a Winter Day in Providence: Contemplating Soul Liberty

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We’ve been spending a leisurely winter day in Providence, Rhode Island.

We’ve enjoyed art at the RISD museum, savored a delicious lunch at Pakorang on South Main Street, and crafted our own signature scent at Providence Perfume Company.

This article takes us to our fourth stop of the day, the First Baptist Church in America.

Are you ready for this? I wasn’t.

I was merely gazing at an old tea kettle in an old church when a serious matter crept up on me, insisting that I pay attention.

Maybe it’s because I was sitting in a church, in a city named Providence.
Roger Williams, expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colonies for crimes of sedition, heresy and failure to take an oath of allegiance, purchased this land from the Narragansett Tribe in order to establish a haven for seekers of religious liberty.
Williams founded this city in 1636(!)  He also founded the Baptist congregation that built this meeting house in 1774-75. On the ground floor is a room refurbished in the 1950’s to display Colonial furniture and fixtures. There’s a shelf painted Colonial Red. It holds the Dexter family bible and other artifacts, including Roger William’s tea kettle.
Suddenly I found myself contemplating the man who articulated one of the root philosophies that led to the founding of the city of Providence–an ideology that Roger Williams named Soul Liberty. And I realized:

Contemporary American political misunderstandings and animosities are nearly 400 years old.

Where does all this political hatred, all this division over morality issues really come from? What is the root of this?
Some people mistakenly believe it is an argument between devoutly religious church-goers, and modern secular humanists. But if the root of the argument can be traced to the early 1600’s, when two camps of exceedingly devout Protestant Calvinists stood for opposite sides on this issue, then this cannot be about faith or absence of faith. Even today there are professing Christians on both sides of the right/left debate, just as there are, on both sides, people to whom faith means little or nothing.

If it’s not about faith, then what is it about?

The ages-old argument boils down to a fundamental belief or disbelief in what Williams called soul liberty. It is an argument about the role of government and the rights of individuals. It began in the early 1600’s and it still rages. 

Which side people choose–Roger Williams’ or the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans’–is determined by their belief, or their non belief, in liberty of conscience for everyone.

  • Do you believe that every human has an inborn right to make their own decisions in matters of faith and conscience? 
  • Or do you believe government should use the force of law to compel compliance?
  • Are you on Roger Williams’ side or the side of the Massachusetts Puritans? 
  • The Massachusetts Puritans believed in liberty of conscience for themselves, but did not grant that right to everyone. 

“It is the will and command of God,” wrote Williams, “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; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s spirit, the Word of God.”
Translated into contemporary Christian language:

  • Roger Williams, a devout Christian and the founder of the First Baptist Church in America, believed that it is God’s will that all people, Christians and non-Christians, be granted the right to live according to their own beliefs, even if those beliefs are Pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic or Atheist.
  • He said that God has granted to all people throughout the earth the right to choose to worship and obey the laws of God. This implies a fundamental right to choose to not worship God and to not obey God’s laws.
  • And he believed there is one, and only one, God-sanctioned weapon of force that may be employed against any person’s disobedience to the moral laws of God. That weapon is “the sword of God’s spirit; the Word of God.” 

Therefore Williams wrote and he preached against the people he considered enemies, but he did not restrict them from living as they chose to live. He did not coerce compliance. He did not use political or legal means to enforce his own beliefs, because he believed that worship of God and obedience to God are worshipful and obedient only when the are freely-given. As with all demonstrations of love, when compliance is forced, love is annihilated.
History, Williams said, proves that coercion leads to violence. He called it “spiritual and soul rape,” and saw that it caused endless bloodshed, cost countless lives through religious wars and inquisitions. “Rulers in all ages,” Williams wrote, “have practiced violence to the Souls of Men.”

Williams, a devoutly pious and outspoken Protestant, was opposed to the beliefs and practices Quakers, Jews, adherents to the Church of England, and Roman Catholics. Yet he established a colony which welcomed them and he defended their liberty to live according to their own beliefs.

Quakers who would have been tortured, executed or exported from the Massachusetts Bay Colony came to settle in Rhode Island. The first Roman Catholic Church, the first Jewish Synagogue, and the first First Baptist Church in America were all founded in here.

Roger Williams personally vehemently despised the Quaker point of view. He believed in, and the colony defended, his right to abhor, and to speak against, that which insulted his moral conscience.
But his belief in soul liberty insisted that he allow the Quakers to live in Rhode Island, even to be elected to govern. His principles kept him from using the force of law to expel his enemies or limit their right to share in the benefits of citizenship. And conversely, the principles of soul liberty prevented the Quakers from silencing or restricting Williams’ right to publish his opinions, to speak against the Quakers, to denounce their practices as wrong.

Adherence to Liberty of Conscience prohibits us from demanding that others accept, or live by, our moral standards.

Do you believe that everyone has the right to live according to his/her own beliefs, to answer to his/her own conscience?

Do you ever find yourself wishing we could all just get along, despite our differences?

(historical and architectural information summarized from the The First Baptist Church in America Self-guided Tour brochure and from The History Channel’s website.)

29 thoughts on “a Winter Day in Providence: Contemplating Soul Liberty”

  1. You have posed tough questions and I am betting that fewer-than-usual readers will be willing to put hard answers in writing.
    For me, I know, there can be only one answer: it depends. Yes, I know that it sounds like either (a) I am trying to be smug or (b) wriggling my way out of taking a stand. I can assure you that (a) is not the case and am trying to make it so that (b) isn’t either.
    I know it’s been stated by many that “those who do not stand for something, in effect, stand for nothing.” That’s not the case (at least I hope it isn’t) but, having dealt with similar situations at work, and in life in general, and often regretting the choices I made or feeling awful because I had to support an unpopular choices that was well-grounded by often contrary to the good of people for whom I care deeply; people hurt by choices I made..
    It is an interesting and intriguing question any way I look at it. Unfortunately, after mulling over a couple of scenarios in my mind I am force to conclude that I could go either way on this one, depending on the circumstances. I will admit that my general bias causes me to lean on Williams’ side but also must admit that there are circumstances in which I would be willing to forego that belief in favor of some greater cause.
    Tracy, you realize I will be thinking about this, on and off, for the rest of the day, don’t you. I love the Internet!

    1. Even as I wrote this, I was thinking to myself, “Of course there’s no easy answer. No either/or.”
      It has not been easy for me to accept that life is a conglomeration of “ands” (I’m thinking of Martin Buber here–but I can’t re-locate his essay on “the oriental mind” in order to quote it).
      I wondered what would come of this. I’m glad I posted it. And I, too, love the internet.

  2. A very interesting and thoughtful response from Mr. Barry. I understand his position: as a thoroughly American idealist I support Roger Williams; as an older woman shaped by life experience I understand the often unfortunate need for firm, even rigid boundaries to maintain order amidst inevitable chaos. And like Mr. Barry I’ll be thinking about this for quite a while!

    1. I love that phase “thoroughly American idealist.” That’s us–to a T.
      I, too, will be thinking about it for quite some time. I feel as if “I haven’t even begun to think.: 😉
      Hoping to see you soon in Providence, dear P.

  3. Phew Tracy – this is a tough one. On first reading and thinking about it without thinking about it, if you get my drift, my immediate reaction was – well of course I think that everyone should have the right to live by his/her own beliefs, to answer to his/her own conscious. Of course they should … shouldn’t they? And then I factored in Hitler. And now I’m still thinking. You want an answer? It could take a while.

    1. As always, I feel like you’re inhabiting my thinking, Jenny.
      As M. Barry said (in the comment above), “I love the internet.”
      Sometimes I hate the internet. My husband and I were talking just today, about the weird way the internet is taking control of people’s lives. I love its potential; I hate what it sometimes does to families, relationships, daily life.
      I’m ambivalent about nearly everything. I realize that in posting this, by asking the usual black/white — this/that kind of question, the subject matter baited the question.
      Why do I feel a need to ask questions from the either/or perspective?

  4. I think in part it comes down to the difference between civil law and spiritual law. We would probably agree that a four-way stop at a dangerous intersection may be necessary, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. However, to coerce someone to a specific religious belief simply doesn’t work, Some might comply, but what to do about those who won’t? Even the threat of death will be met with willingness to die for beliefs, which is what happens in our never ending wars. Maybe it’s a part of human nature that wants to assert our own rightness and attempt to maintain control over our environment by trying to control those around us.

    1. In other words, pride?
      I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that while Christianity can make a person into a much better person, it can also make a person into a terrible person (speaking of the atrocities done in the name of the Christian religion). I do think that the belief in one’s own rightness, or self-righteousness is the root of the problem.
      And yes, there are times when “enforcement” is necessary for the good of society. It’s a sticky problem, to try and discern which are those times, and which are not.

      1. Pride yes, with fear mixed in – fear that someone else will take control of our life and make our decisions for us, or fear that we will be exposed for not being as all-sufficient as we may pretend to be.

  5. My undergraduate studies many years ago included these three classes: Brethren History and Thought; World Religions; and Religions, Philosophies and Visions Within A Complex World.
    Roger Williams was featured the third class, taught by a professor who respectfully combined Williams’ words and life with his effect on accepting other struggles and religions. And get this: in a slide presentation from the professor’s American religion travels, he included a picture of the teapot!
    Some places have embedded in them the sacred auras of perseverance, fidelity and hope. Thanks for sharing this post and reminding me of those teachings from years ago.

    1. I’m glad it touched your memories, Marylin. It’s very interesting, how connections happen. And yes, some places do have that sacred aura. Standing in front of the teapot, I felt it–a sense of conviction to living with compassion and wisdom.

  6. It appears to me, from what you have written that he defended other peoples rights to religious (or non religious) BELIEFS not moral codes. (There is a difference). In other words all those religions you mentioned would have had similar moral codes and therefore perhaps would be acceptable to him. Therefore the comment above by jenny does not apply because Hitler did not work by a moral code.
    so I suppose what I am saying is, yes, I do think people should be able to live according to their own beliefs……. along as they acted morally.
    (So I supposed I am totally fair and tolerant except to those people unfair and intolerant) 🙂

    1. I think I agree with you, Elizabeth. I’m also realizing that the question is perhaps too difficult for human understanding. Because as much as I agree with you, I start wondering at what point belief turns into moral code, and when does moral code become sanctioned oppression. I’m having trouble expressing this. I mean, who decides what moral behavior is, and what is immoral? The ancient Hebrews’ moral code demanded that children obey their parents, and the law permitted stoning of defiant, rebellious youth. Not that there is any evidence that this was carried out, but parental authority and filial obedience was clearly a moral issue.
      Adultery, divorce, incest, pedophilia, abortion, homosexuality, slavery/racism, fornication, labor rights, class/gentrification and the succession of privilege… these are, or have been, addressed by moral codes throughout history, and at various times, in various places, one particular action (for example, that of giving a job to a man instead of a woman because a man is considered inherently more qualified and deserving) has been considered more or less moral.
      The question I asked, thinking I knew exactly what I meant by asking it, has only served to show me that I don’t really know or understand much at all.

        1. I’d like that, too.
          It’s a topic I’m working on in a novel (which I expect will take me a good long time to write). I think the novel is the right form for exploring very complexly interwoven topics.

          1. I’ll be sure to let you know. It’s a long-range plan. First, two non-fiction books coming out (hopefully this year).
            Write now my work on the novel is sporadic and dabbling, but I have a good outline and a few chapters written. I’ll get to seriously working on it after I’m finished with the book release and promotion activity this year.

  7. Well Tracy, who knew that taking a long, deep look at an old teapot would trigger such a thought-provoking post? I just love how that happens! You are such a deep thinker and I love how well balanced this post is, and I also learnt an awful lot about the ‘religious’ history of Providence and one Roger Williams and his Liberty of Conscience.
    I believe that we are all given free will by God to make our own decisions and choices and that we should be at liberty to do so but how do we all get along when so many religions have fundamental differences at their very core which incite such deep passion to the point of hatred of those who do not share the same core beliefs?
    This is going to take some hard thinking, I certainly don’t have the answer to these questions although I do admire Roger Williams for what he did.

    1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, Sherri. And the more I think (and reflect on the responses), the more complicated it seems.
      I’m going to go back to two precepts that I learned as a child, from posters at my dad’s A.A. meetings.
      KISS (which means, keep it simple, stupid);
      and, therefore this one works to sum up what I’ve been feeling about this issue–
      Live, and let live.
      I think it boils down to this: I ought to live by my conscience; and I ought to make certain that my conscience is humble, to not meddle in lives that aren’t mine to live.

  8. Isn’t there an old saying “Your rights stop where my nose starts”? Maybe that would be a nice basic moral code! At the company where I work they no longer preach The Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, but The Platinum Rule “Do unto others as others would have you do unto them”. I think that would cover many situations.

  9. Very thought provoking blog and many thoughtful responses. We have, unfortunately, become a society (Western) that likes to polarize discussions. There are rarely only two poles to an argument, and as you note it is not as simple as either or. A second problem is the oversimplification of many issues. While I applaud those who can help us to understand complex issues by using non-technical language, it becomes dangerous when we dumb down the discussion.
    Having said that, I think for many ethical concerns and I would prefer to state most morality issues as ethical problems, we need to process the issues through various tests. For me the first test is always about the degree to which something is destructive or creative. As you can see, destruction and creation aren’t necessarily at the ends of a continuum. I tend to like web analysis rather than straight line analysis.
    Thanks for this, I am enjoying thinking about the issue. Oh, and I am completely comfortable with the intent of Roger William’s proposition, it’s in the application I think we get into trouble.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Rod. You bring a balancing perspective (I hate using trendy words, and balance is certainly a trendy concept these days, but I can’t think of a better word).
      Sometimes I think that the more I talk and ponder, the more I complicate things that I don’t really understand to begin with, and never can or will. But I won’t stop trying to find answers, because living right is of primary importance to me. By “right” I mean with good will, truth, integrity and compassion, and also holistically (and you know the root of that word).
      I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what that all looks like, exactly. And I’ve come to Bonhoefer’s conclusion, that it looks like personal obedience to the call of God at the moment, which is most easily discerned when I have enough humility, heartfelt commitment, a mind capable of reasoning, and a conscience capable of fearless self-examination.
      In other words, it all comes back to minding my own business (monitoring, evaluating and controlling my own thoughts and actions). Although I do think it’s necessary to discern the value or the harm of other people’s actions, in order to decide whether to participate and support them, or renounce them and seek something better, more in service of peace and harmony, more just.
      Your last sentence is particularly well-said, and I agree.

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