Robert Louis Wilken

August 6, 2019

The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom

Robert Louis Wilken, formerly Professor of Christian History at the University of Virginia, discussed the thesis of his new book, Liberty in the Things of God, at the Westminster Institute on July 31. He holds that, contrary to hostile secularist claims, it was not religiously motivated persecution and conflict that gave rise to the doctrine of religious freedom as rationalism and modernity developed in the early modern period, but rather religious freedom has been a doctrine present in Christianity from the early Christian centuries.

Wilken began by noting that an early Supreme Court decision leading to the current understanding of religious freedom as an individual right was the West Virginia vs. Barnette case during World War II (1943), which found that Jehovah’s Witness children did not have to pledge allegiance to the American flag. In his dissent from the decision, Justice Felix Frankfurter held religious freedom to have arisen from religious conflict and persecution, and thus implicitly that society needs to be protected from religious influences. This was followed by Everson vs. the Board of Education (1947), which established strict separation of church and state, holding that the state may not “aid” religion because the intent of the Founders in the First Amendment was to prevent coercive religious influences using state power. This idea was clearly stated, Wilken noted, by a recent Washington Post op-ed declaring that “only with the advent of Enlightenment liberalism did people begin to believe that individual conscience … should be inviolate and protected from the intrusion of state and church.” This, he said, “is the conventional view that religious freedom was brought about by the Enlightenment.”

Wilken said that he sees “a different story” about the origin and development of religious freedom. It begins in the early Christian centuries, when Christians were still subject to the persecution of the Roman imperial government, and involved a doctrine of “inwardness, spiritual freedom, and obedience to God.” Often ignored, or perhaps, unthought of for many centuries of Christian civilization, it seems to have been “a quiet murmur, heard by the few.” It was notably not put into practice with respect to Jews, Muslims, or heretics under the rule of Christian princes in the Middle Ages. But the early Christian writings pertaining to “the freedom and dignity of human beings were not forgotten.” These ideas were used by later thinkers as the changes precipitated by the Reformation and rising modernity resulted in religious disagreement, where before there had been unity.

Wilken observed that in pagan antiquity “religion was an affair of the community as a whole.” It involved “rituals and ceremonies.” He said that “because religion was so much a part of the fabric of life, the Romans were suspicious of foreign cults.” While other sects incorporated into the empire were willing to participate in state religious ceremonies, Christians were not. Since participation was required, the early Christian writer Tertullian said that “it is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature, that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions. For one person’s religion neither harms not hurts another … religious belief is a voluntary act that cannot be coerced, it must be held willingly.”

Wilken said that the general idea of religious freedom was originally derived from the belief that human beings are created in the image of God, and can therefore “choose and act.” Because religious belief is “an inner conviction” it therefore “cannot be coerced.” Wilken said that the first use of the term “religious freedom” was by Tertullian (“libertas religionis”). Advancing an idea that later generations would ignore, but today we commonly accept, Tertullian maintained that both Christian and pagan worship should be allowed. Coercion leads only to “irreligion.” A century later (in the third century) Lactantius, also a Christian, held that the Romans erred in trying to persuade by force rather than argument. This is wrong, he said, because “religious worship cannot be compelled.”

Wilken said that the term “conscience” entered the Christian vocabulary through the writings of the apostle Paul. Wilken defined conscience (literally, “with knowledge”) as understood by the early Christians as “an awareness that one’s acts carried moral significance.” Formerly understood as “a judgment about past actions,” it became for Christians the designation of “a moral imperative of what one should do.” Conscience became “a pedagogue of the soul.”

In the Middle Ages, while Christianity had become the doctrine of the state, ideas of “purity of conscience” continued to be advanced against overweening authority. The claim continued to be made that conscience must not be violated, even if it is in error. This idea was then employed as the Reformation led to “social fracture” in many parts of Europe. He recounted the story of a convent of Catholic sisters in Nuremburg who claimed that they “were forced to act against their consciences, and deprived of spiritual freedom” by the religiously reforming city government. This, he said, was similar to the language of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. It was a Catholic sister at the Nuremburg convent who actually said “here I stand, and I will not yield,” the first words of which may have been questionably added to Luther’s famous declaration of faith and conscience at Worms. He said that this shows that both Luther and the sister held “a common understanding” of conscience “handed on in medieval Christianity.” This understanding of conscience, Wilken said, was not understood as “a right of private judgment,” but “obedience to God.”

Another challenge to liberty of conscience at Nuremburg was the appearance of the Anabaptists, who founded their own “religious associations,” and taught the need to rebaptize Christians on profession of faith. By establishing “independent sects,” they heralded “a fundamental shift in the relation of religion to society.” It challenged the idea of religion as the “bond of society.” They held that the state has no authority to enforce correct religious doctrine and practice. The doctrine of the “two swords,” one spiritual and one temporal, coming ultimately from Christ’s command to render to God and Caesar what properly belongs to each, and held throughout the Middle Ages, now was used to say that the state had no authority over individual believers in their voluntary associations. Wilken said that “religious freedom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was primarily about the right of religious associations.” But this also involved public acts, leading to for the first time to use of the expression “exercise of religion.”

In the course of the religious wars and persecutions of this time, Christian thinkers and writers seeking toleration began to turn to the early Christian sources previously noted for support. Among these thinkers was Roger Williams, the Baptist leader of Rhode Island, and Thomas Helwys, a Baptist leader in England. The latter, although opposed to high church worship, declared that religious freedom should extend even to Catholics, and that “the King should not provoke evil against the Roman religion. The King has no more power over their consciences than over ours.” Another preacher, the Puritan John Owen, also appealing to early Christian sources, opposed compulsory Anglican worship and declared the “liberty of conscience is a natural right.” He served as tutor to John Locke, who published his often cited Essay on Toleration (1689) a number of years later. Locke firmly distinguished civil and spiritual powers. Notably, Locke held that religion is an “inner conviction.” Civil authorities “cannot force people to oppose the dictates of their own conscience,” he held.

James Madison, the principal author of the First Amendment, stood in the same tradition of liberty of conscience proceeding through Helwys, Owen, and Locke. His famous Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785) declared that each citizen’s duty to God was “precedent, both in order of time, and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society.” At the same time, Wilken referred to Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) that “it does me no injury whether my neighbor says that there are twenty gods or no god, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Wilken said that he had discovered in Jefferson’s own personal copy of The Notes at a library at the University of Virginia, a notation penciled in Latin beside Jefferson’s famous statement. It was the quote Wilken mentioned earlier from Tertullian that said “one person’s religion neither harms nor hurts another.” Similarly, Jefferson had underlined that passage in Tertullian’s book, Ad Scapulam, in which the quote is found.

While it is undoubtedly true that deism and rationalism figured in the American Revolution and the American ideal of freedom, Wilken is surely correct that the American founders were strongly influenced by the burden of the Christian duty to God, felt so strongly by the original colonists and their descendants at the time of the revolution. It is precisely this duty which is being attacked in the current conflict over religious freedom. Wilken’s scholarship shows, however, that the idea of each person’s duty to God, as that person understands it to be, is the essential part of the idea of religious freedom held by the Founders and enshrined in the Constitution.

5 Responses to The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom

  1. David says:

    No discussion of religious freedom is complete with mention of the toleration found in the Netherlands. When a Dutch company sponsored the establishment of a new village, now Flushing, NY, the town charter of 1645 granted freedom of conscience without the interference of civil or ecclesiastical ministers. When this was challenged by Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony, the inhabitants issued a protest, the Flushing Remonstrance, on 27 December 1657, which declared religious freedom for all including “Jews, Turks, and Egyptians.” The matter was not settled until 1663 when Stuyvesant was ordered by this Dutch masters, “You may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people’s consciences, but allow every one to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offence to his neighbors and does not oppose the government.”

    • David,

      There is no freedom which is secure if it can be set aside when people are offended. Jefferson’s quote refers to material harm, not personal offense. People in Tertullian’s or Stuyvesant’s day could easily have said, as they do today, that they are offended by religious speech or action they believe false or heretical.


  2. Westminster Institute says:

    Thank you for the article! We appreciate the coverage.

  3. The Christian origin of religious freedom!?!

    It’s one thing to allow for individual freedom of conscience and private choice of gods, something impossible to legislate for or against. It’s another matter altogether for government to enable any and all religions to proliferate through the land and evangelize our posterity to false gods. This is what the First Amendment legitimizes. It is an unequivocal violation of the First Commandment and the polar opposite of the following First Commandment statute:

    ‘[Y]e shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves. For thou shall worship no other god: for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou … go a whoring after their gods….’ (Exodus 34:13-15)

    It’s the First Amendment that the sodomites, lesbians, and atheists hang their hats on and that they’ve been able to utilize for their cause. It’s likewise the First Amendment that so many hoodwinked Christians hang their hat on as if there’s something intrinsically Christian about it when, in fact, it is entirely antithetical to the Bible. It’s suicide for Christians to appeal to the First Amendment in any fashion whatsoever.

    For more, Google online Chapter 11 “Amendment 1: Government-Sanctioned Polytheism” of “Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective.”

  4. Alan Towson says:

    In the Fourth Century, according to Gibbon, the Bishops were selected by popular vote of all the people of a city. The Bishop could not be touched by the State, even the Roman Emperor, but only by a jury of his peers.

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