The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience

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The Blood Tenent of Persecution, 1644

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace is a 1644 book about government force written by Roger Williams, the founder of the American colony of Rhode Island and the co-founder of the First Baptist Church in America. Using biblical reasoning, the book argues for a "wall of separation" between church and state and for state toleration of various Christian denominations, including Catholicism, and also "paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worships."[1] Tenent is a now obsolete variant of the word tenet. The book takes the form of a dialogue between Truth and Peace and is a response to correspondence by Boston minister, John Cotton, regarding Cotton's support for state enforcement of religious uniformity in Massachusetts. Through his interpretation of the Bible, Williams argues that Christianity requires the existence of a separate civil authority that may not generally infringe upon liberty of conscience which Williams interpreted to be a God given right.[2]


The 1644 text is considered among Williams' best argued even though it was written under presumably rushed conditions and is stylistically difficult. Many of the original copies of The Bloudy Tenent were burned by order of a Parliamentary faction offended by Williams' view of government. Upon reading Williams' book, John Cotton responded defending his positions in a publication entitled, The Bloudy Tenent, Washed, and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb. Upon his return to London in 1652, Williams again published a defense of his positions and responded to Cotton in The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy by Mr. Cotton's Endeavour to Wash it White in the Blood of the Lamb; of Whose Precious Blood, Spilt in the Bloud of his Servants; and of the Blood of Millions Spilt in Former and Later Wars for Conscience Sake, That Most Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, upon, a Second Tryal Is Found More Apparently and More Notoriously Guilty, etc. (London, 1652). The original Bloudy Tenent was later cited as a philosophical source for John Locke and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and several writings of Thomas Jefferson regarding religious freedom.[3][4]

Biblical Support for Christians Not Using Government Force

In the Bloudy Tenent and other writings, Williams interpreted many passages in the Old and New Testaments as limiting government interference in any religious matters (in line with contemporary Baptist interpretations), and therefore opposing the traditional Puritan exegesis, which supported using state force in some "religious" matters:[2]

  • Williams believed that historic Israel was a unique covenant kingdom and the kings should be interpreted using typology. Therefore, the covenant kings were not appropriate government models for New Testament Christians who believed that the Old Testament covenant had been fulfilled through Christ, as the ultimate king. Accordingly, Williams asserted that the more informative Old Testament examples of civil government were "good" non-covenant kings such as Artaxerxes, a pagan who gave the Hebrews freedom to worship in Ezra 7 but did not compel any kind of worship. For examples of "bad" kings, Williams mentioned Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel who oppressively forced the Jews (including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) to worship the state god or face death. Williams also used the example of Naboth's Vineyard in 1 Kings 21 as an example of a bad civil government abusing its religious power.[2]
  • Williams interpreted the Parable of the Tares in the Matthew 13:24-30,13:36-43 to support toleration of all of the "weeds" (heretics who were clearly not Christians, such as Paul before his conversion, and not simply defining "weeds" as those with minor theological differences, as the Puritans asserted) in the world, because civil persecution often inadvertently hurts the "wheat" (believers) too, and instead it was God's duty to judge in the end, not man's.[2]
  • Williams personally related to St. Paul's persecutions by various religious authorities and cited Acts 25 where Paul appealed to Caesar presumably regarding only his alleged civil violations (those not resulting in a death sentence, in contrast to capital religious violations like heresy). Williams also cited the legitimate role of government in Paul's letter to the Romans 13 as applying only to enforcement of the second table of the Ten Commandments (last five commandments involving hurting other people). He further cited Paul's letters in Ephesians 6:10-20, 2 Timothy 2, and 2 Corinthians 10 to explain how to use "spiritual" and not actual weapons in dealing with unbelievers.[2]
  • Finally, Williams interpreted Revelation 2-3 to again support the use of spiritual, not civil weapons and believed that Christ's letters in these chapters were written to and applied to churches, not civil governments. Williams interpreted Revelation 17's Beast of Revelation prophesy as representing all state churches (including those in Europe and Massachusetts) that used government force to coerce corrupt political goals in the name of Christianity.[2]


  1. Roger Williams, Richard Groves, The bloudy tenent of persecution for cause of conscience: discussed in a conference between truth and peace : who, in all tender affection, present to the High Court of Parliament, (as the result of their discourse) these, (among other passages) of highest consideration (Mercer University Press, 2001), pg. 3 [1] (accessible on Google Books, July 28, 2009)0865547661, 9780865547667
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 James P. Byrd, The challenges of Roger Williams: religious liberty, violent persecution, and the Bible (Mercer University Press, 2002)[2] (accessed on Google Book on July 20, 2009)
  3. Roger Williams, James Calvin Davis (editor), On religious liberty: selections from the works of Roger Williams, (Harvard University Press, 2008), ISBN 0-674-02685-3, ISBN 978-0-674-02685-8 [3](accessed July 11, 2009 on Google Books)
  4. James Emanuel Ernst, Roger Williams, New England Firebrand (Macmillan Co., Rhode Island, 1932), pg. 246 [4]

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See also