Tolerance: The Road to Wisdom - Reading “The Bloudy Tenent” By Roger Williams
By Mrs. Chaitali Maitra, Guest Lecturer of English, Presidency University
The earliest settlers in America, who were British, were also Puritans. Among them, there were types – like the ones who broke away from the Church of England and some stayed within, with a hope to ‘purify’ it. The first ones, retained the same name – Puritans; the others had various names, the Baptists and the Methodists being the main ones. These were times, when on both sides of the Atlantic, a lot of cruelty was inflicted on men for very little violation of religious disciplines. Those perceived as heretics, were severely punished.
One of the most outstanding personalities who stood up against all this was Roger Williams, who came to America with a strong liturgical education and training from England in 1631, was banished from Massachusetts and survived a terrible winter with the help of the native Indians. In 1636, he established a new colony – Rhodes Island, which advocated the flourish of many religions. His subversive opinions find a peak expression in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, published in 1644 in London. The book tries to uphold the issue of religious liberty in the tumultuous American backdrop, when the revivalist religion that emphasized the value of religious communities searched for a blend, with the character and the values of the frontier. It tries to show the importance of wise tolerance of the individual freedom, without which a lot of bigotry and dissension would prevail. During his residence at Plymouth, Williams learned the Indian language. Soon Mr. Cotton, a minister, landed at Boston, who would, eventually, be of different opinion about the same issues. The book incorporates the views of Mr. Cotton which is refuted by the author.
When he wrote this book, Williams was trying to highlight and understand the different aspects of religious liberty. The book is written in heavy, archaic diction and seeks to give the reader a sense of priority and serious choice, where the Bible is referred to, at many places. On the whole, it tries to establish the importance of religious harmony in a country sworded on only and merely religious grounds.
The book has many instances where Williams shows his close acquaintance with the Bible: “I acknowledge that to molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrine, compares Daniel (VI,16,of the Bible) with God’s people who ‘have shined brightest in Godliness, when they have enjoyed least quietness.”Although the work was written in haste, when he was occupied in obtaining a charter for Rhode Island, nature comes in splendidly in the life and experience of Williams. He speaks of a spot close to the Mohassuck River, as the ‘holy ground’, where he found Providence.
Throughout the book, a clever and cutting dialogue issues between Truth and Peace and Williams examines the probabilities and the chasms that exist between truth and peace as concepts:
“Peace – It will be said dear Truth, what the Lord Jesus and his messengers taught was truth; but the question is about error.
Truth – I answer this distinction now in discussion concerns not truth or error, but the manner of holding forth or divulging.”
So, the book points out the dangers of breaking the civil code, if the conscience (which is also synonymous with the ‘mind’ in socio-political sense), is not respected. Williams writes from a religious platform, but tries to point out the political spills that can threaten and eventually destroy the orderliness of the society. The biographies of Roger Williams, by both Perry Miller and Ola Winslow, mention of his criticizing the New England theocracy. His temporary departure to England in 1643, initiated another book called “Christenings make not Christians”, where he argues against converting the Indians or forcing them to abandon their religious practices.
Throughout the 19th century Transcendentalist wave, Puritanism was a cultural, not a religious force. The central emphasis of Transcendentalism was on the human ability to enter into a deeper relationship with the ultimate reality that underlies appearances. Coupled with this were the other isms like Unitarianism and Universalism. The flourish of many religions and faiths in America, would lead to one of the most important religious events of the 19thcentury – The World Parliament of Religion of 1893 in Chicago, which expressed the ideal of acceptance and brotherhood amongst many faiths in the world. This was a proud occasion for the Indians, with Swami Vivekananda as a speaker. Much later, Henry Adams would point out in his major work ‘Buddha and Brahma’ the depth of Asian religious traditions; all this would happen with the singular effort of the Unitarian Jenkin Lloyd Jones in the same year to strengthen understanding among the different sects. But tracing things back, would take us to the thinking minds of the 17th century amongst which, Roger Williams brilliantly stands apart. He stood up for the concept of ‘brotherhood of mankind and common fatherhood of God.’ His ideas anticipate the ideal of the commonwealth, with a spacious view of the government, in the new Nation State.
This is an abridged version of the paper presented at the Seminar: Rereading Seventeenth Century Prose Writings (November 28-29, 2011 American Center Kolkata)
The text of The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience is available online at: http://www.archive.org/details/thebloudytenento00willuoft