1644: Williams, Bloody Tenet, of Persecution (Letter)

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Source: The American Republic: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).


The Bloody Tenent, of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience

roger williams


The Bloody Tenent, of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience

To the Right Honorable, both Houses of the High Court of Parliament

Right Honourable and Renowned Patriots:

Next to the saving of your own soules (in the lamen-table shipwrack of Mankind) your taske (as Christians) is to save the Soules, but as Magistrates, the Bodies and Goods of others.

Many excellent Discourses have been presented to your Fathers hands and Yours in former and present Parliaments: I shall be humbly bold to say, that (in what concernes your duties as Magistrates, towards others) a more necessary and seasonable debate was never yet presented.

Two things your Honours here may please to view (in this Controversie of Persecution for cause of Conscience) beyond what’s extant.

First the whole Body of this Controversie form’d & pitch’d in true Battalia.

Secondly (although in respect of my selfe it be impar congressus, yet in the power of that God who is Maximus in Minimis, Your Honours shall see the Controversie is discussed with men as able as most, eminent for abilitie and pietie, Mr. Cotton, and the New English Ministers.

When the Prophets in Scripture have given their Coats of Armes and Escutchions to Great Men, Your Honours know the Babylonian Monarch hath the Lyon, the Persian the Beare, the Grecian the Leopard, the Romane a compound of the former 3. most strange and dreadfull, Dan. 7.

Their oppressing, plundring, ravishing, murthering, not only of the bodies, but the soules of Men are large explaining commentaries of such similitudes.

Your Honours have been famous to the end of the World, for your unparallel’d wisdome, courage, justice, mercie, in the vindicating your Civill Lawes, Liberties, &c. Yet let it not be grievous to your Honours thoughts to ponder a little, why all the Prayers and Teares and Fastings in this Nation have not pierc’d the Heavens, and quench’d these Flames, which yet who knowes how far they’ll spread, and when they’ll out!

Your Honours have broke the jawes of the Oppressour, and taken the prey out of their Teeth (Iob. 29.) For which Act I believe it hath pleased the most High God to set a Guard (not only of Trained Men, but) of mighty Angels, to secure your sitting and the Citie.

I feare we are not pardoned, though reprieved: O that there may be a lengthning of Londons tranquilitie, of the Parliaments safetie, by mercy to the poore! Dan. 4.

Right Honorable, Soule yokes, Soule oppression, plundrings, ravishings, &c. are of a crimson and deepest dye, and I believe the chiefe of Englands sins, unstopping the Viols of Englands present sorrowes.

This glasse presents your Honours with Arguments from Religion, Reason, Experience, all proving that the greatest yoakes yet lying upon English necks, (the peoples and Your own) are of a spirituall and soule nature.

All former Parliaments have changed these yoakes according to their consciences, (Popish or Protestant) ’Tis now your Honours turne at helme, and (as your task, so I hope your resolution, not to change (for that is but to turne the wheele, which another Parliament, and the very next may turne againe:) but to ease the Subjects and Your selves from a yoake (as was once spoke in a case not unlike Act. 15.) which neither You nor your Fathers were ever able to beare.

Most Noble Senatours, Your Fathers (whose seats You fill) are mouldred, and mouldring their braines, their tongues, &c. to ashes in the pit of rottenesse: They and You must shortly (together with two worlds of men) appeare at the great Barre: It shall then be no griefe of heart that you have now attended to the cries of Soules, thousands oppressed, millions ravished by the Acts and Statutes concerning Soules, not yet repealed.

Of Bodies impoverished, imprisoned, &c. for their soules beliefe, yea slaughtered on heapes for Religions controversies in the Warres of present and former Ages.

“Notwithstanding the successe of later times, (wherein sundry opinions have been hatched about the subject of Religion) a man may clearly discerne with his eye, and as it were touch with his finger that according to the verity of holy Scriptures, &c. mens consciences ought in no sort to be violated, urged or constrained. And whensoever men have attempted any thing by this violent course, whether openly or by secret meanes, the issue hath beene pernicious, and the cause of great and wonderfull innovations in the principallest and mightiest Kingdomes and Countries, &c.

It cannot be denied to be a pious and prudentiall act for Your Honours (according to your conscience) to call for the advice of faithfull Councellours in the high debates concerning Your owne, and the soules of others.

Yet let it not be imputed as a crime for any suppliant to the God of Heaven for You, if in the humble sense of what their soules beleeve, they powre forth (amongst others) these three requests at the Throne of Grace.

First, That neither Your Honours, nor those excellent and worthy persons, whose advice you seek, limit the holy One of Israel to their apprehensions, debates, conclusions, rejecting or neglecting the humble and faithfull suggestions of any, though as base as spittle and clay, with which sometimes Christ Iesus opens the eyes of them that are borne blinde.

Secondly, That the present and future generations of the Sons of Men may never have cause to say that such a Parliament (as England never enjoyed the like) should modell the worship of the living, eternall and invisible God after the Bias of any earthly interest, though of the highest concernment under the Sunne: And yet, faith that learned Sir Francis Bacon (how ever otherwise perswaded, yet thus he confesseth:) “Such as hold pressure of Conscience, are guided therein by some private interests of their owne.”

Thirdly, What ever way of worshipping God Your owne Consciences are perswaded to walke in, yet (from any bloody act of violence to the consciences of others) it may bee never told at Rome nor Oxford, that the Parliament of England hath committed a greater rape, then if they had forced or ravished the bodies of all the women in the World.

And that Englands Parliament (so famous throughout all Europe and the World) should at last turne Papists, Prelatists, Presbyterians, Independents, Socinians, Familists, Antinomians, &c. by confirming all these sorts of Consciences, by Civill force and violence to their Consciences.

Scriptures and Reasons written long since by a Witnesse of Jesus Christ, close Prisoner in Newgate, against Persecution in cause of Conscience; and sent some while since to Mr. Cotton, by a Friend who thus wrote:

In the multitude of Councellours there is safety: It is therefore humbly desired to be instructed in this point: viz.

Whether Persecution for cause of Conscience be not against the Doctrine of Jesus Christ the King of Kings. The Scriptures and Reasons are these.

Because Christ commandeth that the Tares and Wheat (which some understand are those that walke in the Truth, and those that walke in Lies) should be let alone in the World, and not plucked up untill the Harvest, which is the end of the World, Matth. 13. 30. 38. &c.

The same commandeth Matth. 15. 14. that they that are Blinde (as some interpret, led on in false Religion, and are offended with him for teaching true Religion) should be let alone, referring their punishment unto their falling into the Ditch.

Againe, Luke 9. 54, 55. hee reproved his Disciples who would have had Fire come downe from Heaven and devoure those Samaritanes who would not receive Him, in these words: Ye know not of what Spirit ye are, the son of Man is not come to destroy Mens lives, but to save them.

Paul the Apostle of our Lord teacheth, 2 Tim. 24. 2. That the servant of the Lord must not strive, but must be gentle toward all Men, suffering the Evill Men, instructing them with meeknesse that are contrary minded, proving if God at any time will give them repentance, that they may acknowledge the Truth, and come to amendment out of that snare of the devill, &c.

According to these blessed Commandements, the holy Prophets foretold, that when the Law of Moses (concern-ing Worship) should cease, and Christs Kingdome be established, Esa. 2. 4. Mic. 4. 3, 4. They shall breake their Swords into Mathookes, and their Speares into Sithes. And Esa. 11. 9. Then shall none hurt or destroy in all the Mountaine of my Holinesse, &c. And when he came, the same he taught and practised, as before: so did his Disciples after him, for the Weapons of his Warfare are not carnall (saith the Apostle) 2 Cor. 10. 4.

But he chargeth straitly that his Disciples should be so far from persecuting those that would not bee of their Religion, that when they were persecuted they should pray (Matth. 5.) when they were cursed they should blesse, &c.

And the Reason seemes to bee, because they who now are Tares, may hereafter become Wheat; they who are now blinde, may hereafter see; they that now resist him, may hereafter receive him; they that are now in the devils snare, in adversenesse to the Truth, may hereafter come to repentance; they that are now blasphemers and persecutors (as Paul was) may in time become faithfull as he; they that are now idolators as the Corinths once were (1 Cor. 6. 9.) may hereafter become true worshippers as they; they that are now no people of God, nor under mercy (as the Saints sometimes were, 1 Pet. 2. 20.) may hereafter become the people of God, and obtaine mercy, as they.

Some come not till the 11. houre, Matth. 20. 6. if those that come not till the last houre should be destroyed, because they come not at the first, then should they never come but be prevented.

All which premises are in all humility referred to your godly wise consideration.

Because this persecution for cause of conscience is against the profession and practice of famous Princes.

First, you may please to consider the speech of King James, in his Majesties Speech at Parliament, 1609. He saith, it is a sure Rule in divinity, that God never loves to plant his Church by violence and bloodshed.

And in his Highnesse Apologie, pag. 4. speaking of such Papists that tooke the Oath, thus:

“I gave good proofe that I intended no persecution against them for conscience cause, but onely desired to bee se-cured for civill obedience, which for conscience cause they are bound to performe.”

And pag. 60. speaking of Blackwell1 (the Arch-priest) his Majesty saith, “It was never my intention to lay any thing to the said Arch-Priests charge (as I have never done to any) for cause of conscience.” And in his Highnesse Exposition on Revel. 20. printed 1588. and after [in] 1603. his Majesty writeth thus: “Sixthly, the compassing of the Saints and the besieging of the beloved City, declareth unto us a certaine note of a false Church, to be Persecution, for they come to seeke the faithfull, the faithfull are them that are sought: the wicked are the besiegers, the faithfull are the besieged.”

Secondly, the saying of Stephen King of Poland: 2 “I am King of Men, not of Consciences, a Commander of Bodies, not of Soules.

Thirdly, the King of Bohemia hath thus written:

“And notwithstanding the successe of the later times (wherein sundry opinions have beene hatched about the subject of Religion) may make one clearly discerne with his eye, and as it were to touch with his Finger, that according to the veritie of Holy Scriptures, and a Maxime heretofore told and maintained, by the ancient Doctors of the Church; That mens consciences ought in no sort to bee violated, urged, or constrained; and whensoever men have attempted any thing by this violent course, whether openly or by secret meanes, the issue hath beene pernicious, and the cause of great and wonderfull Innovations in the principallest and mightiest Kingdomes and Countries of all Christendome.”

And further his Majesty saith: “So that once more we doe professe before God and the whole World, that from this time forward wee are firmly resolved not to persecute or molest, or suffer to be persecuted or molested, any person whosoever for matter of Religion, no not they that professe themselves to be of the Romish Church, neither to trouble or disturbe them in the exercise of their Religion, so they live conformable to the Lawes of the States, &c.” 3

And for the practice of this, where is persecution for cause of conscience except in England and where Popery reignes, and there neither in all places, as appeareth by France, Poland, and other places.

Nay, it is not practised amongst the Heathen that acknowledge not the true God, as the Turke, Persian, and others.

Thirdly, because persecution for cause of conscience is condemned by the ancient and later Writers, yea and Papists themselves.

Hilarie against Auxentius4 saith thus: The Christian Church doth not persecute, but is persecuted. And lamentable it is to see the great folly of these times, and to sigh at the foolish opinion of this world, in that men thinke by humane aide to helpe God, and with worldly pompe and power to undertake to defend the Christian Church. I aske you Bishops, what helpe used the Apostles in the publishing of the Gospel? with the aid of what power did they preach Christ, and converted the Heathen from their idolatry to God? When they were in prisons, and lay in chaines, did they praise and give thankes to God for any dignities, graces, and favours received from the Court? Or do you thinke that Paul went about with Regall Mandates, or Kingly authority, to gather and establish the Church of Christ? sought he protection from Nero, Vespasian?

The Apostles wrought with their hands for their owne maintenance, travailing by land and water from Towne to Citie, to preach Christ: yea the more they were forbidden, the more they taught and preached Christ. But now alas, humane helpe must assist and protect the Faith, and give the same countenance to and by vaine and worldly honours.5 Doe men seek to defend the Church of Christ? as if hee by his power were unable to performe it.

The same against the Arrians.

The Church now, which formerly by induring misery and imprisonment was knowne to be a true Church, doth now terrifie others by imprisonment, banishment, and misery, and boasteth that she is highly esteemed of the world, when as the true Church [she] cannot but be hated of the same.

Tertull. ad Scapulam:6 It agreeth both with humane reason, and naturall equity, that every man worship God uncompelled, and beleeve what he will; for it neither hurteth nor profiteth any one another mans Religion and Beleefe: Neither beseemeth it any Religion to compell another to be of their Religion, which willingly and freely should be imbraced, and not by constraint: for as much as the offerings were required of those that freely and with good will offered, and not from the contrary.

Jerom. in proaem. lib. 4. in Jeremiam. 7 Heresie must be cut off with the Sword of the Spirit: let us strike through with the Arrowes of the Spirit all Sonnes and Disciples of mis-led Heretickes, that is, with Testimonies of holy Scriptures. The slaughter of Heretickes is by the word of God.

Brentius 8 upon 1 Cor. 3. No man hath power to make or give Lawes to Christians, whereby to binde their consciences; for willingly, freely, and uncompelled, with a ready desire and cheerfull minde, must those that come, run unto Christ.

Luther in his Booke of the Civill Magistrate9 saith; The Lawes of the Civill Magistrates government extends no further then over the body or goods, and to that which is externall: for over the soule God will not suffer any man to rule: onely he himselfe will rule there. Wherefore whosoever doth undertake to give Lawes unto the Soules and Consciences of Men, he usurpeth that government himselfe which appertaineth unto God, &c.

Therefore upon 1 Kings 5. 10 In the building of the Temple there was no sound of Iron heard, to signifie that Christ will have in his Church a free and a willing People, not compelled and constrained by Lawes and Statutes.

Againe he saith upon Luk. 22. 11 It is not the true Catholike Church, which is defended by the Secular Arme or humane Power, but the false and feigned Church, which although it carries the Name of a Church yet it denies the power thereof.

And upon Psal. 17. 12 he saith: For the true Church of Christ knoweth not Brachium saeculare, which the Bishops now adayes, chiefly use.

Againe, in Postil. Dom. 1. post Epiphan.13 he saith: Let not Christians be commanded, but exhorted: for, He that willingly will not doe that, whereunto he is friendly exhorted, he is no Christian: wherefore they that doe compell those that are not willing, shew thereby that they are not Christian Preachers, but Worldly Beadles.

Againe, upon 1 Pet. 3. 14 he saith: If the Civill Magistrate shall command me to believe thus and thus: I should answer him after this manner: Lord, or Sir, Looke you to your Civill or Worldly Government, Your Power extends not so farre as to command any thing in Gods Kingdome: Therefore herein I may not heare you. For if you cannot beare it, that any should usurpe Authoritie where you have to Command, how doe you thinke that God should suffer you to thrust him from his Seat, and to seat your selfe therein?

Lastly, the Papists, the Inventors of Persecution, in a wicked Booke of theirs set forth in K. James his Reigne, thus:

Moreover, the Meanes which Almighty God appointed his Officers to use in the Conversion of Kingdomes and Nations, and People, was Humilitie, Patience, Charitie; saying, Behold I send you as Sheepe in the midst of Wolves, Mat. 10. 16. He did not say, Behold I send you as Wolves among Sheepe, to kill, imprison, spoile and devoure those unto whom they were sent.

Againe vers. 7. he saith: They to whom I send you, will deliver you up into Councells, and in their Synagogues they will scourge you; and to Presidents and to Kings shall you be led for my sake. He doth not say: You whom I send, shall deliver the people (whom you ought to convert) unto Councells, and put them in Prisons, and lead them to Presidents, and Tribunall Seates, and make their Religion Felony and Treason.

Againe he saith, vers. 32. When ye enter into an House, salute it, saying, Peace be unto this House: he doth not say, You shall send Pursevants to ransack or spoile his House.

Againe he said, John 10. The good Pastour giveth his life for his Sheep, the Thiefe commeth not but to steale, kill and destroy. He doth not say, The Theefe giveth his life for his Sheep, and the Good Pastour commeth not but to steale, kill and destroy.

So that we holding our peace, our Adversaries themselves speake for us, or rather for the Truth.

To Answer Some Maine Objections

And first, that it is no prejudice to the Common wealth, if Libertie of Conscience were suffred to such as doe feare God indeed, as is or will be manifest in such mens lives and conversations.

Abraham abode among the Canaanites a long time, yet contrary to them inReligion, Gen. 13. 7. & 16. 13. Againe he sojourned in Gerar, and K.Abimelech gave him leave to abide in his Land, Gen. 20. 21. 23. 24.

Isaack also dwelt in the same Land, yet contrary in Religion, Gen. 26.

Jacob lived 20 yeares in one House with his Unkle Laban, yet differed in Religion, Gen. 31.

The people of Israel were about 430 yeares in that infamous land of Egypt, and afterwards 70 yeares in Babylon, all which time they differed in Religion from the States, Exod. 12. & 2 Chron. 36.

Come to the time of Christ, where Israel was under the Romanes, where lived divers Sects of Religion, as Herodians, Scribes and Pharises, Saduces and Libertines, Thudaeans and Samaritanes, beside the Common Religion of the Jewes, Christ and his Apostles. All which differed from the Common Religion of the State, which was like the Worship of Diana, which almost the whole world then worshipped, Acts 19. 20.

All these lived under the Government of Caesar, being nothing hurtfull unto the Common-wealth, giving unto Caesar that which was his. And for their Religion and Consciences towards God, he left them to themselves, as having no Dominion over their Soules and Consciences. And when the Enemies of the Truth raised up any Tumults, the wisedome of the Magistrate most wisely appeased them, Acts 18 14. & 19. 35.

[1. ]George Blackwell, a Roman Catholic divine, was commissioned to act as archpriest over the secular clergy in England by Cardinal Cajetan, March 7, 1598, in order to meet some of the difficulties arising from the lack of a Romish episcopate, and was confirmed and approved by a bull from Pope Clement VIII, April 6, 1599. He took the oath of allegiance enacted in consequence of the Gunpowder Plot, and openly expressed his approbation of it, though Paul V. had condemned it. His superiors at Rome could not endure his attempts to induce Roman Catholics to take the oath, and he was superseded in 1508. Rose, Biog. Dict., IV; Wood’s Athenae Oxonienses, ii: 122.— Ed.

[2. ]Stephen Bathori was King of Poland 1575–1586. Though a convert to the Roman Church he used no intolerance towards his Protestant subjects. He said, “I reign over persons; but it is God who rules the conscience. Know that God has reserved three things to himself; the creation of something out of nothing, the knowledge of futurity, and the government of the conscience.” Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia, Poland, p. 167.—Ed.

[3. ]This paragraph, quoted also in the Address to Parliament, p. 7, is from the manifesto issued by the Elector Palatine, Frederick the Fifth, who had been elected King of Bohemia against Ferdinand the Second, Archduke of Austria and Emperor of Germany, at the beginning of the Thirty Years War. Schiller, Thirty Years War, Book I. James the First, whose daughter he married, was entirely opposed to his taking the crown, and refused to recognise him. Hume, History of England, Chap. 48. It was in the same year (1620) in which he was defeated that this “Humble Supplication” from which these “Scriptures and Reasons” are taken was printed. The Commons had boldly declared their sympathy with his misfortunes, and so circumstances gave significance to opinions uttered by one who was considered a representative of the Protestant cause, and which were so much in advance of those of James. Brandt, The History of the Reformation in and about the Low Countries, iv: lib. 52, p. 200.—Ed.

[4. ]S. Hilarii Opera, Lib. I, Contra Arianos vel Auxentium, Cap. 3, 4, pp. 465, 466; Venetiis, 1749.—Ed.

[5. ]This sentence may be read with a period after “countenance,” the remaining words being connected with the following interrogation: or by changing the order of the words, thus, “and give countenance to the same by vaine and worldly honours.”—Ed.

[6. ]Tertulliani Opera, Tom. 1, Cap. 2, p. 152, Antverpiae, 1583; Lib’ry of Fathers, Tertullian, i: 143, Oxford, 1842.—Ed.

[7. ]S. Hieronymi Opera, in praemium lib. 4, in Jeremiam, pp. 615–616, Parisiis, 1704. Only the first member of this sentence is found in the place cited. “Quod si cavendum nobis est, ne veterem laedere videa-mur necessitudinem, si superbissimam haeresim spirituali mucrone truncemus.”—Ed.

[8. ]The works of Brentius, 8 vols. folio, Tubingen, 1575–1590, are not within the Editor’s reach, nor on the catalogues of any of the public libraries of the country, so far as examined.—Ed.

[9. ]Luther’s Sämtliche Schriften, herausgegeben J. G. Walch, 10r Theil, 452. Halle. 1744.—Ed.

[10. ]Schriften, x: 438.—Ed.

[11. ]Schriften, xiii: 2818. Auslegung des Evangelii am Bartholomews Tag, Luke xxii: 24–30. “God will keep and govern his Church only by his Word, and not by human power.” It may be that the reference is to some other passage.—Ed.

[12. ]This passage is not found in his explanation of the 117th Psalm, Theil 4r, 1261.—Ed.

[13. ]Schriften, xii: 429. Auslegung der Epistel am ersten Sonntage nach Epiphania.—Ed.

[14. ]Schriften, ix: 740. Auslegung der ersten Ep. Petri, cap. 2, v. 17.—Ed.