Roger Williams & Bay Colony

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 7, No. 1   September 2006

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United

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 anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries, and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the word of God." --- Roger Williams

Roger Williams and the Massachusetts Bay Colony

by Dr. Bruce Prescott

Engraving both the Mayflower Compact and the Ten Commandments on the same monument sends a strong signal that a Christian democratic theocracy is being endorsed. This is demonstrated by the signal importance of the Ten Commandments in the controversy that led to the expulsion of Roger Williams from the Massachusetts Bay theocracy.

In 1631 a Separatist minister named Roger Williams, educated at Cambridge under the patronage of Sir Edward Coke, fled persecution in England and arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was offered the pulpit of the Congregational church in Boston but he declined it because his "conscience was persuaded against the national church."

He lived at Plymouth Plantation and preached at the church there from the fall of 1631 to the fall of 1633. Williams made some powerful enemies while he was there. He believed in separation of church and state and religious liberty for everyone -- whether they were "paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian."

Consonant with his convictions about religious liberty, Williams did not believe that civil government should enforce all of the Ten Commandments. He believed that Christians should observe all of the commandments, but he held that civil government should only enforce the "second table" of the law -- the last six commandments. The commands of the "first table" of the law -- the commands regarding religion and worship -- he believed should be left to private, individual conscience.

Williams had a forceful and memorable way of making his point about the inviolability of conscience. He said that the authorities "cannot without a spiritual rape force the consciences of all to one worship" and he came to the defense of the "souls of men who by persecution are ravished into a dissembled worship which their hearts embrace not."

By asserting this Williams challenged the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the point of their most fundamental conviction about the law. They believed that all of the Ten Commandments should be enforced by civil government. In their eyes, his rhetoric threatened the peace and order of the Colony. John Winthrop, then Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, records in his
Journal that Williams was brought before the General Court in Boston on July 8, 1635 to answer this charge:

It was laid to his charge that, being under question before the magistracy and churches for divers dangerous opinions, viz. 1. that the magistrates ought not to punish the breach of the First Table, otherwise than in such cases as did disturb the civil peace;" Winthrop added that, "Much debate was had about these things. The said opinions were adjudged by all magistrates and ministers (who were desired to be present) to be erroneous and very dangerous."

Williams also challenged the Massachusetts Bay Puritans most fundamental belief about their "covenantal" relationship with God. They saw themselves as a "new Israel." "Covenants" like the Mayflower Compact were viewed as the equivalent of the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai.   The nation of Israel enforced all the commandments.  Any nation that was a “new Israel” should enforce all of the commandments.  That was why, in their eyes, it was both heretical and treasonous for Williams to suggest that civil government should not enforce the commands of the "first table" of the Ten Commandments.

Williams denied that colonies on the American continent could properly be viewed as a "new Israel." He argued that the relationship between the church and "The state of the land of Israel, the kings and people thereof, in peace and war, is . . . figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow." (Bloudy Tenent, p. 3.)

When Williams would not remain silent about his convictions, they banished him from the Colony in 1636. He went on to found the Colony of Rhode Island and the First Baptist Church in America. The charter that he and John Clarke, another Baptist, secured for Rhode Island Colony has been described as the first charter in the history of the world to secure "a free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience." Among other things it guaranteed that no person would be "
molested" on account of their religious beliefs.

After Rhode Island's charter, provisions against being "molested" for religious convictions made its way into the charters and constitutions of several other colonies and states. Among them is the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma.

These details concerning the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are important for fully comprehending the strength of the endorsement of Christian governance that is being memorialized by the combination of the Mayflower Compact and the Ten Commandments on the monument at Stigler. It endorses a covenantal form of "democratic theocracy" that has no historical precedent in Oklahoma state history. It also endorses a relationship between church and state that was rejected by both the framers of the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma.

The monument exercises a corrosive influence on the fundamental values that people like Roger Williams, John Clarke, Mary Dyer and other persons of minority faith suffered to secure. The system of law and jurisprudence, as it has developed throughout the country and in Oklahoma, owes more to the thinking of Roger Williams than it does to the Mayflower Compact.  Today, none of the commands of the "first table" of the Mosaic law are matters of civil jurisprudence. Indeed, only three of the commands -- the commands against killing, stealing and false witness -- are still enforced by law. Today, the government is constitutionally prohibited from establishing a religion and forcing everyone into uniform worship. Today, no one would be executed or banished from the country for openly speaking these convictions.

In the eyes of some who remember the struggle for religious liberty and cherish the values that were thereby secured, a monument commemorating the Mayflower Compact serves to memorialize governmentally sanctioned and approved religious intolerance. The monument serves as advance notice that the successful struggle to secure equal respect under the law for persons of all minority faith traditions is in danger of being reversed.

The Charter of Rhode Island Colony (1663)

"Noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments."

Constitution of the State of Oklahoma (1907)

Section 1-2 Religious Liberty:

"Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of the State shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship; and no religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights."


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