Christianity, Soul Liberty, and the American Experiment

Earlier this year I purchased a copy of “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty” by John M. Barry and I am very glad I did. In my lifetime there has been an almost non-stop erosion of liberty in the United States. This has caused me to think long and hard about the principles that the founding fathers based our country on. Feelings of impending doom tend to make people, such as myself, more reflective about such things.

I highly recommend John Barry’s book on Roger Williams even though I want to provide a caveat. Mr. Barry is definitely liberal politically (I use that term in its 21st century sense) and it comes through strongly in his biography of Williams. Rather than taking away from the book I actually think it enhances it. There were many sections where Mr. Barry is obviously shocked that a Christian would be arguing for liberty. Not only did Williams argue for “soul liberty” but he did so from scripture. It appears that Mr. Barry has never seen that happen before and his sense of surprise comes through. I blame this on the contemporary American church much more than I blame it on Mr. Barry. When was the last time any of you heard a pastor give a passionate and methodical defense of freedom? Oh my, how the mighty have fallen.

I have been noticing a general retreat on this front by Christians for some time now. My parents were listening to sermons by a mostly doctrinally solid pastor of a Bible church in Houston. As time went on he began to regularly rail against the “independent American” and ask “where did this come from?” He was implying that it didn’t come from the Bible but my parents, and I, think he is very wrong about this. Because of this, and some other issues, my parents moved on and have begun listening to another pastor-teacher.

This entire idea of bashing the “independent American” is also becoming common in American Calvinist circles (please see “New Calvinism’s Anti-American Propaganda”). All I can say about this is that my Calvinist contemporaries are listening to the wrong kind of Calvinist because Roger Williams was definitely a Calvinist and he would defend the “independent American.”

Before I go on and quote some of Roger Williams thinking on this topic I would like to add one thing. Roger Williams believed that the government was responsible only for enforcing the “right table” of the Ten Commandments. This went directly against the beliefs of his Calvinist contemporaries who believed that the state was responsible for enforcing all of the Ten Commandments. It also goes against the contemporary secular American belief that the state should not enforce any of the Ten Commandments. With that being said here are the “two tables” of the Ten Commandments:

Left Table of the Ten Commandments – Mankind’s Responsibilities Toward God:
1. Thou shall have no other gods but me.
2. Thou shall not bow before idols.
3. Thou shall not use my name in vain.
4. Thou shall remember the Sabbath day.

Right Table of the Ten Commandments – Mankind’s Responsibilities Toward People:
5. Honor you father and mother.
6. Thou shall not kill
7. Thou shall not commit adultery.
8. Thou shall not steal.
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
10. Thou shall not covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor.
See Exodus 20:3-17

I will now provide two quotes regarding Roger Williams’s beliefs about persecution and the proper role of government:

In a preface addressed to Parliament at the beginning of The Bloudy Tenant Yet More Bloudy, Williams summarized the essence of persecution: “All violence to conscience turns upon these two hinges. First, of restraining from that worshipping of a god or gods, which the consciences of men in their respective worships (all the world over) believe to be true. Secondly, of constraining to the practicing or countenancing of that whereof their consciences are not persuaded.” Persecution, thus, might take the form of fines, whippings, or banishments arising out of matters relating to conscience and worship. Punishing people for not coming to church constituted persecution for cause of conscience, as did withdrawing civil privileges or rights on account of one’s religious beliefs. And, importantly, requiring individuals to support with taxes a religion or worship in which they did not believe was also a violation of religious freedom. The combined effect of compulsory church attendance and compulsory support of ministers was to require unbelievers to pay for the privilege of having preachers try to convert them. Like his contemporary John Milton, Williams sought to protect the individual conscience from “the paw / Of hireling wolves, whose Gospel is their maw.”

Separating Church and State: ROGER WILLIAMS AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
by Timothy L. Hall
pp. 90-91

Of course in the 21st century we have replaced the “state church” with a secular version. I am compelled to support things through my taxes that I find offensive. I still have to pay the “hireling wolf” to lecture me about right and wrong.

Here is another quote:

In any event, the previous discussion of Williams’s understanding of the legitimate scope of the civil government’s power should be recalled to understand the implicit limit upon the government’s authority over conscience. Williams did not simply define an inviolate area of conscience and leave the government free to act in any manner outside this narrowly prescribed area. For him, both government and conscience limits. The civil government was limited to its responsibility for preserving peace and civility. Thus, neither Williams’s letter to Providence concerning taxes nor his ship of state letter may be read as subjecting the claims of conscience to any generally applicable law so long as it does not deliberately infringe upon religious belief or act. Rather, in both cases Williams saw conscience subjected to particular laws, and he viewed these laws as within the specific scope of the government’s ordained responsibilities.

Separating Church and State: ROGER WILLIAMS AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
by Timothy L. Hall
p. 109

EXTRA CREDIT: With the brief introduction I have given above I recommend you read “You’re an inbred white trash hick, and I say that because I value tolerance” and try to imagine how Roger Williams would respond to this contemporary political hot potato.

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