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Roger Williams and His Quest for Religious Purity

October 5, 2017

Roger Williams:  His Quest for Religious Purity, Founding of Rhode Island, and Bible-Based Defense of Freedom of Belief

Puritan dissident Roger Williams was a pioneer of religious freedom in America.  Williams, a Puritan pastor in Salem, Massachusetts, believed in God’s supreme rule and the limitation of human power.  Yet he differed from traditional Puritan thinking and Governor John Winthrop in several ways, though the two men liked one another.  Much like the Pilgrims, Williams thought it was necessary to separate from the existing church (in his case from the Puritans’ official Congregational Church in Massachusetts) in order to form a more pure one.  Thus he separated himself from both the Anglican and Congregational state churches.

Williams was an advocate of freedom of conscience (or belief) and of greater distinction between church and civil government.  The official church in Massachusetts, to him, was impure due to its combined church and government and its oppressive practices to regulate religious beliefs and doctrine.  Such characteristics, to Williams, did not accurately reflect…

The separation Williams sought between church and government, say some scholars, turned over the understandings of the time not only of state church establishments but of the church itself.  Williams was banished from the colony of Massachusetts for his dissident beliefs and in 1643 founded the religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island.

Rhode Island was “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.”  This experimental colony supported freedom of belief and greater separation of church and government.  The colony did not have a state church, allowed peaceable differences of religious opinion, and viewed God alone as ruler of conscience.  Though Catholics, Jews, and atheists did not have full rights, their beliefs were tolerated.  Rhode Island’s government was “democratical,” held by the consent of all and by majority rule in secular matters.  The colony became a refuge for religious minorities–Quakers, Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Antinomians, etc.–who fled from religious intolerance or persecution.

In 1644, Williams wrote The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience (The Bloody Tenet) in support of freedom of belief and against religious coercion and persecution.  The Bible was the foundational source of his arguments, and some of his arguments were similar to reformer Martin Luther’s.  Williams advocated for free thought and belief because it was, he believed, the only means to true faith and religion.  His ideas raised questions and challenges but endured and solidified over time.  In response to Williams, Puritan pastor John Cotton wrote in 1647 The Bloudy Tenent, Washed and Made White in the Bloude of the Lambe to argue against some of Williams’s views.  Cotton supported, for example, the implementation of Old Testament law and religious conformity.  In response to Cotton, Williams wrote his 1652 The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody: by Mr. Cotton’s Endeavor to Wash it White in the Blood of the Lambe in which he reasserted his views.

From AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Related Blog:  What were the first experiments in freedom of belief and religious tolerance in America?

Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Additional Reading/Handout:  Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath, American Heritage Education Foundation.  Paper available to download from member resources, americanheritage.org.

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Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 1 of 2, Activity 6:  Thinking About Freedom of Conscience and Religion, p. 147.  MS-HS.

Thinking About Freedom of Conscience and Religion…

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Published by: The Founding

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