Roger Williams on Liberty of Conscience

The greatest proponent of religious liberty in New England in the seventeenth century was Roger Williams. But in 1655 he wrote the following letter to the town of Providence, in which he attempted to define the social limits of "liberty of conscience."

The letter takes the form of a series of disclaimers and denials that Williams had ever written so much as a "tittle" (with "jot," one of the two smallest marks in writing) arguing that freedom of conscience was "infinite." He compares society to a ship, which must have a "commander" who sets a course and gives orders, which stand for the civil obligations of the society of "seamen" and "passengers."

To the Town of Providence:

That ever I should speak or write a tittle that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience is a mistake, and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case. There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in the ship, upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship's prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

I further add that I never denied that, notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship's course, yea, and also command that justice, peace, and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help, in person or purse, toward the common charges or defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny and rise up against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or write that there ought to be no commanders nor officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor orders, no corrections nor punishments I say I never denied but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. This, if seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the father of lights, let in some light to such as willingly shut not their eyes.

(c) Compton's Encyclopedia of American History, 1994