On Religious Tolerance: Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance Based on God as Judge of Conscience

The Tribute Money, Later Composition, by Titian, c1560-8.  Portrays Matthew 22:21.

In the 1600s, when American colonizers Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, and William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, began to advocate for greater freedom of conscience/belief and religious tolerance, they drew from the Scriptures (many of the same verses as the protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin) to support God as judge of conscience.

Williams and Penn asserted that God alone—not any human or earthly authority—is the judge of a person’s conscience, and God does not give this authority to any other person or power.  Referring to Psalms 2:9 and Acts 2:36, Williams asserts in his 1644 The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience that “God anointed Jesus to be the sole King and Governor of all the Israel [people] of God in spiritual and soul causes.”  Penn similarly argued in his 1670 A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended that religious coercion usurps God’s “incommunicable right of government over conscience.”  Also, in Matthew 22:21, when the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is right to pay taxes to the Romans, Jesus asks them, “Whose face is on your coins?”  “Caesar’s,” they say.  Jesus responds, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Penn concludes from Matthew that God “has reserved to himself that empire [of conscience] from all the Caesars on earth” and “no man is so accountable to his fellow creatures.”

The Bible, as Williams and Penn (like the reformers) saw, clearly indicates a distinction between civil government and God’s heavenly or spiritual government.  Civil powers have authority over earthly matters to maintain order and peace, but only God can discern and judge people’s consciences.  As a result, earthly authorities or laws that violate conscience are illegitimate.

The distinction between earthly and heavenly jurisdictions is, in fact, affirmed in the Bible on several occasions when God’s followers are supernaturally delivered from the earthly punishments assigned to them for peacefully practicing or preaching their faith.  For example, in the book of Daniel, God protects Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they are thrown into a fiery furnace after refusing to worship an idol.  None of the men are touched by the fire.  God also protects the prophet Daniel when he is thrown into a lion’s den for praying to God.  God shuts the lion’s mouth, and Daniel is unharmed.  In Acts 5:17-20, an angel of God frees the Apostle Peter and others who are imprisoned for preaching the Christian Gospel.  The angel unlocks the prison and admonishes the men to continue sharing their message, saying, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”  Clearly, the Bible demonstrates that earthly authorities are limited by the rule of God who ordains freedom of conscience and belief for all.

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.

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 opposed Religious Persecution as contrary to the Biblical Teachings of Christ
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

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 and William Penn who founded the religiously tolerant colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

Suggested Readings:
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) Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, 1644.
4) William Penn, A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity, 1670.
5) Related post: The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief & Religious Tolerance in America

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 below.  (These and other questions are also found in Chapter 4 of Miracle of America text/sourcebook, p. 125.):

1.  How did the beliefs of Williams and Penn differ from those of the Puritans?  How were they similar?
2.  How do the experiences of Williams and Penn influence your own views about religious tolerance and freedom of conscience?
3.  What main points from the Bible and other sources were used by Williams and Penn to argue against religious coercion and in support of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience?
4.  Why do you think Williams and Penn based their arguments against religious intolerance and coercion largely on the Bible and Christian principles?
5.  Why is it important for people to have freedom of conscience and to be tolerant toward other people’s religious beliefs?


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.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.