Essay on the First Principles of Government, 2nd Edition (1771)/chapter 6

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Some distinctions that have been made on the subject of religious liberty, and toleration considered.

IN order to illustrate some of the fundamental principles of religious liberty, I beg the reader’s indulgence while I animadvert on a few distinctions that have been suggested by some persons who have written, at different times, on this subject, and which I think have tended to introduce confusion into our ideas concerning it. Many of my readers may think some of the cases I shall mention, unworthy of the notice I have taken of them, but I hope they will excuse my giving them a place in this section, when they consider that it is, at least, possible they may have occasioned some difficulty to other persons, unused to these speculations.

I. Religion is sometimes considered as of a personal, and sometimes as of a political nature. In some measure, indeed, every thing that concerns individuals must affect the societies which they compose; but it by no means follows, that it is, therefore, right, or wise for societies (i. e. mankind collectively taken) to intermeddle with every thing, so as to make laws, and appoint sanctions concerning every thing; because, in numberless cases, more confusion and inconvenience would necessarily arise from the interference, than from the want of it; since individuals are, in many respects, better situated for the purpose of judging and providing for themselves than magistrates, as such, can be.

These, and many other reasons, lead me to consider the business of religion, and every thing fairly connected with it, as intirely a personal concern, and altogether foreign to the nature, object, and use of civil magistracy.

Besides, there is something in the nature of religion that makes it more than out of the proper sphere, or province of the civil magistrate to intermeddle with it. The duties of religion, properly understood, seem to be, in some measure, incompatible with the interference of the civil power. For the purpose and object of religion necessarily suppose the powers of individuals, and a responsibility, which is the consequence of those powers; so that the civil magistrate, by taking any of those powers from individuals, and assuming them to himself, doth so far incapacitate them for the duties of religion. If, for instance, I be commanded by divine authority to search the scriptures, and the magistrate forbid me the use of them, how can I discharge my duty? And for the same reason, I must think the authority of the magistrates opposed to that of God, in every case in which human laws impede the use of my faculties in matters of religion.

As a being capable of immortal life (which is a thing of infinitely more consequence to me than all the political considerations of this world) I must endeavour to render myself acceptable to God, by such dispositions and such conduct, as he has required, in order to fit me for future happiness. For this purpose, it is evidently requisite, that I diligently use my reason, in order to make myself acquainted with the will of God; and also that I have liberty to do whatever I believe he requires, provided I do not molest my fellow creatures by such assumed liberty. But all human establishments, as such, obstruct freedom of inquiry in matters of religion, by laying an undue bias upon the mind, if they be not such, as by their express constitutions prevent all inquiry, and preclude every possible effect of it.

Christianity, by being a more spiritual and moral constitution than any other form of religion that ever appeared in the world, requires men to think and act for themselves more accurately than any other. But human establishments, by calling off men's attention from the commandments of God to those of men, tend to defeat the great ends of religion. They are, therefore, incompatible with the genius of christianity.

II. In examining the right of the civil magistrate to establish any mode of religion, or that of the subject to oppose it, the goodness of the religion, or of the mode of it, is not to be taken into the question; but only the propriety (which is the same with the utility) of the civil magistrate as such, interfering in the business. For what the magistrate may think to be very just, and even conducive to the good of society, the subject may think to be wrong, and hurtful to it. If a christian magistrate hath a right to establish any mode of the christian religion, or the christian religion in general, a Mahometan governor must have the same right to establish the Mahometan religion; and no liberty can be claimed by a christian under a Mahometan government, to exercise the christian religion, that may not, in the same degree, be claimed by a Mahometan subject of a christian government, to exercise the Mahometan religion. Also, if it be unreasonable and oppressive to oblige christian subjects to support the Mahometan religion, it is equally unreasonable and oppressive to oblige a Mahometan to support the christian religion, in the place where he resides; or to oblige christians of one denomination to support another mode of it, which they do not approve.

The authority of God and conscience may always, with equal justice, be opposed to human authority; and the appeal of Peter and John to the Jewish magistrates, concerning their obligation to obey God rather than man, will equally serve a Protestant in a Popish establishment, or a Dissenter of any kind in a Protestant one. It is of no avail to the Papist, or the Protestant, in any establishment, to pretend that the religion they enforce is true, or that it is the same, in general, with that which those who dissent from them profess; because the Protestant and the Dissenter do not object to the establishment in those respects in which they believe it to be true, but in those in which they believe it to be false, and to require them to believe and do what their conscience disapproves. And for a Protestant of any denomination whatever, to maintain his own right to resist the impositions of a Popish government, and at the same time to insist upon a right to impose upon his fellow christians of other Protestant denominations, is too absurd to admit of a formal refutation.

III. Some persons, of narrow minds, may be ready to admit of a plea for the toleration of all sects of Protestants. They may bear them some degree of good will, as brethren, or at least, as distant relations, though the blood in their veins be not equally pure with their own; but, in order to demonstrate that there may be a licentiousness in toleration, and that we must stop somewhere, they say, "What must we do with heathens and atheists." I answer, the very same that you, christians, would wish that heathens and atheists, in your situation, should do to you, being in theirs. If your party has been so long in power, that you cannot, even in supposition, separate the idea of it from that of the authority which has been so long connected with it; read the history of the primitive church, and see what it was that the first christians wished and pleaded for, under the Pagan emperors. Read the antient christian apologies; and do the infidels of the present age the justice to put them, or at least part of them, into their mouths.

IV. Others have the moderation and good sense to admit the reasonableness of persons being allowed to judge for themselves, and to think as they please in matters of religion, and even to exercise whatever mode of religion their consciences approve of; but they will not admit of any thing that has a tendency to increase the obnoxious sect; no publication of books, or other attempts to make proselytes; not even a reflection upon the established religion, though it be necessary to a vindication of their own. But what signifies a privilege of judging for ourselves, if we have not the necessary means of forming a right judgment, by the perusal of books containing the evidence of both sides of the question? What some distinguish by the names of active and passive opposition to an established religion, differ only in name and degree. To defend myself, and to attack my adversary, is, in many cases, the very same thing, and the one cannot be done without the other.

Besides, the persons who make use of this distinction, should consider that, for the reasons they alledge, the Jewish rulers did right to forbid Peter and John to preach, or to teach, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, and that Peter and John did wrong in not submitting to that prohibition. They should consider that the primitive christians, under heathen governments, had no right, according to their maxims, to any thing more than the private exercise of their worship, and that they offended against the powers that then were, and that were ordained of God, when they wrote their excellent books, and took the pains they did to propagate their religion among all ranks of men, and among all nations of the world; though they acted in obedience to the solemn injunction of our Lord, who bade them go and preach the gospel to every creature.

By the gospel every christian will, and must understand, the gospel in its purity; i. e. what he apprehends to be the pure gospel; in opposition, not only to heathenism, and religions fundamentally false, but to erroneous christianity, or to religions that are in part true. Whatever be the religious opinions, therefore, that I seriously think are agreeable to the word of God, and of importance to the happiness of mankind, I look upon myself as obliged to take every prudent method of propagating them, both by the use of speech and writing; and the man who refrains from doing this, when he is convinced that he should do good upon the whole by attempting it, whatever risque he might run in consequence of opposing anti-christian establishments, is a traitor to his proper lord and master, and shows that he fears more them who can only kill the body (whether by the heathen methods of beheading, crucifying, throwing to the wild beasts, &c. or the christian methods of burning alive, and roasting before a slow fire) than him, who can cast both soul and body into hell.

V. It is said by some, who think themselves obliged to vindicate the conduct of Christ and his apostles, that, though no general plea to oppose an established religion can be admitted, in excuse of a pretended reformer, yet that a special plea, such as a belief of a divine commission, will excuse him. But I can see no material difference in these cases. The voice of conscience is, in all cases, as the voice of God to every man. It is, therefore, my duty to endeavour to enlighten the minds of my friends, my countrymen, and mankind in general, as far as I have ability and opportunity; and to exert myself with more or less zeal, in proportion, as I myself shall judge the importance of the occasion requires; let my honest endeavours be considered as ever so factious and seditious, by those who are aggrieved by them. It is no new cry among the enemies of reformation, The men who have turned the world upside down are come hither also.

VI. There are some who confine the obligation to propagate christianity to the clergy, and even to those of them who have a regular commission for that purpose, according to the form of established churches; and say that laymen cannot be under any obligation to trouble themselves about it, in whatever part of the world they be cast; and what they say concerning the propagation of christianity they would extend to the reformation of it. But I can see no foundation for this distinction, either in reason, or in the scriptures. The propagation, or reformation of christianity, is comprehended in the general idea of promoting useful knowledge of any kind, and this is certainly the duty of every man, in proportion to his ability and opportunity.

Our Saviour gives no hint of any difference between clergy and laity among his disciples. The twelve apostles were only distinguished by him as appointed witnesses of his life, death, and resurrection. After the descent of the Holy Ghost, supernatural gifts were equally communicated to all christian converts. The distinction of elders was only such as years and experience intitled men to, and only respected the internal government of particular churches. As to the propagation of christianity abroad, or the reformation of corruptions in it at home, there is nothing in the scriptures, that can lead us to imagine it to be the duty of one man more than another. Every man who understands the christian religion, I consider as having the same commission to teach it, as that of any bishop, in England, or in Rome.

VII. Some of the advocates for establishments lay great stress on the distinction between positive and negative restraints put upon dissenters. The former they affect to disclaim, but the latter they avow, and pretend that it is no persecution. But here I can find no real difference, except in degree. An exclusion from an advantage, and a subjection to a positive disadvantage agree in this, that a man who is subject to either of them is in a worse condition on that account, than he would otherwise have been. If a man, for conscience sake, be excluded from a lucrative office, to which another person, of a different persuasion, has access; he suffers as much, as if the office had been open to him, and a fine, equal to the advantage he would have gained by it, imposed upon him. Nay, it is easy to suppose cases, in which negative restraints may be a greater hardship than positive ones. The interdiction of fire and water is not a sentence of positive punishment, and yet banishment, or death must be the consequence. Notwithstanding all this, negative restraints, however severe, must not be called persecution, while positive restraints, how light soever, cannot be denied to fall under that obnoxious appellation.

In reality those who defend the necessity and propriety of laying dissenters under negative restraints, without chusing to be advocates for positive ones, are only afraid of the term persecution, which, happily for the friends of liberty, lies under an odium at present; but their arguments would be much clearer, and lose nothing of their strength; and their ideas would be more free from confusion, if they would openly maintain, that a certain degree of persecution was just, though certain degrees of it were unjust; and they might easily say, that they could not pretend to fix any precise boundary in this case, but must leave it to be determined by circumstances.