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The First Founder

'On Religious Liberty: Selections From the Works of Roger Williams'

Edited by James Calvin Davis

(Harvard University Press, 288 pp., $19.95)


Religious difference drives otherwise sane people crazy. The fact that some of my neighbors pursue salvation in a way that differs from my own is hard to contemplate without anxiety. Could it be that they are right and I am wrong? If I am right, as I think I am, shouldn't I try to save them? Above all, how on earth can we live together in an uncertain and dangerous world without agreeing on fundamental principles about life's purpose and meaning?

Given the depth of such anxieties in so many people, the struggle to create societies that protect religious liberty and show respect for religious difference is never-ending. When we consider the current uproar over Muslim immigration, particularly in Europe, we can see that the allegedly enlightened societies of the West still have a lot of learning to do. Instead of seeing ourselves as fighting on the side of the angels in a great "clash of civilizations," we should see each nation, Western and non-Western, as fighting its own internal "clash" between people who are prepared to live with others on terms of mutual respect and people who seek the protection of religious (and cultural) homogeneity. At a deeper level, each of us is always engaged, within ourselves, in an internal "clash of civilizations," as narcissistic fear contends with our capacities for concern and respect.

In this struggle, it helps to have philosophical friends. Locke, ubiquitously invoked in this connection, is a good enough friend, but somewhat lacking in psychological insight. The history of the North American colonies, however, shows us another friend, an even better one--a hero, really--whose writings, now virtually unknown, can help us greatly as we grapple with problems that are not unlike those he confronted in the seventeenth century. He is Roger Williams. Williams wrote many books, including two lengthy philosophical treatises that are among the major works on religious toleration in the history of Western thought. Prolix, diffuse, and ill-organized, their thousand pages are hardly ever consulted, while Locke's succinct A Letter Concerning Toleration is taught in countless college classrooms. Even Williams's American contemporaries did not have much knowledge of his books, which were published in England.

Williams, who founded Rhode Island in 1636, was a political leader who translated his ideas into practice, through both law and policy, in a way that was initially seen as shocking but that gradually shaped what other colonies aspired to and permitted. This influence was enhanced through Williams's voluminous public correspondence, which expressed his philosophical ideas in a compressed and available form. By the time of the American founding, virtually all state constitutions embodied ideas such as those Williams had instituted in the 1640s. James Madison, the chief architect of our Bill of Rights, had views that were remarkably similar to those of Williams, though he very likely did not read Williams's books. It is not too much of a stretch to view Williams as one of the shapers of our constitutional tradition.

For us, Williams is important above all as a conversation partner whose humane insights can inform our own divisive debates. Three aspects of his thought deserve our attention. First, he developed a distinctive and impassioned view of conscience as a seat of emotion, imagination, and ethical choice through which each person seeks meaning in his or her own way. Conscience, for Williams, is the source of our equality, and it is worthy of equal respect wherever it is found. Political principles, he argued, must be based on that equal respect. Second, Williams believed that equal respect for conscience entails protecting an extensive sphere of freedom around the individual, and that this protection must be impartial, imposing no orthodoxy. To impose orthodoxy upon the striving conscience is nothing less than what Williams, in a memorable and repeated image, calls "Soule rape." And third, Williams maintained that a civil peace among people who differ in religion requires a moral consensus that is itself impartial, giving the ascendancy to no creed more than any other. Such a consensus is available because there is a part of the moral sphere that we can share while differing in ultimate religious commitments. Williams dramatized this idea by making his major work, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, which appeared in 1644, a "conference" or dialogue between two friends called Truth and Peace, in which Truth acknowledges the importance of reaching an ethically grounded accommodation, for political purposes, with people whom one believes to be in error.

Life in New England was fragile and exposed. The wind, the seas, the forests, the deep snows--all this was very strange to people accustomed to life in England, whether urban or rural. "But oh poore dust and Ashes," Roger Williams wrote of himself and his fellows, "like stones once roling downe the Alpes, like the Indian Canoes or English Boats loose and adrift, where stop we until infinite mercy stop us." In his remarkable book A Key Into the Language of America, a study of Indian life and languages, Williams pondered the Indians' ability to coexist with impermanence and constant vulnerability in this "wild and howling land." Astonishingly, the Indians did not mind picking up and moving on to a new place whenever climate, insects, or sheer inclination moved them. "I once in travel lodged at a house," Williams wrote, "at which in my returne I hoped to have lodged againe there the next night, but the house was gone in that interim, and I was glad to lodge under a tree."

The Europeans of Massachusetts reacted to insecurity by enforcing orthodoxy of religious belief and practice. Roger Williams's lifelong intellectual adversary John Cotton, pastor of the First Church of Boston and one of Massachusetts's most influential religious leaders, wrote copiously in defense of religious persecution, arguing that it was necessary for civil order. It was also God's will, Cotton said, in order to separate the diseased element of society from the healthy element. Heretics and dissidents are like Satan in our midst. Even if they behave peaceably, they are enticements to sin. Cotton urged imprisonment, banishment, and other harsh penalties for the unorthodox.

Such reactions to insecurity are sadly familiar in America's history: in situations of insecurity, we are all too ready to project the causes of instability onto other people, grabbing hold of Cotton's seductive metaphor of a stain in our midst (his reply to Williams's great book was called The Bloody Tenent, Washed, and Made White in the Bloud of the Lambe) that must be removed if we are to resist corruption. What makes Williams of particular interest today is not just the high quality of his philosophical work. It is also the way in which he offers an alternative to the paranoid response to uncertainty, confidently urging on his readers attitudes of mercy, gentleness, reasonableness, and civility--all words that recur with obsessive frequency throughout his two great philosophical dialogues.

Williams's writings have long been virtually unavailable to the general public. Now Harvard University Press has published On Religious Liberty: Selections From the Works of Roger Williams, edited by scholar James Calvin Davis. Davis provides around three hundred pages of Williams's writings, including all-too-brief extracts from the two great works on persecution. He has decided to omit Williams's correspondence--an unfortunate decision, since the letters, though well edited, are as hard for the general reader to obtain as the treatises. Still, Davis has a keen eye for the telling passage, and he arranges the extracts helpfully, adding a lucid introduction. His fine volume will be especially useful for purposes of teaching, and it will sustain us while we await a more complete re-issue of the major works and letters.


Since Williams was a political leader as well as a thinker, his thought must be assessed in the context of his career. He was born in England in 1603 to a prosperous merchant family. He grew up in London, near the Smithfield plain, where religious dissenters were sometimes burned at the stake. As a young man he attracted the attention of the eminent jurist Sir Edward Coke, chief justice of the King's Bench. Coke arranged for the young man's education at Sutton's Hospital, the future Charterhouse School, and then at Pembroke Hall in Cambridge University, where Williams received his A.B. in 1627, after a classical education that focused on natural law theories based on ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism, which suffuse Coke's work and were much in vogue at the time. Williams quickly impressed with his remarkable flair for languages, mastering Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Dutch. In this way he also earned John Milton's friendship: he taught Milton Dutch in exchange for Hebrew lessons. On graduation, Williams took orders in the Church of England, and in 1629 he accepted a chaplaincy at Otes in Essex, the manor house of Sir William Masham--grandfather of Sir Francis Masham, who was Locke's host at Otes in the 1690s.

In 1630, a leading Puritan reformer was placed in the pillory in London. One of his ears was cut off, one side of his nose was split, and he was branded on his face with the letters SS, for "Sower of Sedition." Later the other side of his nose was split and his other ear was cut off. For good measure, the man was then imprisoned for the rest of his life. Williams witnessed these events. He was already very critical of the Anglican orthodoxy, but in the aftermath of this atrocity he decided that he could not remain in England, and set sail for Massachusetts.

Williams was warmly welcomed by the leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although Boston found his views about individual conscience too radical, he was accepted by the congregation at Salem. But soon his dissenting began. He published a pamphlet attacking the colonists' claims to the Indians' property, remarking sarcastically that "Christian kings (so calld) are invested with Right by virtue of their christianitie to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men." The officials of Massachusetts Bay called him into court, but took no action when he agreed to withdraw the pamphlet. Yet he continued to teach the falsity of the colonists' property claim. He also urged resistance to a proposed oath of loyalty to be taken by all colonists. During this period Williams spent some peaceful months at Plymouth, where he pursued his study of Indian life and languages.

By 1635-1636, the authorities saw that Williams was bent on continuing his divisive teaching, and ordered his arrest. Tipped off in advance, he fled. Looking back on the incident from Providence in 1670, he describes it this way: "I was unkindly and unchristianly (as I believe) driven from my howse and land, and wife and children (in the midst of N. Engl. Winter now, about 35 years past).... I steerd my course from Salem (though in Winter snow wch I feele yet) untl these parts, whrein I may say as Jacob, Peniel, that is I have seene the Face of God." In keeping with his sense of deliverance, Williams named the new settlement Providence.

A central element of life in the new settlement was respectful friendship with the Indians. Williams had always treated them as human beings, not beasts. He respected their dignity. When the great Narragansett chief Canonicus (who spoke no English) broke a stick ten times to demonstrate ten instances of broken English promises, Williams understood his meaning and took his part. When the colonists objected that the Indians could not own land because they were nomadic, Williams described their regular seasonal hunting practices, arguing that these practices were sufficient to establish property claims--a legal argument that strikingly anticipates very recent litigation over aboriginal land claims in Australia. Linguist that he was, Williams reports having, at this period, a "Constant Zealous desire to dive into the Natives Language," and he learned several of the languages by actually living with the Indians for long periods of time.

When Williams arrived as a refugee from Massachusetts, then, his dealings with the Indians had long prepared the way for a fruitful relationship. Chiefs Massasoit and Canonicus welcomed him as an old friend, because he had befriended them before he needed them. Throughout his life Williams kept up these friendships. One of the key provisions of the Charter of Rhode Island was that "itt shall not bee lawfull to or For the rest of the Collonies to invade or molest the native Indians," a provision that Williams particularly sought and, when it was granted, applauded, noting that hostility to the Indians "hath hietherto bene ... practiced to our Continuall and great grievance and disturbance." As he wrote to the governor of Massachusetts Bay, explaining his refusal to return, "I feel safer down here among the Christian savages along Narragansett Bay than I do among the savage Christians of Massachusetts Bay Colony."

Williams was not speaking of conversion: he never tried to convert the Indians. He was speaking of moral decency. He was fond of noting examples of Indian fairness and honesty, contrasting their behavior with that of his white neighbors. This experience of finding integrity and goodness outside the parameters of orthodoxy surely shaped his evolving views of political principles. And there was already something antinomian about the man, something that led him to such controversial friendships in the first place--a respectful curiosity about the varieties of humanity that is the paradigm of something valuable in our history as a nation of strangers and immigrants, though this value is now under stress.

Williams immediately provided for ample religious liberty in the new colony. Rhode Island became a haven for people who were in trouble elsewhere. Baptists, Quakers, and other dissidents joined the Puritan dissenters. In 1658, fifteen Portuguese Jewish families arrived in Newport. They enjoyed the same religious liberty granted others--an astonishing fact, given that Jews in Britain did not gain full civil rights until 1858.

In 1643, Williams set sail for England to secure a charter for the new colony. During the voyage he wrote his book about Indian languages, and he wrote The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution after his arrival. A democratic charter was obtained and liberty of conscience was made official. In 1652, Rhode Island passed the first law in North America making slavery illegal. Meanwhile, John Cotton's angry reply to The Bloudy Tenent, published in 1647, led Williams to produce another work about a hundred pages longer than the first one, refuting all of Cotton's arguments. Published in 1652 in London, it bears the extraordinary and unwieldy title, The bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody: By Mr Cottons endevour to wash it white in the Blood of the Lambe; of whose precious Blood, spilt in the Blood of his Servants; and Of the blood of Millions spilt in former and later Wars for Conscience sake, that Most Bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience, upon a second Tryal, is found now more apparently and more notoriously guilty.

When the civil wars and the Restoration made it necessary to renegotiate the charter, Williams again went to England, and found in Charles II a ready ally for his experiment in religious liberty. The colony of Barbados already permitted religious liberty, by omission and by policy rather than by explicit royal guarantee. But the colony of Rhode Island was the first case of an official policy of religious liberty. Williams wrote with amusement of how shocked the king's ministers were by the charter. "But fearing the Lyons roaring, they coucht agnst their Wills in Obedience to his Maties pleasure."

The charter was shocking indeed--not only in its odd provision regarding the Indians, but above all in its clause regarding religious liberty:

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, freely and fully have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of lande hereafter mentioned; they behaving themselves peaceablie and quietlie, and not useing this libertie to lycentiousnesse and profanenesse, nor to the civill injurye or outward disturbance of others; any lawe, statute, or clause, therein contained, or to be contained, usage or custome of this realme, to the contrary hereof, in any wise, notwithstanding.

What does this clause protect? Belief and the expression of opinion in religious matters, clearly. But Williams throughout his writings was careful to insist that acts of worship also should enjoy protection. Indeed, in his own writings we rarely encounter the word "belief" without the word "worship" or "practice."

Williams introduces The Bloudy Tenent with the announcement that "consciences and worships" are all to be permitted. Elsewhere he uses phrases such as "for either professing doctrine, or practicing worship," "doctrine or practice," "holdeth or practiseth," "doctrines and worships," "to subscribe to doctrines, or practise worships." It is a bit unfortunate that the charter is less careful, but we can understand the latitude of its protection from the other direction, as stopping where civil disturbance begins. Williams was no John Stuart Mill: he thought that the business of civil government included not only the protection of individuals from harm to their rights by others, but also the maintenance of public order and morality. Thus, like virtually everyone in his time, he favored laws against adultery and other so-called "morals laws." But not on religious grounds: Williams's conception of public morality keeps it quite distinct from religious norms and justifications.

The final provision in the clause is very interesting. The charter guarantees liberty of religious belief and practice even when a law or custom forbids it. In other words, if the law says that you have to swear an oath before God to hold public office, this law is nullified by the charter. Moreover, it appears that the charter nullifies the applicability of laws to individuals when such laws threaten their religious liberty. If a law says that people have to testify on Saturday, and your religion forbids this, then that law is not applicable in your case. It would appear, in other words, that Williams had forged something like the modern legal concept of "accommodation" on grounds of conscience. Laws of general applicability have force only up to the point where they threaten religious liberty (and where public order and safety are not at stake). This policy was stated explicitly by Williams in a letter. Comparing the colony to a ship at sea on which Christians, Jews, pagans, and Muslims have all embarked, he remarked that the captain of that ship is entitled to require anything that is connected to the ship's safety and that of her passengers, but otherwise there is to be the widest possible religious liberty for all passengers alike.


Behind this important political achievement was a body of thought as rich on these issues as that of John Locke, and considerably more perceptive concerning the psychology of both persecutor and victim. At its heart is an idea, or image, on which Williams focused with deep emotion and obsessional zeal: the idea of the preciousness and the dignity of the individual human conscience. Conscience, for Williams, plays the role that the directive faculty of moral choice plays in the ancient Stoic authors whom he studied: it is a faculty of searching and choosing, although for Williams it includes imagination and emotion as well as ethical reasoning. It is, Williams holds, the main source of our identity as agents: it is "indeed the man."

Williams had his own intense religious beliefs, which entailed that most people around him were wrong. Their error, however, does not mean that they do not have the precious faculty of conscience. Consider this remarkable sentence: "This Conscience is found in all mankinde ... in Jewes, Turkes, Papists, Protestants, Pagans, etc." And although truth is important in Williams's universe, truth is not the basis of respect. What he reveres is the faculty for finding truth, the capacity for searching and choosing. Like the ancient Stoics, he holds that this faculty exists in people of all religions. He is fond of lists, and usually includes Jews, Muslims, Catholics, pagans (prominently including the Indians), and even atheists, whom he calls Antichristians. He insists that all consciences deserve not just respect, but equal respect. The remarkable sentence at the opening of The Bloudy Tenent is typical: "It is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries."

So: everyone has inside himself or herself something infinitely precious, something that demands respect from us all, and something in regard to which we are all basically equal. Williams now argues that this precious something needs extensive space to unfold itself, to pursue its own way. To respect human beings in the equality of their consciences is therefore to accord that sort of space to each and every one of them. Williams expresses indignation that someone who "speakes so tenderly for his owne, hath yet so little respect, mercie, or pitie to the like consciencious perswasions of other Men.... Are all the Thousands of millions of millions of Consciences, at home and abroad, fuell onely for a prison, for a whip, for a stake, for a Gallowes? Are no Consciences to breath the Aire, but such as suit and sample his?"

These images are revealing. They tell us that Williams thinks of consciences as delicate, vulnerable, living things--things that need to breathe and not to be imprisoned. Here, I think, Williams made momentous progress beyond the Stoicism of his classical education. Stoic thinkers treat the moral faculties of a person as invulnerable, rock-hard; they cannot be damaged by worldly conditions. A slave, they say, is not less free internally for being a slave. In such a view, it would appear that external coercion is not all that important. For this reason, Stoics have difficulty drawing political conclusions from their arguments about human dignity. Williams, by contrast, sees that the conscience is not invulnerable: it can be prevented from acting, and it can also, more deeply, be damaged or defiled by what happens to it. And this insight is necessary for a workable doctrine of political liberty.

Williams has the keenest sensitivity to any damage to this precious thing, comparing persecution repeatedly to "spirituall and soule rape." It is "soule rape" when any person is limited with respect to either belief or practice (so long as he is not violating civil laws or harming others): "I acknowledge that to molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrine, or practicing worship merely religious or spirituall, it is to persecute him, and such a person (whatever his doctrine or practice be true or false) suffereth persecution for conscience." To be more precise, Williams has two distinct images for persecution: rape and imprisonment, which correspond to different types of damage to conscience. Persecution is like imprisonment in that people whose faculty of conscience is undamaged within still need breathing space to act on their conscience's promptings, searching for meaning through whatever forms of prayer, worship, or speech they select. But persecution is also like rape, in that it goes into a person's very depths, and there it does terrible damage. Williams thinks that being forced to affirm what you do not believe can harm the soul in its very capacity to strive, deforming and weakening it (though it never destroys the basis of equal respect, because it never extinguishes the capacity for striving). So what is needed is, first, protection for conscience so that it can grow undefiled, and, second, protection of a space around it so that it can venture out into the world and conduct its search.

Persecution is therefore a terrible error, one of the worst there can be. Williams explicitly declares that it is a worse error than heresy. Indeed, persecution is a doctrine "which no Uncleannes, no Adulterie, Incest, Sodomie, or Beastialitie can equall, this ravishing and forcing (explicitly or implicitly) the very Soules and Consciences of all the Nations and Inhabitants of the World." Williams does not believe that the offenses to which he compares persecution are trivial--indeed, he is inclined to favor the death penalty for adultery. So we can see how strong his objection to persecution is, if it is worse than these things. Most rulers in all ages, he concludes, have practiced "violence to the Souls of Men."

One of Williams's reasons for hating persecution is instrumental: if you force someone, it hardens their opposition, preventing their voluntary conversion. He makes this point often when he is in ad hominem debate with Cotton, and it was a common Protestant argument, one that Locke later made central to his own case. But one cannot read Williams and doubt that he also believes damage to conscience to be an intrinsic wrong, a desecration of what is most precious about human beings. Williams has insisted that this precious something is in us all, and is worthy of equal respect. Therefore it is a heinous wrong to give it freedom for some (the orthodox) and to deny this same freedom to others. Again and again he hammers home the charge of partiality and unfairness. Magistrates "give Libertie with a partiall hand and unequall balance." How "will this appear to be equall in the very eye of Common peace and righteousnesse?" His own marginal summaries of his argument, particularly in the later work, keep recurring to this theme: "Unchristian partiality," "Gross partiality to private interests," "Gross partiality the bloody doctrine of persecution."

Williams has a keen nose for special pleading and preferential treatment, and he sees it everywhere that restrictions on religious liberty are found. He suggests that the error of the persecutor is a kind of anxiety-ridden greed, which is hypocritically disguised as virtue. Anxious and insecure, each individual aims to carve out special protections and privileges for himself by attacking in others what he most values in his own life. In 1670, in a letter to the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut, he indicts them for a hypocritical and unfair set of principles: "Your Selvs praetend libertie of Conscience, but alas, it is but selfe (the great God Selfe) only to yourselves."

If persecution is the worst of errors, liberty of conscience is, as Williams repeatedly states, a "most precious and invaluable Jewel." The proponent of liberty does not indulge in special pleading. Even though he believes he is right, he has an even-handed spirit of love and civility to all men, grounded in respect for their freedom. In one unforgettable passage Williams states that persecution is not only "to take the being of Christianity out of the World, but to take away all civility, and the world out of the world, and to lay all upon heapes of confusion." What does he mean by saying that persecution takes "the world out of the world"? I think he is expressing the view that the spirit of love and gentleness, combined with the spirit of fair play, is at the heart of our worldly lives with one another. Take these things away and you despoil the world itself. You make it nothing but a heap of confusion and pain.


Williams is a very emotional writer. His style is deeply subjective and passionate. Still, it is not implausible to find themes in his writings that anticipate some central ideas of Kant a century later. At the heart of both men's thought are two notions: the duty to respect humanity as an end wherever we find it; and the duty to be fair, not to make an exception for one's own case. Indeed, respecting humanity entails not making an exception of oneself. Just as Kant asks a person to test the principle of his or her conduct by asking whether it could without contradiction be made a universal law for all human beings, so Williams's critique of the leaders of Massachusetts and Connecticut is that their idea cannot pass a test of that sort: they love freedom--but only for themselves. They could not will persecution as a universal law, and their selfishness prevents them from willing freedom of conscience (which could pass the Kantian test) as a universal law.

Kant's second test for our ethical principles is one that he called the Formula of Humanity: he asks us to test a principle by seeing whether it treats humanity as an end. We are to ask whether we are really showing respect to human beings, or whether we are just using them as objects in the pursuit of our own selfish ends. This complaint, too, is a constant theme in Williams's writing: the conscience is precious, but people use other people's consciences to serve their own fearful and greedy ends. Kant's third way of testing principles invokes the idea of autonomy. We are to ask ourselves whether we can view our principle as a law that we could give to ourselves. There is no precise echo of this idea in Williams, but his insistence on the quest of the individual conscience, and the priceless value of freedom in this quest, is greatly in harmony with Kant's way of thinking. For both, the source of moral principles, and of all moral worth, is ultimately in our own freedom, and that freedom must be respected. For both, doing the right thing because of obedience to a law imposed from outside has no moral worth at all. Kant speaks of good principles as constituting a "realm of ends," a virtual society of free beings who respect one another as equals, and this is what Williams is after, I believe, when he says that persecution takes "the world out of the world": it destroys the basis of human fellowship in respect, freedom, and civility.

So Roger Williams lies at the beginning of a tradition of thought about religious fairness that resonates to the present day. And Williams has provided an extra measure of psychological insight, helping us to see why persecution is so attractive and what emotional attitudes might be required to resist it. If Williams had offered only his account of conscience and its fair, impartial treatment, he would already have made a large contribution to our understanding of religious liberty.

But he accomplished still more, developing an elaborate account of the proper jurisdictions of religious and civil authority that anticipates Locke's more famous account and that still offers helpful guidance. In this part of his work, Williams is replying to a "model" of church and state proposed by John Cotton. Truth asks Peace what book she has there. Peace produces the Cotton manuscript, and reads from it the claim that the church must hold high authority in the civil realm, and should be superior to all civil magistrates, if the peace is to be preserved. The two hundred pages that follow contain Williams's rebuttal, his alternative "model."

According to Williams, there are two separate sets of ends and activities in human life, and corresponding to these are two sorts of authority. Civil authority concerns "the bodies and goods of subjects" (exactly the account that Locke later gives). Civil authority must protect people's property and bodily security, and it may use force to do so. Its foundation lies in the people, and it is they who choose civil magistrates. The other sphere of human life is that of the soul and its safety. Churches have this sphere as their jurisdiction, with the proviso that their only proper means of addressing the soul is persuasion. The two sorts of authority, civil and spiritual, can coexist peaceably together. Peace is in jeopardy only to the extent that churches overstep their boundaries and start making civil law or interfering with people's property and liberty.

Williams now tells us that there is, of course, a way in which the civil state needs to make laws "respecting religion": namely, it has to make laws protecting it, proclaiming, for example, "that no persons Papists, Jewes, Turkes, or Indians be disturbed at their worship (a thing which the very Indians abhor to practice toward any)." Such protective laws are not only permitted, they are also extremely important, "the Magna Charta of highest liberties." There is, he continues, another type of law "respecting religion" that is very different: the sort of law that establishes, or forbids, acts of worship, and says who can and cannot be a minister, and so on. To say that these should be civil laws "is as far from Reason, as that the Commandments of Paul ... were civil and earthly constitutions."

John Cotton makes two claims that Williams has to answer in order adequately to defend his radical position. First, Cotton makes a claim about peace and stability: that people simply cannot live at peace with one another unless some religious orthodoxy is established. In response, Williams invokes both reason and experience on his side. People with false religious views, he says, may be perfectly decent citizens. We see this all the time: people do live together peacefully, so long as they respect one another's conscience-space. (Life with the Indians provided him with an illustration.) What really breaks the peace is persecution: "Such persons onely breake the Cities or Kingdomes peace, who cry out for prison and swords against such who crosse their judgement or practice in Religion."

Cotton's second argument concerns competence. He claims that being a good citizen and being a good civil magistrate are inseparable from having the right religion. We simply do not want our public life to be run by sinners, because they are making very important decisions, and if they are sinners they will do so sinfully and badly. (There are certainly latter-day Cottonites among us now. ) Here Williams makes one of his most interesting and novel arguments. God has created different sorts of things in the world, he observes. There are "divers sorts of goodness" corresponding to these different sorts of things. He illustrates this point at length, talking about the goodness of artifacts, plants, animals, and so on. One of the ways God created diversity in the world was to create a type of "civill or morall goodness" that is "commendable and beautifull" in its own right, and that is distinct from spiritual goodness. It can be there in its full form, and be beautiful, even if the person is religiously in error, even "though Godlines which is infinitely more beautifull, be wanting."

What is needed to be a good subject in a civil state is the moral sort of goodness, and it is that sort that we need also in our civil magistrates. Later, returning to the point, Williams insists that the foundation of the magistrate's authority "is not Religious, Christian, &c. but naturall, humane and civill." For many activities in human life, a worldly foundation is sufficient: "a Christian Captaine, Christian Merchant, Physician, Lawyer, Pilot, Father, Master, and (so consequently) Magistrate, &c. is no more a Captaine, Merchant, Physician, Lawyer, Pilot, Father, Master, Magistrate, &c. then a Captaine, Merchant, &c. of any other Conscience or Religion." Particularly surprising is his casual mention of "father" as a role whose duties can be fully executed independently of spiritual enlightenment. For Williams, in sum, the civil state has a moral foundation, but a moral foundation need not be--more, it must not be--a religious foundation. The necessary moral virtues (honesty is one to which Williams devotes special emphasis) can be agreed on and practiced by people from many different doctrines. To be sure, Williams adds, a person's religion will connect these moral virtues to higher ends; but so far as the moral sphere itself goes, orthodox and dissenter, religious and non-religious, can agree.

It is not at all fanciful to see here an adumbration of John Rawls's idea of civil society as involving a set of moral principles concerning which people from different "comprehensive doctrines" can join in an "overlapping consensus. " Like Williams, Rawls stresses that political society has a moral foundation. But he holds that this is a "module" that can be linked to different religious doctrines in a variety of different ways. Although religious people will certainly feel that their religion provides the moral principles with their highest ends or deepest sources (here again he agrees with Williams), they can nonetheless agree about the moral terrain in a way that is, for practical purposes, "free-standing"--in other words, not requiring the acceptance of a religious orthodoxy. So we do not have, exactly, a "wall of separation" between people's religions and their political principles. (Williams used that phrase only once, in a letter, and not at all in his major writings.) We do have separation of jurisdictions between church and state, but where people are concerned, they will rightly see the morality of public life as one part of their "comprehensive doctrine"--a part that they can share with others without converting them to what they take to be the true religion.

This idea is much more helpful for the purpose of toleration and respect than the bare idea of "separation," which might suggest that the state does not have anything to do with the deep ethical matters that are so central to the religions. The state needs to be built on moral principles, and it would be weird and tyrannical to ask religious people to accept the idea that moral principles are utterly "separate" from their religious principles. The idea of an overlapping consensus--or, to put it in Williams's way, the idea of a moral goodness that we can share while differing on ultimate religious ends--is an idea that helps us think about our shared life much more lucidly and fairly than the unclear idea of separation. We must respect one another's freedom and equality, the deep sources of conscience that lead us through life. We will do this only if we keep religious orthodoxy out of our common political life. But we must base that life on ethical principles that, for many of us, also have a religious meaning and justification. All we need do, when we join with others in a common political life, is to acknowledge that someone might have those virtues, in the way that is relevant for politics, while not sharing our own view of life's ultimate meaning. If we once grant that, then Williams's other argument concerning impartiality will lead us to want a state that has no religious orthodoxy, that only in this sense "separate" from religion.


Looking back at history, we ought to agree with Williams. We should, and often do, separate a person's specific religion from the kind of goodness we look for in a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, even an adoptive parent. That we so obsessively focus on the religions of political candidates, as contrasted with moral virtues that we all can share, is a fact of American political life that we should regret and attempt to change.

We can make our account of Williams's revolution more precise if we compare his thought to that of John Locke. Locke probably knew Williams's work. He wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration, published in 1689, at Otes in Essex, the same noble house where Williams was employed. And his argument bears a close resemblance to Williams's argument in the general nature of their conclusions about the role of the state, and in their focus on "equal and impartial liberty, " as Locke puts it. And yet there are significant and revealing differences--all of which, I think, should make us prefer Williams's approach.

For a start, Locke seems to think that equal liberty is compatible with a religious establishment. But Williams is keenly aware of the danger of religious establishments as threats to both liberty and equality: to liberty, because a dominant sect will easily slip into curbing the conscience space of minorities; to equality, because the very existence of an orthodoxy makes a statement that citizens are not fully equal. Here Williams anticipates a famous argument of Madison's: establishment means that we do not all enter the public square "on equal conditions." At the time of the founding, the central argument against establishments was that equality argument; directly or not, it was Williams's argument.

Williams, moreover, gives us in his discussions of conscience an account of the moral basis of the political doctrine, telling us what equal respect is all about and why it is so important. There is nothing like this in Locke, at least not in the Letter. And Locke and Williams have subtly different positions on "accommodation," that is, on the question of whether laws applicable to all should contain exceptions for people with special religious requirements. Locke is in favor of the exceptionless rule of law, provided that the laws themselves are neutral. Some laws maliciously target minorities, and those laws must go. If it is legal to speak Latin in a school, it must be legal to speak Latin in a church. If it is legal to bathe in water for the sake of health, it must be legal to bathe in water for the sake of baptism. But there Locke draws the line. If there is any non-malicious law that has the incidental effect of burdening minorities, then the person whose conscience poses an obstacle to his obeying that law had better follow conscience, because eternal salvation is more important than jail--but still he will have to go to jail or pay the fine.

Williams is subtly, but momentously, different: he allows exceptions to general laws for conscience's sake, up to the point where the person's conduct would threaten peace and public safety. In so holding, he anticipates a norm that became general by the time of the founding: all the state constitutions had free exercise clauses with similar "peace and safety" overrides. (Madison actually favored an even more protective standard: that there be no burden to conscience unless the constitution itself is in jeopardy.) The practices of the colonies involved granting such conscience-based exemptions without legal penalty: Jews did not have to testify on Saturday; sects that objected to oaths did not have to swear; Quakers and Mennonites were exempt from military conscription. Most remarkably, and only in Rhode Island, Jews were exempted from the incest law if they wanted to contract uncle-niece marriages on religious grounds.

The laws remained valid, but religious minorities did not have to obey them. In the early days of the Republic, George Washington wrote a letter to the Quakers explaining his stance as its first president concerning their conscientious refusal of military service: "I assure you very explicitly, that in my opinion the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due regard for the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit." This is pure Williams; and it is far from what Locke's stricter notion of the rule of law would permit.

The contrast between Williams and Locke is still with us, in the form of divergent standards that have played a role in recent Supreme Court debates. The Williams idea was long a hallmark of free exercise jurisprudence, in the form of what has come to be known as the "Sherbert test," after an important case in 1963 involving a woman who was fired because her Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs forbade her to work on Saturday, and was then denied unemployment compensation on the grounds that she had refused "suitable work." The Court, finding in her favor, said that government may not impose a "substantial burden" on a person's free exercise of religion without a "compelling state interest." The case had an important equality aspect: the fact that Saturday and not Sunday was the required day put unfair pressure on this minority woman, pressure that the majority did not have to face.

This was our legal standard for some years, but in 1990 the Lockean position took control, with Justice Scalia's controversial opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, a case involving Native American peyote use. Scalia declared that laws must rule exceptionlessly, so long as they were neutral and not discriminatory. Like Locke, Scalia is interested in legal neutrality: when a Florida community passed an ordinance forbidding ritual animal sacrifice he struck it down, holding that the fact that they allowed animals to be slaughtered in all sorts of other ways showed that they were simply targeting Santeria worshipers. But he does not believe that courts should go beyond this, and insist on the protection of conscience against laws that are not hostile--although he is willing to allow the legislature to pass such exemptions if it wants. What this conflict over accommodation is really about is the equality of minorities in a majority world. Rules about workdays, drugs, and a host of other matters favor the majority--so alcohol is legal and peyote is not, Sunday is the usual day of rest and Saturday is not. Williams understood the vulnerability of minority conscience in a world of majority rule, and his more protective standard should, in my view, be restored.

And a further difference between Williams and Locke is that Locke argues from Protestant premises most of the time. He seems uninterested in finding arguments for toleration that all citizens can share. Though Williams frequently alludes to Christian norms, he tries hard to develop an independent ethical argument for his political principles, based on the dignity and vulnerability of conscience, the equal worth of all consciences, and the needs of consciences for ample space. Williams was used to arguing with people who did not share his religious views, and so he found ways of arguing that do not presuppose the correctness of his own position.

Locke and Williams also conceive the space of the political differently. Locke speaks in terms of separation of jurisdictions. For him, religion and politics do not overlap at all. For Williams, the different religious doctrines meet and overlap in a shared moral space. Each religious person will connect this moral space to his own higher religious goals and ends; but within that space we are all able to speak a common language and share moral principles. As I have argued, this idea of overlap is ultimately more fruitful than the idea of separation. Williams does not ask religious people to give up ways in which their religion links politics with faith. He simply asks people to live and talk together in the shared space, without compromising equality by introducing religious doctrines into the institutions they create and sustain.

Locke was not distinguished as a moral psychologist, and he had nothing to say about why people persecute others. Williams was a subtle psychologist of injustice. He painstakingly traced persecution to its roots in the anxieties and insecurities of the persecutors, and he carefully studied the accompanying desire to create security by lording it over others. Williams had a keen sense both of the inner life of the persecutor and of the inner vulnerability of the persecuted to something that is very like rape, an inner shattering of the soul's integrity and peace. He also understands clearly how people engage in special pleading to favor their own case, while appearing to defend morality itself. Could it be that, in the matter of religion and politics, of toleration and its grounds, Roger Williams was the greater philosopher?

Williams's work and career provide the basis for a politics based on equal respect for conscience. But he was too shrewd to expect that this goal would be attained easily or quickly. At the end of The Bloudy Tenent, Truth and Peace remark that they do not actually spend much time together. So often they meet up lovingly, and are then abruptly parted by hypocrisy and selfish partiality. But finally they are aided by the appearance of an unexpected ally. At the very end of the work, a third character makes her appearance. "But loe!" says Peace. "Who's here?" Truth replies, "Our Sister Patience, whose desired company is as needful as delightfull."

Patience utters not a word, but she is clearly present. In his book on Indian languages, Williams wrote eloquently of the patience of the Indians, who could sit silently for ages, waiting for what they want. "Every man hath his pipe of their Tobacco, and a deepe silence they make, and attention give to him that speaketh." To his own impatient world, Williams commended this alien but local example. Now, at the close of his great dialogue, he represents Patience as, in effect, an Indian, silent after the prolixity of her sisters, waiting for a time that may be very long in coming, a time of equal respect for people who differ.

Notice the psychological insight in Williams's choice of words: "whose desired company is as needful as delightfull." For the anxious, self-focused people Williams describes, bent on control, patience may be attainable, but it is a painful virtue. What the anxious person really wants is for others to do what the anxious person has already decided they should do; and so waiting for them to be themselves and live the way they choose to live is stressful. To experience Patience as not only "needful" but also as "delightful" is the attitude of someone who actually enjoys the other person's freedom, finding lack of control over the other person's choices and actions not an inconvenience to be endured, but a source of exhilaration and even joy. Given human weakness and the long history of its incarnation in politics and power, such an attitude--we might call it political love--is a complex and delicate achievement, a virtue manifested, here, only in an open-ended silence. In that silence, after the close of so much speech, rested Roger Williams's hope for the future.

Martha C. Nussbaum is a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition Of Religious Equality (Basic Books).

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By Martha C. Nussbaum