All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Book Review: Liberty Of Conscience: Roger Williams In America by Edwin S. Gaustad

William B. Eerdmans Company, 225 Jefferson Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 • 1991 • 229 pages • $14.95 paper

By and large, immigrants to the United States have been attracted by economic opportunities. Yet, in the early colonial days, North America was primarily a refuge from religious oppression. In fact, many who came to these shores quite literally escaped, most notably the Pilgrims, who fled the English government of James I, a Christian king as determined to prevent emigration to avoid inhospitable policies as the modern Communist regimes controlling the vast areas of China and the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, many colonial governments commanded as much religious conformity as the regimes the settlers had abandoned. As a result, some settlers felt so stifled, or caused such discontent, that they were forced to flee even farther. Among these was Roger Williams, whose story is masterfully told in a new biography by Edwin S. Gaustad.

By the time Williams, a graduate of Cambridge and a private chaplain to a Puritan leader, left for America with his wife in 1630, Charles I was king, and colonization was being encouraged rather than thwarted. But once established in his new homeland, Williams almost immediately found himself at odds with most other Massachusetts set-tiers on two issues.

First, he believed that the Ten Commandments should be considered not the basis of civil law, but, rather, as guides to individual behavior. In his view, civil authorities should have no jurisdiction over essentially spiritual matters. Dismayed at prevailing practices, Williams drew a sharp distinction between “Christianity,” which drew directly on the teachings and principles of Jesus, and “Christendom,” which for him involved what Gaustad calls “a polluting mixture of politics with religion.”

In his prolific writings, Williams pointed out that England, in the last century or so, had passed through a variety of theocracies, both Catholic and Protestant, each proclaiming divine sanction and each requiting a religious conformity, that Williams bluntly termed “spiritual rape.” Human reason suggested to Williams, in Gaustad’s words, “that coercing one religion upon all is like making one suit of clothing for everyone to wear, one size of shoe to fit every foot.” Such rigidity, Williams pointed out, had perverse practical consequences, for it adversely affected the economic climate. As he noted, after the Dutch abandoned religious persecution, Amsterdam prospered because of the energetic people it attracted.

For expressing his radical views, Williams was forced to leave Massachusetts. With some friends and supporters, he established a settlement at Providence, in what is now Rhode Island. However, things didn’t go much better there, because the people who joined him were not only religious individualists but also political individualists, frustrating efforts to raise taxes and provide for the common defense. (It should be recalled that this independence endured: Rhode Island was the last of the 13 original colonies to ratify the Constitution.) Further, there was constant conflict with both Massachusetts and the new settlements in Connecticut over land rights, forcing Williams to spend much time, at his own expense, in England trying to resolve the disputes.

It was in the matter of land rights that Williams found a second profound disagreement with many of his fellow settlers. He flatly denied that the English king had the right to dispose of land held by the peoples referred to as Indians. Instead, he insisted that the settlers should pay these prior inhabitants. Because of such views, Williams got along well with the Indians, considering them in many respects more civil and courteous than people from his native land. He set up

a successful trading post and bargained with the Indians for the land he sought. Nevertheless, despite Williams’ intense efforts at establishing amicable relationships, conflicts between the settlers and the natives eventually erupted in horrible bloodshed.

Yet Williams left his mark. Clearly his beliefs, though controversial at the time, lie at the very heart of our more modern concepts of liberty and property. In the last part of his book Gaustad traces the evolution and impact of these views. In his own time, Williams shared ideas with John Milton. These ideas were the predecessors of the political beliefs of John Locke, not to mention the expressions of religious freedom later espoused by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

In more recent times, Gaustad points out, in the 1967 Supreme Court decision that prohibited state-mandated prayers in New York public schools, Roger Williams is noted in a favorable footnote reference: It is in part from Williams that we derive the notion that the state should not dictate our prayers. However, Gaustad expresses alarm at more recent Supreme Court decisions, in which some justices, most prominently William Rehnquist, have expressly repudiated the principles so brilliantly asserted by Williams, Jefferson, and Madison.

In the spirit of Roger Williams, Gaustad concludes with a somber warning: “Religion has the power to persuade, never the power to compel. Government does have the power to compel, but that government is wisest and best which offers to liberty of conscience its widest possible range.”

Professor Shannon teaches in the Economics Department, Clemson University.

  • Dr. Shannon was professor of economics at Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina.