Monday, October 5, 2015

Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1683), Religious Liberty, and the Parables

Roger Williams


Because of the current political debates within the United States (e.g., those who apparently want to have an unconstitutional “religious test” for being president of the United States), I thought it would be good at this point to include some information about Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1683). Williams is one of the key people who helped formulate (in North America) the ideas of religious liberty and separation of church and state that are part of the foundation for the U.S. constitution.

In his arguments for religious liberty, Williams dialogued extensively with the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Illuminating comparisons could be made to the different ways other interpreters respond to the Wheat and the Weeds parable in their own historical contexts. Two have been mentioned on this blog before:

First is Wazo of Li├Ęge, who lived in the mid-eleventh century in (modern) Belgium during a time in which a number of Christian heresies arose. Wazo uses the Wheat and Weeds parable to argue that the church should not execute such “heretics” or turn them over to the state to be executed. Circumstances changed, however, as the church began to respond more vigorously to these heresies. Pope Gregory IX started a Papal Inquisition in 1231 to suppress such groups as the Cathars, Christian heretics that flourished in southern France and northern Italy in the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries (Fichtenau 1998: 27). By the thirteenth century, heresy was a capital offense in most of Europe, a context in which Thomas Aquinas—the second example—interprets the Wheat and the Weeds parable in a much different fashion than did Wazo. He believed that the state was responsible for executing the heretics that the church deemed worthy of death.

The historical context is entirely different for Roger Williams’s interpretation of the Wheat and the Weeds parable four centuries later, in a post-Reformation context in the New World. Williams famously advocated for religious liberty and that neither the church nor state should use any coercive force against perceived heretics.


The next few posts will discuss Williams’s interpretation of the parable in detail.

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