The Battle for Religious and Political Liberty
Part 8 – The New World
When the Puritans in 1620, landed at Plymouth Rock, did they, ‘walk in all the ways of the Lord, made or to be made known unto them?’ After all, this was their covenant promise – this is what made them Puritans – this is what made them different from all other Christians – this was the all-important reminder that John Robinson gave them before they departed. Was it from the pursuit, of the goals of this covenant, that our religious and political freedoms are derived today? Sadly, no! The people who sailed from the Old World to the New, followed the same path, that every other seeker, of religious freedom had trod before them. Namely, once they had obtained religious liberty for themselves, they denied the same right to others – just another case of religious liberty for me, but not for thee:
It was the desire for liberty of conscience that inspired the Pilgrims to brave the perils of the long journey across the sea, to endure the hardships and dangers of the wilderness, and with God’s blessing to lay, on the shores of America, the foundation of a mighty nation. Yet honest and God-fearing as they were, the Pilgrims did not yet comprehend the great principle of religious liberty. The freedom which they sacrificed so much to secure for themselves, they were not equally ready to grant to others. “Very few, even of the foremost thinkers and moralists of the seventeenth century, had any just conception of that grand principle, the outgrowth of the New Testament, which acknowledges God as the sole judge of human faith.” (Martyn, volume 5, page 297). E. G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 292.
Puritanism become the ‘established religion’ in the early American colonies, and they were quick to use the law, to enforce their religion and use the magistrate to punish dissenters. In so doing, they were acting just like the Magisterial Reformers, that they were trying to escape from – appointing themselves as the judges of everything – and not just judges of church or theological issues, but all things pertaining to morality and society in general. In other words, as soon they escaped to the other side of the world, they traded in their Free Church credentials, for sacralism:
For them, (the Puritans) the Anglican church and its hierarchy were not only too much like the Roman Catholic denomination but were contrary to scripture. But they were very like the medieval popes in one thing: They asserted the right to determine morality, coupled with the right to punish those who departed from that determination. John J. Robinson, Born in Blood, (Arrow Books, London, 1989), pp. 297,298.
Some of the laws they imposed on the American colonies were just as draconian as anything found in the Old World. For example, when the colony of Jamestown was founded in Virginia, the law governing church attendance, in the colony of Virginia, included the following:
Every man and woman shall repair in the morning to the divine service and sermons preached upon the Sabbath (Sunday), and in the afternoon to divine service, and catechizing… upon pain for the first fault to lose their provision and the allowance for the whole week following; for the second, to lose the said allowance and also be whipped; and for the third to suffer death! Laws, and Orders, Divine, Politique, & Martial for the Colony in Virginia: https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/_Articles_Laws_and_Orders_Divine_Politic_and_Martial_for_the_Colony_of_Virginia_1612
In Virginia, it was three strikes and you were out, just for not attending church. Other offences that included the death penalty were; blasphemy, speaking maliciously against the Word of God, or the Trinity – in addition, there were many moral offences, such as adultery, that carried the death sentence. It was into this world that Roger Williams stepped.
Roger Williams, is the most important person. that most people have never heard of. His contribution to the freedoms that we enjoy today, is arguably the greatest that any one individual has ever made. The story of Roger Williams is direct testimony to the assertion that ‘the power of one’ truly does exist. Our pursuit of the origins of religious liberty, political liberty and the rights of the individual, have led us on a long journey, and eventually we have to acknowledge the influence of one man, Roger Williams.
As a Puritan, Roger Williams chaffed under the strict dominion of the Anglican Church in England. To enjoy religious freedom, he left for America in 1630.
Eleven years after the planting of the first colony, Roger Williams came to the New World. Like the early Pilgrims he came to enjoy religious freedom; but unlike them, he saw – what so few in his time had yet seen – that this freedom was the inalienable right of all, whatever might be their creed. He was an earnest seeker for truth… holding it impossible that all the light from God’s word had yet been received. Williams “was the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions before the law.”—Bancroft, pt. 1, ch. 15, par. 16. He declared it to be the duty of the magistrate to restrain crime, but never to control the conscience. E. G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 293.
Either Roger Williams must have been a great Bible student, or he was a member of an obscure branch of the Free Church, that we know virtually nothing of. This assertion must be true, because as soon as he arrived in the New World, his ‘strange’ ideas about religious liberty, immediately put him offside with the local authorities. All historical sources tell the same story about what happened when he arrived in Boston:
The church in Boston, offered Williams a temporary post in 1631. However, Williams declined the position on grounds that it was ‘an unseparated church’ – (meaning it was involved with the governance of the colony). In addition, he asserted that civil magistrates must not punish any sort of “breach of the first table” of the Ten Commandments, such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy, and that individuals should be free to follow their own convictions in religious matters. These three principles became central to his teachings and writings: separatism, liberty of conscience, and separation of church and state. Wikipedia, art. Roger Williams.
Williams was a man ahead of his times. He understood that liberty of conscious and religious liberty, could only be obtained and secured, if it was freely offered to all. He understood that his own personal religious liberty could only be guaranteed if others had the same freedom to disagree with him. He wrote:
God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be in acted and in forced in any civil state. Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience.
When Roger Williams arrived in the New World, there were several separate colonies already established – and he got into trouble with almost all of them. Finally, in 1635 he was tried for sedition and heresy, charged with diverse, new and dangerous opinions. Yes, the freedom of conscious that we enjoy today, was diverse, new and dangerous less than 400 years ago. So, in relative terms we have not progressed far from ancient Athens, where we started our journey over 2400 years ago.
Williams was convicted and banished from the colonies. He was allowed to stay temporarily because he was sick and it was winter, on the condition that he stopped preaching his ‘heresy.’ But he refused to be quiet, and before they came to arrest him, he fled during a blizzard. Fleeing under such conditions in winter, would normally have been a death sentence. But Williams was a man of principle, he had advanced views on many issues, he was a champion of many unpopular causes. He was an abolitionist (anti-slavery), and he was also a champion of an even more unpopular cause – Native Indian rights. And because he was a friend of the Indians, they took him in and basically saved his life during that winter. Eventually, Roger William’s founded his own colony:
Making his way at last, after months of change and wandering, to the shores of Narragansett Bay, he there laid the foundation of the first state in modern times that in the fullest sense recognized the right of religious freedom. The fundamental principle of Roger William’s colony was “that every man should have liberty to worship God according to the light of his own conscience.” Martyn vol. 5, p. 354. His little state, Rhode Island, became the asylum of the oppressed, and it increased and prospered until its foundation principles—civil and religious liberty—became the cornerstones of the American Republic. Ellen White, The Great Controversy, p. 295.
Historically, Roger Williams was the first prominent advocate, for the separation of church and state. He said that state churches promoted ‘forced worship’ – which he said, was the ‘rape of the soul’ and ‘stank in the nostrils of God.’ He considered that the changes that Constantine brought in, resulted in the death of the Christian Church and that Constantine was a worse enemy of Christianity than Nero. Nero was responsible for heinous crimes against Christians during his reign, but the Constantinian changes resulted in oceans of blood over hundreds of years. He believed that the proper function of Government was to regulate the relationships between men, but not the relationship between God and men. As a result of his convictions, Williams was the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty of conscience – the equality of opinions before the law. The law of Rhode Island, from its foundation by Williams, stated:
Otherwise than this what is herein forbidden, all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, everyone in the name of God. And let the lambs of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation, in the name of Jehovah their God, for ever and ever. Rhode Island Law Code, 1647.
Even though his ideas were virtually universally opposed by his contemporaries. The ideas he espoused and the truths he preached, became almost universally accepted by later generations of Americans. The seeds sown by Roger Williams found fertile ground in the minds of Americans. America was settled by people who loved and respected the Bible. They were people who wanted to order their lives on biblical principles. In the New World they were able to grasp new biblical concepts, concepts that were only fleetingly glimpsed in the Old World. Following the Bible, they adopted the principles first enunciated in America by Roger Williams.
By the time of the American Revolution these biblical principles of freedom of conscious and religious liberty were commonly held all over America. For this proof we only need to examine the opinions of some of the founding fathers of the American Republic:
Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience. George Washington.
God hath created the mind free… all attempts to influence it by… civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy… and are a departure from the plan of the holy Author… who being Lord of both body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His almighty power to do. Thomas Jefferson.
The American Constitution
However, even at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the delegates did not get it completely right. It was left to that special little state, Rhode Island, to remind the founders of the new republic, what was needed to safeguard the new nation. The Rhode Island government refused to ratify the constitution that was worked out in Philadelphia. They refused to ratify it, because they were not satisfied that the constitution, as it stood, adequately protected the individual rights of men. So, Rhode Island proposed twelve amendments to the constitution, ten of which were accepted. These ten amendments are now known as the Bill of Rights and are now firmly embedded in the political psyche of America. For the purposes of our study the first amendment is the most important:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.
With the vital contribution of Rhode Island, the constitution of America was completed and it has stood ever since as a beacon of freedom and a bulwark to tyranny:
The framers of the Constitution recognized the eternal principle that man’s relation with his God is above human legislation, and his rights of conscience inalienable. Reasoning was not necessary to establish this truth; we are conscious of it in our own bosoms. It is this consciousness which, in defiance of human laws, has sustained so many martyrs in tortures and flames. They felt that their duty to God was superior to human enactments, and that man could exercise no authority over their consciences. It is an inborn principle which nothing can eradicate. — Congressional documents (U.S.A.), serial No. 200, document No. 271. Quoted by Ellen White, Great Controversy, p. 295.
Here we see the biblical principle of separation of church and state enshrined in law. This is the first reversal of the changes, that Constantine brought into Christianity, back in the fourth century. Up until now Constantinianism had been the norm and few questioned it. Now there was a new power rising that directly challenged the old order. The USA and its constitution became ‘a light on a high hill’ for the rest of the nations of the world. When it came to the bicentenary of the American Revolution, Time magazine and the New York Times reported, that of the 170 nations, that existed at that time, more than 160 had written charters modelled directly or indirectly on the U.S. version.
This is why the United States of America appears in the Book of Revelation. It is included in Bible Prophecy because it occupies a unique place in the history of the world. Jesus said the truth shall set you free. America is the nation that taught the rest of the world, by example, how the truth sets us free. By enshrining biblical principles of liberty, beginning with the mind – the freedom to think for ourselves – America has led the rest of the world into all the other freedoms that goes with it. It is no accident that the first amendment begins with freedom of religion, then it goes on to freedom of speech – then it goes on to freedom of the press (which is the freedom to write what we freely think and freely speak) – then it deals with the freedom to challenge the government. Then the second amendment deals with the freedom to defend oneself, and so it goes on from one freedom to the next, all beginning with the freedom of the conscious. This is what was first achieved in America, and not anywhere else (not legislatively, enshrined in the law).
America is a land, that is the opposite of all that went before. It is not Platonic – it is the opposite of Platonism. The reason why Plato is heralded as the father of Western Civilization, is because up until the establishing of the United States of America, Plato was indeed the father of Western Civilization (as it existed before the rise of America). For all those years Platonism, and its sacral stepsisters, Constantinianism and Augustinianism reigned supreme. It is only since the arrival of the United States that Western Civilization has become identified with religious liberty, democracy and individual rights. And this is only because, the United States example, has appealed to the people of the world and has been copied by them.
But this American innovation is only a recent one – it is only 240 plus years old. This small recent innovation in the governance of mankind, is nothing compared to the many thousands of years of sacral dominance. The sacral world has never gone away. It was never defeated by the USA innovation. It has only retreated. The Book of Revelation is about the sacral come back, that takes over the whole world. The US innovation is/will be overthrown. Sacralism will triumph again, but it will only be for a short time. And then Jesus will return, and Jesus promised us, “If the Son of man sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36).