One of America’s most sacred ideas is that we can worship whatever deity we choose, on whatever day we want, wearing whatever ceremonial outfit pleases us. That owes more than a little to Rhode Island, which was light years ahead of the rest of New England, and preeminent in America as well. In Rhode Island the pursuit of “soul liberty” was a clearly articulated ideal from the beginning and went beyond Christianity as Williams said that in theory Jews and Muslims would be welcome. The tradition was given a strong boost when George Washington came to Newport in 1790, visited Touro Synagogue, and wrote an exquisite letter in praise of religious diversity.
In 1644 Roger Williams (1604-1683) wrote a plea for religious toleration entitled The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution, published in London. The book argued for a “wall of separation” between church and state and for state toleration of various Christian denominations and also “paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worships,” in the form of a dialogue between Truth and Peace. Williams’ piece was a response to correspondence with the Boston minister John Cotton, regarding Cotton’s support for state enforcement of religious uniformity in Massachusetts.
Upon reading Williams’ book, John Cotton responded defending his positions in the 1647 publication shown here, 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 Bloody Tenent yet more Bloody: by Mr. Cotton’s Endeavor to wash it white in the Blood of the Lamb.