- Williams, Roger
- The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, discussed, in a Conference betweene Truth and Peace. Who, In all tender Affection, present to the High Court of Parliament, (as the Result of their Discourse) these, (amongst other Passages) of highest consideration. Printed in the Year 1644.
- ink, paper
First gathered in Rhode Island in 1661, New England Yearly Meeting of Friends is today the faith community of Quakers in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. We have chosen to offer our copy of Roger Williams' Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience at this time mindful of the struggle and sacrifice of so many to lay the essential foundations of American religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. The book is being deaccessioned from our Archives with a recognition that while this copy has long belonged to Quakers, in a very real sense it belongs to the world.
Roger Williams was condemned to banishment from Massachusetts in 1636 for spreading "dissent." Among his many controversial opinions was that the Salem church was not sufficiently removed from the Church of England; however, it was his sympathies with the Native Americans that really damaged his standing in the colony. His original missionary zeal to convert the Indians dwindled after he began living among them, learning their language and their customs. Williams began to question the legality of the English settling on a land that was already settled. It was the height of sedition to suggest that a King had no right to grant charters in the New World, but Williams was to go further in his radicalism when he established his own colony in the spring of 1636. A haven for dissenters in what is now present day Rhode Island, the community of "Providence" enjoyed rule by majority vote by head of household and proclaimed no official religion.
The Bloudy Tenent was, in many respects, the culmination of Williams's radicalism in New England. In order to insure that Cotton’s Massachusetts would have no influence over his haven, Williams returned to England to secure a separate charter and to have the Tenent printed. The book wasn’t issued until Williams was at sea, returning to his new colony with his charter granted. So revolutionary were the ideas within, that the printer of the Tenent, Gregory Dexter, left shortly after it was issued to join Williams in New England.
Within the first page and a half, Williams states that he intends to prove "It is the will and command of God, that since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted in all nations and all countries." As shocking as the preceding statement might be, he goes further, telling Parliament that, while their Christianity meant the saving of souls, their role in government was to protect "the Bodies and Goods of others." To enforce one "conscience," or form of worship, above another was to "hath committed a greater rape, then if they had forced or ravished the bodies of all the women in the world."
The book reprints both an anonymous 1620 plea for religious toleration by a Newgate prisoner (supposedly written in milk so as to be invisible and smuggled out), as well as John Cotton's rebuttal. Williams then uses the remainder of his work not only to refute Cotton, but also to prove God's acceptance of differing faiths and make the case for the state to do so as well. However, it was his economic arguments that were the most convincing for many.
Using Amsterdam as an example of the thriving success that religious toleration brings, he says, "This confluence of the persecuted drew Boats, drew Trade, drew Shipping so that mightily in so short a time, that Shipping, Trade, Wealth, Greatnesse, Honour.... have appeared to fall as out of Heaven in a Crown or Garland upon that poor Fisher Town."
The financial possibilities for a society where "dissenting consciences" were welcome to trade, and where government concentrated on supporting enterprise rather than monitoring any faith, was to have an enormous impact in the colonies. One need only read the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to find that Williams's ideas continued to resonate throughout the next century and beyond.
Rare: Two editions of this work were printed in 1644, one with the title, "The Bloudy Tenet", issued without the errata printed on p. 247, and another with the title as described above with the errata. Both the Church and John Carter Brown Catalogues regard the present edition as the first ; but Sabin (104331) quotes Henry Stevens as suggesting that the "Tenet" edition is the earlier of the two, a case supported by the latter spelling being used eight years later in The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody.
Both printings are virtually impossible to obtain, not least because Parliament ordered the work burned by the common hangman. Sabin identified only two copies of the "Tenet" printing, and of the present printing, we can find only one complete copy at auction in the last 60 years.