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February 07, 2006


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Jon Rowe

Excellent. A couple points worth noting on Williams:

1) his case proves that contrary to some thought (my own thought until I looked further into the matter) the notion of religious liberty/toleration had Protestant dissident roots that preexisted the Enlightenment;

2) Williams was not a liberal Protestant, but rather a fanatically orthodox Christian;

3) Yet, his understanding of the Bible and religious toleration was utterly novel among the fanatically orthodox Christians, and was based on a novel interpretation of Scripture. The poster boys for fanatically orthodox Christianity -- John Calvin in Geneva, and closer to Williams, John Winthrop of Puritan Massachusetts did not interpret the Scriptures as Williams did and did not recognize religious toleration or liberty. In fact, Williams's novel positions got him banished from Puritan Massachusetts to found Rhode Island. Their view, not Williams's, was dominant among orthodox Protestant Christians who knew the Bible as well as anyone. Over time, Williams's views would become more dominant. And around the time of the Founding, enough Protestants (especially the dissident sects) came to accept Williams's reasoning, and by this time the Enlightenment rationalists were already making their case such that the two groups could cooperate with one another to Establish religious liberty and secular government in the United States.

Rick Garnett

I wonder if we might look even earlier than Locke, or Williams, for religious-liberty toleration arguments? My recollection is that such arguments were advanced regularly by recusant Catholics in England, in the late 16th and very early 17th centuries.

Jon Rowe


I'd be grateful to see that evidence. My understanding is that the Catholic Church itself was behind the learning curve on religious liberty and separating Church matters from State matters.

Yet, it makes sense that as dissidents in non-Catholic nations, Catholics would put forth such arguments.

This fits in with the pattern that the calls for toleration and religious liberty came from, not those in power, but those being persecuted.

Kimball Corson

It would have been quite interesting if Islamic communities had settled the area that is now New England at the same time as these orthodox Christians and as John William then settled Rhode Island. How far would Williams' tolerance have extended then, especially as he would have likely watched the two more orthodox religious communities tear each others lungs out if serviceable boundaries between them could not be worked out? As now in the U.S., freedom of speech would likely have taken a big one on the nose in Rhode Island, while in the orthodox Christian communities, where little of it would normally be brooked, things might open up a bit to permit disparagement of Muslims. Ironically enough, Williams’ settlement would likely have closed off some categories of speech out of fear and comity. It makes me wonder how far can freedom of speech go with or without religious tolerance, and how far can that tolerance go if belief systems seriously conflict?

The clear central tendency to me is toward mutual banishment and isolation between different and conflicting groups of believers and restricted speech within groups where religion dominates peoples lives. I suspect that protection of free speech grows most where interest in religion dies most quickly or is least.

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