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Religious Liberty Committee Spotlight: Religious Freedom in the Colony of Rhode Island

Posted: 8/10/17 at 1:35pm

Religious Freedom: What is it, and why should persons have it? Check here each month to see how historic Baptist and other champions of religious freedom have answered these questions. These spotlights are sponsored by the BGAV’s Religious Liberty Committee.

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The colony of Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams in 1636, was from its beginning a bastion of religious freedom.  As such it was a “thorn in the side” of Massachusetts and Connecticut, which had an established religion–Congregationalism.  Naturally, the political and religious elite of those colonies frequently criticized Rhode Island’s policy of religious freedom and did so on the grounds that it caused its citizens to be immoral and lawless.  By 1739, one prominent resident of Rhode Island, John Callender, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Newport, had had enough of such criticisms and published a history of the colony in which he defended its religious freedom and denied the charges made against its citizens.  Nevertheless, he admonished all advocates of religious freedom as follows:

How unhappy, how inexcusable, would it be, if liberty of conscience should degenerate into licentiousness, and open a door for a flood of immoralities?  If, while we plead a right to think and judge for ourselves, and reject all mere human authority in matters of faith and worship, we should neglect the sacred laws of God, and the unalterable and eternal duties of morality?  It is certainly a reproach to Christians, that they can be so zealously affected about the things which are peculiar and distinguishing to each sect respectively, and yet be so cold and negligent of those wherein they all agree. . . . . Let us then be truly concerned to glorify and serve God, by a true and spiritual worship, and the virtues of a good life, and to imitate the example which the great author and finisher of our faith hath set us.  Let us hold fast the form of sound words we have received, and not make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience.

From John Callender, An Historical Discourse on the Civil and Religious Affairs of Rhode Island (Boston, MA: S. Kneeland & T. Green, 1739, pp. 114-15, available online at books.google.com.