Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty

By Georead

Religious liberty was a rare freedom in the Middle Ages. Holding different religious ideas was not safe. In the Piedmont region of the Alps there were many incidents where the people, known as the Waldenses, were persecuted to death for having different religious ideas.

The Waldenses “were educated from childhood . . . to be guarded in speech, and to understand the wisdom of silence. One indiscreet word let fall in the hearing of their enemies might imperil not only the life of the speaker, but the lives of hundreds of his brethren.” [1]

The 1655 massacre of Waldenses aroused the indignation of Protestant England. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, wrote letters and raised money to support the Waldenses. [2] Oliver Cromwell himself had become an Independent Puritan. He was “an intensely religious man, a self-styled Puritan Moses,” believing “that God was guiding his victories.” [3]

Prior to Oliver Cromwell the daughter of Henry the VIII, Elizabeth I, reigned in England. During her reign the Puritans attempted to make a Sunday law. “In 1584 the Puritan influence in Parliament caused the passage of ‘a bill for the better and more reverent observation of the Sabbath’ — Sunday. But Queen Elizabeth ‘refused to pass it’ because she would not consent that Parliament should ‘meddle with matters of religion, which was her prerogative’ as head of the church.” [4]

When Elizabeth refused to pass the Puritan inspired Sunday law, it was not to afford religious liberty to non-observers of Sunday. Elizabeth was more concerned with the politics of the matter. In refusing this law Elizabeth was more-or-less saying to the Puritans, “No, you can’t have your religious laws. I’m head of the church and I’ll be the one making the religious laws.”

Previously Elizabeth had attempted to enforce laws of religious uniformity upon the Puritans. These laws were contrary to the practices and ideas of Puritans. “As Elizabeth saw that the Puritan party was rapidly growing, she thought to check it by enforcing uniformity according to the established usage. In this she was zealously supported, if not rather led, by the archbishop of Canterbury. This attempt at coercion — 1567 — caused the Puritans to add to their objections, caps, surplices, tippets, etc., a strong dislike for the whole system of episcopacy, and a stronger determination to substitute for it the Presbyterian form of ecclesiastical polity.” [5]

Since the Puritans could not create their ideal religious state in England and since they suffered persecution because of the lack of religious liberty afforded them, many Puritans sought refuge in the Americas. They established the colony of Massachusetts. In the colony they enforced Sunday laws and attendance of church services on Sunday was compulsory. “Every inhabitant of the colony [of Massachusetts] was obliged to attend the services of the Established Church on Sunday under penalty of fine or imprisonment.” [6]

Roger Williams Statue

In 1633 Roger Williams denounced the Sunday Laws of the colony of Massachusetts. “He denounced their laws making Church membership a qualification for office, all their laws enforcing religious observances, and especially their Sunday laws. He declared that the worst law in the English code was that by which they themselves when in England had been compelled to attend the parish church; and he reproved their inconsistency in counting that persecution in England, and then doing the same things themselves in New England. Roger Williams told them that to compel men to unite with those of a different faith is an open violation of natural right; and that to drag to public worship the irreligious and the unwilling, is only to require hypocrisy.” [6]

Williams argued against the power of civil magistrates in Massachusetts to meddle in matters of religion. This was the principle of the Protest of 1529 where Protestants received their name. “The principles contained in this celebrated protest of the 19th April 1529, constitute the very essence of Protestantism.  Now this protest opposes two abuses of man in matters of faith: the first is the intrusion of the civil magistrate, and the second the arbitrary authority of the Church.  Instead of these abuses, Protestantism sets the power of conscience above the magistrate; and the authority of the Word of God above the visible church.” [7] Roger Williams was the real Protestant, while the leaders of Massachusetts were apostates having abandoned the principles of Protestantism.

Roger Williams was leader of the congregation in the town of Salem. Since this congregation backed his arguments the church council at Boston disenfranchised them until they should apologise. The town and church yielded. Roger Williams stood alone.

In October 1635 Roger Williams was summoned to face the chief magistrates in Boston. He went and stood firm for his convictions in court. In January 1636 a warrant was sent to Williams to banish him to England. He refused to go. When officers were sent to take him by force Williams fled into the wilderness. He says, “I was sorely tossed, for one fourteen weeks, in a bitter winter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean.” [8] He wandered without a guide and had no house but a hollow tree. At last he was taken in by the heathen Indians.

Eventually Roger Williams established a settlement with twelve “loving friends”. He called it “Providence” because he believed God’s Providence had brought him there. They established a colony with Providence becoming the capital of the State of Rhode Island.

In 1643 the neighbouring colonies formed a military alliance and pointedly excluded the towns of Rhode Island. Their object was to extend their power over the heretic settlements and put an end to the infection. In response Williams was sent to England by his fellow citizens to secure a charter for the colony. He obtained a charter in England despite the strenuous opposition of agents from Massachusetts. They desired to squash Rhode Island from the very beginning. Admission to the confederacy of New England colonies was absolutely refused to Rhode Island, on account of its principles of liberty of conscience. [9]

In 1657 hatred of the Quakers led the colony of Massachusetts to ask Rhode Island to join the confederacy in the endeavour to save New England from the Quakers. They wanted to offload their Quakers to Rhode Island.

Roger Williams replied, “We have no law amongst us whereby to punish any for only declaring by words their minds and understandings concerning things and ways of God as to salvation and our eternal condition. As for these Quakers, we find that where they are most of all suffered to declare themselves freely and only opposed by arguments in discourse, there they least of all desire to come. Any breach of the civil law shall be punished, but the freedom of different consciences shall be respected.” [10]

This reply enraged the whole New England confederacy. Massachusetts threatened to cut off trade with Rhode Island. Roger Williams appealed to Cromwell, who now ruled in England. “Had he not persuaded such men as Oliver Cromwell to protect Rhode Island, the colony he founded, Massachusetts would have devoured it. He even persuaded Cromwell to stop Massachusetts from pressuring Narragansett Indians to convert to Christianity.” [11]

“As devout as he [Roger Williams] was, when Massachusetts Christians were putting intense pressure on the Narragansett to convert, threatening them with armed action if they did not, he actually convinced Cromwell’s government to tell Massachusetts to back off, to guarantee that the Narragansett had the right to worship as they chose, which is really kind of extraordinary.” [12]

In 1663 Williams obtained from Charles II of England a charter for Rhode Island. This charter provided “the most the most extensive guarantee of religious liberty for individuals that had been achieved anywhere in the world” [13] The history of Rhode Island had far reaching effects since it influenced the inclusion of religious liberty in the Constitution of the United States of America.

“Leaders in Rhode Island and North Carolina refused to ratify the Constitution because of the lack of a Bill of Rights.” [14] The state of Rhode Island had been established upon the principles of religious liberty. Without a Bill of Rights that included religious liberty Rhode Island did not want to join the Union. Therefore the Constitution must be amended to include a Bill of Rights. The first Congress under the Constitution met March 4, 1789. In Congress James Madison kept the idea of a Bill of Rights alive. “When Madison reminded fellow members of Congress of the promise to enact a Bill of Rights, his insistence upon action met with some coolness. He kept fighting, however, and presented his plan to the House in June 1789.” [14]

After much debate a series of amendments emerged, which Congress passed on September 25, 1789. These became the first ten amendments of the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. Once the Bill of Rights was proposed by Congress, Rhode Island joined the other states in ratifying the Constitution. “Rhode Island was the last of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution and did so with the narrowest margin, a vote of 34 to 32 on May 29, 1790.” [15]

Today, in many parts of the world, religious liberty is seen as a fundamental right. Yet even today there are places where they persecute, threaten, torture and kill others simply for having different ideas.

In 1561 the elector of Palatine, a Protestant prince in Germany, wrote to the duke of Savoy. In the letter he warned him not to persecute the Waldenses. He wrote these very enlightened words, considering the era. “Let your highness consider that Christian religion was established by persuasion, and not by violence; and as it is certain that religion is nothing else than a firm and enlightened persuasion of God, and of his will, as revealed in his Word, and engraved in the hearts of believers by his Holy Spirit, it cannot, when once rooted, be torn away by tortures.” [16]

Religion is to be established only by persuasion, not by violence, nor by compulsion. This was how the original Christian church was established. “For he [Apostle Paul] mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ.” Acts 18:28


[1] The Great Controversy, E. G. White, page 67, paragraph 2



[4] Lessons from the Reformation, A. T. Jones, page 327, paragraph 2

[5] The Two Republics, A. T. Jones, page 593, paragraph 2

[6] Ecclesiastical Empire, A. T. Jones, page 792, paragraphs 1, 3, and 5

[7] History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, page 521, paragraph 6

[8] Narragansett Historical Register, James N. Arnold, page 38


[10] The Beginnings of New England or the Puritan Theocracy in its Relations to Civil and Religious Liberty, John Fiske, pages 184,185



[13] Constitutional Debates on Freedom of Religion, page 4

[14] Bill of Rights, Encarta Encyclopedia

[15] Rhode Island, Encarta Encyclopedia

[16] History of the Waldenses, J. A. Wylie, page 125


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