Bloudy here, Bloudy there: Roger Williams in a

Bloudy here, Bloudy there: Roger Williams in a Transatlantic Context
By Tom Sojka ’13
While in London attempting to obtain a charter for his colony, Roger Williams wrote The
Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for cause of Conscience in mid-July 1644. What emerged was a
messily assembled collection of thoughts that has become one of Williams’ most famous texts.1
The book itself is organized as a dialogue between “Truth” and “Peace,” in response to John
Cotton. Further, the text contains three prefaces- the first addressed to no particular audience, the
second to Parliament, and the third to “every Courteous Reader.” Williams writes that “‘true
civility and Christianity may both flourish’ in that state or kingdom which had the courage to
‘diverse and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile.’” Further, Williams wrote that “the
Parliament of England hath committed a greater rape, than if they had forced or ravished the
bodies of all the women in the World.”2 If the Christian church engages in persecution, it is not
Christian; it does not please Christ to shed the blood of others, since he has “shed his own for his
bloodiest enemies.”3 All to often do we think of Roger Williams only in relation to the founding
of Rhode Island and his interactions with Native Americans; however, his writings and ideas
reached across the Atlantic to shape political dynamics at home and in England.
Williams would have been unable to publish (or obtain the Rhode Island Charter) without
a large network of friends in London. In the 16040s, Henry Vane, a fellow outcast from
Massachusetts, urged Parliament to allow all who “profess to seek God” flourish. Other political
allies included Sir William Masham and Sir Thomas Barrington, in addition to Sir Robert Rich,
Roger Williams, cited in Edwin G. Gaustad, “Exile in London,” in Liberty of Conscience: Roger
Williams in America. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999), p.69.
Ibid, 70-71
Roger Williams, cited in Edwin G. Gaustad, “The Champion of Religious Liberty,” in Roger Williams:
Prophet of Liberty. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 94-5.
Earl of Warwick (who conveniently enough was in charge of colonial affairs). Williams had
allies outside of the political sphere as well- chiefly, a literary friend in John Milton. The two
grew up in London not far from one another and studied at Cambridge during the same span of
time. In 1644, both men published their works praising liberty. Milton’s regarded freedom of the
press, while Williams wrote on freedom of conscience.4 Milton attempted to reinterpret heresy
and reform the Reformation in the 1640s, musing that allowing for sectarianism would create a
better understanding of the whole. Milton hoped that this dynamic of coexistence among
sectarians would help to reconstruct a divided England.5 Williams was already known in England
as the writer of A Key into the Language of America. The London literati were intrigued by the
lifestyle of the Native American Indian, having been fascinated by Pochahontas several decades
earlier. His fame and friends allowed him to slow the efforts of Connecticut and Massachusetts
attempting to seize the land that officially became Rhode Island in 1644.6
The Five Dissenting Brethren, a group of Independents in the Assembly, published An
Apologeticall Narration shortly before Bloudy Tenent. They hoped the text would warn the
populous of tyranny created by “Presbyterian rigidity” and “sectarian madness.” “The Kingdom
is on fire, we need not hold coals to one another. Peace be upon the sons of peace; But let not
that imputation fall upon us, to set our houses on fire to rost our own egges.”7 The work did not
fully embrace religious liberty, pushing Williams to go further. Echoing John Milton’s
Areopagetica, and his questioning of the Licensing Act, Williams wrote “Who can pass the many
Edwin G. Gaustad, “Exile in London,” pp. 61-63.
David Lowenstein, “Radical Religious Writers and the Terrors of Heresy in Seventeenth Century New
England” (paper presented at the Brown British Atlantic Seminar, at the John Carter Brown Library,
Providence, Rhode Island, April 18, 2013).
Edwin G. Gaustad, “Exile in London,” pp. 61-63.
A Coole conference between the cleared Reformation and the Apologeticall narration brought together
by a well-willer to both (London, 1644) Accessed via Early English Books Online:, Date accessed: 19 April, 2013, p. 7.
Locks and Bars of any [of[ the several Licensers appointed by you?” Despite this, Williams was
able to publish Bloudy Tenent, albeit anonymously with Milton’s publisher, Gregory Dexter.8
The Bloudy Tenent is essentially an argument between Williams and John Cotton. The
persecution is “bloudy” in a literal sense (those who have lost their lives due to religious
conviction) and figuratively as a term of condemnation. The main issues Williams addressed
were as follows: “whether Massachusetts had dealt with him fairly, whether the Bay Colony
churches knew a pure form of worship, whether religious liberty ought to prevail, and how
church and state should relate to each other.”9 What developed out of the text was an argument
for religious toleration and freedom, referred to by Williams as “soul liberty.” The freedom to
practice your own religion is akin to a right to life- in short, a natural right.10
Falling in line with the future writings of John Locke, Williams did not believe in the
divine right of kings, instead writing that civil power is vested in the people who create a
government. Governments “have no more power, nor for no longer time” than the people
“consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.” Furthermore, to place the church (which is
divine) into moral hands (which are sinful and flawed) rips God out of heaven.11
Williams wrote, “all civil states, with their officers of justice [...] are proved essentially
civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and
worship,” reaffirming the idea of separation of church and civil affairs. Further, “it is the will and
command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most
Ibid, pp. 64-5.
Edwin G. Gaustad, “The Champion of Religious Liberty,” pp. 89-90.
Ibid, pp. 92-93.
Roger Williams, cited in Edwin G. Gaustad, “Exile in London,”, pp. 82-3.
pagan, Jewish, Turkish or Antichristian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all
nations and countries.”12
Shortly after its publication Parliament ordered copies of the Bloudy Tenent to be
destroyed. However, the ideas presented (and Williams’ sympathizers) made the book difficult to
smother out. The Presbyterian majority in Westminster Abbey strongly objected to the ideas
presented in the book. One member of Parliament, Robert Baylie, found the notion of religious
toleration so terrible it should not be mentioned out loud. Baylie felt that granting people the
right to err in religious matters would create a slippery slope of crime and dissent running
rampant through the nation.13 However, in 1689, Parliament passed the Act of Toleration which
widened acceptance for more Protestants (but still barring Catholics, Pagans, Jews, etc.).14
“Williams is painfully aware of the discrepancy between the foundational premises of the Gospels
and the ability of believers to act upon them. The civil world- the world of magistracy, of laws and
the institutions that enforce them- is itself a mark of the divorce between Christly and worldly
patterns, since an authentic community of sanctified believers [...] would be self-regulating (it
would not require a magistracy to maintain itself in stability and health.” Williams’ exile allows
him to see a “primitive world toward the primitive truth.”15
Going further, Thomas Edwards wrote that magistrates are bound to stamp out heresy and
that the laws of the Old Testament still govern the world today. Magistrates “can infallibly and
certainty know such doctrines to be false, and such true.” For men like Edwards, Roger Williams
was allied with the devil, who built his “tottering kingdom” on foundations like The Bloudy
Tenent.16 The work did not win him friends in the Presbyterian-dominated government of
England nor in the theocracy of New England. Edwards did not think that the Licensing Act,
Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, v. III.
ed. Perry Miller. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), p. 3.
Edwin G. Gaustad, “Exile in London,” pp. 85.
Edwin G. Gaustad, “The Champion of Religious Liberty,” p. 93.
David Reed, “American Consciences: Roger Williams’ Field of Inquiry,” in New World, Known World:
Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing by David Reed. (Columbia, MO: University of
Missouri Press, 2005), p. 102.
Edwin G. Gaustad, “Exile in London,” p. 86.
which attempted to censor dangerous works, went far enough and that there was an increase in
the volatility of writings after its passage. These heretical writings were a danger to the body
politic and festered in the various factions of society, according to Edwards.17
John Cotton crafted a response to Williams’ text in 1647, entitled The Bloudy Tenent,
Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb. Cotton argued that Williams found flaws in
everyone but himself, writing that “You overheated yourself in reasoning and disputing.” For
Cotton, heresy was an epidemic that needed to be stopped, not allowed to fester. “May [a heretic]
be tolerated either in the church without excommunication, or in the Commonwealth without
such punishment as may preserve others from dangerous and damnable infection?”18 In response
to Williams’ distinction between civil and church affairs, Cotton writes,
Civill Peace (to speake properly) is not onely a peace in civill things, for the Object, but a peace of
all the persons of the Citty [...] The Church is one Society in the Citty, as well as is the Soceity, of
Merchants, or Drapers, Fishmongers, and Haberdashers, and if it be a part of Civill Justice, out of
regard to Civill Peace, to protect all other Societyes in peace according to the wholesome
Orginances of their Company, is it not so, much more to protect the Church-Society in peace,
according to the wholesome Ordinances of the Word of Christ?
The Church, therefore is not any different from any other kind of society, and should therefore be
protected and tied to the government. Williams did not yield to Cotton’s attacks, instead
responding with The Bloudy Tenent yet More Bloody: by Mr. Cottons endeavor to wash it white
in the Blood of the Lambe in 1652. Williams writes, “It is Mr. Cottons great mistake and
forgetfulness, to charge me with a publick examination of his privat Letters between himself and
me about this Subject.”20 Williams goes on to reinforce his previous points,
David Lowenstein, “Radical Religious Writers and the Terrors of Heresy in Seventeenth Century New
Roger Williams, cited in Edwin G. Gaustad, “The Champion of Religious Liberty,” pp. 98-9.
John Cotton, The Bloudy Tenent, Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb (London, 1647)
Accessed via Early English Books Online:, Date accessed: 19 April,
2013, p. 13.
Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloody (London, 1652) Accessed via Early English
Books Online:, Date accessed: 19 April, 2013, p. 22.
But yet your Consciences (as all mens) must be statisfied, I have therefore in all these Agitations
humbly presented (amongst others) two Foundamental Hints or Considerations. First that all the
People (the Original of all free Power and Government) are not involved with Power from Christ
Jesus to rule his Wife or Church, to keep it pure, to punish Opposites by force of Armes, &c.
Secondly, that the Pattern of the National Church of Israel, was a None-such, unimitable by any
Civil State, in all or any of the Nations of the World beside...21
It is clear that for Williams, keeping the church and state entwined not only displeased
God, but would lead to the corruption of the church.
Williams would live though the period of the English Civil War and died shortly before
the Glorious Revolution. The English Civil brought with it a blow to absolute monarchy and
ushered in the English Bill of Rights. While the document strengthen Protestant power in
government, it paved the way for freedom in England. John Locke would echo the sentiments of
Roger Williams, writing that temporal power cannot interpret the divine and forcing people
towards a particular religion would create cacophony rather than unity. While often overlooked
as an Enlightenment philosopher, it is clear that Roger Williams was a man ahead of his time,
whose writings made significant contributions to theories of rights, governance, and religious
toleration. For David Reed, Williams was a figure of intellectual and political history of Old and
New England, a “dissenter from seventeenth century orthodoxy and a prophet of eighteenthcentury liberalism.”22 Roger Williams therefore emerges as a complicated figure, begging the
question, was he a man ahead of his time or did he belong in seventeenth century? While his
ideas transcended and attacked Puritanical rigidity, that very rigidity allowed him to rise to
prominence and create a body of work that would be eventually influence the framers of the
Constitution and make him the champion of religious toleration.
Ibid, p. 25.
David Reed, “American Consciences: Roger Williams’ Field of Inquiry,” in New World, Known World:
Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing by David Reed. (Columbia, MO: University of
Missouri Press, 2005), p. 102.