Monday, July 13, 2015

MRFF, "Spiritual Rape" & Roger Williams

Check out Chris Rodda's newest piece here. A taste:
In his 1643 pamphlet Queries of the Highest Consideration, Williams wrote (emphasis added):
"And oh! since the commonweal cannot, without a spiritual rape, force the consciences of all to one Worship, oh! that it may never commit that rape, in forcing the consciences of all men to one Worship, which a stronger arm and sword may soon (as formerly) arise to alter."
In his 1644 book The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, he wrote:
"A Soule or spiritual Rape is more abominable in God's eye than to force and ravish the bodies of all the women in the world."


JMS said...

For a good essay on “Roger Williams on Liberty of Conscience” by Edward J. Eberle see

from p. 301 – “The securing of conscience as a right usefully relieves government from the duty to enforce a particular view of the divine. Relieving government from the obligation to act divine removes a significant cause of stress and discord in the society: the need for government to police personal belief, which generally resulted in official conformity of conscience. This is what Williams called the “bloody tenent . . . of persecution for cause of conscience.”45 If conscience was a matter of individual prerogative on communication with the divine, and therefore off limits to authorities, there would be a substantially reduced possibility of persecution for cause of conscience. Williams thus helps solve one of the knottiest problems of western political science: how to secure religious liberty yet maintain civil peace.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

Like the overuse of Jefferson and Madison because they suit modern sensibilities so well, Roger Williams is another figure whose actual historical importance falls far short of his popularity with modern academics and anti-religion activists such as Rodda.

"Yet, for all the power and originality of Williams's thought, he
had little, if any, direct influence in the framing of the religious
freedoms that comprise the First Amendment of the United States
Constitution. His ideas were considered too radical in his own day
to be adopted outside the jurisdiction of Rhode Island. Outside
Rhode Island, his contemporaries and later generations tended to
view him as a crank. By the time of the framing of the First
Amendment, almost 150 years after Williams wrote, Williams was
largely a forgotten man..."


JMS said...

While I agree that “identifying Williams primarily in terms that appeal to later generations can obscure his achievement in his own time,” I disagree with your unfounded assertion that, “Roger Williams is another figure whose actual historical importance falls far short of his popularity with modern academics.” As I’ve stated before on AC, Isaac Backus discovered and reformulated Williams’ ideas starting in 1773. So, “almost” or “largely” forgotten does not mean devoid of influence. Williams’ political and religious influences far exceeded anyone identified by Dreisbach as “forgotten religious founders” that you posted about back in June.

But in terms of real (tangible, not theoretical) influence (much like, but predating William Penn), “Williams's contribution was not simply that he espoused tolerance of racial and religious difference but that he created a geographical space where those principles could be put into action. Without an instrument of civil government for Providence Plantations, Williams's admirable opinions would have found no means of expression. In this light, Williams's grandest historical achievement is not the Bloudy Tenent or the Key [into the Language of America] but the 1644 patent he secured from Parliament, which preserved the territory of Providence Plantations [i.e., the colony of Rhode Island] from a rival claim made … on behalf of Massachusetts.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

I was using a quote from your own source. The reader can make of it what he or she will.

Of a recent Williams bio, RIAH wrote

Barry's straight line from Roger Williams to Thomas Jefferson is even weaker still. There was a historical progression of sorts from a scriptural defense of religious liberty to a “secular” one between the 1640s and the 1780s, but many voices filled in the vast space between Williams and Jefferson. Barry wants to create room for Williams in the “modern/secular” camp by showing that Williams compared the church to “a Corporation, Society, or Company of East-Indie or Turkie-Merchants”; Williams also asserted that the church was not the center of society (which also seems more secular to Barry). Nonetheless, most of Williams’ famed expositions on religious liberty are painful to read (as my undergrads can attest), overly wordy, unendingly repetitive, and unabashedly based on lengthy scriptural expositions. The literature on religious toleration in the early modern world is growing by the day, and in many ways, Barry’s book flies in the face of a recent historiography that increasingly emphasizes the multiple streams of influences, the multiplicity of voices, and the overlapping contexts in which issues were debated and enacted. One thinks of Chris Beneke and Christopher Grenda, The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America (2011), Evan Haefeli, New Netherlands and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (2011), Andrew Murphy, Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (2003), and Scott Sowerby’s forthcoming book, Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

So, “almost” or “largely” forgotten does not mean devoid of influence. Williams’ political and religious influences far exceeded anyone identified by Dreisbach as “forgotten religious founders” that you posted about back in June.

Indeed, we're so immersed in secular-left historiography that a statement like this passes without examination or remark.

Roger Williams is in no way as important as Roger Sherman*, yet is 100 times better known because the secular left lionizes him. [Add exiled heretic Anne Hutchinson to this list of secular-left heroes whose importance is inflated beyond the reality.]

"Roger Sherman is the only person to have signed all four of the most significant documents in our nation’s early history: the Continental Association from the first Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. He began life as a surveyor and a cordwainer (someone who makes shoes and other items from leather) before establishing himself as a political icon of the American Revolution. He spent the last 30 years of his life devoted to public service, often simultaneously holding multiple high-profile political and judicial positions." - See more at:

*See also