Late Elizabethan Sabbatarianism – read all about it – Shock!

The other day I emailed Don Arthur the url to a terrific essay by Martha Nussbaum on Roger Williams. Who is Roger Williams I hear you cry. He was an amazing and wonderful man who founded Rhode Island and who was the first to theorise the merits of radical religious tolerance.
I had run into him doing history at uni a frightening amount of time ago.

Don asked me what I’d written my Honours thesis in history on. I told him that my thesis was on Late Elizabethan Sabbatarianism (social activism around the idea that it was really really really important for people to observe the Christian Sabbath). This surprised him. It may surprise you.

Anyway, history was the only real education I ever got. It is a great subject – the queen of the humanities. It can take pretty much any form, but good history I decided was always an investigation into some other place and time which was at the same time self aware and so was a reflection on one’s own ignorance and the imperfect ways one had of trying to address it. The problem was to engage the other, not to impose one’s own views on it. (Though of course this is a naive aspiration for a whole bunch of reasons).

Anyway, I went to my hons thesis and took a bit of a peek. It wasn’t too bad. But I was shocked to read one of the people who I’d mentioned in the acknowledgements – someone who’s gone on to some fame if not fortune. I’d almost totally forgotten but managed to drag some small recollection of my previous enagement with him back from the dead (or perhaps imagine it). Then it occured to me that, it would be an easy task to run my thesis through the scanner and make a file of it. That way even if the house burned down there would be various backups and I couldn’t lose it. Which was a Good Thing, I thought. I also sent a pdf of the thesis to Don Arthur. Who didn’t ask me to, but there you go. He got a copy and you can now ask him questions about late Elizabethan Sabbatarianism.

And one of the places I thought I’d leave a copy of the thesis is here, even though I’m under no illusions as to how many people will read it. Then again, I haven’t told you who is mentioned in the acknowledgements, so, even though it’s 3 megs, some people won’t be able to help themselves from downloading it (pdf) and having a squiz.

Also, because it’s so good but a tad long, below the fold is an edited introduction to the essay on Roger Williams – to get you clicking through to the link.

The First Founder: The American Revolution of Roger Williams by Martha C. Nussbaum, a review of ‘On Religious Liberty: Selections From the Works of Roger Williams’ Edited by James Calvin Davis.

Religious difference drives otherwise sane people crazy. The fact that some of my neighbors pursue salvation in a way that differs from my own is hard to contemplate without anxiety. Could it be that they are right and I am wrong? If I am right, as I think I am, shouldn’t I try to save them? Above all, how on earth can we live together in an uncertain and dangerous world without agreeing on fundamental principles about life’s purpose and meaning?

Given the depth of such anxieties in so many people, the struggle to create societies that protect religious liberty and show respect for religious difference is never-ending.  . . .

In this struggle, it helps to have philosophical friends. Locke, ubiquitously invoked in this connection, is a good enough friend, but somewhat lacking in psychological insight. The history of the North American colonies, however, shows us another friend, an even better one–a hero, really–whose writings, now virtually unknown, can help us greatly as we grapple with problems that are not unlike those he confronted in the seventeenth century. He is Roger Williams. Williams wrote many books, including two lengthy philosophical treatises that are among the major works on religious toleration in the history of Western thought. Prolix, diffuse, and ill-organized, their thousand pages are hardly ever consulted, while Locke’s succinct A Letter Concerning Toleration is taught in countless college classrooms. . . .

Williams, who founded Rhode Island in 1636, was a political leader who translated his ideas into practice, through both law and policy, in a way that was initially seen as shocking but that gradually shaped what other colonies aspired to and permitted.  . . . By the time of the American founding, virtually all state constitutions embodied ideas such as those Williams had instituted in the 1640s. James Madison, the chief architect of our Bill of Rights, had views that were remarkably similar to those of Williams, though he very likely did not read Williams’s books. It is not too much of a stretch to view Williams as one of the shapers of our constitutional tradition.

For us, Williams is important above all as a conversation partner whose humane insights can inform our own divisive debates. Three aspects of his thought deserve our attention. First, he developed a distinctive and impassioned view of conscience as a seat of emotion, imagination, and ethical choice through which each person seeks meaning in his or her own way. Conscience, for Williams, is the source of our equality, and it is worthy of equal respect wherever it is found. Political principles, he argued, must be based on that equal respect. Second, Williams believed that equal respect for conscience entails protecting an extensive sphere of freedom around the individual, and that this protection must be impartial, imposing no orthodoxy. To impose orthodoxy upon the striving conscience is nothing less than what Williams, in a memorable and repeated image, calls “Soule rape.” And third, Williams maintained that a civil peace among people who differ in religion requires a moral consensus that is itself impartial, giving the ascendancy to no creed more than any other. Such a consensus is available because there is a part of the moral sphere that we can share while differing in ultimate religious commitments. . . .

Anyway, that’s an edited version of the first section of the essay – I commend it to you.  And Roger Williams as well.  A man worthy of the greatest admiration.

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Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Nicholas – I really shouldn’t have been surprised but I’d mentally filed you under ‘economist’ rather than ‘historian.’

While I have had a look at the thesis I’d prefer that readers addressed questions of late Elizabethan Sabbatarianism to you. I have no formal qualification in history.

Why did the Sabbatarians decide that Sunday was the sabbath? Shouldn’t it be Saturday?