Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom

Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom
(Robert Louis Wilken, July 31, 2019)

Transcript available below

This Westminster talk was discussed in Juicy Ecumenism. Read the article, “The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom,” here.

About the speaker

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity emeritus at the University of Virginia. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, past president of the American Academy of Religion, the North American Patristics Society, and the Academy of Catholic Theology. He is chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the publisher of First Things.

His new book is Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. Dr. Wilken states: “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force.” Chronicling the history of the struggle for religious freedom from the early Christian movement through the seventeenth century, he shows that the origins of religious freedom and liberty of conscience are religious, not political, in origin.

They took form before the Enlightenment through the labors of men and women of faith who believed there could be no justice in society without liberty in the things of God. This provocative book, drawing on writings from the early Church as well as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reminds us of how “the meditations of the past were fitted to affairs of a later day.”; For instance, Dr. Wilken quotes Tertullian (ca. 155-240):
“the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

Carlos Eire, author of Reformations, says, “Wilken argues convincingly that the concept of religious freedom originated with Christian thinkers, challenging one of the most revered paradigms in Western intellectual history. In the process, he also injects a corrective twist into current debates about secularist hegemony.”

Dr. Wilken received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and has taught at Fordham University, the University of Notre Dame, the Institutum Patristicum (Augustinianum) in Rome, the Gregorian University in Rome, Providence College, and Lutheran Theological Seminary.

He is the author of more than 10 books, including The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (Yale, 2013), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale, 2003), Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans, 1995), and The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 1984).


Robert R. Reilly:

Our speaker this evening is Professor Robert Louis Wilken. He’s the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity emeritus at the University of Virginia. He is also Chairman of the Board on the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which is the publisher of First Things magazine, which I’m sure many of you have seen that fine publication.

His new book, which we are gathered here this evening to hear him discuss, is Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, available on the table outside at the special Westminster discount and I know Dr. Wilken will be happy to sign these books after his lecture tonight. So this work, “chronicling the history of the struggle for religious freedom from the early Christian movement through the seventeenth century, Dr. Wilken shows that the origins of religious freedom and liberty of conscience are religious, not political, in origin.” I’m surprised you haven’t been arrested. “This provocative book, drawing on writings from the early Church as well as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reminds us of how ‘the meditations of the past were fitted to affairs of a later day.'” I won’t give any more of his lecture.

Dr. Wilken received his PhD from the University of Chicago and he’s taught at many of the prestigious universities, Fordham, University of Notre Dame, Gregorian University in Rome, Lutheran Theological Seminary and so forth. He’s the author of more than ten books amongst which are The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. I would particularly mention another of his books, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, which was a book of particular interest to me and which I very much appreciated. So please join me in welcoming Dr. Wilken, who’s going to tell us about Liberty and the Things of God.

Robert Louis Wilken:


Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here. I am very impressed quite frankly on a warm mid-summer Wednesday evening to have people coming out hear kind of high falutin’ talk about matters of history and theology and so forth. And I’m not sure quite how I got here.

I remember meeting Robert Reilly at a National Symphony Orchestra concert. It was with a friend of mine and we got to talking and we both were complaining – and I don’t want to offend anybody here – at the choice of music on our local WETA station and we just thought it is not generally too sophisticated and we both had very negative feelings about Vivaldi.

So that’s all I remember, but then all of a sudden I get this email and coming out here and so I’m very happy to talk about this book. And what I’m going to do is try to give you a big summary and then give you plenty of time for discussion.

Now, in the Supreme Court case Minersville School District vs. Gobitis in 1940, it upheld compulsory pledging of allegiance to the United States flag in schools. Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the majority said, “Centuries of strife over the erection of particular dogmas as exclusive or all comprehending faiths led to the inclusion of a guarantee for religious freedom in the Bill of Rights.” In other words, it was because of the religious conflicts that we got talk about religious freedom in the Bill of Rights.

Three years later, the court reversed itself in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that prohibits its students from being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Justice Frankfurter’s statement in the earlier case of religious freedom arouse against the backdrop of religious wars then became part of the historical understanding of religious freedom in United States jurisprudence.

In another case, ’47, Everson vs. Board of Education, the debate centered around the use of public funds to support busing children to parochial schools. Though the court decided to sanction the practice, again, it invoked the specter of religious wars. In the opinion of Justice Black, “words of the First Amendment reflected in the minds of early Americans a vivid mental picture of conditions and practices which they fervently wished to stamp out in order to preserve liberty for themselves and for their posterity.” It was, he added, the fears and political problems caused by religious conflict that caused the phrase in the Bill of Rights that there shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion.

More recently, in March, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, Robert Kagan, a historian and political commentator, wrote, “Only with the advent of Enlightenment Liberalism did people begin to believe that the individual conscience, as well as the individual’s body, should be inviolate and protected from the intrusions of state and church.”

Kagan, a very learned, sophisticated man, reflected a conventional view, that religious freedom was brought about by the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Like others, he assumed that by the end of the seventeenth century, the fanaticism of religious believers gave way to the cool realism and skepticism of philosophers and this in turn led to ideas about liberty of conscience and religious freedom.

Well, I’m here to tell a different story that begins not in the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century or in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers – for example, John Locke – but begins among Christian thinkers who lived and wrote in the Roman Empire many centuries ago. It is a tale not of political accommodation to deal with religious conflict, but of inwardness, of spiritual freedom, and obedience to god.

Endowed with Freedom

Now, early Christian writers did not forge a doctrine of religious freedom and for centuries their thinking was little more than a quiet murmur heard by the few. And in the course of medieval history, Christians seldom acted on the basis of principles set forth by their early teachers. They behaved very violently against Jews in the Rhineland at the time of the First Crusade. They executed heretics, most famously Jan Hus, the Czech reformer. They forced the conversion of Muslims in sixteenth century Spain.

But these early writings defending the freedom and the dignity of human beings were not forgotten and they laid a foundation on which other later generations could build. Only as the inheritance of the past was buffeted by the rough torrent of occasion, that’s a phrase from Shakespeare, the rough torrent of occasion. The Reformation of the sixteenth century did a full doctrine of religious liberty begins to take shape.

Now, in antiquity in the cities of the Roman Empire, religion was an affair of the community as a whole through public rituals and private ceremonies. The ordinary and extraordinary events of communal life were set within a sacred and cosmic frame that bound all people together in a single, religious and civic community, quite alien to our experience.

No form of social life was wholly secular. Because religion was so much part of the fabric of life, the Romans were suspicious of foreign cults, but most religions, coming largely from the east from Egypt or Syria, further east, conformed to Roman ways and learned to participate in the public sacrifices, which was the main ritual event.

But not the Christians. When they refused, one Roman governor in North Africa asked, “Why do you malign our sacred rites, and do not worship and venerate the gods all of us worship and venerate?” And of course, that was the basis for the persecution of Christians.

No Coercion in Religion

In response – one person I’m going to talk about is a man named Tertullian, he was the first Latin Christian writer in North Africa, wrote Apologies in defense of Christians. Now, here’s a passage from Tertullian. I’m going to come back to this passage as we go along here. It’s written to the Roman Governor, a man by the name of Scapula.

So Tertullian wrote in the midst of persecution, “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions for one person’s religion neither harms nor hurts another. In matters of religion, coercion has no place for religious conviction is a voluntary act that cannot be forced. It must be held willingly.”

Now, he’s not making a legal argument because there was no basis for that. His case is moral and theological and it has really two basic premises. First, human beings created in the image of god are endowed with freedom, the power to choose and to act. Second, religion is an inner conviction and for that reason cannot be coerced by external means.

In another work, Tertullian uses for the first time the phrase religious freedom, in Latin, libertas religionis. He asks why must everyone pray in the same way? Let one man worship god, another Jupiter. Let one lift up hands in supplication to the heavens and another to the alter of Fides, faithfulness. “Do not,” he writes to his Roman audience, “foster irreligion by taking away freedom of religion,” liberty of religion, “and forbid free choice with respect to divine matters.”

A century later, another Latin, Christian apologist, a man whose name is less known, Lactantius, early fourth century, he made similar arguments. “The central issue,” he wrote to his Roman persecutors, “is that the Romans will not allow god to be worshiped by others,” that is in other ways, “that is to be worshiped not according to the conventional religious practices of the city in which they live. Instead of trying to persuade us by arguments, they rely on force. Surely, they know that religious worship cannot be compelled.” And those of you who remember some of your Latin: religio cogi non potest, religious practice cannot be compelled.

“Only words are effective,” he said. “If one resorts to blows, there is no freedom of choice,” so that’s the first point. There must be freedom because human beings are endowed with freedom. But there was something else in those early years. Through the writings of the Apostle Paul, the term conscience enters the vocabulary of Christians.

The Certainty of Conscience

Now, for the ancients, conscience comes from the Latin word scientia and then con means with, knowledge-with. Conscience really was an awareness that one’s acts carry moral significance. You remember what you have done. The term was used retrospectively to signify what we would call consciousness not our sense of conscience.

But Christians began to use the term not simply as a judgement about past actions, but as a moral imperative to designate what one should do. Conscience then became a kind of pedagogue of the soul, a tutor of future deeds, so Tertullian can say we refuse to offer sacrifice to the gods because of our conscience, the knowledge that the gods are not gods.

Now, only in the Middle Ages did a full understanding of conscience come into being as conscience began to assume a public role in defense of one’s actions. I’ll just give you two cases here. One is a Franciscan theologian by the name of Olivi. He got caught in a dispute over poverty that led to charges of heresy and he said, “I would knowingly obey no man against those things that are of the faith and other things I would always obey in so far as I could as long as purity of conscience is preserved, but never against purity of conscience.”

In another case a man by the name of Godfrey was censured because he criticized his bishop. To which he responded that he had no choice, but to act on his conscience. “One sins more gravely in violating one’s conscience even if it is in error than acting in accord with it.” You can’t in any situation go against your conscience. As one Pope said, it directs you directly to hell.

So in sum, in the early centuries, two fundamental ideas that would later shaped thinking about religious freedom were advanced: one, religion has to do with inner life and cannot be coerced because human beings are free to choose, and conscience is a moral guide or pedagogue.

The significance of these ideas however was discerned only as new events unfolded in the sixteenth century of the Reformation. The seismic shifts within Western Christendom created unprecedented social fracturing in communities all over Europe. How were kings, princes, city magistrates to deal with religious divisions that ran down the main street of their cities?

A Frenchman who had seen the changes in his country, writing about 1560 when the Calvinists, we call them sometimes Huguenots, were establishing themselves in France, put it this way, “Would you ever have thoughts in your youth that one day you would see in France such chaos that in one town there would be several religions practiced?” I think that puts it just about as clearly as can be, so that was the issue: how can you have several religions in one city when everyone assumed that you had to have a common religion.

Reformation in an Imperial City

The Reformation first took root in cities, so let me take one city. And somebody I just talked to said they had been to Nuremberg recently here, Nuremberg in Bavaria. Nuremberg embraced reform, Lutheran reform, in the early 1520s and the city council took charge of religious affairs, very significant, not the pastors, not the religious teachers, not the bishops. They basically had dispensed with them.

The magistrates, the city council appointed clergy to key positions in the city’s churches and instituted liturgical and institutional changes in its religious life. By the mid-1520s, the Reformation in Nuremberg was at full throttle and Nuremberg became one of the first Lutheran cities to prepare its own church order, which was basically the rules as to how to govern religious life.

A Monastic Journal

But the sisters of St. Clare, a community of religious women with a long history in the city, resisted the orders of the magistrates and in 1524, the abbess of the convent, a woman by the name of Caritas Pirkheimer, began to keep a diary that gives us a firsthand account of changes that were being imposed on the eisters. This is the kind of source you find that just throws you, that’s just right there.

Franciscan priests were packed off, leaving no one to hear the confessions of the sisters, the celebration of the Mass was prohibited, and evangelical clergy were dispatched to preach long sermons to convince the sisters to accept the reforms. They preached 111 sermons to these poor women. And they sent in men to keep watch over the sisters, so they didn’t stuff wool in their ears. They were forbidden to ring bells for the hours of prayer. The choir was locked. They were ordered to take apart the material of their habits, dye it a different color, and sew new clothing.

“The aim of these orders,” wrote Caritas Pirkheimer, “was to destroy our cloister and all spiritual life,” and then according to the passage, she said that, “the convent had served god for 250 years and now we are being forced to accept the new faith,” the Lutheran faith. Quite remarkable. In a way, the really first source of somebody appealing to conscience is a Catholic sister.

Now, as dramatic as her tale is even more telling is how she defends her community. Again and again she says that the sisters are being forced to act against their conscience and are deprived of their spiritual freedom. “We hope,” she writes, “that the honorable city council will not apply pressure in matters which concern our conscience and force us to act against our wills to confess with the authorities want us to say.”

That is deeply ironic, that in defending her fidelity to the old religion, Pirkheimer employed language similar to what Martin Luther used at the Diet of Worms in 1521. When asked to recant his teachings, he replied, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” We’ve all have heard that.

Now, legend has it that at Worms, Luther also said, “Here I stand and cannot do otherwise,” so we don’t really have any textual evidence of that. However, one of the sisters of the Franciscan community, Katharina Ebner, did say: “Here I stand and will not yield.” Whether she was the first to use the phrase “Here I stand” I do not know, but it is possible that they had heard of Luther’s declamation at Worms and deliberately mimicked him. Or perhaps it was a Catholic sister who first said “Here I stand.”

The important point however is that the Franciscan sisters and Martin Luther shared a common understanding of conscience handed on in medieval Christianity. Liberty of conscience was not the creation of the Reformation and it did not mean the right of private judgement. It meant obedience to God.

There is something else in Nuremberg, another challenge, the Anabaptists – Anabaptists are the most radical reformers – called for adult baptism or believer’s baptisms. We call them Ana-baptists, re-baptize. They claim to return to the Christianity of the New Testament when the church was made up of small communities of fervent believers, so they formed independent religious associations with their own Confession of Faith, met separately for worship, and elected their own leaders.

And it was this, electing their leaders, that the officials, the magistrates, could not tolerate. They said, “Let everyone believe and confess whatever he wishes,” that’s no concern, “but it does concern the magistrate when somebody establishes a new sect or preaching office without permission.” Again, the magistrates have control of religious affairs.

Now, the Anabaptists are very significant because they represent a fundamental shift in the understanding of the relation between the church and society. By establishing independent sects, they undermined the historic view that religion was the bond of society, vinculum societatis, that there could be no peace or social cohesion without a common religion.

As one member of the city council put it, “The Devil seeks to open a terrible breach in our ranks so that the Word of God, true uniform religion, Christian order, and the power of the sword of secular government will be completely reduced to rubble,” so they were really revolutionary.

But here again is another voice, a clerk in the city chancery named George Freilich, and he challenged the right of the civil magistrate to regulate religion in the city not for suppressing the Franciscan monastery, but for outlawing the Anabaptists, and he wrote an electric memorandum entitled, “Whether Secular Government has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith.” In it he asserted that the secular government had no authority in religious matters.

The Two Swords

Now, in the Middle Ages the doctrine of the Two Swords, two realms, first, enunciated by Pope Gelasius against Byzantine Emperor Anastasius at the end of the fifth century. The idea that there were two swords, two powers, was a way of negotiating the relation between Pope and Emperor. Ultimately, of course, this goes back to the words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are of Caesar and to God the things that are of God.”

But in the new Protestant cities like Nuremberg and territories where there was no longer a bishop or a pope, the description of the two swords had become anachronistic. The clergy continued to wield the spiritual sword by preaching and teaching, but magistrates, princes, and kings claimed not only the temporal sword, but the spiritual sword as well. The churches had spiritual authority, but no dominion.

So the two swords then, that there are two realms, is a third major intellectual contribution of historic Christianity along with no coercion in religion and conscience is an inner voice of God. Now, it is customary to think that the development of liberty of conscience was primarily about the rights of individuals to believe what they wish, but religious freedom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was primarily about the rights of religious associations, that is sects or to use our term, churches.

Several writers in The Netherlands argued that if liberty of conscience only granted freedom from belief of individuals, it was insufficient because religion is never simply a private affair. An august thinker with the lovely name – I love this name – Philips of Marnix, Lord of Saint-Aldegonde put it this way, “No one has been executed or harassed merely under grounds of conscience, what they hold in their mind, but always for committing some public act in words or practices,” and public acts, of course, are done communally.

How is it possible to grant freedom of conscience without exercise of religion? There it is, exercise of religion. People have no ceremonies and do not invoke God, there is no liberty of conscience. What needs to be secured it the freedom to assemble, to preach, to catechize, and to profess openly what people believe in their innermost hearts. As far as I’m aware, and I’m not confident of this, this is the first time the phrase exercise of religion enters into the vocabulary when talking about religious freedom.

Now, during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, many of the writings of the Church Fathers were newly edited by humanistic scholars, so the works of Tertullian, who we discussed earlier, and Lactantius, they were now available in new editions. And what happened is that people as they were suffering persecution they read these works and said well, they’re talking about the same thing that we are experiencing now, so they began to turn to these early Christian texts.

So by the beginning of the seventeenth century, there were collections of early Christian writings on religious conversion and these then became cited by those defending religious freedom. And this familiarity with earlier writings had a steadying effect on the judgements of religious and political thinkers, allowing them to see the conflicts of their own time with eyes trained by the past, so memory is an essential element of Christian intellectual life.

Seeking Faith’s Pure Shrine

Now, by the first decades of the seventeenth century, all the nations of Western Europe faced similar challenges: how to deal with dissenting religious communities living in their midst. The most radical critics of the alliance of throne and altar were the English Separatists. These are names that you probably never heard: Thomas Helwys, Leonard Busher, John Murton, and of course, Roger Williams, who you have heard.

Williams is the better known, but I want to talk briefly about Helwys. He died in 1616. He lived for a time in The Netherlands where Dissenters put together a collection of passages from the early Church, including Tertullian and Lactantius as well as from later writers. He returned to England to support his fellow Baptists who were being persecuted, but within months he was arrested and confined to the Newgate prison where he died.

But he wrote a book, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, published a few years before his death. It offered a short critique of the Church of England, “Whose bishops,” he writes, “force and compel men to submit to its conformity.” What was conformity? Wearing the surplice, making the sign of the cross, chanting and organs in the churches. “The king’s earthly power,” he wrote, “cannot rule over the souls of men.”

Now, as a member of a persecuted group, Helwys was aware that others, most notably the Catholics in England, were struggling to survive in a society governed by the Church of England. Helwys hated the Catholics and he considered them idolaters. Nevertheless, he thought the king should not provoke evil against the Romish religion. “The king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all,” but most remarkable, this is early seventeenth century, “The same principle,” he said, “had a bearing on Jews and Muslims. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, and whatsoever. It appears not to Earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” And I think that’s probably the first time that you get an argument based on a philosophical and theological basis that addresses the question of freedom of religion in relation to Jews and Muslims.”

Now, by the mid-seventeenth century, texts from the early church remained part of the arsenal deployed by advocates of religious freedom. This is particularly evident in the writings of John Owen, a Separatist theologian. He would be identified with the Presbyterians. He preached a sermon the day after the execution of King Charles I in 1649 during the revolution in England. He appended a long essay on toleration in which he cites in Latin – it is amazing how well these people knew Latin. I mean it really was just second nature to them. And in it he quotes in Latin several passages from Tertullian’s Apology To Scapula, Lactantius, and a passage from Gregory the Great. Gregory the Great of all the Church Fathers has the clearest or the deepest sense of irony. Gregory said meeting a person with stripes, whips, is a new kind of preacher.

But Owens’ most original contribution was what he had to say about conscience. Some had argued – you have to think of the situation. You have the established Church of England and it was illegal not to go to the parish church and you would be fined. And some said well, you know, go to the parish church, you can believe whatever you want, but still go. And Owen addressed that on. The defenders of that practice granted that magistrates have no power over inward thoughts and persuasions of the mind, but it is within their authority to determine how one would worship and that’s what they were interested in.

Owen was appalled. These crude and undigested notions gave no relief in the matter before us, how one should worship God. Now, Owen had read very deeply in Thomas Aquinas and he argued that conscience is an application of knowledge to some act. It’s not just what’s in your mind, it has to do with what you do. If it does not extend to practice, then nature and being of conscience is overthrown. And at that point he invokes early Christian teachers who openly pleaded for a liberty of religion found in the law of nature, but again, he’s thinking of Tertullian and the treatise that I began with. So he conflates two phrases, one of them human rights, another one natural capability, to mean natural right and equity, and concludes liberty of conscience is a natural right. The point is it’s not something that the government grants. It’s something that people have by the very fact that they are free human beings. It’s not based on the laws of society, but the law of nature and men cannot be divested of it.

John Locke

This leads me finally to John Locke, who was Owen’s tutor in Greek at Oxford, but he was the younger one. And his letter concerning public toleration, which is probably the most important document that most people turn to when they want to study the history of religious freedom, was published a few years after Owen’s writing that I’ve been quoting. And Locke is working with ideas that reach deep into the Christian past. I mention only two points. For Locke, like others, Roger Williams, the distinction of powers, spiritual and civil, is fundamental. He wrote, “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie in between the one and the other.” That was a way of dealing with religious diversity.

Religious faith, secondly, is an inner conviction. Locke writes, “All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind. Faith is not faith without believing.” For that reason civil authorities cannot force people to oppose the dictates of their own conscience. Locke wrote, “The business of Christian religion lies in the heart,” and he cites Psalm 51. “All that God looks for in his worship is the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.”

So Locke stands in the same tradition that formed John Owen, William Penn, who I haven’t discussed, Ryan Williams, and others. but he differs in one, notable respect: he does not quote Christian authorities. He quotes the Bible, but no Christian authorities. The letter concerning toleration is the work of a philosopher informed by Christian thinking. It’s not a theological treatise one reads and it came to be held in such high regard in the generations after his death.

Now, Locke’s ideas on religious freedom were transmitted to colonial America through his own writings, but also through a little known work, An Essay on Toleration, written in 1783 by an English Separatist Philip Furneaux. He wrote, “because of Locke’s letter,” concerning toleration, “religious liberty has been generally received among us and many have embraced the same doctrine.” And he highlights two points: religion is a concern between God and man’s own conscience and true religion is obedience to the authority of God.

Now, James Madison had read Furneaux’s essay. In fact, he had made an exerted effort to get a copy of it and was sympathetic to his arguments. And in the spring of 1784, some Anglican politicians led by Patrick Henry proposed a bill to support teachers of the Christian religion by a general tax, in other words, we’re going to expand the establishment to other besides the Anglicans. And James Madison realized that would be disastrous and he vigorously opposed Henry, arguing that any form of regulation of spiritual matters by the state compromised the natural right of liberty of conscience. And he agreed to write his famous Memorial and Remonstrance. In it he asserted that the religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man. The duty to render homage to God is precedent both in order of time and in degree of obligation to the claims of society. The magistrate has no jurisdiction over religion for religion,” I like this phrase, “is holy exempt from the cognizance of the spirit of civil authority.”

Now, Furneaux, Madison, and Locke drew on a common fund of ideas circulating in eighteenth century England – Locke was earlier – and colonial America. These ideas did not have their origin in the eighteenth century nor in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers like Locke. They were part of an older inheritance. Neither Furneaux nor Madison use explicitly Christian language, yet the provenance of their thinking is unmistakable. It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion. It was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God. And it was a dualism of political and spiritual authority and Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious belief must be kept separate.

By the eighteenth century, ideas on “religious liberty” advanced by earlier Christian thinkers had become the property of all, “consonant to reason” as well as “agreeable to humanity,” as Furneaux wrote. “The liberty of religion belongs to us,” he said, “as reasonable creatures.” Now that’s my talk, but I have an Afterword, very short.


In his notes on the State of Virginia written in 1781, section or query 17, the different religions relieved into that state, Thomas Jefferson discusses the history and present state of religions practiced in colonial Virginia. “Anglicans,” he said, “were in possession of the country for a century when no other opinion was allowed to creep in and the laws weighed heavily on others.”

So it briefly surveys Virginia laws on heresy, in particular, one from 1705 on punishments for a person who denied the existence of God or the doctrine of the Trinity. “Such laws,” says Jefferson, “are indication of religious slavery under which people have lived. They presume that the operations of the mind as well as acts of the body are subject to coercion by law,” that is in religious matters.

“But rulers can have authority,” says Jefferson, “only over those natural rights that have been submitted to them and the rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. In matters of conscience, we are answerable only to God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts are as injurious to others, but it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God and neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” a very famous line of Tertullian.

Now, Jefferson’s personal copy of the notes is now held in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. And at the bottom of the page where Jefferson says that “one person’s religion does not harm another,” he had written in Latin the passage from Tertullian with which we began and identified as Ad Scapulum, and here it is translated, “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions. For one person’s religion neither harms nor hurts another. Coercion has no place in religious devotion for it is by free choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

Now, it is unlikely Jefferson knew the passage from Tertullian when he wrote the note. This is thirty years later. He probably learned about it years later, though from whom and when it is unclear. And I must say, I have written to top Jefferson scholars all over the country, nobody knows and nobody cares, that’s the other thing.

But after he learned of it, the words became fixed in his mind and in July 1814, Jefferson wrote to a friend, a man named Louis H. Girardin who had prepared a catalogue of books for sale from his own personal library. Jefferson noticed several volumes among which was one by Tertullian that contained his apology and his Ad Scapulum, treatise to Scapula. He purchased the book and it is now in the Jefferson collection of the Library of Congress where I read it.

When the book was brought up from the stacks, I held in my hand a small, leather-bound volume published in Cambridge, England in 1686. As I turned the pages and came to Chapter 2 of To Scapula, to my astonishment, I saw that Jefferson had underlined the passage and put a large X in the margin. That’s the kind of thing you spend your whole life yet never happening, as a historian. There were no other markings in the text, so I assume that Jefferson did not spend Winter evenings at Monticello, reading Tertullian’s apologetic writings. He knew what he was looking for and when the book arrived, he turned to the place that interested him, marked the passage, and wrote in his copy of the notes.

Now, I do not think that Tertullian had any direct influence on Jefferson’s views on religious freedom. Like Madison, Jefferson’s ideas were formed by reading John Locke, Philip Furneaux, and others, but Jefferson was endlessly curious and had a lively interest in religious matters. What Tertullian had written centuries ago had confirmed his own views and he had wanted to read for himself what Tertullian had written.

We can only speculate as to what he had thought of Tertullian. It seems likely that what would have caught his attention was a similar item between Tertullian’s words, “One person’s religion neither harms nor hurts another,” and his own words, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God.”

So however one judges Jefferson’s relation to Tertullian, that the author of the Virginia State for Religious Freedom cared enough about an early Christian writer who wrote, “Coercion has no place in religious devotion,” to cite several sentences from him and his personal copy of the notes of the State of Virginia was for me, a serendipitous discovery and a moment of great elation. Thank you very much.


Audience member:

I was intrigued by your discussion of the relationship between conscience and outward behavior and organization and public life. It occurs to me that people often proclaim that in the Qur’an in Surah 2, Ayah 256 there’s the oft-quoted phrase of “there’s no compulsion of religion,” but sort of the deeper backstory behind that is that that’s often precisely been interpreted as you have indicated in that well, yeah, you of course can’t coerce what a person thinks, but you can obviously coerce what their behavior is, what they do in public life, so it strikes me that your analysis is very applicable to ideas of religious freedom in Islam. Under that verse it’s just simply leaving your beliefs is not enough of course.

Robert Louis Wilken:

Yes, and it’s Thomas Aquinas really who saw that with the greatest clarity that conscience has to do with an act and it was picked up by John Owen. And it was because of the unique circumstances in England where what was at issue was whether you were going to go to the local parish church and observe what was being observed, and Owen, who had read Thomas, saw the immediate application of what Thomas had written, so I think it is a very important point and it really changes your whole understanding of conscience because it’s not the way we normally think about it. And I quote the passages from Thomas in the book. It’s application of knowledge – conscience – to a specific act.

Audience member:

You mentioned Luther and his role in religious freedom, but it was Luther that published 95 of his Theses on the door of the church and they were pretty restrictive on his flock. Also Luther was way, way behind on his daily office and of course there was no mention of that in his 95 Theses.

Robert Louis Wilken:

Yeah, well, I don’t really spend a lot of time with Luther. I only mention him in that one context. Luther is not a major figure in the history of religious freedom and in fact I quote a passage from Luther, it was in a letter to his prince in which he told Johann, the Elector of Saxony, “In a given territory there should be only one kind of preaching,” and of course that led then eventually to the Peace of Augsburg and the famous phrase, cuius regio, eius religio, that is whoever is the ruler determines what the religion is, so you’re not going to get too far with Luther on these matters. You really have to turn to other people, and in truth, it’s in England that you find the strongest line of development.

Audience member:

Thank you I would agree with that.

Robert Louis Wilken:

Good, and I was a Lutheran pastor for 35 years, so I have a great interest in Luther. I became Catholic, but still I have a lot of affection and respect for Luther, but this is not his thing. Calvin is much more interesting and much more significant, and I didn’t really discuss Calvin. I do have a long discussion of him in the book. And he’s very good on conscience too.

Audience member:

Sir, a recent biography of Roger Williams gives him great credit as a force behind the First Amendment in this country. Did you follow along that line at all?

Robert Louis Wilken:

Yes, I didn’t say much about it because I wanted to highlight some other things. Roger Williams was a major player. And I mean he had influence on other English thinkers and on John Locke, but he’s not original. The ideas that he is working with really come from earlier writers. And the truth is that most of the people who write about Roger Williams don’t know the material that I’ve just presented here and so it’s easy to raise him up, but his significance was that he expressed them in a very vivid way for the first time in America and therefore they had a currency, but there’s little in Roger Williams that is wholly original.

On one point he is very original. The argument was made that the authority of English kings, as well as other kings, was really a continuation of the authority of kings in ancient Israel and Roger Williams just explodes that and says that there is no way in which you can make that case because it’s based on what’s called the typology, where you take something from the Old Testament, for example, going through the Red Sea and that becomes then a type of baptism. And he says that the type when it is realized has to be something spiritual not something material, so you can’t take the kings of ancient Israel, which are material as real kings, and try to give that application to real kings in the New Testament where everything is different.

But I have a lot of respect for him and I read him very carefully, so I would not agree that he is the key player and I think it’s just that people have not read the earlier [literature]. Almost all the literature begins with the sixteenth and seventeenth century and doesn’t go back to earlier writings.

Audience member:

Sir, I really appreciate that. That was really interesting. It looked like the foundational thought that you were purporting is that you know starting with a faith or starting with an idea about God leads to other things, but I’m curious. It makes me think about what if one has a wrong idea of God and starts off. Can that affect the rest of the train [of thought] because we mention the Luther quote that he said, “whomever is in power can determine what’s the right religion” or something like that.

Robert Louis Wilken:

Yeah, but I don’t think that’s a question of wrong ideas of God. Luther didn’t have wrong ideas about God, I think he was pretty good on that. But the more serious matter is this: the whole argument that I presented assumes the reality of God and the nature of human beings created in the image of God.

What we face in this country is a situation in which there is so much widespread unbelief that as the decades go on, whether it makes any sense to talk about religious freedom if people don’t believe in God. In other words, it’s absolutely necessary and there was a professor about seven or eight years ago, Brian Leiter wrote a book, University of Chicago philosopher, called Why Tolerate Religion. In other words, why give religion this special status? So it means that religious people are obligated if we’re going to continue to talk about religious freedom to continue to hold up the reality of God as something on which our society is dependent. I think that’s a much more serious matter. You know bad or good ideas of God I think are a dime a dozen.

Audience member:

The premise that one person’s religion is [unintelligible] than another, how is that squared with [unintelligible] definition says that all others are wrong or I think coercion is also part of the ideological component behind it. In other words, if one person’s religion by definition does harm to others then what happens to the premise?

Robert Louis Wilken:

I think that you touched on the right point to say that one person’s religion doesn’t harm another means that normal practice of one’s religion does not affect someone else, but in fact, religion is for all of its history has been harming people and so it’s more of an intellectual concept that one has to say that in principle religion because of its nature, but religious people do all kinds of things that are not of the nature of religion, so yes, that’s a legitimate critique.

Audience member:

It seems like Catholicism and Protestantism, which defines itself in opposition to Catholicism, and in fact, for all of its toleration, as I recall, Locke was intolerant of Catholics in public office-

Robert Louis Wilken:

Yes, he was.

Audience member:

Taking that one step further back, I betray my own ignorance here because I just came across this, but in George Will’s notes, he prides himself as an “amiable atheist.” He stresses the importance of Protestantism to consent of the governed as a bottom line for governmental legitimacy. [unintelligible] mediates the relationship between the individual and God and both of them in democracy and [unintelligible] system.

Robert Louis Wilken:

I think that’s kind of a caricature of Protestantism. First of all, Protestantism is not one thing as we all know, but I think that that’s only the most radical form of Protestants would say that. Certainly, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, that is not how they understand the relation to God because you have Sacraments, you have church authorities, you have institutions, you have liturgy, worship, and so forth.

I think that’s a caricature of Protestantism and I think ‘Protestantism’ even though we use that term is not fundamentally a protest against Catholicism. It has a deep understanding of the nature of God and the scriptures and was very positive. I just don’t see it that way, and of course, now this falls from the Reformation. It’s just not the way people think who are Protestants. I mean I’ve spent the last I don’t know how many – fifteen years involved with Evangelicals and Catholics together, trying to formulate ways to understand. I mean what we share is so much deeper than where we differ with one another.

Audience member:

I’m talking about proximate terms, eighteenth century America and John Locke.

Robert Louis Wilken:

Well, you’re absolutely right about Locke. I mean he had real trouble with Quakers. He had trouble with anybody who’s a nonbeliever because if you don’t have any belief in God, you can’t have the legal bonds that society requires when you pledge something and so forth. And of course, the Catholics. But Helwys who was really [in] the same world as Roger Williams, he was unequivocal on that, so Locke just didn’t go as far as he could have. And you know, he himself was Church of England. He wasn’t strictly a philosopher, only a philosopher.

Audience member:

I’m curious to know if you’ve given a copy of your book to each member of the Supreme Court.

Robert Louis Wilken:

No, I haven’t. I think that they will find out about it. The thing is, and you can see from tonight, it obviously touches on things that are in the current discussion, but it’s basically a historical work of trying to give a background. And I deliberately didn’t take this because I don’t think it’s really something I could do well and I think it would destroy kind of the character of the book.

The one thing that I stressed is that religious freedom emerges as a debate about the rights of religious communities and that is completely out of the spirit of the whole jurisprudence on religious freedom because what we’re talking about most of the time is individuals, but today of course, that’s the issue. It comes into with religious communities, women of course, and schools, and this kind of thing.

But I’m not a legal scholar, but it seems to me that that is the one area where there’s going to be some political consequence as to whether within the legal tradition and way of thinking you can talk about the rights of religious communities and not just individuals, and I think it would be very difficult to do, frankly, but it’s not for me to presume.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you very much for that excellent talk. This is a rather broad question with which to wrap things up. As you know, at the American founding there was a deep understanding of natural law and natural rights. Protestant communities that let us say at their inception or if Luther had not looked favorably upon natural laws – by the late eighteenth century you had certainly the Puritans had so that there was a more favorable regard to that subject – in your work today when you discuss Boston, Catholic, ecumenical discussions, it would seem that subject of religious freedom has to be shared an embedded in that conception of natural law. Do you find that a common ground or one that needs to be developed?

Robert Louis Wilken:

It does and we are now, and I think that this – even though it doesn’t give a lot of information on that – John Owen, the way he put it, that is something that is given in nature and is not something that is granted by the state, so in that sense the whole thing presupposes natural law.

Today, very, very significant: Secretary of State Pompeo has established a commission on inalienable rights about a month ago. And the reason why he’s doing that – it’s pretty clear – is that rights which are based on natural law – freedom of religion being one of the primary rights – have now become social and economic rights, which are basically determined by courts and legislatures, and then they are imposed on the populace.

And he appointed Mary Ann Glendon as head of this commission, so it’s clear that what he’s aiming at is to try put some check and the reaction was very quick and very vigorous because you can see that this was a way of trying to say you can’t just talk about rights, rights, rights, and just spin these out. ‘Proliferate’ is the word that he uses.

And there’s a nice book. I just wrote a little briefly noted for First Things by a guy named Aaron Rhodes, worth reading. He was head of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights for about fifteen years and this is called The Debasement of Human Rights. His argument is that rights which had a natural law basis now have become rights that are created by legislators and states, and that’s exactly where we find ourselves today. And you can bet that once this commission gets going, it’s going to be powered, beating, beating, beating. My last little line is that his book is a rebuttal of the ignorance and fatuousness that afflicts discussion of rights today. This book by Rhodes is really good, really good.