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DELIVERED BEFORE THE
RHODE-ISLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY,
ON THE EVENING OF
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 13, 1847.
GENTLEMEN OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY :
In consequence of my compliance with the request of your committee—a compliance, perhaps, unfortunate both for you and me- -it has become my duty to address you, and our fellow citizens generally, upon a purely Rhode Island theme. I shall, accordingly, speak to you of that idea of government, which was actualized, for the first time in Christendom, here in this State, by those who described themselves as
a poor colony, consisting mostly of a birth and breeding of the Most High, formerly from the mother-nation in the bishops' days, and latterly from the New England over-zealous colonies.” I shall speak to you of the origin of this idea—of the various forms which it took, in its progress toward its realization here, in minds of much diversity of character and creed; and of that “lively experiment,” which it subsequently held forth, that “a most flourishing civil state may stand, and be best maintained, with a full liberty in religious concernments"a liberty which implied an emancipation of reason from the thraldom of arbitrary authority, and the full freedom of inquiry in all matters of speculative faith
To the founders of this state, and particularly to Roger Williams, belong the fame and the glory of having realized, for the first time, this grand idea, in a form of civil government; but we should honor them at the expense of our common nature, should we say that they were the first to maintain that Christ's kingdom was not of this world, and that the State had no right to interfere between conscience and God. The idea must, undoubtedly, have had its historical origin in him who first endured persecution for conscience's sake. “ Saul ! Saul ! why persecutest thou me?" is a voice, implying a denial of right, which comes with a sudden shining round about of light, not only from Heaven, but has come, and shall ever come, from the depths of persecuted humanity, through all time; and, in proportion to the violence and spread of the persecution, has been, and shall be, the depth and extent of the cry. It is the protest of that all-present reason, which is at once the master of the individual and the race against the abuse made by the creature of its own delegated authority. And that time never was, and never shall be, when humanity could, or can, recognize the right of any human power to punish for the expression of a mere conscientious belief.
By what fraudful craft or cunning, then, was it, that this power to punish in matters of conscience came to be established throughout all Christendom, and has been continued down, in some countries, to the present day?—and how happened it that the odious office of punishing heretics and enforcing uniformity of opinion fell, both in Roman Catholic and Protestant countries, on the civil magistrates? This question is fully answered by history.
When men had been brought to believe that they had found a divine and infallible teacher in the Bishop of Rome, it was not difficult to induce them to think that whatever opinion they might entertain which he thought proper to condemn as heretical, was, in truth, a sin, which they were bound to renounce, on the peril of their salvation ; and that then, on having renounced it, upon undergoing a voluntary penance, directed by some ecclesiastical authority, they might be assured of an absolution, and full restoration to the bosom of the church. Thus far it was believed that the spiritual power might proceed. But then, there were frequently those who were much more confident in the truth of their opinions than in the infallibility of the Pope, or their priestly advisers; and such persons, on their opinions being adjudged heretical, were, after all suitable admonition, condemned as incorrigible heretics, and excommunicated.
Yet this was not an extirpation of the heresy; and the Roman Church held that she had a divine right to extirpate heresy; and yet she also adopted the maxim, Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine—the church abhors blood. The holy church then could not take the life of the heretic; and, therefore, she contrived to shift off this odious office upon the secular authority, by imposing an oath upon the princes of Europe, generally, to sustain the Catholic faith, and to extirpate heresy out of the land. It was thus that it fell to the lot of the kings of Europe, and their subordinates, to become the executioners of the Church of Rome. And when the Reformation was established over a part of Europe, national churches took the place of the Roman Church, and laws were passed to enforce uniformity; and thus, even in Protestant countries, the ungrateful task of punishing non-conformity and heresy fell on the civil magistrate.
It was by such craft that the power to punish for matters of conscience came to be established, both in Roman Catholic and Protestant countries, and that in both, the odious office of inflicting the punishment fell on the secular authorities:
But though the subjects of the Roman Church may have tacitly conceded to the Pope his claim to infallibility, and have submitted to an authority in the civil magistrate thus usurped over conscience and reason, yet it is not hence to be inferred that the inborn consciousness of soul-liberty--of the title of reason to be free-became, thereupon, utterly extinguished and lost. Indeed, long before the Reformationlong before the time of Luther—there were great numbers in Europe who had themselves acquired some knowledge of the Scriptures, and had, consequently, adopted opinions quite inconsistent with the duetrines and traditions of the Church of Rome; and they ap;cared to be opinions in which they had abundantly more confidence than in the infallibility of the Pope. Now when these people came to be condemned as heretics, and consigned to the secular authorities, to undergo the sentence and punishment of death, can any one suppose that the appearance of the civil magistrate deceived them into the belief that they had indeed committed a crime? Can any one doubt that they questioned his right—as they had questioned the infallibility of the Pope to come in with the sentence of death between their consciences and their God, for a matter of faith in which their eternal hopes were grounded? Indeed, their deaths were the strongest possible protest against the legitimacy of the power ; since no one can be supposed to adhere to an opinion as right, for which the magistrate may rightfully put him to death. The actual denial of the right of the civil power to interfere in matters of conscience, must, therefore, be coeval with the assumption of the authority.
But men sometimes act on a truth which they feel, though they do not clearly express it in words; and how was this denial of the claims of the secular authority put forth in language, and taught as a doctrine? History is not silent on this point. By a mere glance at its pages, we may follow the progressive development of the inborn idea of the rights of conscience and reason in the express denial of the legitimacy of the authority usurped over both, from the earliest dawn to the broad day of the Reformation. Time will not permit me to dwell on this point. I am now hastening to the political manifestations of this idea, and I can do little more than say, that its protestations, against the exercise of secular power in the concerns of conscience, may be traced down to their results in the Reformation, more or less distinctly, in the doctrines of the Waldenses and Albigenses.