Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697.
British Enlightenment philosopher, physician, and civil servant John Locke—later influential to the American Founders and the Declaration of Independence—was a relatively early proponent of religious tolerance and freedom of belief. While known as a secular thinker of the Enlightenment era, Locke asserted a remarkably similar, Bible-based position as American colonizers Roger Williams, who wrote The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience in 1644, and William Penn, who wrote The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity in 1670, on the issues of freedom of belief and religious tolerance.
Locke, who attended Oxford University in England, favored the use of man’s reason to search for and understand truth in life and society. This rational search was, he believed, part of man’s God-given purpose. His sensible views may have influenced his support for tolerance as necessary in man’s search for truth.
In 1669, Locke wrote the constitution for the colony of Carolina in America which notably allowed for freedom of belief despite having an official state church. Carolina’s state church was more tolerant than those in other colonies like Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia. Alongside the tolerant colonies of Rhode Island (founded by Roger Williams in 1643), Maryland (founded by George and Cecil Calvert in 1634), and Pennsylvania (founded by William Penn in 1681); Carolina demonstrated a more moderate but important move toward tolerance in early America.
In the wake of the Protestant Reformation and religious persecution in England and Europe, Locke wrote a series of letters supporting toleration—his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration, 1690 Second Letter Concerning Toleration, and 1692 Third Letter Concerning Toleration—in defense of religious tolerance from a Bible-based viewpoint. He argued that freedom of belief was a God-given, natural right and that regulation of religion should be outside the realm of civil government. Since only God can ascertain religious truth and judge a person’s faith, government’s imposition on religious belief and practice is unauthorized and ineffective. Moreover, freedom is the only means by which people can arrive at genuine Christian faith. Locke notably believed that truth—in his mind, the Christian Gospel—can prevail amidst other ideas. In his 1707 Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, he defended tolerance as an aspect of Christian charity or love. In his 1695 The Reasonableness of Christianity, he argued that the teachings of Christianity are compatible with reason.
Locke’s Bible-based writings on freedom of belief and religious tolerance, so reminiscent of Williams and Penn, influenced the views of many in England and colonial America. His first Letter likely influenced the English Toleration Act of 1689 which gave freedom of worship to Protestant non-conformists who dissented from the Church of England yet pledged allegiance to Britain. Locke’s first Letter was also studied by many American Founders and informed their approach to and support for religious freedom in the new nation 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.
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.
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. Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance within Civil Peace and Order
13. The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s
Activity: Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 2 of 2, Activity 7: A Closer Look at Locke, p. 147-8. MS-HS.
A Closer Look at Locke…
Purpose/Objective: Students learn about the arguments & works of John Locke who influenced the tolerant colony of Carolina and the views/arguments of the American Founders in support of religious freedom in the United States.
Suggested Readings: 1) Chapter 4 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text. Students read sections 4.1, 4.5, 4.6, 4.8, 4.10, 4.12, 4.15, 4.18.
2) Letters Concerning Toleration by John Locke (three letters).
3) 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.
4) Related Blog: What were the first experiments in freedom of belief and religious tolerance in America?
Activity: 1) Text Analysis. Students read selected excerpt(s) from Miracle of America text and Locke’s Letters Concerning Toleration. Students working individually or in pairs, recap in writing the main ideas and Biblical references in the selections. They may use an outline format, two-column notes, or graphic organizer as needed/directed. The teacher may prepare students for the reading with a review of vocabulary/terms in reading. As an alternative, additional text analysis, have students rephrase and discuss two or more quotes from Locke. For example:
“The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force. True and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. Such is the nature of understanding, that it cannot be compelled by outward force.”
2) Short Paragraph Test. Students think about, write on, and/or discuss the following questions below in small groups/whole class. Students may use this activity as test preparation for a short-answer test on the same or similar questions:
a. What main points from the Bible and other sources were used by Locke to argue against religious coercion and in support of religious tolerance and freedom of belief?
b. How does Locke argue that religious coercion opposes reason?
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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