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.