used by persecutors, stocks, whips, prisons, swords, gibbets,[12] stakes, etc. (where these seem to prevail with some cities or kingdoms, a stronger force sets up again, what a weaker pull’d down), but against these spiritual strongholds in the souls of men, spiritual artillery and weapons are proper, which are mighty

This is the second time now that Williams has used this phrase, “spiritual artillery.”  What do you think he means by it?

through God to subdue and bring under the very thought to obedience, or else to bind fast the soul with chains of darkness, and lock it up in the prison of unbelief and hardness to eternity…

PEACE. I pray descend now to the second evil which you observe in the answerer’s[13] position, viz., that it would be evil to tolerate notorious evildoers, seducing teachers, etc.

TRUTH. I say the evil is that he most improperly and confusedly joins and couples seducing teachers with scandalous livers…Whereas he affirms that men may make laws to see the laws of God observed, I answer, God needeth not the help of a material sword of steel to assist the sword of the Spirit in the affairs of conscience, to those men, those magistrates, yea that commonwealth which makes such magistrates, must needs have power and authority from Christ Jesus to fit judge and to determine in all the great controversies concerning doctrine, discipline, government, etc. And then I ask whether upon this ground it must not evidently follow that: Either there is no lawful commonwealth nor civil state of men in the world, which is not qualified with this spiritual discerning (and then also that the very commonweal hath more light concerning the church of Christ than the church itself).

Or, that the commonweal and magistrates thereof must judge and punish as they are persuaded in their own belief and conscience (be their conscience paganish, Turkish, or antichristian).  What is this but to confound heaven and earth together, and not only to take away the being of Christianity out of the world, but to take away all civility, and the world out of the world, and to lay all upon heaps of confusion?…

Here, Williams is issuing a warning: If we say it’s okay for Christian civil magistrates to persecute non-Christians here, we forfeit the right to say non-Christian civil magistrates cannot persecute Christians in other parts of the world.

 

PEACE.  First, the proper means whereby the civil power may and should attain its end are only political, and principally these five.

First, the erecting and establishing what form of civil government may seem in wisdom most meet, according to general rules of the world, and state of the people.

Secondly, the making, publishing, and establishing of wholesome civil laws, not only such as concern civil justice, but also the free passage of true religion; for outward civil peace ariseth and is maintained from them both, from the latter as well as from the former. Civil peace cannot stand entire, where religion is corrupted (2 Chronicles 15. 3. 5. 6; and Judges 8). And yet such laws, though

Here, Williams is saying that civil leaders do have an obligation to secure the conditions that will allow for the right religious beliefs to thrive and find expression within the community. Williams does not believe that “freedom of religion means freedom from religion,” as the separation between Church and State is sometimes characterized in 21st century discourse. But creating the conditions that allow “true religion” to thrive cannot include civil laws that require attendance or membership in a particular church, provide financial support to a particular church, or forbid the expression of religious beliefs that were not “true.”

conversant about religion, may still be counted civil laws, as, on the contrary, an oath cloth still remain religious though conversant about civil matters.

Thirdly, election and appointment of civil officers to see execution to those laws.

Fourthly, civil punishments and rewards of transgressors and observers of these laws.

Fifthly, taking up arms against the enemies of civil peace.

Secondly, the means whereby the church may and should attain her ends are only ecclesiastical, which are chiefly five.

First, setting up that form of church government only of which Christ hath given them a pattern in his Word.

Secondly, acknowledging and admitting of no lawgiver in the church but Christ and the publishing of His laws.

Thirdly, electing and ordaining of such officers only, as Christ hath appointed in his Word.

Fourthly, to receive into their fellowship them that are approved and inflicting spiritual censures against them that offend.

Fifthly, prayer and patience in suffering any evil from them that be without, who disturb their peace.

So that magistrates, as magistrates, have no power of setting up the form of church government, electing church officers, punishing with church censures, but to see that the church does her duty herein. And on the other side, the churches as churches, have no power (though as members of the commonweal they may have power) of erecting or altering forms of civil government, electing of civil officers, inflicting civil punishments (no not on persons excommunicate) as by deposing magistrates from their civil authority, or withdrawing the hearts of the people against them, to their laws, no more than to discharge wives, or children, or servants, from due obedience to their husbands, parents, or masters; or by taking up arms against their magistrates, though he persecute them for conscience…

Some will here ask: What may the magistrate then lawfully do with his civil horn or power in matters of religion?

TRUTH.  The civil magistrate either respecteth that religion and worship which his conscience is persuaded is true, and upon which he ventures his soul; or else that and those which he is persuaded are false. Concerning the first, if that which the magistrate believeth to be true, be true, I say he owes a threefold duty unto it:

First, approbation and countenance, a reverent esteem and honorable testimony, according to Isaiah 49, and Revelation 21, with a tender respect of truth, and the professors of it.

Secondly, personal submission of his own soul to the power of the Lord Jesus in that spiritual government and kingdom, according to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5.

Thirdly, protection of such true professors of Christ, whether apart, or met together, as also of their estates from violence and injury, according to Romans 13.

Now, secondly, if it be a false religion (unto which the civil magistrate dare not adjoin, yet) he owes:

First, permission (for approbation he owes not what is evil) and this according to Matthew 13:30 for public peace and quiet’s sake.

Secondly, he owes protection to the persons of his subjects (though of a false worship), that no injury be offered either to the persons or goods of any….

Here, Williams is acknowledging the reality that civil magistrates were (and would be in the future) men of faith – true faith or false faith. What obligation, then, does a faithful magistrate have to the polity?

 

The God of Peace, the God of Truth will shortly seal this truth, and confirm this witness, and make it evident to the whole world, that the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience, is most evidently and lamentably contrary to the doctrine of Christ Jesus the Prince of Peace. Amen.

 

Print Source: Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Causes of Conscience Discussed and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered, Edward Bean Underhill, ed. (Kessinger Publishing: Whitefish, MT, 2004).


  1. This was a common spelling of the word “tenet” in the 17th century.
  2. “Papists” = Roman Catholics; the term was pejorative, but commonly used – it references the “loyalty” that Catholics were said to have to papal authority
  3. Theodore Beza, a Protestant theologian from Geneva who was a contemporary and follower of John Calvin.
  4. “Turkish” = Muslim
  5. Williams means “precedent” here.
  6. “divers” = diverse
  7. “durst” = dare
  8. “vermilion’d o’er” = “bloodied over”; vermilion is a red pigment
  9. In the book of Genesis, Nimrod is the great-grandson of Noah, descended through the line of Noah’s disrespectful son, Cham.  Some passages in the Talmud suggest that Nimrod was the leader who organized the building of the Tower of Babel, which was supposed to be tall enough to reach Heaven.  Williams uses the name “Nimrod” here as a stand-in for any leader who defies the will of God.
  10. Paul the Apostle was from Tarsus, in what is now Turkey.  He came from a prominent Jewish family, but converted to Christianity.  He devoted his life to spreading the message of Christianity throughout the Middle East.  Thirteen of the 27 books in the Christian New Testament are attributed to Paul.
  11. “forward an opposite in religion” = “bring about a religious conversion”
  12. a structure on which the executed bodies of accused criminals were displayed as a deterrent
  13. John Cotton – or anyone who supported his position

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Collaborative Curriculum: Bill of Rights Copyright © by Maura Jane Farrelly. All Rights Reserved.

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