Review of "The Subversive Puritan: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience" by Mostyn Roberts

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The British author Mostyn Roberts has written a hagiography of Roger Williams entitled, “The Subversive Puritan”, published this year by Evangelical Press. The title is erroneous, because Williams was not a Puritan, that is someone seeking the reformation of the established Protestant Church in England. Firstly, Roger Williams left England for America. Secondly, he refused to believe in the legitimacy of any church on earth since none of them had been directly founded by an Apostle (Roberts, p.144). This was not a deep theological statement: this was an excuse. There was no possibility of an Apostle returning to found a Church for Roger Williams and so his position masked a total rejection of the public worship of God, led by a minister, no matter how orthodox the form of service, doctrinal standards and faithfulness to the Holy Scriptures.

Roger Williams’ famous belief in the separation of Church and State was therefore a complete red herring. There is no need to believe in separation if there is no Church. Separation was a Trojan horse to abolish the Church altogether and confine religion to the private sphere. This was facilitated by Williams’ insistence that the only thing that matters is the conscience of the individual. Empower each believer to do what is right in his own eyes, without the guiding hand of a minister and a creed, and soon the Church is abolished because such individualists will never have enough in common to meet together to worship God. You are left with the many cults and cliques of modern America.

With a foul and degrading choice of words, Roger Williams described an established church as “spiritual rape” (Roberts, p.128) and persecution for conscience as “soul rape” (Roberts, p.139). So let us see how far he respected the conscience of someone with whom he disagreed:

He [Roger Williams] entered into a correspondence with Sir Edward Coke’s daughter, Anne Sadleir, in 1652-53. … He sent her a copy of his Experiments of Spiritual Life but it was returned with her recommendation to read some good royalist and high church literature by King Charles, Richard Hooker, Dr. Jeremy Taylor and Bishop Lancelot Andrewes. Never one to take a hint, Williams wrote again, sending her this time a copy of The Bloudy Tenent, Yet More Bloudy [by Williams]. She ended her reply to this, ‘entreating you to trouble me no more in this kind.’ He did trouble her, with concern for her soul. Anne replied, thanking God that her parents had brought her up in ‘the old and best religion’ it being her ‘glorie that I am a member of the church of England.’ Williams wrote asking her to read her own Jeremy Taylor - he recommended toleration of all religions. Her last known reply ended with a request to ‘trouble no more with your letters for they are very troublesome to her that wishes you in the place whence you came.’ Well, at least he had tried! (Roberts, p.158-9)

In that final flippant quip by Mostyn Roberts we see the lie in all its ugliness. Roger Williams was not content to leave Anne Sadleir in the freedom of her own conscience. He did not show respect for her private religion. He harrassed her. He bullied her. In modern parlance, he groomed her. Roger Williams denied kings the right to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, but he gave himself the right to promote his own books and his own opinions with force. Roger Williams denied the right of ministers to protect the flock of Christians in their care, to nurture the young and weak in faith, to teach with vigour those who must teach their own families, to stand between his people and the wolves who would coax them into danger. Such a wolf was Roger Williams.

Williams denied that the civil magistrate had authority to maintain the lawful keeping of the first four commandments. He would not lift a finger to promote the true worship of God, suppress idols, enforce the solemnity of oaths or the keeping of the Sabbath day. He said that there are only four things that are universally repugnant to men: murder, adultery, theft and lying (Roberts, p.21). He determined these things to be evil, quite aside from the Ten Commandments.

Mostyn Roberts glibly describes Williams’ belief in freedom of conscience as “walking in the truth”.

Obeying the corrupt conscience may lead to sin but disobeying conscience is sin and is tacit contempt for God, for it is still God’s messenger we are disobeying. … Rebellion against what you believe to be God’s voice (even if your belief is wrong) reveals contempt for God; the remedy is to align conscience more and more with the Word of God. (Roberts, p.190-1, 193)

This is the road to perdition, whereby a man may justify any and every deed of depravity because he was only obeying his conscience. If a man’s conscience deems it righteous to rape a child, blow up a school or shoot all abortionists, according to Williams it is a sin to disobey that conscience. And Williams compounds the error by blasphemously equating man’s wicked conscience with the voice of God. To tell such a rogue that he should conform to God’s Word is surely a sick joke! He has neither the ability to obey God’s law, nor the will to do so. Either a man is free in his conscience and has the world at his feet to abuse it as he likes or he is bound in service to God and must follow the straight and narrow path. He cannot be both. 

It is often hard to distinguish between the voice of Roger Williams and that of Mostyn Roberts, so besotted is the author with his subject. Roberts writes with the complacency of a man who surrendered long ago to the ideology of the U.S.A. and considers everything else to be immature. He has shed his own British history and adopted the prejudices and petulant tone of Roger Williams, inviting us to regard all faithful Protestants as persecutors-in-waiting. (Are we to suppose that the great Protestant martyrs of the Reformation threw themselves into the flames at Smithfield?) Roberts even casts aspersions on the remnant in England today who still cherish their Protestant inheritance:

The American Right is accused of baptising the flag, the constitution and capitalism. British evangelicals are sometimes in danger of dong the same with British Protestant history and Western ‘Christian’ culture more generally. (Roberts, p.228)

This is a lie. It requires great effort today to reclaim Protestant history from the twisting reinterpretation of modern humanists and to remember our true English Protestant heritage. Roberts belittles Church history in order to pave the way for a multi-cultured pluralism modelled on the U.S.A., which he fully admires:

The constitutional arrangement in America, with ‘no establishment of religion’ is healthier for religion; for the church; and for the state. (Roberts, p.207)

The Subversive Puritan is an openly provocative book. It wears a fake smile of fairness, but on closer inspection it is the smile of a man with his foot on his enemy’s neck, whose face is rammed firmly into the dirt. Mostyn Roberts believes the argument is over. He assumes that every right minded person will agree with him in celebrating the pluralism of the U.S.A. and the “progress” of such pluralism in the U.K. The book is intellectually complacent and lazy. He raises points for discussion and then flicks them away lightly, as though the answer is so obvious that to say any more would be demeaning. At no point does Roberts address historical opposition to his point of view.

For example, 150 years ago, the Rev. Thomas Rawson Birks published a brilliant polemic against the separation of Church and State. It was timely, as the Church of Ireland was being disestablished. The Church of England had been dealt a fatal blow 40 years before, with licence granted to Roman Catholics. The Rev. Birks knew that the nation was in a state of apostasy, just as the U.S.A. had been from its inception. The parallel is clear and yet Mostyn Roberts took no notice of the Rev. Birks, who considered in great detail matters that Roberts had ignored.

The Rev. Birks writes:

All men - whether rulers, statesmen, or private persons - are bound to obey the Gospel, and to serve and honour the true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. But many, perhaps, disobey the command, and are rebellious against the voice of their Maker. Hence it is inferred that rulers ought not to profess openly their faith in Christ, nor to make the spread of the Gospel an object of their rule, because it would be unjust to those who differ from them. They would do wrong to atheists, if they pay public homage to the God of Heaven. They would persecute the Deist or the Jew, and inflict on them a sore injustice, if they were to profess allegiance to Christ, and to own the Lord Jesus to be the eternal Son of God, the true fountain of their own authority. They would thus teach that it is socially better for men to believe in Christ than to disbelieve in Him, to worship God than to disown Him, and this would be iniquitous and unjust. What marvellous reasoning, to be adopted for a moment by pious and thoughtful men! Surely Christian faith must be feeble and ready to expire, when such a doctrine is not rejected at once as preposterous and absurd. The root of these sophisms is a disguised and subtle unbelief. Opinions are viewed as everything, truth as nothing. A creed is made a kind of private property, which every one may claim to have protected, like land or merchandise, by equal laws, instead of resolving itself, in every case, into the two alternatives of truth and falsehood. (The Rev. Birks, p.10)

Are they [rulers] to believe God’s messages only just so far as the popular voice approves? Is it lawful for them to promote the outward wealth of their people, and to forget all that constitutes their true welfare, as if riches abused were a blessing, not a curse, to those who obtain them? Is it right for them to punish crime, and neglect the means which God himself has ordained for its prevention and removal? (The Rev. Birks, p.13)

Wherever power and influence have been received, so far must the claims of Christ extend. The wisdom which neglects to honour Him is madness. The power which refuses to own His authority is treason against the King of heaven. (The Rev. Birks, p.18)

He [the ruler] cannot serve God and Mammon, nor consent to mind only earthly things, and still do all to the glory of God. No glory can be rendered to Him by a national constitution, where His holy Name is not allowed to enter, and His word is never consulted, and has no acknowledged place; where the scales are weighted so heavily with sugar, and corn, and bales of merchandise, that the welfare of millions of souls is dust in the balance, and not allowed to weigh one feather in the public counsels. From such a base and fatal policy, and the principles which lead to it, may God in His mercy deliver our favoured land! (The Rev. Birks, p.20-21)

Our Lord came to announce the truth to a world of rebels, that He is the true King, whom they are bound to obey, and that no thought or action, either of subjects or rulers, is exempt from His authority. (The Rev. Birks, p.37)

The Rev. Birks spends an entire chapter looking at the New Testament and then another in the Old, to determine what Scripture says. He looks at the responsibilities and complications of having a national Church and how the balance of power is maintained in a Biblical fashion. The Rev. Birks was not afraid to look at the alternative:

If the mere name of conscience is always to prevail, social life becomes anarchy, and every one must be left to do what is right in his own eyes. (The Rev. Birks, p.55)

A State leavened by such principles must become a hotbed of anarchy and atheism, a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. It will guarantee the omnipotence of conscience, and refuse to own the Almighty power of God. The truths of His word will be set aside, and replaced by a new creed; the right of conscience to sanctify every error, and give impugnity to every crime … (The Rev. Birks, p.165)

Where religious truths are set aside, obedience will soon be defamed as a slavish thing, and lawless crime be dignified with the titles of courage and freedom. (The Rev. Birks, p.53)

The history of the last 150 years, both in the U.S.A. and the U.K. has more than proved the Rev. Birks correct. But this condition - termed by Roberts as pluralism and by Birks as atheism - is applauded by Mostyn Roberts, as the legacy of his idol.

… if  we are to continue to have faith in the values of toleration we must have a strong faith in the good that will come of it … (Roberts, p.214)

If Williams can only help us be aware of the possibilities of the days in which we live instead of the downbeat sense of loss that Christians feel, he will have done something for us. (Roberts, p.227)

Roger Williams was a renegade from the Lord Jesus Christ, because he would not live under his authority. When Williams held civil power in the state of Rhode Island, he actively legislated to deny the King of Kings lordship over the people. His “toleration” gave equal time to the Devil. Christians do not need a book to glorify Roger Williams. By promoting him and his beliefs, the author and publisher are both pledging their allegiance to his unbelief, just like the lyrical endorsements that promote the book. Amongst them is The Christian Institute, that great hope of watery evangelicals, who get a thrill in “tut-tutting” over the latest sin in godless Britain and thank God that there is an organisation to stand in the breach and try to keep the world safe for them. The Institute begs for a corner in which to sit and it would keep on doing so until the Day of Judgment. They do not want to live in Christendom. They believe in freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. It is the mindset of the Baptist parent who drops his child at Sunday School and spends the next 40 years hoping he will be saved instead of training his child as a baptised member of the Church, raising him within the covenant, and putting the child under a perpetual obligation to live to the glory of God and to keep his commandments.

Earnest and devout Christians are ready to despair of hearty allegiance to Christ in the high places of power. They think it prudent to bargain, if possible, for a bare neutrality, as their best safeguard from direct and positive mischief, and from the risk of a direct persecution of the truth of God. (The Rev. Birks, p.39)

It is no wonder that Mostyn Roberts wants us to forget our Protestant history because in it we would learn of godly men and women who suffered the most appalling injuries for Christ’s sake, even to death. We talk of persecution today as something that happens in foreign lands and we send money as though it will help. We want to secure for those poor Christians the same rights that we enjoy: the right to a private religion. If this is the best that can be hoped for in a Muslim country, it should not be the best than can be hoped for in a country such as England with a rich Christian heritage!

We are not called to lead a revolt against the powers-that-be and put a Christian King in his place, to set up ourselves and whip the nation into submission. The Church has been cowering in the corner of society for so long that it is no longer fit to run a fish and chip shop. But we have to wake up to the wickedness of the current state of affairs and pray for reformation to restore Christendom. We must look for the day when Christian ministers will walk hand in hand with the civil magistrate to glorify God in the nation. Since that day has not yet come, Christians must continue to fear God and not men; regarding the curses on the nation around us as justified; living under the authority and protection of the King of kings, to whom we will render all service, like Daniel in a foreign land; singing the Psalms which proclaim the glory of the Lord God who will annihilate his enemies and before whom every knee will bow. This is Christian liberty. 

Believers in the U.S.A. cannot disown Roger Williams without undermining their belief in America, founded as it is on the same godless principles as Rhode Island. This is a problem and it is their problem, by inheritance and by continued practice. But there is no excuse whatsoever for Mostyn Roberts to wave the American flag over the British Isles and tell us to worship Roger Williams and his idol of freedom from God. It is a lie from start to end. The truth is that which we see around us, a truth that the Rev. Birks could see in prospect 150 years ago:

Perseverance in this course against human laws, as those must often do who obey God rather than man, will resemble direct rebellion. Meetings for worship, from which strangers are excluded, such as Christian fellowship may require, will be suspicious signs of treasonable conspiracy. The application of private funds to promote a creed or a system, which breeds contention, will seem a dangerous perversion of part of the national wealth. The claims of conscience and religious faith, and the instincts of social peace, will be in collision at every turn and thus the Ruler who would be neutral, while content to be ignorant, and impartial to all creeds without caring for any, will soon be found to tolerate every pliant form or error that will bend to his will, and to persecute, as a dangerous adversary, the unbending Word and Truth of God. (The Rev. Birks, p.60)


The Subversive Puritan: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience

By Mostyn Roberts

Published by Evangelical Press, 2019

Church and State: Or, national religion and church establishments

By Rev. Thomas Rawson Birks (1810-1883)

Published in 1869