An Infinite Liberty of Conscience?

Roger Williams and the Travails of Religious Freedom

How much pluralism can a society sustain before it crumbles?

That such a question needs to be asked is no surprise given the present political context in the United States. Consider the following: Can biological men compete at the highest levels of sports against biological females? Should elementary-age children be taught gender theory? Do parents have the first and foremost right and authority over their child’s education? Should Drag Queen Story Hour be permitted in public libraries? Is abortion murder or an indispensable right of a woman to control her own body? Can a cake baker refuse to create confectionary that violates his religious beliefs? Is racism systemic or not?

Those are not rhetorical flashpoints. They dominate our public square, and the depth of disagreement continues to intensify because each of those issues is connected to comprehensive worldviews and comprehensive truth claims. Little to no middle ground exists within this small sampling of controversies, and for a society that guarantees the freedom and liberty of conscience to believe and espouse one’s deepest convictions, I raise the question again: how much pluralism can the society sustain before rupturing?

This is a difficult question to answer, and a short article won’t provide a definitive answer sufficient to end debate. Nonetheless, history reveals moments where the establishment of liberty wrought significant upheaval and can therefore help us understand the issues better. Liberty, as it turns out, is a messy business.

It was messy in the Narragansett Bay after a banished religious dissenter named Roger Williams helped found a constellation of settlements called the Providence Plantations. During the 1630s and 40s, Williams and other colonists established communities like Providence, Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick. The existence of these settlements was remarkable, given that nobody, not even Williams, planned to set up this colony in New England. Rhode Island owed its existence to the reality that its founders were banished outcasts from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

These communities, furthermore, departed from the prevailing political axiom of the mid-seventeenth century: Williams disestablished the government from the church and codified religious liberty within the colony’s jurisdiction. Providence, in Williams’ words, was designed as a “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” This was a stunning move at a time when an enforced religious establishment was understood as both a theological necessity and an inviolable pillar for the public good.

Williams suffered banishment for his religious beliefs at the hands of the Massachusetts magistrate; and, as his letters and writings indicated, he could not comprehend how his disagreements over spiritual matters disqualified him from enjoying the privileges of political citizenship in the Bay Colony. Those that followed Williams to what eventually became Rhode Island also found themselves forced to flee from their homes, especially between 1637–1638 in the aftermath of the Antinomian Controversy. Likewise, these banished dissidents committed themselves and their respective communities to liberty of conscience and the disestablishment of religion. 

The first Rhode Islanders knew they attempted something novel. In fact, the colony’s 1663 charter (which had to be secured after the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660) described its protection of soul liberty as “a lively experiment.” The experiment hypothesized that “a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained . . . with a full liberty in religious concernments.” Williams spent much of his life defending the idea of religious liberty, positing that true societal concord blossomed when the human conscience, unfettered from the constraints of coerced orthodoxy, voluntarily assented to the summons of the gospel. Disestablishment created an environment for persuasion, meaningful cooperation, and, over the course of time, protected communities from the fissures of violence and religious persecution.

That was the hope. Discord, however, mired early Rhode Island. The communities nestled in the Narragansett Bay frequently endured turmoil, violent mobs that in one case left a man dead. In the late 1640s and early 1650s, a political crisis emerged that nearly ended with the dissolution of the colony.

The causes for Rhode Island’s numerous clashes were certainly multifaceted. Yet, the colonists themselves pinned their division on the vacuum created by religious disestablishment. Williams recounted the “civil contests” that erupted between Baptists and Quakers. William Arnold, one of the leading founders of the colony, deplored the civil calamities besieging Rhode Island, stating that liberty of conscience served as a “pretense,” which invited “all the scum” of the earth and placed a “heavy burden upon the land.” In the early 1650s, when the viability of the colony was in question, the leaders in the town of Providence penned a joint letter stating that liberty of conscience, though a “sweet cup,” apparently made some of its citizenry drunk with inhumanity, vain ambition, and partisan cruelty.

The dearth of ecclesial structures and religious foundations in Rhode Island’s society inadvertently created conditions conducive to unsustainable disagreement. The colony lacked, at the very least, a civil religion. John Wilsey defines civil religion as “a set of practices, symbols and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a universal values paradigm around which the citizenry can unite.” For the settlers of the Providence Plantations, nothing consequential enough existed to unite the colonists together; no common cause filled the void usually occupied by established religious orthodoxy. The absence of a religious ballast nourished their constant conflicts. Even under the principles of soul freedom, liberty for the sake of liberty proved too little a unifying force for the wayward colonists of the Providence Plantations. The colony seemed unable to manage the pluralism that was guaranteed by its commitment to religious freedom.  

It seemed ironic. The principle that promised peace actually promoted the turbulence.

By the middle of the 1650s, Williams found himself and the colony caught in another debate at the intersection of the claims of conscience and the public good. Raids by Native American tribes were a constant threat to all New Englanders, but especially for the colonists of Rhode Island—they had a disadvantage not shared by their colonial neighbors. Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Hampshire created a league known as the United Colonies in 1643, which provided intercolonial support in case war broke out with Native Americans. Rhode Island, however, was left out of the compact because of its stance on religious establishment. As a smaller and less equipped colony, the Rhode Island General Assembly decided to make militia training compulsory in order to increase the colony’s trained militia.

“Tumult and disturbance” erupted in the colony. A number of prominent officials protested the order on grounds of conscience. Roger Williams—the paragon of soul liberty—rejected the conscientious objection. Williams argued, “That ever I should speak or write a title that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience, is a mistake; and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred.” Williams contended that the colonists, like crewmen on a ship, must strive together to ensure the vessel’s safe passage. Religious pluralism could exist on board without threatening the boat’s peace or its ability to traverse tempestuous waters. What the ship could not sustain was sedition, or, behavior that threatened to sink the entire vessel, thereby endangering all the passengers. In this case, the captain of the ship, like civil rulers, must intervene. The refusal to join in the defense of the colony, Williams believed, fell into this category of seditious, dangerous behavior. Even though conscientious objection to militia service may have extended from sincere beliefs, Williams placed it beyond the pale of toleration because no claim of conscience was permissible that undermined order and the preservation of the common good. Refusal to serve in the militia marked an inadmissible manifestation of religious pluralism that, if left unchecked, threatened the common good.

The many examples showcasing the issues of order and liberty in early Rhode Island do not suggest that peace and security abounded in places with enforced religious establishment. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, which mandated conformity to Congregationalism, endured significant trials and strife as it tried to stem the tide of pluralism within its borders.

All of this is to say: the issue of religious liberty is far more complex than we might realize. It cannot merely reduce to an issue between the conscience’s liberators vs. the conscience’s persecutors. As Williams witnessed in colonial Rhode Island, securing liberty of conscience fostered theological and denominational proliferation, which engendered a level of pluralism that tested the colony’s ability to preserve order. It lacked a cohesiveness and civil religion necessary to bind its people together in a common mission and vision for the flourishing of the entire community. As a result, unchecked individualism and religiously motivated conduct plunged the communities of early Rhode Island into divisions that, at times, broke out in violent riots.  

To be clear, freedom of conscience is an indispensable right that we cannot jettison. Yet, does a commitment to soul liberty require what Williams said he abhorred, namely, “an infinite liberty of conscience”?

If so, then can any society, including our own, withstand unlimited religious and moral pluralism?

*Image Credit: Wunderstock

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Cory Higdon

Cory Higdon Cory D. Higdon (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an adjunct professor of history and humanities at Boyce College. His research focuses on the history of religious liberty in colonial America and has been featured in the Journal of Church and State, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Public Discourse, and Providence Magazine. He has presented at numerous scholarly meetings including the American Society of Church History and the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his family reside in Louisville, Ky.