After a voyage of sixty-six days, which had been tempestuous all the way, the ship Lyon dropped anchor in the calm waters of Boston Bay. This was on Feb. 5, 1631. Among her passengers was one who is quaintly described as being “godly and zealous, having precious gifts.” This was no other than Roger Williams, whose quiet and unostentation appearing presaged such momentous events for the New World. It was not long before he was made to realize the truth of the words of the most eminent nonconformist of his time, that “new presbyter is but old priest writ large.”
The people of Boston, although their religious practices were diametrically opposed to those of the Church of England, were still legally and technically members of that communion. They had never separated from the established church of their native land. This appears to have been largely a mere matter of policy. They had not openly avowed their separation for fear that to do so might bring persecution upon them.
But with Williams separation from the Church of England had been a sincere matter of conscience. With him it was no form, but deep heart work. It must ever be remembered that the religion of Williams was of that high, simply pure, and spiritual nature, so rare then and so rare now. When he left the Church of England his sensitive soul had been wrenched and torn. To him the detachment had been painful, and he had only taken the step because he believed that the blessing of the Father of Lights could not be with him if he did not. Once he had regarded the Church of England as the fold of Christ. With sadness he awoke to the belief that she was not, and with bleeding spirit he tore himself from her bosom.
The attitude of the Puritans of Boston was to him, therefore, hypocritical. He dwelt in an atmosphere of spirituality far above them. They could not understand his view of things. Like the Pharisees of old, they thought only of a carnal or temporal kingdom of the Lord Jesus. This will be more and more evident as the story proceeds.
The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had indeed fled from Old England because they had been persecuted for their faith. Verily they came to New England in order that they might have liberty to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. But they never entertained any idea of setting up a State wherein men of all faiths, or of no faith at all, might do as they pleased in matters spiritual – in things pertaining to the soul. This thought was farthest from their mind.
Their intention, when they left the Old World, was to establish a theocracy modeled that of ancient Israel. Clearly they forgot, or never knew, that God Himself had said of that fabric and form of government: “I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it; and it shall be no more, until He come whose right it is; and I will give it Him.”1 To the Puritans, England represented Egypt; the Atlantic, the Red Sea; New England was the land of Canaan, and the Indians were the Amalekites, Amorites, and Philistines, who were worthy only of death.
The exact view which they held of the proper relation of Church and State is ably set forth by John Cotton, who for nineteen years was the “unmitered pope” of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in whose honor the city now called Boston received that name. 2 Here are his own words:—
“It is letter that the commonwealth be fashioned according to the setting forth of God’s house, which is His church, than to accommodate the church frame to the civil State.” 3
It was not a union of the two–Church and State–which the Puritans desired, “for that signified some equality at least of authority; but it was a church dominating the State, and using it to carry out its will.”
These Puritans were intensely religious men. They earnestly desired that sin might be banished from the community. They were not naturally either heartless or cruel. Their atrocious persecutions sprang not from incarnate wickedness, but from their system. The more closely they adhered to that system the more unbearable did they make things for all within their jurisdiction, whose religious views did not wholly accord with their own.
Thus, the State was the servant, the tool, of the church. And the clergy ruled the church; for no one could be proposed for membership therein unless allowed by the elders. So says Hutchinson: “This must needs render the influence of the clergy very great under the Old Constitution. Nobody could be proposed for a member unless the minister allowed it. Nobody could be admitted a freeman unless he was a member of the church.”4
It follows from this that any one to become a freeman, that is a member of the body politic, must first be a member of the church. “By this means the clergy administered the temporal power and held fast thereto until the charter was wrested from their grasp in 1684.”5
The Puritans further believed that the Bible should be the statue-book of the State. The Ten Commandments were the supreme law of the land, and the corner-stone of their whole governmental edifice. Disobedience to parents, adultery, the worship of false gods, and covetousness, were all alike capital crimes punishable with death.
These things brought Roger Williams into immediate conflict with the authorities of Massachusetts Bay. He denied fearlessly, resolutely, and uncompromisingly that the civil magistrate had any jurisdiction over things religious, proclaiming instead, that in soul-matters “soul weapons” could only of right be used. He said that the civil ruler had a right to restrain crime, but no right to control opinion. Guilt should be punished, but inward freedom should never be infringed. The sacredness of the conscience was the almighty tenet which from first to last he so bravely defended.
This noble principle was exactly opposite to every theory of government which the Puritans held. It would wipe every religious statute from off the statute-book; it would extinguish the fires which had so long been burning on the altars of persecution, and repeal every act compelling attendance on public worship, and give equal protection to every class of creed and form of faith. His was a ringing annunciation of that grand old truth spoken by the Master Himself:—
“Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”6
It virtually said to the oppressed of every land and clime: “Beneath my shadow and within my domain, find rest to your souls. Whether you be Jews or Christians, Roman Catholics or Mohammedans, you may worship your god in your own way, so long as you do not commit breaches of the civil peace.”
How different is all this from the position taken by John Cotton, who in a draft of laws for the colony of Massachusetts said:—
“Whosoever shall profane the Lord’s day by doing unnecessary work, by unnecessary traveling, or by sports and recreations, he or they who so transgress shall forfeit forty shillings or be publicly whipped; but if it shall appear to have been done presumptuously, such person or persons shall be put to death, or otherwise severely punished at the discretion of the court.
No one shall run on the Sabbath day, walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently to and from meeting.
No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave on the Sabbath day.”7
In what, then, did the government of New England differ from that of Old England? The English threw off the tyranny of the pope and substituted for it that of the bishops. In Massachusetts they threw off the tyranny of the bishops and established that of the brethren. This was tersely put by William Blackstone in the parting shot which he threw at the New England clergy: “I came from England because I did not like the Lord-Bishops, but I cannot join with you because I will not be under the Lord-Brethren.”8 Of real religious liberty there was none in the Puritan system. All that had been accomplished was the substitution of many little local popes in place of one big pope centrally located at Rome.
Williams maintained that the people were the origin of all free power in government; but that they were not invested by Christ Jesus with power to rule in His church; that they could give no such power to the magistrate, and that to “introduce the civil sword” into the kingdom of Christ, “was to confound heaven and earth, and lay all upon heaps of confusion.”9 He maintained the then novel doctrine that the ecclesiastical should be totally separated from the civil power; and boldly demanded that the church and the magistracy should each act within its appropriate sphere.
There was clearly no place for Williams in Boston, but the church at Salem needed a minister and called Roger Williams to the charge. This greatly displeased the people at Boston, who remonstrated with their brethren at Salem for not consulting them in the matter. They made things so unpleasant for him that he finally left Salem and went to Plymouth, where he remained for two years, supporting himself by manual labor, and teaching the church among the Pilgrim Fathers.
By Percy T. Magan.
1 Ezekiel 21:27
2 Prior to coming across the water, John Cotton had labored in the ministry at Boston, England.
3 See Mr. Cotton’s letter to Lord Say and Sele, 1636, Thomas Hutchinson, vol. I, appendix 3.
4 Thomas Hutchinson’s “Original Papers of Mass. Bay,” p. 88.
5 Oscar Solomon Straus, Roger Williams: The Pioneer of Religious Liberty, p. 19.
6 Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25.
7 Quoted by James Augustus Hessey in: Sunday: Its Origin, History, and Present Obligation, Bampton Lectures, Lecture VII, “The Lord’s Day in England Since The Reformation,” p. 285. London 1860.
8 William Blackstone quoted in: An Address Delivered at the Formation of the Blackstone Monument Association, by Sylvanus Chace Newman, 1855.
9 Roger Williams quoted in: Life of Roger Williams, the Earliest Legislator and True Champion for a Full and Absolute Liberty of Conscience, Romeo Elton, D.D., F.R.P.S., 1852.