The First Experiments in Freedom of Belief and Religious Tolerance in America

AHEF President and author Angela Kamrath speaks on religious tolerance in early America at HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, “The History and Foundation of Religious Freedom in America”


While the idea of freedom of conscience—freedom of belief and conviction—was advanced by the Reformation and existed in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, it was not embraced by everyone and was very restricted in actual practice, manifesting in only partial, contested, temporary ways.  However, the Bible-based arguments made for it by reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin were quite similar to those later made by individuals who directly impacted American thought and settlement in the 1600s and 1700s.

American Puritan dissenter Roger Williams, Quaker William Penn, Catholic colonizer Cecil Calvert, and British philosopher John Locke played important roles in advancing freedom of conscience and religious tolerance in America during this time.  Their arguments for freedom of belief and religious tolerance were strongly rooted in the Bible.  Their tolerance writings and colonies would significantly influence future views and practices in England and America.

Williams, Penn, Calvert, and Locke would be the first movers to defend and experiment with greater freedom of belief and religious tolerance in America.  Their first experiments in religious tolerance took place in the colonies of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Carolina:

  • In 1643, Williams founded the first tolerant colony in America, Rhode Island. A year later, he wrote The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience in support of freedom of belief based on the Bible.
  • In 1649, Calvert issued the Religious Toleration Act in the colony of Maryland to protect Catholic interests against Protestant England. This act was the first law on religious tolerance in America.
  • In 1670, Penn wrote A Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated and Defended by the Authority of Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity in support of freedom of belief based on the Bible. In 1681, he founded the tolerant colony of Pennsylvania.
  • In 1669, Locke wrote the constitution for the colony of Carolina which allowed for freedom of belief. During religious persecution in England and Europe, he wrote his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689, 1690, and 1692) and made frequent reference to the Bible.  His first Letter influenced the English Toleration Act of 1689 in England.

Houston Baptist University Professor of Government Dr. John Tyler speaks on John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration at HBU-AHEF Teacher Workshop, “The History and Foundation of Religious Freedom in America”

Based on conviction, these movers attempted to practice and experiment with freedom of belief and tolerance by forming new, tolerant colonies.  Their experiments were notable and real, if imperfect and incomplete, testimonies for the world in this largely unpracticed idea.  These colonizers and colonies brought the issue of freedom of conscience to the forefront of the American mind.

America’s unique, free environment and new colonies made such experiments feasible.  According to Gary Amos and Richard Gardiner in their text, Never Before in History: America’s Inspired Birth, “The Protestant Reformation in Europe and in the American colonies forced people to reexamine the traditional merger between church and government.  America in particular was to become the test case for resolving the tension between religious freedom and social conformity.”  The arguments for and experiments in freedom of belief and religious tolerance in America significantly advanced American and Western thought and practice on this issue and laid the groundwork for future religious freedom in the United States.

Contributed by AHEF, Dr. John Tyler, and Angela E. Kamrath.

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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 articles/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.  Roger Williams: His Quest for Religious Purity and Founding of Rhode Island
5.  Roger Williams:  First Call for Separation of Church and State in America 
6.  William Penn and His “Holy Experiment” in Religious Tolerance
7.  Early Americans supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
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:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 4, Part 1 of 2, Activity 5:  Williams, Penn, and Locke:  Arguments for Religious Tolerance and Freedom Emerge in the 1600s, p. 147, 349.  MS-HS.

Williams, Penn, and Locke:  Arguments for Religious Tolerance and Freedom Emerge in the 1600s

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about and compare/contrast the Bible-based beliefs and arguments of Roger Williams, William Penn, and John Locke who contributed to the development and support of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience in America.

Suggested Reading:  1) Chapter 4 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text.  Students read sections from Introduction to 4.15.
2) Paper/handout titled Why Religious Freedom Became an Unalienable Right & First Freedom in America by Angela E. Kamrath.  Paper available to download from member resources, americanheritage.org.

Activity:  1) Comparison Chart.  Students summarize and compare views, beliefs, and arguments of Williams, Penn, and Locke with regard to religious tolerance and freedom of belief.  Students should include main writings/works of each person and Biblical references for each person’s main arguments/points.  Teacher writes/projects a comparison chart on the board/overhead, fills in chart with student responses, and helps clarify as needed.  Discuss as a class and point out how these figures created Bible-based arguments for tolerance that laid the groundwork for future religious freedom in the United States.  Students’ written charts may be graded for assessment and/or used to study for a comparison chart test on this topic.  See the “Williams, Penn, and Locke:  Arguments for Religious Tolerance and Freedom Emerge in the 1600s” Comparison Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of this course guide, p. 349.

2) Journal or Short Essay.  Students write a journal or essay on the following question/topic:  How do the early ideas and writings of Williams, Penn, & Locke reflect, connect/relate to, if imperfectly, the concept of religious freedom upheld in the First Amendment in the U. S. Bill of Rights?  Students give similarities, differences, examples.  Discuss.

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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