Roger Williams: As to Liberty and Its Counterfeit, License


Editor’s Introduction: In January of 1655, while Roger Williams was serving as President of the Town of Providence (Rhode Island), he responded to a paper that had been circulated in favor of not just religious liberty, but of a liberty which knew no bounds, moral or otherwise, and as such argued in essence, ‘let there be no lawful punishment for any offense, of whatsoever nature, whether against individuals or the general welfare, and this must be so,’ said the writer, ‘because all were equal before Christ’. Today, we call such a so-called liberty, license, and not in fact liberty at all. The Humanist argument, and its moral relativism would take us there, as would some of the more extreme elements found among the more anarchist elements of the Libertarian movement. Williams knew this was not liberty in the least, and that this sort of end was no for which he argued, and so, set the record straight with the following response which he had published. Steve Farrell

Roger Williams to the Town of Providence

January 1655

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 one 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 of 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, towards the common charges or defence; 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 or officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor orders, nor 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.

I remain studious of your common peace and liberty.

Source: Roger Williams, January 1655, as found in “By These Words: Great Documents of American Liberty, Selected and Placed in Their Contemporary Settings,” by Paul M. Angle. Rand McNally & Company, 1954.

Liberty Letters is a project of The Moral Liberal’s, Editor in Chief, Steve Farrell. Copyright © 2013 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.