Early Americans Believed Religious Coercion Opposes Reason

December 21, 2017

Saint Paul Delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens by Raphael, 1515.  Paul reasoned with the pagan people in order to present and defend the Christian Gospel.

Going against religious persecution in Europe and the world, early Americans Roger Williams of Rhode Island and William Penn of Pennsylvania, along with British philosopher John Locke, started the move toward religious tolerance in the American colonies.  They not only formed tolerant colonies, but they laid out extensive Bible-based arguments in favor of religious tolerance.  One of their main arguments for tolerance, which people of all religious beliefs could understand, was that religious coercion opposes reason.

Firstly, religious coercion imposes unjustified penalties.  Since faith cannot be ascertained by concrete evidence, it cannot be fairly judged with earthly punishments.  In his 1670 essay defending religious freedom, A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity, Penn argued that since fallible man cannot be certain of religious truth outside of faith, coercion wrongly “imposes upon an uncertain faith with certain penalties.”

Secondly, coercion is an irrational, ineffective method to address intellectual or spiritual matters.  It cannot change or convince a person’s heart or mind.  Reformer Martin Luther had asked of the authorities of his day, “Why then would they constrain people to believe from the heart, when they see that it is impossible?”  In his 1644 essay, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, Williams similarly saw that coercion only affects man’s outward behavior:  “The sword may make, as the Lord complained in Isaiah 10, a whole nation of hypocrites.”  Locke likewise observed in his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration that force does not transform a person.  He writes, 

Only intellectual or spiritual means, Williams and Locke pointed out, can convince or persuade a person in intellectual or spiritual matters.

Thirdly, truth can prevail amidst other ideas.  Truth does not need man’s coercion, for it holds its own qualities and strength.  Locke made this argument in his 1690 Second Letter Concerning Toleration, stating, “The inventions of men in religion need the force and helps of men to support them.  A religion that is of God needs not the assistance of human authority to make it prevail.”

Williams, Penn, and Locke’s reasonable arguments supporting religious freedom would later be taken up by many American Founders including James Madison and Benjamin Franklin.  Some of these arguments would be referenced by the Founders in their shaping of various new state laws regarding religion freedom and of the First Amendment of the United States.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.


Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  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.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
2.  The Two Kingdoms Doctrine 
3.  Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws & Religious Dissent 
4.  The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief and Religious Tolerance in America
5.  Roger Williams and His Quest for Religious Purity
6.  Roger Williams:  First Call for Separation of Church and State in America 
7.  William Penn and His “Holy Experiment” in Religious Tolerance
8.  Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
9.  Early Americans opposed Religious Persecution as contrary to the Biblical Teachings of Christ
10.  Early Americans argued Religious Coercion opposes Order of Nature
11.  Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance within Civil Peace and Order
12.  Philosopher John Locke Defended Religious Tolerance

13.  The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s

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,


Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 1, Activity 6:  Thinking About Freedom of Conscience and Religion, p. 147.  MS-HS.

Thinking About Freedom of Conscience and Religion… 

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the arguments, motives, and actions of Roger Williams (who founded Rhode Island), William Penn (who founded Pennsylvania), and British philosopher John Locke (who wrote the constitution for Carolina).

Suggested Readings:
1) Chapter 4 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text.  Students read sections Introduction to 4.15.
2) Paper/handout titled Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath (AHEF).  Paper available to download from member resources,
3) Related Blogs:
a. What were the first experiments in freedom of belief and religious tolerance in America?
b. Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance Based on God as Judge of Conscience
c. Early Americans Opposed Religious Persecution as Contrary to the Biblical Teachings of Christ
d. Early Americans argued that Religious Coercion opposes the Order of Nature
4) Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, 1644.
5) William Penn, A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity, 1670.
6) John Locke, Letters Concerning Toleration, 1689, 1690.

Activity:  Short Paragraph Test.  Students think about, write on, discuss in small groups/whole class (with chairs in a circle, if possible) the questions below.  In writing on these questions, students may use more informal journaling/reflective writing.  Students may use this activity or parts of it as test preparation for a short-answer test on the same questions:

1.  How did the experiences of Williams and Penn influence your own views about religious tolerance and freedom of conscience?
2.  What main points from the Bible and other sources were used by Williams, Penn, and Locke to argue against religious coercion and in support of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience?
3.  Why is it important for people to have freedom of conscience and to be tolerant toward other people’s religions?

(These and other questions are also found in chapter 4 of Miracle of America text, p. 125.)  Discussion may follow.


To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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