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Liberty in the Things of God

Robert Louis Wilken—

To understand how religious freedom came to be cherished as a fundamental human right, the story must begin long before the Enlightenment and the development of modern political ideas and institutions. Its origins are not political but religious, and its history is a tale of inwardness, of spiritual freedom, and of obeisance aimed upward. To see things in historical perspective, I begin with Christian writers who lived during the years the new religion was first making its way in the Roman Empire. They did not forge a doctrine of religious freedom, and for centuries their thinking was only a quiet murmur heard by few. In dealing with dissidents and minorities in their midst, Christians seldom acted on the basis of the principles set forth by their early teachers: they acted with violence against Jews in the Rhineland at the time of the First Crusade; they executed heretics, for example, Jan Hus, the Czech reformer, in 1415; they forced the conversion of Muslims in sixteenth-century Spain. Nevertheless, writings defending the freedom and dignity of human beings were not forgotten and laid a foundation on which later generations could build. As the inheritance of the past was buffeted “by the rough torrent of occasion,” the Reformation of the sixteenth century, a doctrine of religious liberty began to take shape.

During the Reformation and in the seventeenth century, Christian thinkers had access to the writings of the Church Fathers newly edited by humanistic scholars. The works of Tertullian, for example, were published in Basel in 1521 by Beatus Rhenanus of Schlettstadt. Advocates of religious freedom discovered that arguments used by the Church Fathers against Roman authorities could be refashioned to address Christian persecution of Christians in their day. In his treatise Whether Heretics Should Be Persecuted, Sebastian Castellio, writing in response to the execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva, quoted at length a passage from Lactantius, a fourth-century Christian writer: “There is no room for force and violence because religion cannot be compelled. Let words be used rather than blows, that the decision may be free.” By the beginning of the seventeenth century, collections of earlier Christian texts on religious coercion were available and were regularly cited by defenders of religious freedom.

The significance of certain traditional ideas, however, was discerned only as new events unfolded. Conscience is a good example. A Franciscan sister in Nuremberg, Germany, Caritas Pirckheimer, wrote A Journal of the Reformation Years, 1524—1528, recounting the travails of her convent as the Reformation was being introduced in the city. In resisting the demands of the city council, Pirckheimer (and other members of her community) forcefully stated that the Protestant reforms were against their consciences. Reformers, she said, loudly proclaimed the freedom of the Gospel but would not grant them the freedom to act according to their consciences. Her journal shows that liberty of conscience was an inheritance from medieval Christianity. In her view and in that of other writers, it did not mean a right of private judgment but the freedom to keep faith with the Church’s teachings and practices. Freedom was found in obedience to God.

A few years after Pirckheimer wrote her diary, a prominent citizen in Nuremberg challenged the imposition of reform by the local magistrates—that is, by secular authorities. In his tract Whether Secular Government Has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith, George Froelich offered a vigorous defense of the right of new religious associations—he was thinking of Anabaptist societies—to confess their distinctive beliefs, to gather for worship, and to win converts. Fearful that Froelich’s book would jeopardize the reform, the Nuremberg magistrates enlisted several theologians to refute his ideas. In using the term sword Froelich was one of the first to employ the medieval doctrine of the two powers (or two swords) to address the religious struggles of the sixteenth century. The secular sword, he wrote, “is of no use in forcing people to adhere to this or that faith” because belief rests on choice, not coercion. In recognizing that civil authorities had to find a way to accommodate minority religious communities in a society bound together by one religion, Froelich was prescient.

Over the next several generations the doctrine of the two swords, or “two realms” in John Calvin’s formulation, was made to fit different political and religious environments. It became a recurring fixture in debates on religious freedom. In France, as the country became divided by the presence of “two religions” (Catholicism and Calvinism), Michel de l’HÔpital, chancellor of France, proposed that the government cease regulating religious affairs. The French had long honored the medieval maxim Une foi, une loi, un roi (One faith, one law, one king), but in a speech before the Estates General, l’HÔpital said it was not his task as chancellor to make judgments about religious matters; the political assembly should be concerned about “maintaining the republic,” not “maintaining religion.” A century later, in his Letter concerning Toleration, John Locke held that it “is above all necessary to distinguish exactly the Business of Civil Government from that of Religion, and to settle the just Bounds that lie between the one and the other.”

From Liberty in the Things of God by Robert Louis Wilken. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. His many books include The First Thousand Years, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, and The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.

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