On Religious Tolerance: Early Americans Opposed Religious Persecution as Contrary to the Biblical Teachings of Christ

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1877.

In the 1600s, notable individuals who supported tolerant colonies in America including Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island) and William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) as well as British philosopher John Locke (drafter of Carolina’s constitution) laid out enlightening arguments against religious persecution and intolerance that pointed the future American Founders away from Europe’s and the world’s dark history of religious persecution and toward religious freedom.  In addition to their primary argument that God is ruler of man’s conscience/belief (see related blogs below), Williams, Penn, and Locke argued that religious persecution is contrary to the biblical teachings and example of Christ and the New Testament.

For one, Christ seeks to save, not destroy, human lives.  For example, in Luke 9:54-55, when Jesus’ disciples James and John saw that the Samaritans did not receive Jesus, they asked Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”  But Jesus turned and rebuked them, saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.  For the Son of Man [Jesus Christ] did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”  In his striking 1644 essay defending tolerance, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, Williams observes from these verses, “If the civil magistrate is a Christian, a disciple, or a follower of the meek Lamb of God, he is bound to be far from destroying the bodies of men for refusing to receive the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Further, religious persecution is contrary to love and the character of Christ.  Locke viewed love or charity as a Christian trait essential to the argument for religious tolerance.  Love is described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4:1-3, and Colossians 3:12-14 as gentle, meek, benevolent, forbearing, and long-suffering.  These verses speak of “bearing with one another in love.”  In his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration which was influential in both England and America, Locke thus observes, “That any man should think it fit to cause another man, whose salvation he heartily desires, to expire in torments, and even in an unconverted state, would seem very strange to me and I think to any other also.  But nobody, surely, will ever believe that such carriage can proceed from charity, love, or goodwill.”

The Souls Under the Altar. Depicting Revelation 6:9.

The New Testament also notably denounces religious persecution based on the prayer of God’s martyrs.  In Revelation 6:9, the Apostle John describes his heavenly vision of God’s martyrs throughout history who await God’s judgment:  “I [John] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held.  And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’”  Acknowledging God’s future judgment for the persecutors of those who stood “against the worship of the states and times,” Williams affirms that the “doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is proven guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.”

Williams, Penn, and Locke laid bare, in sum, that the Christian teachings in the New Testament do not support religious persecution or intolerance against peaceable religious (or non-religious) beliefs and practices.  Accordingly, in his 1692 Third Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke praises “those generous principles of the Gospel, which so much recommend and inculcate universal charity and a freedom from the inventions and impositions of men in the things of God.”  With their Bible-based assertions against religious oppression along with their initiative to create tolerant colonies, these revolutionary movers laid the groundwork for the principle and practice of religious freedom in the future United States of America.

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.

Related posts/videos:
1. An Introduction to Popular Sovereignty
2. Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies: The Dilemma of Religious Laws and Dissent
3.  The Two Kingdoms Doctrine : Religious Reformers Recognize the Civil and Spiritual Kingdom
4.  The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief & Religious Tolerance in America
5.  Roger Williams:  His Quest for Religious Purity and Founding of Rhode Island
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 argued Religious Coercion opposes Order of Nature
10.  Early Americans Believed Religious Coercion Opposes Reason
11.  Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance within Civil Peace and Order
12.  Philosopher John Locke & His Letters Concerning Toleration
13.  The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in Early 1700s America


Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 1, Activity 3:  The Importance of Religious Freedom in Human Life, p. 146-7.  MS-HS.

The Importance of Religious Freedom in Human Life 

Purpose/Objective:  Students consider the cultural and geographic factors that affect one’s philosophical/religious views, reflect on the importance of religious freedom in human life and in their own lives, and learn why religious oppression is a cause for conflict and/or migration.

Suggested Readings:
1) Chapter 4 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text.  Students read sections Introduction, 4.1, 4.9, 4.10.
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 posts:
a. The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief & Religious Tolerance in America
b. Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
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, Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689.

Activity:  Journal/Reflection Writing.  Students journal/reflect on the questions below:

1.  In what ways, if at all, might cultural, social, historical, and geographic factors relate to one’s philosophical/religious views?  In what ways, if any, might they not relate?
2.  Why do you think religious freedom is so important to people, to human life?  Students consider the ways a person’s philosophical/religious beliefs and worldview affect his or her life purpose/meaning (raison d’etre), lifestyle, choices, decisions, and view of afterlife or eternal destiny.  Students may think/write about their own worldview, beliefs, values, and experiences and how they have benefited from religious freedom.
3.  Why is religious intolerance or oppression a significant cause for conflict and migration/immigration?  Think of some historical and modern examples.  Students may also think/write about what life would be like without religious freedom.

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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