On May 6, 1776, thirty-two “sons of Virginia” representing every county of the state met at Williamsburg to pass a resolution calling for the Virginia delegates at the Continental Congress to move for independence from Britain.[1]  This Virginia Convention was also tasked with drafting a bill of rights and a constitution for the now independent state of Virginia.

At the age of fifty-one, elder statesman George Mason of Gunston Hall emerged from retirement to represent Fairfax County and agreed to write the first draft of both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution. After a few changes and additions, the Declaration of Rights was read to the entire Convention on May 27, 1776. In Section 16 on Religion, Mason, following the thinking of the era, wrote that government must uphold “toleration in the exercise of religion.”  Religious tolerance was understood as permission given by the state to individuals and groups to practice religion. Mason’s language echoed John Locke’s writings and the movement in England toward religious tolerance.

However, a young James Madison (then 25 years old) objected to Mason’s toleration clause and successfully led an effort to modify Mason’s original language. Madison argued that religious liberty was a natural and inalienable right. It was possessed equally by all citizens and had to be beyond the reach of civil magistrates. The problem with religious tolerance, he argued, was that what the state gave, it could also take back. Madison changed Mason’s “toleration in the exercise of religion” to “free exercise of religion.” The revised Declaration of Rights was passed unanimously on June 11, 1776.

With this small but significant change in the Declaration’s language, Virginia moved from toleration to full religious freedom – a precedent that would not only help shape the new nation’s commitment to free exercise of religion, but its very political theology.[2] Government would no longer have the power to decide which groups to “tolerate” and what conditions to place on the practice of their religion. This revolutionary idea was designed to protect and promote a vital role for religion in public life.

The other twelve states adopted this idea of “religious liberty” and had it written into their constitutions. Eventually, it was Madison who codified it in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as one of the cornerstones of the United States Bill of Rights. For the first time, religious freedom and the liberty of conscience it sustains were recognized as an inalienable right.[3]

Madison’s idea of religious liberty emerged as one of the unique contributions of the American experiment,[4]but where did it originate?

Where Did the idea of Religious Freedom Originate?  The conventional narrative taught in the majority of today’s colleges and generally accepted as historical fact by most academics attributes modern western political thought, including the rise of religious tolerance, to a process of secularization in Europe during the seventeenth century called the “Great Separation.”  Mark Lilla describes this event in his book The Stillborn God:

Something happened — or rather, many things happened — and their combined force would eventually bring the reign of political theology to an end in Europe. Not just Christian political theology, but the underlying assumptions upon which all political theology had rested. Christianity as a religious faith survived, as did its churches. The Christian tradition of thinking about politics that depended on a particular conception of the divine . . . did not. It was replaced by a new approach to politics focused exclusively on human nature and human needs. A Great Separation took place, severing Western political philosophy from cosmology and theology. It remains the most distinctive feature of the modern West to this day.[5]

This story of the “Great Separation” begins in medieval and Renaissance Europe where political theology was informed by Christian thought and seen in the context of the scriptures’ call to live our lives based on God’s design and desire. As the story goes, by the end of the sixteenth century, this worldview, with its biblically informed “political theology,” begins to erode, and by the seventeenth century totally collapses. This tectonic shift was supposedly driven by many events across multiple disciplines. Distressed by the horrors of the Wars of Religion, philosophers rejected the claims of biblical authority and saw religion as inherently dangerous to civil peace. This intellectual upheaval was fueled by new scientific discoveries coupled with the strident philosophical skepticism of men like Montaigne and Charron. As Harvard professor Eric Nelson writes:

It is this separation, we are told, that is responsible for producing the distinctive features of modern European political thought, including (but by no means limited to) its particular notion of individual rights, its account of the state, and its embrace of religious toleration. These innovations could not appear on the scene until religion had effectively been sequestered from political science. It is, then, the peculiar achievement of the seventeenth century to have bequeathed us a tradition of political thought that has been purged of political theology.[6]

This idea that individual rights, freedom of conscience, religious toleration, and limited, constitutional government were all fruits of banishing religion from the public sphere is not new. It was widely taught in this country by the 1970s and, by some accounts, modernity itself emerged from this great separation.[7] Today, these ideas are so widely accepted that, for many, it is difficult to imagine any other way of seeing the world. But is this narrative the full story? I would suggest that the seeds of religious freedom were actually sown much earlier than in medieval and Renaissance Europe. I would suggest that the roots of freedom of conscience and religious toleration can be found in another story that begins 1,500 hundred years earlier, before the Enlightenment, in the birth of the early Christian church.

Is the Idea of Religious Freedom Biblical?  “Thou shalt not encroach upon the religious liberty of your fellow citizens” is not something you will find in the Bible. Yet, even H. L. Mencken, normally a strong critic of religion, wrote in a 1926 essay entitled Equality Before the Law,

The debt of democracy to Christianity has always been underestimated…. Long centuries before Rousseau was ever heard of, or Locke or Hobbs (sic), the fundamental principles of democracy were plainly stated in the New Testament, and elaborately expounded by the early fathers, including St. Augustine.[8]

The Bible teaches God the Creator, who is the supreme authority over his entire creation, appoints lesser authorities, to whom we are to submit, to rule in certain areas (Rom. 13:1-7). As the Apostle Paul explains, government is one example where God appoints authorities for the support of public order and the common good. He makes it clear that government’s responsibilities include upholding the rule of law and encouraging good behavior. However, we must always remember that scripture also teaches the rule of civil magistrates over us is not absolute. Only God’s moral law binds our consciences. We are to obey God even if it means disobeying lesser rulers in certain situations.

It is the tension between these two principles—established government and personal responsibility before God—that we see acted out in the New Testament. In the book of Acts, we read of government officials telling Peter and John not to talk about Jesus:

Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).

The apostles of Jesus were echoing the spirit of religious protest sounded some five hundred years before by Daniel’s three friends. Faced with the threat of death, they flatly refused to worship before the religious and civil statue of Babylon’s king:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan. 3:16-18).

As the early Christian church was persecuted, they struggled to apply these two biblical principles simultaneously. Out of this struggle was born the important idea of an “unconstrained conscience,” which, at its very core, requires immunity from religious coercion and contains the seeds of religious liberty.[9] These early believers understood from the scriptures that no one should be compelled to violate his conscience by being forced to embrace another religion against his will. Nor should someone be kept from expressing freely and publicly deeply held religious convictions by being forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of his or her conscience. For these early believers, this was not just an intellectual exercise; many were martyred because they would not betray the dictates of conscience.

Commenting on this very idea, the early church father Tertullian, in 197 AD, in a letter to the magistrates of Rome, writes that he and other Christians cannot be coerced into sacrificing to pagan gods because “we stand immovable in loyalty to our conscience.”[10] In the same treatise, he effectively invents (or discovers) the principle of religious freedom and was, in fact, the first person in history to use the very phrase “religious liberty.”[11] Fifteen years later, he writes to a Roman proconsul:

It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions. One man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion, to which free will and not force should lead us.[12]

Tertullian was not a lone voice on this subject in the early church but was joined by others, including Lactantius.[13]

The influence of these early church fathers on the emperor Constantine can be seen clearly in his so-called Edict of Milan in January 313, which was signed by both Roman emperors, Constantine ruling the West and Licinius in the East. This agreement establishes religious freedom throughout the entire Roman Empire. As the church historian Eusebius commented at the time:

…every man, according to his own inclination and wish, should be given permission to practice his religion as he chooses…Christians and non-Christians alike should be allowed to keep the faith of their own religious beliefs and worship…This we have done to make it plain that we are not belittling any rite or form of worship.[14]

Using scripture as their source, the argument for religious freedom of these early church fathers centered around two ideas: “religion as an inner conviction that cannot be coerced and the freedom and dignity of human beings made in the image of God.”[15] These two ideas would lay the groundwork for the later, fuller doctrine of natural rights and a more robust vision of religious freedom.

Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1782, wrote what many believe is the quintessential liberal formation of an individual’s right to religious freedom:

Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we would not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate power of government extends to such acts only as are injurious to others. But does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.[16]

In the margin on this original copy of Notes, across from the passage above, Jefferson wrote, in his own hand, a quote in Latin from Tertullian’s Ad Scapulam.[17] As noted earlier, the quote from Tertullian contains the first articulation of religious freedom as a universal human right ever written. As one can see, the two passages are strangely similar. It has been suggested that Jefferson somehow found out about the passage after he wrote Notes. Timothy Shah remarks about Jefferson’s journey to understanding the idea of religious freedom:

One can imagine Thomas Jefferson, trudging up the religious freedom mountain, step by arduous step. And when he reached the top of the conceptual mountain, argument by argument, and reached his radical conclusions about religious freedom – not mere toleration – as a universal natural right, for all people, regardless of creed, can imagine his surprise: When he finally got to the top, he discovered that a North African Church Father was already sitting there – and had been for some sixteen hundred years.[18]

Religious Liberty, then, was not an idea that originated with the Enlightenment as some claim, but rather emerged from the rich teaching of the holy scriptures as understood throughout the history of the church.

While there certainly is no straight line from the early church fathers through the Reformation to today, the seeds of freedom sowed by men like Tertullian were found in the scriptures, sown by the early church fathers, grew in the rich soil plowed by the Reformers, and began to bear fruit with the American founding fathers and the birth of a new nation founded in part by a desire for religious freedom. And in this new nation, where every person enjoys freedom of conscience and free exercise of religion, one can observe as Tocqueville had in the 1830s, something unique and uplifting:

It is the product of two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into one another and combining marvelously. I mean to speak of here the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.[19]


[1] The Second Continental Congress was convened on May 10, 1775, at Philadelphia’s State House, to consider if the colonies should declare independence. By May of 1776 they were close to passing the resolution which necessitated the Virginia Convention actions. Less than two months after the Virginia Convention’s vote the Second Continental Congress, on July 2, 1776 released the Declaration of Independence written by another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.

            [2] Political theology is the study of the intersection of theology, politics, society and economics. While historically affiliated with Christianity, it is currently discussed with relation to all religions.

[3] This did not happen for everyone right away; the issue of slavery would take another 100 years and a civil war to resolve.

[4] Daniel Dreisbach. Lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary, DC, February 2008.

[5] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God (New York: Random House, 2007), 57.

[6] Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1.

[7] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God (New York: Random House, 2007), 55-101.

[8] H.L. Mencken, “Equality Before the Law.” Chicago Tribune. February 28, 1926, 73.

[9] J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 94.

[10] Tertullian, Apologeticus.

                  11 Timothy Shah, “The Roots of Religious Freedom in Early Christian Thought.” In Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke, eds., Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1 Historical Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 55.

[12] Tertullian, Ad Scapulam.

            [13] Robert Lewis Wilkin, “The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom.” In Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke, eds., Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1 Historical Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 62-89.

[14] Eusebius, The History of the Church, Book 10, paragraph 5.

[15] Robert Louis Wilken, The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom (Marquette University Press, 2014), 69.

[16] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (query VII).

            [17] See full quote on page 7.

[18] Timothy Shah, “The Roots of Religious Freedom in Early Christian Thought.” In Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke, eds., Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1 Historical Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 58.

[19] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. and ed.. Harvey C Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 43 (emphasis in original).

Hugh is the Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (“IFWE”). Founded by Hugh in 2011, IFWE has reached millions around the globe with the life-changing message that your everyday work matters to God. A native Floridian, Hugh earned a bachelor of arts in sociology from the University of Florida and a master of arts in religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. Hugh and his wife Leslie now live in Loudoun County, Virginia. As an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, he serves in leadership at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia.

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