Religious Freedom: The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief and Religious Tolerance in America were based on the Bible and changed History
While the idea of freedom of conscience—freedom of belief and conviction—was advanced by the Reformation and existed in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, it was not embraced by everyone and was very restricted in actual practice, manifesting in only partial, contested, temporary ways. However, the Bible-based arguments made for it by reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin were quite similar to those later made by individuals who directly impacted American thought and settlement in the 1600s and 1700s.
AHEF President and author Angela Kamrath speaks on religious tolerance in early America at HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, “The History and Foundation of Religious Freedom in America”
American Puritan dissenter Roger Williams, Quaker William Penn, Catholic colonizer Cecil Calvert, and British philosopher John Locke played important roles in advancing freedom of conscience and religious tolerance in America during this time. Their arguments for freedom of belief and religious tolerance were strongly rooted in the Bible. Their tolerance writings and colonies would significantly influence future views and practices in England and America.
Williams, Penn, Calvert, and Locke would be the first movers to defend and experiment with greater freedom of belief and religious tolerance in America. Their first experiments in religious tolerance took place in the colonies of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Carolina:
In 1643, Williams founded the first tolerant colony in America, Rhode Island. A year later, he wrote The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience in support of freedom of belief based on the Bible.
In 1649, Calvert issued the Religious Toleration Act in the colony of Maryland to protect Catholic interests against Protestant England. This act was the first law on religious tolerance in America.
In 1670, Penn wrote A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity in support of freedom of belief based on the Bible. In 1681, he founded the tolerant colony of Pennsylvania.
In 1669, Locke wrote the constitution for the colony of Carolina which allowed for freedom of belief. During religious persecution in England and Europe, he wrote his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689, 1690, and 1692) and made frequent reference to the Bible. His first Letter influenced the English Toleration Act of 1689 in England.
Houston Baptist University Professor of Government Dr. John Tyler speaks on John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration at HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, “The History and Foundation of Religious Freedom in America”
Based on conviction, these movers attempted to practice and experiment with freedom of belief and tolerance by forming new, tolerant colonies. Their experiments were notable and real, if imperfect and incomplete, testimonies for the world in this largely unpracticed idea. These colonizers and colonies brought the issue of freedom of conscience to the forefront of the American mind.
America’s unique, free environment and new colonies made such experiments feasible. According to Gary Amos and Richard Gardiner in their text, Never Before in History: America’s Inspired Birth, “The Protestant Reformation in Europe and in the American colonies forced people to reexamine the traditional merger between church and government. America in particular was to become the test case for resolving the tension between religious freedom and social conformity.” The arguments for and experiments in freedom of belief and religious tolerance in America significantly advanced American and Western thought and practice on this issue and laid the groundwork for future religious freedom in the United States.
Contributed by AHEF, Dr. John Tyler, and Angela E. Kamrath.
Additional Reading/Handout: Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath, American Heritage Education Foundation. Paper available to download from member resources, americanheritage.org.
Activity: Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 1 of 2, Activity 5: Williams, Penn, and Locke: Arguments for Religious Tolerance and Freedom Emerge in the 1600s, p. 147, 349. MS-HS.
Williams, Penn, and Locke: Arguments for Religious Tolerance and Freedom Emerge in the 1600s…
Purpose/Objective: Students learn about and compare/contrast the Bible-based beliefs and arguments of Roger Williams, William Penn, and John Locke who contributed to the development and support of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience in America.
Suggested Reading: 1) Chapter 4 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text. Students read sections from Introduction to 4.15.
2) Paper/handout titled Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath. Paper available to download from member resources, americanheritage.org.
Activity: 1) Comparison Chart. Students summarize and compare views, beliefs, and arguments of Williams, Penn, and Locke with regard to religious tolerance and freedom of belief. Students should include main writings/works of each person and Biblical references for each person’s main arguments/points. Teacher writes/projects a comparison chart on the board/overhead, fills in chart with student responses, and helps clarify as needed. Discuss as a class and point out how these figures created Bible-based argumentsfor tolerance that laid the groundwork for future religious freedom in the United States. Students’ written charts may be graded for assessment and/or used to study for a comparison chart test on this topic. See the “Williams, Penn, and Locke: Arguments for Religious Tolerance and Freedom Emerge in the 1600s” Comparison Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of this course guide, p. 349.
2) Journal or Short Essay. Students write a journal or essay on the following question/topic: How do the early ideas and writings of Williams, Penn, & Locke reflect, connect/relate to, if imperfectly, the concept of religious freedom upheld in the First Amendment in the U. S. Bill of Rights? Students give similarities, differences, examples. Discuss.
The American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF) (americanheritage.org) is pioneering new programs to strengthen and promote the understanding and teaching of America’s founding history and principles/philosophy among citizens and students. These exciting programs include the American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl (AHWCCB) and The Miracle of America.
Activity: Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 4: Details, Questions, and Conclusions (DQC), p. 56. HS. This unit is available to download from the Member Resources at www.americanheritage.org.
The American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl™ (AHWCCB) is an academic competition and scholarship for college/university student teams who compete in their knowledge and understanding of Western Civilization and of America’s history, founding philosophy, and civil institutions in order to determine America’s top colleges in educating students on these subjects.
The American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF) has designed and implemented a new program, the nation’s first college-level academic competition and scholarship, named The American History and Western Civilization Challenge Bowl™ (AHWCCB). AHEF successfully kicked-off its first Challenge Bowl on January 27-28, 2017, in Houston, Texas, with four Texas universities competing: Sam Houston State University, Texas State University, Texas Southern University, and Houston Baptist University. Teams competed in their knowledge and understanding of American history, government, and philosophy and of Western Civilization. Cash scholarships were awarded to teams based on performance and judging by professional historians and scholars. The runner-up team was HBU, and the winning team was SHSU.
Topics covered in the competition are significant to America’s founding as a nation. Topics span ancient and modern history—from Greek, Roman, and Israelite history and the Bible to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment to America’s history, foundations, and documents.
AHEF started the Challenge Bowl to address a growing problem—confirmed by many studies in the last 20 years—which is that Americans of all ages and backgrounds are increasing uninformed about America’s history, founding principles, and civil institutions. Furthermore, many colleges no longer teach or require students to take American History or Western Civilization.
The goal of AHEF’s Challenge Bowl are: 1) to encourage college programs and students to teach and learn these subjects; 2) to improve understanding, appreciation, and love of the United States of America; 3) to ignite excitement, engagement, humor, fun, and youthful appeal in the learning and understanding of America’s founding principles and Western Civilization; and 4) to develop an educated citizenry essential to our self-governing republic. The program aims to motivate and improve students’ intellectual and practical understanding of the American idea so that students may become engaged citizens and leaders who perpetuate America’s founding principles and values.
We thank the coaches for their work to prepare and teach their school teams, and we commend all the teams for their participation and commitment to learning about American history and Western Civilization. Congratulations to all the teams for qualifying, and to HBU as the runner-up and SHSU as the winning team in 2017!
Judges left to right: Dr. Stephen Balch, Director of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Texas Tech University; Founder of the National Association of Scholars. Dr. Robert Koons, Professor of Philosophy and Co-Founder of the Western Civilization and American Institutions program, The University of Texas at Austin
Semi-finalist team Texas State Univeristy left to right – Evan Dominguez, Molly Williams, Miguel Carandang
The two finalist teams, HBU and SHSU and their coaches. In order left to right: Dr. Gary Hartenberg (HBU coach), Paul Hoyt (HBU), Kenneth Peters (HBU), Jacob Phillip (HBU), Chase Miller (SHSU), Scarlet Bolivar-Castillo (SHSU), William Bailey (SHSU), and Dr. Brian Domitrovic (SHSU coach)
Semi-finalist team Texas Southern University left to right – Sam Godswill, Amber Brown, Sarah Smith
Jack Kamrath, Co-Founder of American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF), and moderator Dr. John Tyler, Professor of Governmente and Pre-Law at Houston Baptist University
“For the second year in a row, America’s elite universities and colleges have failed to rise above a ‘D plus’ on tests of basic knowledge about civics and American history, maintains a study commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).”
“ISI’s final report entitled, ‘The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions,’ presented four pivotal findings:
The average college senior knows very little about America’s history, government, international relations, and market economy. Their average score on the civic literacy test was 53.2 percent. ‘No class of seniors scored higher than 69 percent, or D plus.’
Prestige doesn’t pay off. ‘An Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student’s civic learning. .. .There is no relationship between the cost of attending college and the mastery of America’s history, politics, and economy.’
Students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach. ‘Schools where students took or were required to take more courses related to America’s history and institutions,’ says the ISI, ‘outperformed those schools where fewer courses were completed. The absence of required courses in American history, political science, philosophy, and economics suggests a negative impact on students’ civic literacy.’
Greater civic learning goes hand-in-hand with more active citzenship. ‘Students who demonstrated greater learning of America’s history and its institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service, and polticial campaigns.'”
“In 1777, John Adams wrote to his son about the importance of education. He said it was necessary to teach the next generation about America’s founding principles in order to preserve the freedom and independence so many of his fellow countrymen sacrificed to achieve. Only when we know and embrace those principles can we pass on to a new generation that which we inherited from the past. The ISI study reveals severe cracks in that foundation; cracks that need immediate attention and repair.”
Angela E. Kamrath, President of American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF), Author of The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, October 25, 2014.
Delivered by American Heritage Education Foundation, The Founding is a weekly blog that features articles, videos, research, and teaching ideas on America’s philosophical heritage for citizens, teachers, and homeschoolers.