Friday, October 23, 2015

Roger Williams, Religious Liberty, and the Parables (part 5): The Debate with John Cotton (conclusion)

Roger Williams

In addition to his arguments using the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Williams cites the parable of the Sower, just previous to this parable. That parable includes four varieties of ground upon which the true messengers of Jesus sow their message of the kingdom. He argues that the four types of ground (symbolizing various “hearts of men”) also represent people in the entire world, not just inside the church. The good soil represents people in the church, and the

proper work of the church concerns the flourishing and prosperity of this sort of ground, and not the other unconverted three sorts; who, it may be, seldom or never come near the church, unless they be forced by civil sword, which the pattern of the first sower never used (Chapter 22).

Thus the parable of the Sower similarly demonstrates that Jesus commands the church to tolerate unbelievers and not to use coercion against them. This toleration does not mean approval or acceptance of their errors, however:

The Lord Jesus, therefore, gives direction concerning these tares, that unto the end of the world, successively in all the sorts and generations of them, they must be (not approved or countenanced, but) let alone, or permitted in the world (Chapter 22).

Offenders against “the civil state and common welfare” certainly should be punished by the state (Williams includes adultery with offences “against the civil state”: “robbery, murder, adultery, oppression, sedition, and mutiny”), but Jesus’ command, “Let them alone,” means that ministers of the gospel should have no civil power or authority, and civil authorities should not be permitted to punish religious dissenters or offenders (Chapter 27).

Yet, Williams argues, the church should not be passive against these tares, such as the ones who “with perverse and evil doctrines labor spiritually to devour the flock, and to draw away disciples after them” (Chapter 19). Williams agrees that their “mouths must be stopped” but stipulates that, as Jesus taught, “no carnal force and weapon to be used against them; but their mischief to be resisted with those might weapons of the holy armory of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Until Jesus returns at the end times, all such (evil) people must be tolerated, as Jesus commands: “Let them alone until the harvest.”

Williams’s treatment of the Society of Friends (Quakers) demonstrates his commitment to religious liberty. Although he emphatically denounces them (e.g., his last published work, the 1676 George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes), Williams adamantly rejected requests to help “stamp out” this new religious movement. Unlike neighboring Massachusetts or Connecticut, Williams permitted no Quaker to be fined, whipped, disfigured, burned, hanged, or otherwise punished by the government in Rhode Island (Gaustad 2005: 60, 107-108).


The implications are dramatic and shocking to Puritans like Cotton: there are no “holy commonwealths” like Puritans in Massachusetts sought to create; there are only “holy churches.” Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and Tares actually undermines the Puritan use of Scripture to create a godly society or “New Israel” (Byrd 2002: 113). Against the commonly held view that a state-sponsored church is necessary to promote an orderly society, Williams proclaims that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state are necessary to promote order, peace, and a just society: “obedience to the command of Christ to let the tares alone will prove the only means to preserve their civil peace, and that without obedience to this command of Christ, it is impossible . . . to preserve the civil peace (Chapter 26). Christians should not promote or support or even acquiesce to religious persecution; they should instead speak fervently and prophetically against all such religious coercion.

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