The following is a remarkable document from 1661, which was presented onto Parliament in England and which seeks for religious tolerance for everyone. Moreover, it is supported in points by statements made by the Stuart kings (James & Charles) It was presented within one year of restoration of Charles II in May 1600. The men who published the document were Quakers.
The document is written in the form of a series of short propositions. Following the propositions, I will provide a brief comment and try to follow the movement of their (often ingenious) argument.
I have also modernized the spelling in places.
The title page reads:
Liberty of Conscience ASSERTED, And SEVERAL REASONS RENDRED, Why no Outward Force, nor Imposition, ought to be used in Matters of Faith and Religion: With several SAYINGS, Collected from the Speeches and Writings of KING JAMES, And KING CHARLES the First.
Acts 5. 38, 39.
Now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this Counsel, or this Work, be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found fighters against God.
This was delivered into the hands of the Members of both Houses of Parliament, the last day of the Third Month, 1661.
London, Printed for Robert Wilson, in Martins Le Grand, 1661.
Liberty of Conscience Asserted, &c.
LIBERTY of CONSCIENCE ought to be allowed in the days of the Gospel in the free Exercise of it to God-ward (without Compulsion) in all things relating to His Worship, for these Reasons following.
Comment: The liberty asserted is liberty of conscience with respect to religious practice. The argument is premised upon specifically Christian considerations. There is an interesting phrase, “in the days of the Gospel.” It is unclear whether the authors are referencing all of the time after Christ, or whether they mean a specific period within recent history. If so, the reference would be post-reformation, and likely post-Mary with a knowledge of the Marian suppression of Protestantism.
1. Because the General and Universal Royal Law of Christ Commands it Matt. 7. 12. All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the Law and Prophets. That which every man would have and receive from another, he ought by Christ’s Rule to give and allow it to another. But every man is willing to have the Liberty of his own Conscience, Therefore ought to allow it to another.
Comment: Here they give a ground for freedom of conscience: (1) It is grounded in a command of Christ. They define this command as “general” and “royal”. By general, it is a law which would apply to all persons and all places. By being “royal” it would be supreme. In addition, the phrase “royal law” coupled to “liberty” is used in James 2:
James 2:8–13 (AV)
8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
While the text does deal specifically with the point raised, linguistically the combination of “royal law” and “law of liberty” is suggestive.
(2) This is an argument which goes to the moral weight of being a human being: You must be protected in your freedom of conscience because you are a human being. This remains true even if I believe you are wrong.
This is remarkable change from what has been the case in much of human history. When it comes to religion, the belief has typically been that the religious coherence of everyone in the group is necessary to protect the group. If you antagonize a god, we all may be in danger.
Notice also that your practice may be gravely offensive to me.
2. Because, No man can persuade the Conscience of another, either what God is, or how he should be worshipped, but by the Spirit, which God hath given to instruct man in the ways of Truth.
Comment: The rationale here is again explicitly Christian. This one takes a somewhat different tack: Rather than argue from the dignity of a human being, this one argues from the work of God. Rather than seeing religion as merely the outward working of a rite, or a publicly approved confession, it is a primarily an inward matter.
3. Because, All Obedience or Service that is obtained by force, is for fear of Wrath, and not from Love, nor for Conscience sake; and therefore will but continue so long as that fear or force abides upon them.
Comment: This again argues to the fact of subjective conversion: You can make someone engage in a behavior or say as word. What is the value of that? You have not really gained their heart or mind. As soon as they can escape the tyranny, they will.
4. Because, That by forcing, No man can make a Hypocrite to be a true Believer; but on the contrary, many may be made Hypocrites.
Comment: This turns the religious conformity argument on its head. To be a hypocrite is to falsely profess a faith. You do not really believe X, you are mere pretender. Well then, if you goal is coerce conduct in public, you can do so. But, you cannot argue that you giving honor to God because such conduct can only have the effect of creating one is in greater rebellion against God.
This raises the stakes: Are you truly seeking to honor God or to obtain political power? You can get one, but not other by coercion.
5. Because, That in all forced Impositions upon men’s Consciences there is something of the Wrath of man exercised, which works not the Righteousness of God, but rather begets Enmity in the heart one towards another.
Comment: This argument takes up the argument of point 4 and then enlarges the sphere of sin. You not only make the man coerced a worse sinner, you are actually sinning yourself when you coerce another. This argument comes from James 1:20, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” You are provoking anger in another which is sinful in you. Thus, you cannot coerce religion in the name of God without becoming the enemy of God.
You are also increasing the sum-total of sin by creating enmity between men.
6. Because, that by forcing any thing upon men’s Consciences, as to matters of Faith and Worship, many are hardened in their hearts against the things imposed; when as otherwise, through Love and gentle Instructionstheir hearts might be persuaded to willing Obedience.
Comment: Continuing in the line of argument that you are actually working against God in your attempt to force religious compliance, he uses the argument that forcing another results in their being unwilling to hear your case. Perhaps you are making a good point, but who will hear when your crushing their liberty?
This creates an interesting move in this overall argument. In point 2 above, he states that true faith will be ultimately a work of God. Therefore, being a work of God, how can someone be persuaded without compromising God’s sovereignty in the work? A resolution of this conflict can be seen by understanding that there are matters upon Christian must agree: those are matters determined by the Spirit of God that God is and is to be worshipped. But, there may be matters which are more open to variation. This will followed upon in point 8, below.
7. Because, That Persecution for Conscience contradicteth Christ’s Charge, Matt. 13. who bids, that the Tares(or false worshippers) be suffered to grow together in the Field(or World) till the Harvest (or End of the World.)
8. Because, Force is contrary to the End for which it is pretended to be used (viz.) the preservation and safety of the Wheat, which End is not answered by Persecution,because the Wheat is in danger to be plucked up thereby, as Christ saith.
Comment: These two points should be seen together. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable of a farmer who planted his field in wheat. In the evening, an enemy also planted seeds of a plant which looked almost identical to wheat. As the plants grow, it can be difficult if not impossible to tell the difference. The farmer forbids his servants from try to separate the wheat and the weeds so that they don’t accidentally destroy the crop.
Jesus says this is the nature of the Church: it will contains wheat and weeds. It will be very difficult to tell them apart. Therefore, not until the end will there be a separation of the two. The Church will always involve this confusion. If you, even if you are right, seek to tear out every weed may find that you are also tearing out wheat.
The argument is again: You cannot coerce another’s conscience as a Christian without contradicting your claim to be a Christian.