Skip to site content

We Need to Read Roger Williams

Williams told us forcefully that the Prince of Peace should not be associated with our lust for forced conformity and reliance upon the civil government. The church has been given sufficient means to discipline itself, and to persuade others of the truth of the gospel.

The reading didn’t stop me from pursuing a career as a historian, but I did wonder if all church history was going to be so messy and difficult.   <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
I recently read Williams’ classic, The Bloody Tenent for Cause of Conscience, as an assignment for a conference hosted by the Center for Baptist Studies at <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Mercer University. I took solace in the words of the expert, Edwin Gaustad, that the writing of Roger Williams is messy and difficult.    
Despite the messiness, we need to read Roger Williams. In Williams, I read the convoluted but brilliant arguments of an Old Testament-styled prophet who took on all the forms of religious hypocrisy he could find in colonial Puritanism.    
Undoubtedly, I read a Biblicist: one immersed in a typological reading of the Bible that is foreign to our modern ears. Yet, I read a prophet who relentlessly hammered out the folly of the union of church and state and the necessity of voluntarism and individual judgment for authentically free faith.   
I read a pious restorationist who dreamed of an elusive apostolic faith, yet I read the dissent of a gadfly who appeared to accept nothing of a fundamentalist-styled conformity in the Puritan establishment. I read a lover of religious freedom, who would never force his views upon anyone because of the corrosive and deceptive effects of the self-righteousness of spiritual finality. Yet, I read a passionate believer whose liberty also meant he could and would tell others he thought they were very wrong. 
In Williams, I read not one motivated by religious indifference, but a zealous Christian who wanted liberty of conscience to preserve purity in the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world.   
Let me elaborate on a few of these images. Like the Old Testament prophet who lashed out against the wealthy in their oppression of the poor, Williams saw more humanity in Native Americans who would never force worship upon anyone or commit spiritual rape.   
I hope we have no difficulty recognizing Williams’ convictions about the hypocrisy of a national church, the misuse of carnal weapons against the conscience, and the incompetent and inappropriate use of the spiritual sword by civil magistrates. 
“It is rare to find a king, prince or governor like Christ Jesus,” wrote Williams, who also noted that Jesus and Paul never relied on the power of the magistrate to support them.    
So many people today identify religious liberty with absolute tolerance and a lack of conviction. The Bloody Tenent reminds us that freedom means the willingness to live side by side with people you don’t like or trust. In vitriolic language, Williams called Catholics whores, and the English Anglican and Puritan establishments were their daughters.  
He ridiculed Anabaptists for their denial of the possibility of a magistrate being a Christian. He lambasted the free will of Arminianism as popish doctrine. Perhaps we should enjoy the liberty Williams grants us to question his Calvinism.    
Williams was no modern ecumenist. He might excommunicate many of us. John Cotton, his Puritan opponent, thought he could justify persecution because people sinned against their conscience. Williams judged that Cotton was deluded by his self-righteousness. The state has no business deciding who is elect or not.  
The prophetic dissenter knew that what was fundamental to one group was not always fundamental to others. In the end, however, Williams said we could live side by side because, despite all our convictions, he humbly admitted we might be wrong this side of heaven.   
The unrelenting force of Williams’ argument that the “tenent” of a national church dripped in blood has been seen over and over again in history. Williams told us forcefully that the Prince of Peace should not be associated with our lust for forced conformity and reliance upon the civil government. The church has been given sufficient means to discipline itself, and to persuade others of the truth of the gospel. 
Good words to heed from the old curmudgeon we claim as the founder of the first Baptist church in America.   
Doug Weaver is professor of Christianity and chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga.