JULY 18, Mr. A. F. Ballenger, of this city, addressed a letter to Mr. Sydney S. Rider, editor of Book Notes, Providence, R. I., and secretary of the Rhode Island Historical Society, making the following inquiry:—
Can you direct me to some work which will inform me as to how early Sunday laws were enacted in Rhode Island? It is very evident that Roger Williams denied the right of the civil magistrate to “punish a breach of the Sabbath,” and it therefore becomes an interesting question as to how early such laws were enacted in his colony.
In Book Notes, for July 27, Mr. Rider responded at some length, stating that the first Sunday law in Rhode Island bears date of Sept. 2, 1673—ten years before the death of Mr. Williams. This statute simply prohibited gambling and drunkenness upon the first day of the week. In 1679 it was extended somewhat, being amended so as to impose a fine “upon such evil-minded men as did” “require their own servants to labor upon the first day of the week, and hired the servants of other men for the same purpose.”
In 1719, forty-six years after the death of Roger Williams, this law was again amended to read—“No person within this colony shall do, or exercise any labor or business or work of their ordinary calling, nor use any game, sport, play, or recreation on the first day of the week, under penalty,” etc.
Mr. Rider says the fact that Mr. Williams held that “the magistrate ought not to punish the breach of the first table, otherwise than in such case as did disturb the civil peace,” did “not mean that Williams denied the power of the civil magistrate to punish a breach of the Sabbath.” We think that Mr. Rider errs in this. Henry S. Burrage, D. D., introduces this matter incidentally in his “History of the Baptists in New England.” 350 Speaking of Roger Williams, he says:—
The church in Salem then called him, as the successor of Mr. Higginson, who, on account of feeble health, was compelled to retire from active service. The Salem Church was the oldest church in the colony, having been organized August 6, 1629, “on principles of perfect and entire independence of every other ecclesiastical body.” The civil authorities in Boston protested against this action of the church in Salem: “That whereas Mr. Williams had refused to join with the congregation at Boston, because they would not make a public declaration of their repentance for having communion with the churches of England, while they lived there; and besides, had declared his opinion that the magistrate might not punish the breach of the Sabbath, nor any other offense that was a breach of the first table: therefore, they marveled they would choose him without advising with the council; and withal desiring that they would forbear to proceed till they had conferred about it.” 351 Pages 14-15.
This makes it positively certain that this was at least understood to be Roger Williams’ position upon this question at that time, and it ought to set the matter quite fully at rest.
The “Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge,” article, “Roger Wiillams [sic.],” says:—
Mr. Williams had refused to join with the congregation at Boston, because they would not make a public declaration of their repentance for having communion with the churches of England while they lived there; and besides had declared his opinion that the magistrate might not punish a breach of the Sabbath nor any other offense, as it was [which was considered] a breach of the first table [first four commandments] of the Decalogue.
It was for this opinion that Mr. Williams was banished from Massachusetts, as will appear from the following further quotation from the “Schaff-Herzog,” as follows:—
The most noted of the proscribed opinions of Williams was the doctrine that the civil magistrate should not inflict punishment for purely religious error. It has been urged that it was not simply for his doctrine of religious liberty, but for other opinions also, that Williams was banished. This, however, will not exculpate the General Court; for we find them enacting a law, that “If any person or persons within the jurisdiction … shall deny … their [the magistrates’] lawful right or authority … to punish the outward breaches of the first table … every such person or persons shall be sentenced to banishment.” In other words, though it be admitted that Williams was banished for other utterances, together with the proclamation of the doctrine of religious freedom, the court deemed it proper to decree banishment for that teaching alone.
The “American Cyclopedia,” article, “Roger Williams,” speaking of the proposed settlement of Mr. Williams as assistant pastor to the congregation at Salem, says:—
A remonstrance from the General Court against his settlement was immediately transmitted to Salem, in which it was complained that he had refused “to join with the congregation at Boston, because they would not make a public declaration of their repentance for having communion with the churches of England, while they lived there;” and besides this, “had declared his opinion that the magistrate might not punish a breach of the Sabbath, nor any other offense, as it was [perhaps considered as] a breach of the first table.”
These authorities seem to leave no question as to the attitude of Roger Williams toward laws designed for the protection of the day; and this view is not materially affected by the fact that a law was enacted in Rhode Island, prohibiting drunkenness and gambling, and the employment of servants upon Sunday. For it was not until forty-six years after the death of Mr. Williams that ordinary labor on Sunday was prohibited, so that it is certain that Roger Williams was not in favor of such Sunday laws as are upon the statute books of most countries to-day.