Friday, September 9, 2016

"A flaky but principled genius"

In "How the Colonies in America Moved from 'Tolerance' to 'Free Exercise' of Religion" Justin Taylor describes the rather halting progress toward religious liberty. One step along the way — not the final one — was Rhode Island, the place of my denomination's first church in North America.
Both Maryland and Pennsylvania failed to tie down tolerance publicly; they bound it only to their founder’s authority and goodwill. When that was gone, tolerance floated away with it. Rhode Island, in contrast, conducted an imaginative experiment, tying tolerance not to a human founder but to the Founder Himself: God.

Roger Williams founded Providence Plantations in 1636, and he obtained a royal charter in 1663 calling for a “lively experiment...with a full liberty in religious concernments.”

Williams himself, a flaky but principled genius, separated from so many churches that he eventually ended up worshiping alone with his wife in his house. But he believed that “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils” — “it is the will and command of God” for “permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, [to] be granted to all men in all nations and countries.”

In other words, Williams based his theory of tolerance on his understanding of theology.

The lesson:
Williams’ answer...that it was “the command of God” that consciences not be coerced...[was] a magnificent insight, but...convinces only those who share the insight itself. It’s positively hopeless against...people who have no doubt that God’s will is something completely different.... In fact, it did have a short shelf life: successor governments of Rhode Island, which did not share in Williams’ revelation, felt free to cut back on the religious liberty he recognized.
(The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America, by Kevin Seamus Hasson)

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