The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“That greater security therefore of life, liberty, money, lands, houses, family, and the like, which may be all comprehended under that of person and property, is the sole end of all civil government.”

Summary Overview

When a religious revival known as the First Great Awakening swept through Europe and North America beginning in the 1730s, many colonies passed laws to restrict outside ministers from preaching to their parishes without an explicit invitation. These traveling ministers viewed religion as a personal and emotional experience, which contradicted the colonies’ more traditional rules-and-order style of worship, and many leaders were concerned this could cause social and political instability. Elisha Williams, one of the great political preachers of the pre-Revolutionary era in the American colonies, spoke out against these laws by anonymously publishing the pamphlet The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants in 1744, which both criticized the establishment of penal laws for religious matters and encouraged tolerance.

Defining Moment

During the colonial era, religion and government were closely entwined all over the world. This connection was especially pronounced in the North American colonies; many were founded either as a way to escape religious persecution or to establish a society with one exclusive, officially endorsed religion. Governments regularly passed laws pertaining to religious matters, although there was much disagreement about exactly how much control the government should have to dictate the details of religious worship and practice.

Beginning in the 1730s, a religious resurgence commonly referred to as the First Great Awakening took place throughout Europe and North America. A new style of preacher rose to prominence. Rather than being attached to any one parish, these preachers traveled the world touting religion as an emotional and personal experience, and they encouraged salvation through good deeds rather than rote adherence to doctrine. By contrast, traditional preachers usually belonged to a specific parish and were active participants in their community governments. Religious practice in the colonies often involved strict laws about when and how worship was to take place, and departure from the norm would be punished to varying degrees. Religious piety was less about being a good person and more about conforming to defined rules in order to avoid punishment; thus, religion seemed to be more about control than about salvation.

Many traditional preachers felt that the revivalist preachers threatened their way of life (indeed their entire salvation), and they took steps to prevent them from preaching to their parishes. Many communities passed laws making it a crime to preach to a parish within their community without an explicit invitation from the local preacher. By doing so, they hoped to prevent the spread of these radical ideas that they believed would undermine the stability of their communities.

It was against this backdrop that the pamphlet The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants: A Seasonable Plea for Liberty of Conscience and the Right of Private Judgment in Matters of Religion was published anonymously in Boston in 1744. It was widely believed that Williams, an active member of the Connecticut legislature and former rector of Yale College, wrote the pamphlet, which both protested the legislation and encouraged religious freedom in the colonies. The pamphlet opposed the strict legislation that had been enacted in Connecticut to prevent visiting ministers from preaching to local parishes without an explicit invitation and generally encouraged religious freedom and tolerance.

Author Biography

Williams was born on August 24, 1694, in Hatfield, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard with honors in 1711, and he taught in a nearby grammar school for a short time before returning to Hatfield to study theology with his father, who was a minister with the local parish. Williams then purchased and relocated to a farm in Wethersfield, Connecticut, but he was unable to find a parish in which to work. Instead he took up the study of law, and in 1717, he served the first of several terms in the Connecticut legislature.

Williams fell seriously ill in 1719, but upon his recovery, he decided to return to theology. He became pastor of the Newington Parish in Wethersfield in 1720 and was ordained in 1722. He served in this capacity until 1726, when he was offered the position of rector at Yale College. At first, he was one of only two faculty members during a difficult time for Yale. However, the institution thrived under Williams as more students and investors began to take an interest in the school, and the size of the faculty and the student population increased significantly during William’s tenure. He served as rector until he resigned in 1739, allegedly because of poor health.

When Williams returned to his home in Wethersfield, he resumed his involvement in public affairs. In 1740, he was again elected as a deputy to the general assembly of the Connecticut legislature. He also held an appointed position as an associate judge of the superior court from 1740 to 1743. However, it was suspected that he eventually lost this appointment because of both his permissive views on the new wave of revivalist preachers and his general advocating for religious tolerance.

Williams then served in the military, first as chaplain of the Connecticut troops who invaded Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1745, and then again in 1746 as a colonel of the Connecticut regiment that was to be part of the conquest of Canada. The failure of the Canadian takeover plans meant that Williams never commanded his forces on the battlefield, but in 1749, he went to Great Britain to fight for his troops to receive their promised payment for volunteering in the mission.

Williams spent more than two years tending to business in Great Britain before finally returning to Wethersfield in 1752. He continued to participate in Connecticut’s political affairs, including serving as a delegate to the Albany Congress in 1754, until he died in Wethersfield on July 24, 1755.

Elisha Williams.

(Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University)
Document Analysis

The interconnectedness of religion and government was especially pronounced in the North American colonies, as many were founded for religious reasons. Governments in Europe and North America frequently passed laws pertaining to religious matters, although there was much disagreement about exactly how much control the government should have to dictate the details of religious worship. Some groups believed that the government should have the right to legislate any and all aspects of religious practice, while others believed that a certain amount of tolerance should be allowed for matters that were not necessary to achieve salvation.

At the heart of the debate over religious legislation and tolerance was the need and desire to control the colonists’ behaviors. Many leaders claimed that authorization for their actions came directly from God, and that they were simply passing laws that reflected the divine will. By contrast, some people were beginning to believe that no man should be allowed to have such control over any other man and resented the heavy-handed approach that many colonial leaders took when regulating behavior.

In the 1730s and 1740s, the First Great Awakening took place throughout Europe and North America. During this time, traveling preachers espoused religion as a highly emotional and personal experience. They encouraged followers to pursue salvation by treating others well and performing good deeds, rather strictly adhering to doctrine. By contrast, traditional preachers were usually fixtures in their communities, often involved with local government, and belonged to specific parishes. Religious practice involved strict laws about when and how worship was to take place, and departure from those norms would be punished to varying degrees, either directly by the government or by the operation of social protocol. As such, the primary purpose of religion in the colonies was to provide a set of rules to which the people had to conform. The revivalist preachers were new and exciting; they encouraged people both to worship with enthusiasm and not to be so concerned about the small details of religious practice.

However, many traditional preachers saw the revivalist approach as a threat, and, hoping to prevent the spread of radical ideas and the unsettling of communities, they encouraged colonies to pass laws prohibiting pastors from preaching in a community without an invitation from the local preacher. As a response to the hard-line reaction many pastors had to the First Great Awakening, the pamphlet The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants, commonly attributed to Williams because its facts and opinions seemed to point to him, was published in 1744. The pamphlet encouraged religious freedom in the colonies and opposed the strict legislation Connecticut had enacted to prevent visiting ministers from preaching to local parishes without an explicit invitation.

While many of the ideas expressed in The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants had been around in some form for many years, putting these ideas into practice was still considered a radical, and often unpopular, notion. The document advocated freedom and tolerance, in matters not only pertaining to religion but also related to government regulation. While Williams specifically addresses the pamphlet to those who supported the Connecticut law banning visiting preachers, the ideas he puts forward have broader applicability to government’s role in everyday life and religious practice in general.

Williams’s argument is almost entirely based on religion. He first contends that all Protestants agree on the basic rules of faith and practice, which seems reasonable given that the rules were usually established in the Bible. He then states that, in the absence of specific instructions issued directly by God, everyone has a right to determine for himself how to carry out the agreed-upon rules. As a result, he concludes that the government should not have the authority to create rules dictating the methods of religious worship, and certainly should not have the power to punish those who do not worship in a certain way, if that way was not an explicit requirement made by God.

To justify this, Williams argues that God created humans with the ability to reason, and, therefore, they must have freedom to act as they believe appropriate in accordance with this ability. In other words, by giving humans the ability to reason, God also indirectly gave them the power of liberty and freedom of will. Williams clarifies that this does not exempt people from obeying any laws whatsoever. Rather, it means that no person is inherently superior to any other, and therefore all people must be free from “any superior power on earth.” People are to answer directly to God and laws of nature, and need not be “under the will or legislative authority of man.”

To Williams, the religious freedom of individuals is quite an expansive power. He reasons that, since people’s bodies are their own property, anything they create is under their ownership. Therefore, if people use their own labor to improve anything in nature, they effectively give themselves the right to exclude others from asserting any authority over it. Williams further insists that everyone has the right to defend his or her person and property, and accordingly has a right to “punish” those who trespass. This line of reasoning gives individuals justification to govern themselves and anything to which they might contribute, to the exclusion of all others. As a practical matter, this seems like it could lead to anarchy.

Williams addresses the issue of anarchy by identifying three particular conditions often lacking in the proper administration of laws and justice, and he cites philosopher John Locke as the inspiration for these ideas. Locke wrote prolifically about social and political theory in England during the seventeenth century, and he was responsible for drafting several governing documents for the English colonies in the United States. One of Locke’s significant contributions was his idea that human behavior must be taken into account when establishing government and laws, even if that behavior seems irrational. Locke theorized that many political problems are caused by the peculiarities of human nature, and the behaviors that Williams cites in The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants would certainly complicate the creation and administration of laws.

First, Williams notes the importance of well-publicized laws written based on common consent regarding right and wrong. He observes that, while people generally want laws to protect their interests, they are ultimately biased and will not want the laws applied to their particular situation if it would be detrimental to their interests. Second, he states the importance of having an unbiased authority to make decisions in accordance with the established law. However, he notes that this, too, could be problematic, because, once again, people are likely to be partial to their own self-interest. Finally, he espouses the necessity of a system of enforcement for penalties imposed when the laws are not followed.

His three conditions seem to be influenced by the philosophies of Locke, who noted that indulging people’s individual differences rather than requiring conformity tended to cause unrest. While some of Locke’s writings seemed to promote religious tolerance, closer review has led some scholars to conclude that Locke was indeed interested in full-scale conformity to a single doctrine. The details of that doctrine did not matter much, but uniformity was necessary for a stable society: if people in a single society adhere to different doctrines, social and political unrest will result.

A similar assumption of tolerance based on uniformity can be seen in The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants. In his pamphlet, Williams states at several points that government should be formed by people coming together to construct laws that adhere to natural laws; however, such a theory strongly presumes that all the people in question are able to reach a peaceful and unanimous agreement on what exactly the laws of nature are and how they should be crafted into binding legislation. Perhaps Williams is simply being naive, but given his tacit assumption that all people share similar opinions about the laws of nature, it is difficult to see how this rationale truly promotes tolerance. One could see how an opposing viewpoint might be dismissed as a misinterpretation of the “laws of nature” on which legislation should be based.

Finally, Williams believes that all people have an equal say in the construction of laws and in the election of those who will carry out the laws. This idea also may have been inspired by Locke, who believed that most forms of government could be successful as long as they were officially sanctioned by the people being governed. Williams’s reasoning again derives from the religious argument that God had given humans the power of reasoning, and since all people have an equal power of reasoning granted to them, they should likewise all have an equal say in the laws they would be required to obey. Williams emphatically labels a government tyrannical that does not adhere to the will of the people.

While The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants does not address the following point directly, it is worth noting that in many contemporary documents, the term “man” usually referred only to white men of European decent. White women, and black or native people of either gender, were excluded from the freedoms Williams’s discusses; indeed, many colonial writings argue extensively for why women and nonwhites were not really people, or why God somehow intended for them to be subservient.

Against the backdrop of the First Great Awakening, when traditional preachers were fighting to restrict colonists’ freedoms in the name of promoting religion and salvation, Williams’s radical ideas about freedom, liberty, and tolerance made quite an impact. However, Williams’s argument relies on the assertion that “it is justly to be presumed all are agreed who understand the natural rights of mankind.” Given this premise, it is difficult to see how Williams’s ideas could, in a practical sense, successfully pave the way for the religious freedom he seemed to envision. In order for everyone to have this freedom, all must first agree on the same fundamental truths; however, the exact nature of those “truths” had been debated for a long time, and it may have been naive for Williams to believe that a consensus could be reached so easily. Nonetheless, the mere idea that tolerance might be possible (or even desirable) was a noble one.

Essential Themes

During the 1730s and 1740s, the First Great Awakening caused a shift in religious practice in many North American colonies. Traditionally, religious worship was dictated by strict laws and government regulation, but during the 1740s, a new style of traveling preacher rose to prominence. Many traditional preachers felt that the revivalist preachers threatened their way of life and, therefore, passed laws making it a crime to preach to a parish within their community without an explicit invitation. Williams’s pamphlet protested this legislation and encouraged religious freedom in the colonies.

Williams contends that all Protestants agreed on the basic rules of faith and practice, and that in the absence of specific divine instructions, everyone has a right to determine for him- or herself how to carry out the rules. He further argues that, by giving humans the ability to reason, God also indirectly gave them the power of liberty and freedom of will. He believes that people need to answer only to God.

Williams also identifies three conditions commonly lacking in the administration of laws and justice, inspired by Locke. First, Williams notes that laws must be well-publicized and based on common consent regarding right and wrong. Second, he states the importance of having a “known and indifferent judge” with the authority to make decisions in accordance with the established laws. He notes that the impartiality required in each of these could present problems, since people are partial to their own self-interest. Finally, he believes it necessary to have a system to enforce penalties for noncompliance.

While Williams’s writing seems to promote tolerance, it also has some limitations. He presumes that all involved in the decision-making process are able to reach both a peaceful and a unanimous agreement on what exactly the laws of nature are and how they should be crafted into binding legislation. Since Williams’s vision required such broad agreement as a necessary premise, it is difficult to see how it truly promoted tolerance.

Bibliography
  • “Elisha Williams.” Yale U Library. Yale University, 14 Feb. 2008. Web. 7 June 2012.
  • Lockwood, James. “Man Mortal: God Everlasting, and the Sure, Unfailing Refuge and Felicity of His Faithful People, in All Generations.” New Haven, CT: Parker, 1756.
  • Sandoz, Ellis, ed. Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730–1805. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund 1998. Print.
  • White, J. T., ed. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. 1. New York: White, 1892–1984. Print.

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