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Great Awakening Principle: The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief

March 16, 2018

Portrait of Elisha Williams

When the first Christian evangelical revival swept through early America in the mid-1700s, known as the “Great Awakening,” it strengthened many Bible-based principles and values among early Americans.  One principle that it helped to reinforce was the unalienable right to freedom of belief.  The early tolerance arguments of Roger Williams, William Penn, and John Locke—and the founding of tolerant colonies like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—in the 1600s had blazed an uncharted path for religious tolerance in America.  Now, half a century later, many Revivalists continued to support and advocate for religious freedom based on reason and natural rights.

Locke’s writings on religious tolerance and natural rights, for one, reflected and affected many Americans’ views on the issue of religious freedom.  Locke’s first 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration, published in America in 1742, was often referenced by religious non-conformists who advocated for greater religious freedom.  In addition, Locke had also published his 1690 Second Treatise of Civil Government which asserted the natural or God-given rights of human beings to life, liberty, and property.  Adhering to the idea of natural rights, many Revivalists believed that since humans have a natural right to their persons and property, they also have a natural or God-given right to freedom of belief.

In 1744, Yale College rector and minister Elisha Williams published a notable pamphlet, The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants, defending freedom of belief as an unalienable (or unremovable) right.  Directly echoing Roger Williams, Penn, and Locke, he affirmed that all people have an unalienable right to religious belief according to the Law of Nature or God’s moral law.  The right of belief, he affirmed, is a sacred right based on the nature of human beings as moral, reasonable, and accountable before God.  This right is also based on the view that true religious belief does not exist without understanding and choice.  All people, therefore, have an ability as well as a right and responsibility to freely explore and choose their own beliefs.  If an earthly authority tries to regulate and judge the consciences of other people, it negates the God-given nature of people and assumes a role meant only for God.  Elisha Williams writes, 

With such assertions, Revivalists in early America helped to further articulate and reinforce a rational, natural-right basis for the principle of tolerance and religious freedom–a Lockean reasoning that would be shared by the American Founders.  As such, they would help to pave the way for total religious freedom in the new nation of the United States.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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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 Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s
3.  Great Awakening Emerges in Early America – Impacting Religion, Society, Politics
4.  Jonathan Edwards:  Theologian of the Great Awakening
5.  George Whitefield:  Evangelist of the Great Awakening
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
7.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  “Born Again” Personal Spiritual Conversion
9.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
10.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
11.  Great Awakening Principle:  Happiness
12. Great Awakening Principle:  Purpose for Just Civil Government
13. Great Awakening Effects on American Religion:  A New Church Landscape
14. Great Awakening Effects on Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, Gospel
15.  Great Awakening Effects on American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 5, Part 1, Activity 6:  A Natural Right to Freedom of Conscience (edited), p. 179-180.  MS-HS.

A Natural Right to Freedom of Conscience (edited)…

Purpose/Objective:  Students will learn about the writings of John Locke and revivalist Elisha Williams and their beliefs regarding natural rights and religious tolerance/freedom.  Students will learn about theologian Jonathan Edwards and his teachings on Christian belief, life, and equality, which played an important role in educating colonists during the Great Awakening.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 5 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections Introduction, 5.1, 5.2, 5.4-5.6, 5.8.
2)  Related blogs/videos (see above).
3)  The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants, 1744, by Elisha Williams

Close Reading Activity:
Students break into groups to analyze passages from Williams’s essay, Essential Rights, and compare with Locke’s writings.  Each group will share with the class a summary of a selected passage from the reading(s), an analysis/synthesis of concepts of tolerance, reason, and natural rights, and an evaluation of how these ideas facilitated the move toward greater religious freedom in the new nation of the United States.  The teacher may assess students’ grasp of Williams’s articulation and message, its connection to Locke’s writings, and its relevance in helping to strengthen the case for greater religious freedom in the United States.

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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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Published by: The Founding

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