Did you know that early Americans supported religious tolerance within certain limits? What were those limits? American colonizers who supported tolerance, like Roger Williams of Rhode Island and William Penn of Pennsylvania, believed that freedom of belief should be upheld within the limits of civil peace and order. They did not support tolerance of religious practices that violated the rights of others or the foundation of free, civil society.
Though Williams was an early religious dissenter who was banished from the colony of Massachusetts in the 1600s due to his religious views, he valued the Bible-based virtue of peace in society. In support of civil peace, Williams looked to Romans 12:18 where the Apostle Paul says to fellow Christians, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” Williams remarked in his 1644 essay in defense of religious tolerance, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, “There is a possibility of keeping sweet peace in most cases, and if it is possible, it is the express command of God that peace be kept.” Civility and religion, Williams believed, could flourish together in a tolerant community.
Further, a person should abide by the just civil laws of their community, Penn and Williams asserted, when practicing religion. Penn explained in his 1670 essay, A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity, “We plead only for such a liberty as preserves the nation in peace, trade, and commerce and would not exempt any man from keeping those excellent laws that tend to sober, just, and industrious living.” One should practice religion, Williams similarly affirmed, “without breach of the civil or city peace.”
To be sure, disruptions are at times unavoidable, these colonizers knew, when it comes to religious intolerance or oppression. Though not an intentional cause of disruption, Christians, for example, might become, Williams saw,
“the occasion of great contentions and divisions” due to their beliefs and values even though these are peaceful. Williams drew on Luke 12:51 where Jesus tells His followers, “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.” Peace-loving people might find themselves in battles or meeting with unjust opposition because of their religious faith or when defending innocent people against oppression. Apparently, civil conflicts are not to be sought out but sometimes cannot be avoided.
In sum, early proponents of religious tolerance in America drew the line at peace and order and the rights of others in society. A person does not have the right to practice his or her religious beliefs if such beliefs are oppressive, violent, or violative toward others. Such limits to tolerance are necessary in any free, just society.
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.
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 Believed Religious Coercion Opposes Reason
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, americanheritage.org.
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).
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, americanheritage.org.
3) Related articles/videos (see above).
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 americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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