Roger Williams, the Civil Magistrate, and the First Table of the Law

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As absurd as it sounds, there has been a recent push among many vociferous Christian Nationalists for the imposition of blasphemy laws. Michael O’Fallon has been warning for sometime about an overreaction to leftist provocations, and he hosted the “With Liberty and Justice for All” conference to help call out reactionary movements. At the conference, Pastor Andy Woodard of New Covenant Church in New York City warned that the calls for blasphemy laws amounted to little more than a fed trap.

Given the history of Christian attempts to enforce the first table of the Ten Commandments through the civil magistrate, I would tend to agree. The first table includes the first three commandments, which deal with our obligations to God, and infractions would include idolatry and blasphemy—both punishable by death under the Mosaic Law.

Much of this discussion has its roots in the earlier Christian Reconstruction movement. I first encountered Christian Reconstructionism and theonomy through Gary North and his book Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism, in which he blames the Baptist Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, for the rise of political pluralism.

While I am grieved any time the name of Christ is blasphemed, I will demonstrate how attempts to impose laws concerning the first table have played out historically for Baptists like Roger Williams and other nonconformists.

The Magisterial Reformation

The fact that Roger Williams was a Baptist is relevant since the most vocal Christian Nationalists tend to be Presbyterians like Doug Wilson, Stephen Wolfe, Joel Webbon, and Jared Longshore (a former Baptist). Wolfe has even gone so far as to mock Baptist concerns over establishing a Christian nation, attributing such concerns to an unjustifiable martyr complex. Similarly, in his typically playful yet pugilistic style, Doug Wilson has downplayed the historic persecution of Baptists under established state churches.

As a Reformed Baptist, I owe a great debt to my Presbyterian brethren, and the Reformed tradition owes much to John Calvin. However, as a trailblazer bringing the church out of the medieval Catholic tradition, Calvin still retained elements of the Catholic system, and this found its way into the Magisterial Reformation. Coming from a background where church-state relations had been intertwined for centuries, Calvin believed the state, through the civil magistrate, had the duty to ensure that churches maintained proper doctrine and worship. He also believed that the state should have the power to punish crimes against the first table of the law.[1]

Church historian and pastor Dr. Nicholas Needham called this the “Bucer-Calvin view” of church and state or the “Reformed Catholic view,” describing those Reformers who sought to Christianize society and establish a Christian state. Paradoxically, these Reformers also insisted that the church remain independent of control by the state.[2] Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his commentary on Romans 13, said this was one way the Catholic practice of using the state to further the ideals of the church entered Protestantism through the back door.[3]

By contrast, Needham described those who largely rejected the concept of a Christian state and the idea of Christianizing society as the “Radical Reformers.”[4] In line with these Reformers, I believe the Christian should leave an impact on society and culture, but the church is a distinct society living in a fallen and hostile world that is ultimately heading for destruction. However, I disagree with those who went so far as to refuse to engage in politics altogether.

New England Congregationalism and Roger Williams

In contrast to Presbyterians, Congregationalist Puritans were divided on the issue of a state church, with Independents for and Separatists or Brownists against. In New England, the Pilgrim founders of Plymouth were Separatists, but the founders of Massachusetts Bay Colony were Independents.

At Plymouth, only a small percentage of the settlers were Separatist Puritans, so they had to develop a greater degree of religious toleration. By comparison, John Winthrop founded Massachusetts Bay Colony with Congregationalism as the established state church as part of his experiment to make Boston a shining city on a hill.

Notably, John Winthrop was a member of the English ruling class or gentry, which made him more accustomed to commanding others.[5] Still, he was a loving family man, and one can appreciate his desire to set up a haven for his family. I do believe that many Christian Nationalist are motivated by a similar desire, but Winthrop is a prime example of how that desire can easily go awry.

Another early settler of Boston was Thomas Dudley, who helped promote the foundation of what became Harvard University. Dudley earned a reputation as a heresy hunter, and historians trace some of the harsher elements of New England Puritanism to him.[6] It was in the middle of Winthrop’s grand experiment that Roger Williams entered the scene.

Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience

Roger Williams came to Boston in 1631 after receiving an education at Cambridge in England. Though having an Anglican education, he soon adopted Separatist views, seeing the Church of England as thoroughly corrupt. After arriving in Boston, he became disillusioned with the church there and believed they had not distanced themselves enough from the errors of the Anglicanism.[7]

He subsequently moved on to Plymouth but found himself at odds with the church there as well.[8] Williams next became a pastor of Salem, north of Boston.

Apparently Williams was not the easiest man to get along with, and his views on communion and baptism changed over time. Historical opinion on Williams is divided, but he does appear to have been a bit of an eccentric. Gary North dismissed Williams as a nut, but Martyn Lloyd-Jones called him a genius, while noting that such men can be very difficult to live with.[9]

Conflict Over Magisterial Authority

Meanwhile, Williams had embraced the Pilgrims’ views on the separation of church and state, and he began to condemn the leaders of Massachusetts Bay for establishing Congregationalism as the official religion of the colony.[10]

Roger Williams went ever further when he asserted that the civil magistrate had no right to punish a breach against the first table of the Ten Commandments or for Sabbath-breaking.[11]

As a result, the General Court of Massachusetts banished Roger Williams in 1636, and the edict unambiguously asserted the court’s right to punish outward infractions against the first table of the law.[12]

Ironically, John Cotton of the First Church of Boston helped to excommunicate Williams, even though Cotton himself had left England for America over the issue of religious liberty. Despite this, Cotton and other New England Puritans persecuted Baptists.[13] Yet, even in all this, it says something of John Winthrop’s character that he secretly helped Roger Williams escape to the wilderness of Rhode Island.[14]

Establishment of Providence, Rhode Island

Arriving in what would become the state of Rhode Island, Williams founded the city of Providence on land purchased from the Narragansett Indians.[15] Williams was a Separatist Puritan at this point, but he later adopted Baptist views in 1639,[16] putting him at odds with the rest of Congregationalist New England.

In 1643, the other New England colonies even formed a military alliance know as the New England Confederation, making a point to exclude those towns formed in Rhode Island. The other colonies also denied the validity of William’s land purchase from the natives.[17]

To counteract this, Williams had to rush to England to secure a charter, which he obtained from parliament in 1644 for the colony of Providence Plantations.[18]

The Baptist Struggle for Toleration in England

Meanwhile, Baptists in England were experiencing similar challenges from their Presbyterian brethren as the First English Civil War (1642-1646) raged on. In opposition to the tyranny of English King Charles I and the Royalists, English Parliamentarians agreed with the Scots to form a civil and religious union through the Solemn League and Covenant in 1643.

Roger Williams was a close friend of Parliamentarians Oliver Cromwell and John Milton. In 1644, Roger Williams presented an appeal to Parliament to avoid establishing the sort of state church alliance that the Solemn League and Covenant implied. Williams also published an appeal for freedom of conscience, which he titled The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience.

During the English Civil Wars, tensions emerged within the ranks of the Parliamentarians as many officers tended to be Presbyterians, while most of the rank and file tended to lean Independent or Baptist.

For example, the Parliamentarian Edward Montagu, the 2nd Earl of Manchester, was a Presbyterian and the commander of the forces of the Eastern Association. Among his officers was Oliver Cromwell, an Independent and his second-in-command. However, also among Manchester’s officers was Lawrence Crawford, who was a particularly strict Scottish Presbyterian. Crawford considered Anabaptism to be abhorrent, and he disliked Independents for their leniency toward them.[19]

By 1644, a Baptist named William Packer had become a Lieutenant in Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry regiment within the Eastern Association. When the overzealous Crawford arrested Packer, Packer appealed to Cromwell. In response, Cromwell sent an emissary to confirm that Packer was a godly man who did not deserve such harassment. Crawford also had issues with his own Lieutenant-Colonel, Henry Warner, who had refused to sign the Covenant because of his Baptist convictions. As a result, Crawford sent Warner to Manchester.[20]

Further tensions would emerge between the New Model Army and Parliament after King Charles I was defeated, captured, and placed under house arrest in 1647.[21] Parliament failed to pay the Army—always a bad idea—owing them over 300,000 pounds. As a result, two main factions emerged within the ranks, known by their opponents as the Levellers and the Agents or Agitators.[22] Historians have often credited the birth of “Anglo-Saxon democracy” to June 1647, when the Puritan army at Newmarket and Tiplow refused to disband until the government assured them of their rights and liberties.[23]

Meanwhile, the Westminster Assembly completed the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646, which was approved by English Parliament in June 1648. Chapter 23, Section 3, states that the civil magistrate had the duty to “to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances [sic] of God duly settled, administrated, and observed.”

Tensions between the Army and Parliament eventually got so bad that on December 6, 1648, Oliver Cromwell ordered Colonel Thomas Pride to purge Parliament of Presbyterians, leaving a “rump parliament.” Parliament’s failure to pay wages in arrears to the army and the attempts by Presbyterians to establish a state church had taken its toll.[24]

John Owen on the Civil Magistrate

Meanwhile, renowned Puritan theologian John Owen was changing his views from those of Presbyterianism to Independent or Congregational. After the execution of King Charles I, he annexed an appeal for religious toleration to a sermon he preached before Parliament.

Owen’s still held that the magistrate had a role to play in religious matters, but he urged great caution in attempting to punish for simple errors in religion. With regard to the first table of the Ten Commandments, he specifically warned against conflating blasphemy with someone maintaining their own error in religion. Instead, blasphemy was a capital offense in the Old Testament based on Leviticus 24:16, and Owen defined it as a “resolved piercing of the name and glory of God, with cursed reproaches.”[25]

Furthermore, Owen warned it was not possible to impartially press a law for blasphemy in any case for heresy.[26] While he saw the argument to punish seducers based on Deuteronomy 13 as having greater merit, he pointed out the obvious difficulty in providing evidence for such charges. Overall, he questioned the motives of those who sought to use the magistrate to punish those in error.[27]

John Owen was one of the key influences in developing the more moderate Savoy Declaration, along with Thomas Goodwin. Chapter 24, Section 3, of The Savoy Declaration states that the magistrate is to ensure that blasphemy and error are not published and divulged. However, men who held their views in good conscience and did not disturb others in their worship were to be left alone.

Quakers and Religious Toleration

Another radical dissenter group to emerge during this era was the Quakers, founded by George Fox based on a misguided inner light doctrine. However, another key aspect of his religious beliefs included religious toleration.

Back in New England, the influx of Quakers in the 1650s and 1660s with their heretical views led to a strong reaction by the Puritans. In Plymouth, they either fined, whipped, or banished Quakers, while Massachusetts Bay went so far as to hang them.[28] Perhaps the most famous example occurred in 1660, when they executed Mary Dyer.

Meanwhile, Roger Williams’ Rhode Island was becoming a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution, such as Jews and Quakers. While Williams granted them religious toleration politically, he did not wish to promote their ideas, and he even sought a public debate with George Fox that never materialized.

Rhode Island was also notable for passing the first anti-slavery statute in the American colonies on May 18, 1652. Unfortunately, the rise of the rum trade would lead to the overturning of such statutes, and Rhode Island sadly became a key point of the Triangular Trade.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith

Ultimately the “godly dictatorship” of Oliver Cromwell, as Needham has lightheartedly called it, came to an end. Anglican Puritanism largely ended with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II and “The Great Ejection” of Puritans from the Church of England in 1662. From that point, Congregationalists and Baptists were largely forced to become true Separatists and nonconformists.

Meanwhile, particular Baptist churches in England and Wales began communicating to develop a Baptist confession largely modelled on the Westminster Confession. Enduring the reigns of Charles II and James II, both High-Church Anglicans who also promoted Catholicism, nonconformists found relief with the rise of Protestant King William and Queen Mary in 1689.

Prepared in 1677, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith was printed and openly distributed in 1689. Chapter 24 of the Confession, On the Civil Magistrate, is largely identical to the Westminster Confession’s Chapter 23, but there are only three sections instead of four. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith deliberately omitted the section granting the civil magistrate the duty to suppress “blasphemies and heresies.”

The Philadelphia Baptist Association

Ironically, it would be in Quaker Pennsylvania, established by William Penn in 1682, that many early Baptists in America would find a suitable home. Elias Keach was the son of a pastor who had endorsed the Second London Confession, and Elias established the first Baptist church in Pennsylvania in 1688. Later, in 1707, Elias was among the Particular Baptists who formed the first Baptist association in America, the Philadelphia Baptist Association.[29]

The Problem with State Blasphemy Laws

While there was never an established state church of America, we still have the remnants of a theistic civil religion that has served as the foundation of our laws. Also, contrary to what many might think, the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution did not do away with state-level blasphemy laws. It is not specifically unconstitutional to have blasphemy laws on the state level, and some blasphemy laws remain on the books today.

Even New York, of all places, had blasphemy laws in place after adopting the Constitution. The first prosecuted case was §  People v. Ruggles, where the court found John Ruggles guilty of blaspheming in a tavern and sentenced him to three months in prison with a $500 fine.

Similarly, the Pennsylvania state court consented to convicting a man for blaspheming the Holy Scriptures. The Pennsylvania court held to a form of “mere Christianity” that was largely undefined and not based on an established church.[30] Furthermore, Pennsylvania law still prohibits any association to use a name that includes blasphemy or profanity.

Furthermore, in my home state of South Carolina, it is illegal to blaspheme outside a place of worship. On one level, I’m glad that such a law is in place, but I can easily see how such a law could be turned against its original intent. Once you start talking about blasphemy laws, you’ll inevitably encounter the issue of who gets to determine what qualifies as blasphemy and based on what denomination. What if the state decides that orthodox statements regarding the Trinity are now blasphemy? Suddenly, your preacher can be charged with blasphemy for speaking out against what the state deems to be orthodoxy.

While rules concerning blasphemy are more reasonable as a matter of public decorum within limited public forums, much like profanity, even this is subject to potential abuse.

Our forefathers ran into a similar issue when Patrick Henry and George Washington promoted a bill in Virginia that would have imposed a tax to support all Christian churches based on a concept resembling Doug Wilson’s “Mere Christendom.” With the support of Virginia Baptists, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed the bill. In his “A Memorial and Remonstrance” of 1785, by James Madison remarked:

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

For such reasons, Baptists played a key role in the move to disestablish church across America, such as the Anglican church in South Carolina and Virginia. Congregationalist churches in New England were disestablished much later: New Hampshire in 1817, Connecticut in 1818, and Massachusetts in 1833.

Post-Constitutional New England State Churches

There are even blasphemy laws that remain on the books in Massachusetts, but no one regards them anymore. Once the home of Puritanism in America, everyone knows that New England is one of the most apostate places on the planet. No doubt their excessive zeal in trying to impose Congregationalism played a significant role in that apostacy. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the author of Repressive Tolerance, Herbert Marcuse, briefly found a home at Harvard University.

Tragically, Baptists in New England found more genuine kindness from heretical Quakers and Deists than they did many of their professing Congregationalist brethren.

Appealing to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801, the members of the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut wrote, “religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Their greatest rebuke came against those who sought “after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion” to criticize their fellow man because they would not presume “the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.”

Final Thoughts

We can forgive men like John Calvin and John Owen as they slowly worked toward the concepts of religious toleration and liberty with regard to the first table of the Ten Commandments. Gradually working their way out of the Catholic system, they had to ask whether God had granted civil magistrates in the New Testament era the jurisdiction to punish those who taught false doctrines.

Eventually, the historical Baptist position gained favor for upholding freedom of conscience and valuing the individual mind. Though true blasphemy is not a matter of conscience, only God has jurisdiction over any man’s conscience. Thus, to grant our government power to punish religious infractions is to concede jurisdiction over matters where it has no rightful authority.

The First Amendment of the Constitution is a product of Enlightenment thought as impacted by the harsh realities of centuries of religious conflict. Also affected by the godly influence of the Great Awakening, emphasizing the need for personal conversion, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and the right to worship peaceably. Our Founders were able to discern through natural law, hard experience, and common sense what they should legislate or leave for the individual to decide.

As much as I abhor it when my Lord’s name is trampled on, it should not be difficult to see how attempts to limit freedom of speech will ultimately be turned against Christians. In the end, blasphemy is a sin against God that He will punish Himself in His own time.

(Originally published here.)

Philip Huber

Philip provides thoughtful commentary on the relationship of the gospel to the state and society.

Find his publication on Substack.

[1] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms, (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 96.

[2] Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, vol. 3, Renaissance and Reformation, (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2016), 129.

[3] Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms, 97.

[4] Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, vol. 3, Renaissance and Reformation, 129.

[5] Richard S. Dunn, “John Winthrop American colonial governor,” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 20, 1998, (accessed October 28, 2023).

[6] Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Thomas Dudley British colonial governor,” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 20, 1998, (accessed October 28, 2023).

[7] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, (Zondervan, 1954, 1996), 362.

[8] Rebecca B. Brooks, “Religion in Plymouth Colony,” History of Massachusetts Blog, September 28, 2016, (accessed October 28, 2023).

[9] Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms, 110-111.

[10] James A. Henretta, David Brody, and Lynn Dumneil, America’s History, 6th ed., (Boston: Bedford/ St. Martins’s, 2008), 56.

[11] Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms, 109.

[12] Ibid, 110.

[13] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, 2016), 393.

[14] Dunn, “John Winthrop American colonial governor,” (accessed October 28, 2023).

[15] Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 362.

[16] Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms, 110.

[17] J. Stanley Lemons, “Rhode Island state, United States,” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 26, 1998, (accessed October 29, 2023).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Antonia Fraser, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men, (London: Phoenix, 1973, 2002), 141.

[20] Ibid, 142.

[21] Charles Phillips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Kings and Queens of Britain, (Anness Publishing, 2006), 147.

[22] Fraser, Cromwell: Our Chief of Men, 232-233.

[23] Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 13, Life in Two Kingdoms, 111.

[24] Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 334; Phillips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Kings and Queens of Britain, 147.

[25] John Owen, “Of Toleration,” The Works of John Owen, vol VIII, (Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, 1993), 166-167.

[26]  Ibid, 167.

[27] Ibid, 168-169.

[28] Brooks, “Religion in Plymouth Colony,” (accessed October 28, 2023).

[29] Elders of Grace Baptist Church of Carlisle Pennsylvania, “Forward,” The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, 7.

[30] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1981, 2005), 37.

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