Great Awakening Principle: The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief

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,

The members of a civil state do retain their natural liberty or right of judging for themselves in matters of religion.  Every man has an equal right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in the affairs of religion…even an equal right with any rulers, be they civil or ecclesiastical.  This I take to be an original right of the humane nature, and so far from being given up by the individuals of a community that it cannot be given up if they should be so weak as to offer it.  Man by his constitution, as a reasonable being capable of the knowledge of his Maker, is a moral & accountable being.  Therefore, as everyone is accountable for himself, he must reason, judge, and determine for himself.  …  No action is a religious action without understanding and choice in the agent.  Whence it follows, the rights of conscience are sacred, equal in all, and strictly speaking unalienable.  This right of everyone to judge for himself in matters of religion results from the nature of man, and it is so inseparably connected therewith that a man can no more part with it than with his power of thinking.  It is as reasonable for him to attempt to strip himself of the power of reasoning as to attempt to vest another with this right.  Whoever invades this right of another, be he Pope or Caesar, may with equal reason assume the other’s power of thinking and so level him with the brutal creation. –A man may alienate some branches of his property and give up his right to them to others, but he cannot transfer the rights of conscience [or belief], unless he could destroy his rational and moral powers, or substitute some other [person] to be judged for him at the tribunal of God.

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.


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.  The Religious Landscape of the Original Thirteen Colonies in America
3.  The 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 Value and Dignity of the Human Being
7.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Are Equal Before God
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  “Born Again” Conversion and Individual Rights
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:  Eternal Happiness Found in God
12. Great Awakening Principle:  A Godly Purpose for Just Civil Government
13. A New Church Landscape:  How the Great Awakening Changed American Religion
14. How the Great Awakening Affected Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, & the Gospel
15.  The Great Awakening Affected American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution


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.


To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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