One of Us

Joe Barnhart

On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams, edited by James Calvin Davis (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, ISBN 13-978-0674-02622) 288 pp. Cloth $49.95.


The clear and informed “Introduction: Roger Williams and the Birth of an American Ideal” is worth the price of On Religious Liberty. Drawing from historian E.S. Gaustad, Ola Elizabeth Winslow, and other specialists in seventeenth-century New England history, James Calvin Davis has organized Roger Williams’s major writings regarding liberty of conscience and the complex issue of the balance between religious liberty and social order.

Davis helps us see why Williams’s grasp of the issues gives his writings at once more depth and scope than John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. Unlike Locke, Williams understood that liberty must go beyond mere toleration, which fails to deal forthrightly with individuals’ right to both believe and practice their religion so long as they respect the civil peace. Unlike Locke and Cromwell, Williams the Protestant insisted that the right of individual conscience be extended to Muslims, Catholics, and others, including atheists.

Humanists—whether secular or religious—can find in Roger Williams a powerful ally. Himself a Puritan, Williams was also a lifelong humanist who, despite the fierce prejudices of his time, observed firsthand that the American Natives with whom he lived enjoyed the common moral sense and rational conscience that Europeans enjoyed. Indeed, he regarded some of the Native Americans as more morally developed than many of the English. While recognizing the diversity among human beings, Williams wrote profoundly of social cooperation and the “sociableness” of human nature. One of his poems speaks of the Native Americans’ “humanity,” while his prose appeals to reason, Scripture, and hard-won experience.

Roger Williams believed that the state owed the individual protection to believe and propagate his or her beliefs. But he argued that the state had no duty to protect any set of religious beliefs or doctrines from criticism or refutation. For him, the individual, not the nation, is the moral agent. Furthermore, churches are composed of individuals who need the freedom to determine for themselves what church or group they will or will not embrace. Drawing upon the evidence of experience and history, Williams turned Puritan theology on itself by contending that, far from contributing to social and moral harmony, religious coercion created hostility, resentment, rebellion, and martyrdom. It also bred deceit and hypocrisy in the hearts of those who chose to conform outwardly rather than suffer death, imprisonment, or physical punishment.

In his debates in both New England and England, Williams made a threefold case. Arguing from the perspective of a Christian insider, he insisted that civil enforcement of religious uniformity violated the spirit of the gospel and opposed the intentions of Christ. “Christianity,” he said, “fell asleep in Constantine’s bosom.”

On the political front, Williams rejected the conventional Puritan assumption that Christian uniformity was essential to a good society. He called for separation of church and state because using one as the agent of the other succeeded in corrupting both. It further did injury to human conscience, which was universal and functioned best when free to be persuaded by reason and good example.

Practically speaking, Williams contended, religious persecution not only did not increase public virtue, it undermined conscience and its tie to reason. A good conscience needed to be informed and persuaded. To substitute force for reason is to deprive conscience of its proper sustenance. The civil magistrates rightly defend freedom of religion but not religion itself.

Davis makes a case that in many ways, Williams was more profound than Jefferson and Locke in contributing to the early American tradition that eventually developed into the First Amendment. The early Baptists in particular appreciated Williams’s principle of church-state separation. It was altogether fitting that when writing to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, Jefferson would use the “wall of separation” metaphor since the Baptists had helped construct that wall. The irony is that interlopers like the late Jerry Falwell and some of his disciples have tried to hijack the Baptist tradition and use it to revert to the New England Puritan notion that a modern nation like America could become a renewed version of ancient Israel, which had no principle of church-state separation. The more moderate Baptists today recognize the Falwell camp as the subverter of their rich heritage.

It was appropriate that in 1995 Paul Kurtz and Robert Alley organized a conference of humanists and traditional Baptists to affirm their mutual support of liberty of conscience and the many advantages of the First Amendment. The conference was a tribute to the memory of Roger Williams. (See Free Inquiry Winter 1995/96 for the joint declaration.)

Davis makes the treatises of Williams more readable by providing highly informative footnotes. The headings in bold print serve as a welcome map guiding the reader through Williams’s intense debates with the Reverend John Cotton and others.

Joe Barnhart

Joe Barnhart is at the University of North Texas, Department of Philosophy. He is a Contributing Editor of FREE INQUIRY.


On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams, edited by James Calvin Davis (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008, ISBN 13-978-0674-02622) 288 pp. Cloth $49.95. The clear and informed “Introduction: Roger Williams and the Birth of an American Ideal” is worth the price of On Religious Liberty. Drawing from …

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