09/03/2009 (8:35 am)
The next in our review of sermons from the American colonies during the period surrounding the American Revolution reviews Elisha Williams’ most famous essay: “The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants,” subtitled “A reasonable Plea for The Liberty of Conscience, and The Right of private Judgment, in Matters of Religion, Without Controul from human Authority. Being a LETTER, From a Gentleman in the Massachusetts-Bay to his Friend in Connecticut, Wherein Some Thoughts on the Origin, End, and Extent of the Civil Power, with brief Considerations on several late Laws in Connecticut, are humbly offered.” Boston, 1744. The full text of the essay can be found here.
The occasion for the brochure was a civil ordinance in the state of Connecticut declaring that ministers who preached outside their own parishes but were not expressly invited to do so could have their support and their authorizations to preach revoked. The purpose for the measure, championed by Standing Order clergymen (church and state were connected in pre-revolutionary Connecticut, with primary church leaders paid by the state), was apparently to put a stop to itinerant ministers spreading the Great Awakening by revivalist preaching in public. Williams argued forcefully that the civil authority had no power over church doctrine or practice, and that the law therefore violated both scripture and natural law.
Williams begins by explaining the general purpose and the limits of civil government; he says
The great end of civil government, is the preservation of their persons, their liberties and estates, or their property.
…and he observes that in order to obtain the benefits of societal protection and convenience, the free man surrenders only the power to decide for himself how best to protect his life and property, and the power to punish those who violate his property.
Next, he sets forth four primary principles pertaining to the civil magistrate’s role in religion:
I. The members of the civil state retain their liberty in all matters not pertaining to the protection of property and life.
II. The members of the state retain their natural liberty of judging for themselves in matters of religion.
III. The civil authority should protect its subjects in the employment of this right of private judgment in matters of religion, and the liberty of worshiping God according to their consciences.
IV. Every Christian has right to determine for himself what church to join himself to; the form of discipline in each church should be set by the members of that church.
A large portion of this lengthy essay was devoted to defending the second of these four principles. He observes that the Christian is to receive his Christianity from Christ alone, for which purpose the scriptures are sufficient. The Christian is enjoined by the scriptures to stand fast in his liberty. The civil authority has no power at all in establishing faiths, creeds, or orders of worship, nor in establishing any professions of faith, forms of worship, or church government. Even within the church, ministers have no power other than to teach the laws of God, and it remains for each believer to obey them personally. To give leaders in the church, or leaders in the government, power to make rules based on their view of what the laws of God really are (to settle matters of dispute regarding the meaning of scripture) is to give men authority over the scripture and to imagine them to be infallible. If practical matters require decisions to be made (for example, where or when to meet,) it is the congregation that ought to decide them. Thus Williams judges the conscience to be King over matters of religion, subject only to Christ Himself.
Within the defense of his second premise, Williams responds to several common defenses that might be raised to explain the magistrate’s role in church affairs. To those who might object that the magistrate must be involved in order to maintain the biblical injunction that things be done “decently and in order,” Williams observes that Christians can keep order among themselves without the magistrate’s help, and that the civil magistrate has no authority to settle matters of worship that have not been settled by Christ’s commands. To those who object that the magistrate should involve itself to preserve the “unity of the faith,” Williams replies that such unity cannot be achieved by passing laws, that in fact passing laws regarding religious conscience disturbs the peace rather than protecting it, that the best way to keep peace between differing sects is for the magistrate to protect the right of private judgment in religion, and that such matters are best settled by “calm and strong perswasion.”
Having established the principles governing the role of civil authority in matters of religious practice, Williams raises a series of objections to the statute of May 1742, “for regulating Abuses, and correcting Disorders in Ecclesiastical Affairs”:
I. The law is founded on the false principle that the civil authority has power to establish a form of church-government by penal laws.
II. The law improperly gives majorities in congregations power over the consciences of minorities by removing their power to hear whomever they wish.
III. The law invests inordinate power in ministers over a church and congregation.
IV. The punishment is unreasonable, and reduces ministers to begging bread.
V. The law punishes acts that are actually good.
VI. The law criminalizes even minor discussions because it is so vague.
VII. The civil authority has no competence or authority to approve or disapprove ministers of the gospel.
Finally, Williams notes that the Act of Toleration (an act of the British Parliament) gives every Christian liberty to hear whomever he chooses. This is ironic and inconsistent: the Acts of Toleration were an act of Parliament that presupposed the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion. Later, the American experiment would assert that the government lacks any right to even to express toleration, as the government has no power of judgment over religious matters whatsoever.
I was struck in this sermon by the of the phrase, “establishment of religion,” that appears in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Williams used the phrase to mean “pass laws affecting the faith and practice of Christian congregations, pertaining to their worship, statements of faith, or church government.” If the First Amendment uses the term similarly to Williams, then “Congress shall make no law effecting an establishment of religion” means the government may not tell any religious organization how to practice. The assertion that the First Amendment makes it improper for religious thinking to affect the formation of laws of conduct (for example, banning abortion based on a legislator’s religious convictions) would not be correct if Williams’ usage is the common usage of the time.
I was also struck by the iron-clad rejection of Catholicism in Williams’ essay, and this is a pattern that seems to touch every one of the sermons I’ve read so far. The preachers of the American colonies considered the Catholic Church to be the Whore of Babylon depicted in the book of Revelation, and wholeheartedly rejected the pattern of ecclesiastical dominance in politics as practiced in Europe. It must have been a point of some importance to them, because nearly all of them make a point of mentioning it.
I will leave you with a few thoughts from Rev. Williams:
And as all imposers on men’s consciences are guilty of rebellion against GOD and CHRIST, of manifest disobedience to and contempt of their authority and commands; so all they who submit their consciences to any such unjust usurp’d authority, besides the share which such persons necessarily have in the guilt of the usurpers, as countenancing and giving in to their illegal claim and supporting their wicked pretensions, they do likewise renounce subjection to the authority and laws of Christ.
Whenever the power that is put in any hands for the government of any people is applied to any other end than the preservation of their persons and properties, the securing and promoting their civil interests (the end for which power was put into their hands), I say when it is applied to any other end, then (according to the great Mr. Lock) it becomes tyranny.
And the truth is, the civil magistrate is so far from having a rightful power in these cases, to make laws for Christ’s subjects; that in doing so, he violates the fundamental privilege of the gospel, the birthright of believers, Christian liberty. 2 Cor. 3. 17. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty. Gal. 4. 31. We are not Children of the Bondwoman, but of the Free.
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[...] recall here the argument presented by Elisha Williams in The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants, the 1744 pamphlet I reported on a year ago in my Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion [...]