THE Puritans having planted themselves in Massachusetts, and having established there a theocracy, were not slow, as we have seen, to use their power against all dissenters from the established religion. In 1631 Roger Williams landed in Boston, and as the death of Higginson had left a vacancy in the church at Salem, the church called Williams to fill his place; but as Winthrop and his “assistants” objected, Williams went to Plymouth Colony.
The leading minister in Massachusetts Colony at this time was John Cotton. He distinctly taught the blessedness of persecution in itself, and in its benefit to the State, in the following words:—’
But the good brought to princes and subjects by the due punishment of apostate seducers and idolaters and blasphemers, is manifold.
First, it putteth away evill from among the people, and cutteth off a gangreene, which would spread to further ungodlinesse…. .
Secondly, it driveth away wolves from worrying and scattering the sheep of Christ. For false teachers be wolves, … and the very name of wolves holdeth forth what benefit will redound to the sheep, by either killing them or driving them away.
Thirdly, such executions upon such evil doers causeth all the country to heare and feare and doe no more such wickednesse…. Yea, as these punishments are preventions of like wickednesse in some, so are they wholesome medicines, to heale such as are curable of these eviles….
Fourthly, the punishments executed upon false prophets and seducing teachers, doe bring downe showers of God’s blessings upon the civill state ….
Fifthly, it is an honor to God’s justice that such judgments are executed….
And Samuel Shepard, a minister of Charlestown, preached an election sermon  entitled “Eye Salve,“” in which he set forth the following views:—
Men’s lusts are sweet to them, and they would not be disturbed or disquieted in their sin. Hence there be so many such as cry up tolleration boundless and libertinism so as (if it were in their power) to order a total and perpetual confinement of the sword of the civil magistrate unto its scabbard (a motion that is evidently destructive to this people, and to the publick liberty, peace, and prosperity of any instituted churches under heaven).
Let the magistrate’s coercive power in matters of religion, therefore, be still asserted, seeing he is one who is bound to God more than any other man to cherish his true religion; … and how woful would the state of things soon be among us, if men might have liberty without controll to profess, or preach, or print, or publish what they list, tending to the seduction of others.
In accordance with these principles, every inhabitant of the Colony was obliged to attend the services of the Established Church on Sunday under penalty of fine or imprisonment. The fine was not to exceed five shillings, equal to about five dollars of the present day, for every absence.
About 1633 Roger Williams was called a second time to the ministry of the Salem church. This time he was allowed to take the place; but it was not long before he was again in trouble with the theocrats. He denounced their laws making church membership a qualification for office, and all their laws enforcing religious observances.
He declared that the worst law in the English code was that by which they themselves when in England had been compelled to attend the parish church; and he reproved their inconsistency in counting that persecution in England, and then doing the same things themselves in New England.
They maintained, as argued by Cotton, that “persecution is not wrong in itself. It is wicked for falsehood to persecute truth, but it is the sacred duty of truth to persecute falsehood.” And, as stated by Winthrop, that “we have come to New England in order to make a society after our own model; all who agree with us may come and join that society; those who disagree may go elsewhere; there is room enough on the American continent.
Roger Williams told them that to compel men to unite with those of a different faith is an open violation of natural right; and that to drag to public worship the irreligious and the unwilling, is only to require hypocrisy. “Persons may with less sin be forced to marry whom they cannot love, than to worship where they cannot believe.” Accordingly he insisted that “no one should be bound to worship or to maintain a worship against his own consent.”
At this the theocrats inquired with pious amaze, “What, is not the laborer worthy of his hire?” To which Roger replied in words which they could not fail fully to understand, “Yes, from them that hire him.”
The view that the magistrates must be chosen exclusively from membership in the churches, he exploded with the argument that with equal propriety they should select a doctor of physic or the pilot of a ship, because of his standing in the church.
Against the statements of Cotton and Shepard and the claims of the theocrats altogether, as to the right of the magistrate to forestall corrupting influences upon the minds of the people, and to punish error and heresy, he set the evident and everlasting truth that “magistrates are but the agents of the people or its trustees, on whom no spiritual power in matters of worship can ever be conferred, since conscience belongs to the individual, and is not the property of the body politic; … the civil magistrate may not intermeddle even to stop a church from apostasy and heresy; this power extends only to the bodies and goods and outward estate of men.”
The theocrats raised the alarm that these principles subverted all good government. To which he replied: “There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for turns upon these two hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.” “The removal of the yoke of soul-oppression, as it will prove an act of mercy and righteousness to the enslaved nations, so it is of binding force to engage the whole and every interest and conscience to preserve the common liberty and peace.”
He also denied the right of the compulsory imposition of an oath. The magistrates had decided to require an oath of allegiance to Massachusetts, instead of to the king of England. Williams would not take the oath, and his influence was so great that so many others refused also that the government was compelled to drop the project. This caused them to raise a charge against him as the ally of a civil faction. The church at Salem stood by him, and in the face of the enmity of the theocrats elected him their teacher. This was no sooner done than the preachers met together and declared that any one who should obstinately assert that “the civil magistrate might not intermeddle even to stop a church from apostasy and heresy,” was worthy of banishment. A committee of their order was appointed to go to Salem and deal with Williams and the church “in a church way.”
Meantime the people of Salem were punished for choosing him for their teacher, by the withholding of a tract of land to which they had laid claim. Williams was ready to meet the committee at every point in expressing and defining his doctrines, and in refuting all their claims. After the committee had returned, the church by Williams wrote letters to all the churches of which any of the magistrates were members, “that they should admonish the magistrates of their injustice.” By the next general court the whole of Salem was disfranchised until they should apologize for these letters. The town and the church yielded. Roger Williams stood alone. He was able and willing to do it, and at once declared his “own voluntary withdrawing from all these churches which were resolved to continue in persecuting the witnesses of the Lord,” and “hoped the Lord Jesus was sounding forth in him the blast which should in his own holy season cast down the strength and confidence of those inventions of men.” In October, 1635, he was summoned before the chief representatives of the State. He went and “maintained the rocky strength” of his position, and declared himself “ready to be bound and banished, and even to die in New England,” rather than to renounce his convictions.
By the earnest persuasions of Cotton, the general court of 1635, by a small majority, sentenced him to exile, and at the same time attempted to justify the sentence by the flimsy plea that it was not a restrainment on freedom of conscience, but because the application of the new doctrine to their institutions seemed “to subvert the fundamental state and government of the country.” In January, 1636, a warrant was sent to him to come to Boston and take ship for England. He refused to go. Officers were sent in a boat to bring him, but he was gone. “Three days before, he had left Salem, in winter snow and inclement weather, of which he remembered the severity even in his late old age. ‘For fourteen weeks he was sorely tost in a bitter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean.’ Often in the stormy night he had neither fire, nor food, nor company; often he wandered without a guide, and had no house but a hollow tree. But he was not without friends. The respect for the rights of others which had led him to defend the freedom of conscience, had made him the champion of the Indians. He had learned their language during his residence at Plymouth; he had often been the guest of the neighboring sachems; and now, when he came in winter to the cabin of the chief of Pokanoket, he was welcomed by Massassoit; and ‘the barbarous heart of Canonicus, the chief of the Narragansetts, loved him as his son to the last gasp.’ ‘The ravens,’ he relates, ‘fed me in the wilderness.’”