Roger Williams began his religious career as a Puritan minister, and when he arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 he was initially well received. But he quickly fell into disfavor with the local leaders because of his liberal views. He changed his religious affiliation from Puritan to Baptist, and in 1639 he became a Seeker, a person who adhered to no specific religious practices. It was as a Seeker that Williams wrote ‘‘The Bloudy Tenent,’’ while in England attempting to win back a charter for Rhode Island. The main theme of the tract, as it was of Williams’s life, is that all individuals and religious bodies are entitled to religious liberty as a natural right, and that civil governments do not have the authority to enforce religious laws.
‘‘The Bloudy Tenent’’ is structured as a dialogue between ‘‘Truth’’ (representing the orthodox views of Puritans like John Cotton) and ‘‘Peace’’ (representing Williams’s views), and the subject of their debate is whether secular laws should favor one religion over another, and whether these laws have any basis in the Bible. Williams argued that these laws were in fact contrary to biblical teachings, and utilized the parable in Matthew 21:33–46 about the tenants who killed the son of the landowner to lay claim to his property (hence the title).
Williams used numerous biblical parables to buttress his argument that the civil authority ought not to be used to enforce religious conformity. He noted that Jesus and his disciples did not enjoy the protection of civil authority, and when he sent the disciples into the countryside to preach, he instructed them to take no food or money, but to rely on God for their needs. In the same manner, the Church of Williams’s day ought to rely on spiritual authority alone, not that of the Crown.
Altogether, the prose in the tract is quite dense, and not easily read. But the message it carried could not be mistaken, and made Williams the leading champion in his time for the idea of religious liberty for both individuals and sects.
MELVIN I. UROFSKY
References and Further Reading