|A Plea for Religious Liberty
[Roger Williams (ca. 1603-83), religious leader and
one of the founders of Rhode
Island, was the son of a well-to-do London businessman. Educated at
(A.B., 1627) he became a clergyman and in 1630 sailed for
refused a call to the church of Boston because it had not formally
the Church of England, but after two invitations he became the
later pastor, of the church at Salem. He questioned the right of the
to take the Indians' land from them merely on the legal basis of the
charter and in other ways ran afoul of the oligarchy then ruling
In 1635 he was found guilty of spreading "new authority of
magistrates" and was
ordered to be banished from the colony. He lived briefly with
and then, in 1636, founded Providence in what was to be the colony
Island and Providence Plantations. His religious views led him to
a Baptist, later a Seeker. In 1644, while he was in England getting
for his colony from Parliament, he wrote the work from which this
taken. During much of his later life he was engaged in polemics on
religious questions. He was an important figure in the intellectual
life of his
time, though the direct influence of his writings is considered by
Brockunier to have been slight: "Earliest of the fathers of American
he owes his enduring fame to his humanity and breadth of view, his
devotion to the cause of democracy and free opportunity, and his
long record of
opposition to the privileged and self-seeking"]
First, that the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of
Papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages, for their
consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince
Secondly, pregnant scriptures and arguments are throughout the
against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.
Thirdly, satisfactory answers are given to scriptures, and
by Mr. Calvin, Beza, Mr. Cotton, and the ministers of the New
and others former and later, tending to prove the doctrine of
cause of conscience.
Fourthly, the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is
of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.
Fifthly, all civil states with their officers of justice in their
constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and
not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian
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, or
consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and
and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only
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
peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern
for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.
Eighthly, God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted
in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is
occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of
Christ Jesus in
his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of
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
Tenthly, an enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or
confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of
civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.
Eleventhly, the permission of other consciences and worships than a
professeth only can (according to God) procure a firm and lasting
assurance being taken according to the wisdom of the civil state for
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 and contrary
either of Jew or Gentile....
TRUTH. I acknowledge that to molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for
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
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, Dan. 6), and many thousands of
because they durst 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....
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, shine enemies, though they speak and rail against thee,
outrageously pursue, imprison, banish, kill thy faithful witnesses,
yet how is
all vermilion'd o'er for justice against the heretics? Yea, if they
coals, and blow the flames of devouring wars, that leave neither
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,
'Tis true, nor one nor other seldom dare to plead the mighty Prince
for their author, yet (both Protestant and Papist) pretend they have
Moses and the Prophets who all, say they (before Christ came),
allowed such holy
persecutions, holy wars against the enemies of holy church.
TRUTH. Dear PEACE (to ease thy first complaint), 'tis true, thy
most like their mother, peacekeeping, peacemaking sons of God, have
still must bear the blurs of troublers of Israel, and turners of the
upside down. And 'tis true again, what Solomon once spake: "The
strife is as when one letteth out water, therefore (saith he) leave
contention before it be meddled with. This caveat should keep the
sluices firm and strong, that strife, like a breach of waters, break
not in upon
the sons of men."
Yet strife must be distinguished: It is necessary or unnecessary,
Ungodly, Christian or unchristian, etc.
It is unnecessary, unlawful, dishonorable, ungodly, unchristian, in
in the world, for there is a possibility of keeping sweet peace in
and, if it be possible, it is the express command of God that peace
Again, it is necessary, honorable, godly, etc., with civil and
to defend the innocent and to rescue the oppressed from the violent
jaws of oppressing persecuting Nimrods2 (Psal. 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
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 himself, or
from heaven, if he bring any other faith or doctrine....
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 to
that magistrates sin grievously against the work of God and blood of
such proceedings. Because as (commonly) the sufferings of false and
antichristian teachers harden their followers, who being blind, by
are occasioned to tumble into the ditch of hell after their blind
more inflamed zeal of lying confidence. So, secondly, violence and a
steel begets such an impression in the sufferers that certainly they
(as indeed that religion cannot be true which needs such instruments
to uphold it so) that persecutors are far from soft and gentle
the blindness of others....
For (to keep to the similitude which the Spirit useth, for instance)
down a stronghold, high wall, fort, tower, or castle, men bring not
a first and
second admonition, and after obstinacy, excommunication, which are
weapons concerning them that be in the church: nor exhortation to
repent and be
baptized, to believe in the Lord Jesus, etc., which are proper
weapons to them
that be without, etc. But to take a stronghold, men bring cannons,
saker, bullets, powder, muskets, swords, pikes, etc., and these to
this end are
weapons effectual and proportionable.
On the other side, to batter down idolatry, false worship, heresy,
blindness, hardness, out of the soul and spirit, it is vain,
unsuitable to bring those weapons which are used by persecutors,
prisons, swords, gibbets, stakes, etc. (where these seem to prevail
cities or kingdoms, a stronger force sets up again, what a weaker
but against these spiritual strongholds in the souls of men,
and weapons are proper, which are mighty through God to subdue and
the very thought to obedience, or else to bind fast the soul with
darkness, and lock it up in the prison of unbelief and hardness to
PEACE. I pray descend now to the second evil which you observe in
position, viz., that it would be evil to tolerate notorious
TRUTH. I say the evil is that he most improperly and confusedly
couples seducing teachers with scandalous livers.
PEACE. But is it not true that the world is full of seducing
teachers, and is it
not true that seducing teachers are notorious evildoers?
TRUTH. I answer, far be it from me to deny either, and yet in two
things I shall
discover the great evil of this joining and coupling seducing
scandalous livers as one adequate or proper object of the
magistrate's care and
work to suppress and punish.
First, it is not an homogeneal (as we speak) but an hetergeneal3
joining together of things most different in kinds and natures, as
if they were
both of one consideration....
TRUTH. I answer, in granting with Brentius4 that man hath not power
laws to bind conscience, he overthrows such his tenent and practice
men from their worship, according to their conscience and belief,
them to such worships (though it be out of a pretense that they are
which their own souls tell them they have no satisfaction nor faith
Secondly, whereas he affirms that men may make laws to see the laws
I answer, God needeth not the help of a material sword of steel to
sword of the Spirit in the affairs of conscience, to those men,
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,
And then I ask whether upon this ground it must not evidently follow
Either there is no lawful commonw earth nor civil state of men in
which is not qualified with this spiritual discerning (and then also
very commonweal hath more light concerning the church of Christ than
Or, that the commonweal and magistrates thereof must judge and
punish as they
are persuaded in their own belief and conscience (be their
Turkish, or antichristian) what is this but to confound heaven and
together, and not only to take away the being of Christianity out of
but to take away all civility, and the world out of the world, and
to lay all
upon heaps of confusion? . ..
PEACE. The fourth head is the proper means of both these powers to
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
Secondly, the making, publishing, and establishing of wholesome
not only such as concern civil justice, but also the free passage of
religion; for outward civil peace ariseth and is maintained from
from the latter as well as from the former.
Civil peace cannot stand entire, where religion is corrupted (2
Chron. 15. 3.
5. 6; and Judges 8). And yet such laws, though conversant about
still be counted civil laws, as, on the contrary, an oath cloth
religious though conversant about civil matters.
Thirdly, election and appointment of civil officers to see execution
Fourthly, civil punishments and rewards of transgressors and
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
given them a pattern in his Word.
Secondly, acknowledging and admitting of no lawgiver in the church
and the publishing of His laws.
Thirdly, electing and ordaining of such officers only, as Christ
appointed in his Word.
Fourthly, to receive into their fellowship them that are approved
inflicting spiritual censures against them that o end.
Fifthly, prayer and patience in suffering any evil from them that be
who disturb their peace.
So that magistrates, as magistrates, have no power of setting up the
church government, electing church officers, punishing with church
to see that the church does her duty herein. And on the other side,
as churches, have no power (though as members of the commonweal they
power) of erecting or altering forms of civil government, electing
officers, inflicting civil punishments (no not on persons
excommunicate) as by
deposing magistrates from their civil authority, or withdrawing the
the people against them, to their laws, no more than to discharge
children, or servants, from due obedience to their husbands,
masters; or by taking up arms against their magistrates, though he
them for conscience: for though members of churches who are public
of the civil state may suppress by force the violence of usurpers,
did Athaliah, yet this they do not as members of the church but as
the civil state.
TRUTH. Here are divers considerable passages which I shall briefly
far as concerns our controversy.
First, whereas they say that the civil power may erect and establish
of civil government may seem in wisdom most meet, I acknowledge the
to be most true, both in itself and also considered with the end of
it, that a
civil government is an ordinance of God, to conserve the civil peace
so far as concerns their bodies and goods, as formerly hath been
But from this grant I infer (as before hath been touched) that the
original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people (whom
they must needs
mean by the civil power distinct from the government set up). And,
if so, that a
people may erect and establish what form of government seems to them
for their civil condition; it is evident that such governments as
are by them
erected and established have no more power, nor for no longer time,
civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them
with. This is
clear not only in reason but in the experience of all commonweals,
people are not deprived of their natural freedom by the power of
And, if so, that the magistrates receive their power of governing
from the people, undeniably it follows that a people, as a people,
consider (of what nature or nation soever in Europe, Asia, Africa,
have fundamentally and originally, as men, a power to govern the
church, to see
her do her duty, to correct her, to redress, reform, establish, etc.
And if this
be not to pull God and Christ and Spirit out of heaven, and subject
natural, sinful, inconstant men, and so consequently to Satan
himself, by whom
all peoples naturally are guided, let heaven and earth judge....
PEACE. Some will here ask: What may the magistrate then lawfully do
civil horn or power in matters of religion?
TRUTH. His horn not being the horn of that unicorn or rhinoceros,
the power of
the Lord Jesus in spiritual cases, his sword not the two-edged sword
spirit, the word of God (hanging not about the loins or side, but at
and proceeding out of the mouth of his ministers) but of an humane
nature and constitution, it must consequently be of a humane and
operation, for who knows not that operation follows constitution;
I shall end this passage with this consideration:
The civil magistrate either respecteth that religion and worship
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, I say he owes a threefold duty unto it:
First, approbation and countenance, a reverent esteem and honorable
according to Isa. 49, and Revel. 21, with a tender respect of truth,
professors of it.
Secondly, personal submission of his own soul to the power of the
in that spiritual government and kingdom, according to Matt. 18 and
1 Cor. 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 Rom.
Now, secondly, if it be a false religion (unto which the civil
not adjoin, yet) he owes:
First, permission (for approbation he owes not what is evil) and
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
...The God of Peace, the God of Truth will shortly seal this truth,
this witness, and make it evident to the whole world, that the
persecution for cause of conscience, is most evidently and
to the doctrine of Christ Jesus the Prince of Peace. Amen.
1. Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution ...
("Publications of the
Narragansett Club" [Providence, R.I.], Vol. III ), pp. 3-4,
138-39, 148, 170-71, 201, 247-50, 372-73, 424-25.
2. See Gen. 10:8-9
3. Old forms for "homogeneous" and "heterogeneous."
4. Johann Brenz (1499-1570), German Lutheran theologian.