Soul liberty: Bringing back Roger Williams

As an undergraduate, I attended Cedarville College (now Cedarville University), a Baptist affiliated school in Cedarville, Ohio, near Dayton. Historically, the school was started by the Presbyterians but sought a buyer for the school in the 1950s due to low enrollment. The Regular Baptists came along and bought the grounds in 1953.

By the time I got there in 1975, the school had become accredited and had developed a solid liberal arts identity. It was however, quite rigid in regulating entertainment and dress. For instance, the first year or so, girls had to wear dresses to class even when it was below freezing outside, and boys could not have hair on their faces or over their ears.

All students had to take a course in Baptist history. To my surprise one of the Baptist distinctives we learned about was called “soul liberty.” Essentially, soul liberty emphasized the freedom of conscience, without the imposition of beliefs and rules on believers by church hierarchy or the state. This distinctive was traced back to Roger Williams, who started the first Baptist church in America, but I do not recall Williams being revered at Cedarville. This was understandable given that soul liberty was discussed but not practiced at Cedarville. Students gave up a lot of personal freedom to attend. I recall pushing back against the rules frequently.

I have been thinking about soul liberty lately in the context of the church and state controversies generated by the culture war. Many Christians who are doctrinally consistent with Williams Baptist theology in many ways do not seem to share his passion for liberty of conscience. Culture warriors among Christian groups seem to want their creed enshrined as law, even if that means hardship on the conscience of other citizens. Williams established the Rhode Island colony as a beacon of freedom of conscience and would most likely be criticized by modern day culture warriors.

In refreshing my memory about Williams, I ran across an essay at Religion Dispatches which examines Williams in light of these culture considerations. In this interview with Bill Leonard, founding dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School, author Becky Garrson explores important questions about the relationship between religious freedom and political activism. Here are two excerpts:

Williams is known for coining the term “soul liberty.” How does this concept inform the formation of the First Amendment?

I’d prefer to speak of liberty of conscience that, from Williams’ perspective begins with the idea of uncoerced faith. Williams is no secularist. He was a person of faith, highly sectarian faith, that put great emphasis on the sovereignty of God as the center of the universe. Williams and other sectarians of his time—especially Baptists—believed that the church is to be composed of believers only—those who can claim an experience of grace in their hearts. Efforts to thwart divine activity in drawing people to faith—to usurp the work of the Spirit by enforcing certain faith perspectives—were human creations that were unacceptable. God alone is judge of conscience, and therefore neither state nor established church can (in terms of salvation) judge the conscience of the heretic (the people they think believe the wrong things) or the atheist (the people who believe nothing at all).

Conscience should be free under God to act on its own without state sanctions. Such secular sanctions destroyed or undermined faith, rather than enhance it. Williams anticipates religious pluralism on the basis of uncoerced faith, not secularism, years before John Locke’s more secular approach to such questions.

The church cannot remake the state in its image. This does not serve freedom, nor does it provide any real spirtual value. How can state coercion lead to righteousness which pleases God? Williams argues that only a free, pluralistic society is a friend to the work of the church.

What can we learn from Roger Williams’ battles with John Cotton that we can apply to the current debates between Glen Beck and progressive Christians?

Cotton gets scared of where Williams’ views would take the society—he was correct in assessing what such views would do to the Standing Order and its approach to social cohesion. These views represent the prevailing views of the “Standing Order” in New England Congregational/Reformed Puritanism. Thus America was a “type” of Israel in which the state protected the elect from the evil possibilities of the totally depraved non-elect. Just as God chose Israel as an “elect people, and nation,” he chose the “new elect” who were “grafted on” in Christ. The orthodoxy of a “Christian society” was the source of spiritual and social stability in which moral society and true religion would thrive and be protected. New England was a “City on a Hill” whose witness would transform corrupt religion of the Old World. Without government sanctions, spiritual heresy and moral chaos would result. This would, for example, require the exile of heretics like Williams, and the execution of heretics such as Mary Dyer, hanged on Boston Common in 1660.

The government must zealously guard the freedom of conscience for all without privileging one religion or denomination over another. Williams helped establish a system in Rhode Island where church and state were separate. This approach is credited with influencing Thomas Jefferson and the founders.

I see a lot in the work and legacy of Roger Williams that I like. Over the past several years, my thinking has gravitated back to the Williams tradition after a middle life dabble in the culture war.

I have recently learned that I am by far not the first Throckmorton to align myself with Williams. In fact, a friend of Williams and co-laborer was John Throckmorton who supported Williams in the Rhode Island colony. In fact, Throckmorton was one of the original members of that first Baptist church:

John Throckmorton Sr. was the first person buried here about 1684. John and his wife, Rebecca, and their two children sailed from England on the ship named Lyon and arrived in Massachusetts on February 5, 1631. Roger Williams was also a passenger on the Lyon, and he and John became friends during their journey. John was so impressed by Williams that he and his family followed him to Salem, Massachusetts and settled there. Both men became disenchanted with the Puritans, so about 1636, John followed Williams into an unsettled land that would become Rhode Island. Williams purchased land from the Indians, and he deeded some of the shares of this land to John and eleven other men. They established a new settlement named Providence Plantation. It was founded on what Roger Williams called “soul liberty” with freedom of religion and conscience. Williams is also credited with establishing the first Baptist Church in America, and John and Rebecca Throckmorton were on The List of Original Members received in 1638.

This Throckmorton is also impressed with Williams and seeks to follow in that tradition. Williams was a conservative, orthodox man who believed everyone had the right and duty of a free conscience; to believe and practice one’s faith or lack of faith.

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  • Is “Soul Liberty” similar to the Priesthood of the Believer? I’m not sure this type of freedom of conscience is optional, rather it might be the only way to have a genuine love for God. The arrangement that comes from the culture warriors and spiritual gatekeepers (oh there are so many of them) reeks of the mundane, “lording it over them” type power relationship with which I understand God has nothing in common. The real thing, at least in my view, is so much more amazing, and a paradox for the human mind to fathom.

  • Lynn David

    Warren, family history is something I do for myself and others at times. In the past I have done some cursory work for people that went back to the Providence Colony and this John Throckmorton. So I have to tell you that I have seen a bit different take on John Throckmorton’s history.


    In one genealogy he did not come to America on the Lyon with Williams but may have arrived later. He also attempted to settle (1642) in Dutch territory about 12 miles east of Manhattan (it is called Throg’s Neck, which is supposedly a bastardization of Throckmorton); but that failed due to attacks by native Americans. And in 1665 he bought land in Monmouth County, New Jersey, but never lived there. His children did. And about 1683/1684 he was visiting there, died and was buried in what is called the Throckmorton-Lippit-Taylor burying ground in Middletown, New Jersey not in the Providence colony. But everything else you have about John Throckmorton is mostly true. Though genealogies even differ as to his wife’s name – was it Rebecca Co[l]vill or Rebecca Farrand.


    Additionally, one genealogy I have seen has John Throckmorton becoming a Quaker in 1672 after hearing the preaching of George Fox, who started the religion. I guess that may be taking the concept of ‘soul liberty’ to its logical religious conclusion?


    As to ‘soul liberty’ my recollection of the concept that Williams developed, had more to do with his viewpoint of Native Americans than anything else (this, for instance). He became something of a linguist concerning native languages and seemed to be more happy with them than with those in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And when he declared that taking native land (under the Compact) was illegal, that more than anything got the Puritans going against him. Supposedly, when he started the Providence colony the currency with which he bought the land from the natives was ‘love.’ I doubt the same was accepted from John Throckmorton when he purchased the northern half of Prudence Island in Narragansett Bay in 1639 from Roger Williams.


    From the above link:

    “Forcing of conscience is soul-rape,” Williams wrote, pointing out that even Jesus Christ “commands tolerance of anti-Christians.” After citing Christ, Williams added his observations of the Narragansetts, among whom the “civil commonwealth” and the “spiritual commonwealth . . . are independent the one of the other. . . . The very Indians abhor to disturb any conscience at worship.” Later in his life, Williams expanded on this theme:


    “God requirth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil wars. . . . It is the will and command of God that . . . a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries.”

    Further bibliography at that link. I like the way that author ended his article on Williams.

    Williams died January 27/March 15, 1683 in Providence, with the pain of the world bowing his creaking shoulders, likely realizing just how out of step he was with the temper of his time. He was a peacemaker in time of war, a tolerant man in a world full of ideologues; a democrat in a time of ecclesiastical and secular sovereigns, a dissenter wherever self-interest masqueraded as divinity. Williams had planted seeds in American soil which would not fully flower for more than another century. He would have relished the company of Thomas Jefferson, for example, at a time when his ideas were the common currency of revolution.


    Williams also would have enjoyed meeting two Creek sachems who visited England in 1791, “where, as usual, they attracted great attention, and many flocked around them, as well to learn their ideas of certain things as to behold `the savages.'” Asked their opinion of European religion, one said that the Creeks had no priests, or established religion, and that people were not expected all to agree on mere matters of opinion. “It is best that everyone should paddle his own canoe in his own way,” the two Creeks told the assembled English — a simple American notion that had engaged the public hangman a century and a half earlier when he burned Williams’ The Bloudy Tenent.

  • @ David – Priesthood of the believer is probably more aimed at church doctrine whereas soul liberty includes implications for relationships and politics outside the church. However, I have no great expertise in these matters so a theologian/church historian might have a different take.

    @ Lynn David – Thanks for the info…

  • Richard Willmer

    Very interesting piece.

    The ‘separation of Church (or indeed any religion) and State’ – de jure in the U.S., de facto, and perhaps in some ways more ‘real’, in the U.K. – is a precious idea. In my own little patch, I’ve recently been involved in a tiny ‘battle’* on this matter! But I won’t bore you all with that …

    * RW involved in a ‘battle’??!! Perish the thought!!