William Penn on Religious Toleration

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was a Quaker and an ardent campaigner for freedom of conscience. He wrote at least three pamphlets arguing for it, The People’s Ancient and Just Liberties Asserted of 1670; The Great Case of Liberty and Conscience (1670) and A Perswasive to Moderation to Dissenting Christians (1685). They’re collected, along with his other writings, in The Peace of Europe, The Fruits of Solitude and Other Writings, edited by Edwin B. Bronner (London: J.M. Dent 1993). Penn argues for freedom of conscience on scriptural, theological, and historical grounds, as well as citing cases of contemporary religious toleration amongst the states in his day, where religious diversity had not caused civil dissension and war. This included the various Muslim empires, which he noticed also were characterised by different sects, all of which apparently lived in peace. He particularly felt that religious persecution was not something Christians should do. Not only was it positively forbidden by scripture, in his opinion, it was unnecessary. Christianity did not need the use of force to prove its truth. Furthermore, the use of force was actually self-defeating, as it caused people to despise, rather than respect Christianity.

Here’s a couple of passages that struck me as particularly acute, though all of the arguments in The Great Case of Liberty and Conscience are worth reading, as one of the arguments for toleration is the peaceful coexisting of Christians and Muslims in Spain under Charles V. This didn’t last long, as they were expelled in the 15th century under Ferdinand and Isabella. Nevertheless, it is important and acutely relevant to today that Penn had no doubts that Christians and Muslims could live together peacefully without religious coercion.

11. It ever was the prudence of the wise magistrate to oblige their people; but what comes shorter of it than persecution? What’s dearer to them than the liberty of their conscience? What cannot they better spare than it? Their peace consists in the enjoyment of it: and he that by compliance has lost it, carries his penalty with him, and is his own prison. Surely such practices must render the government uneasy, and beget a great disrespect to the governors, in the hearts of the people.

12. But which concludes our prudential part shall be this, that after all their pains and good will to stretch men to their measure, they never will be able to accomplish their end: And if he be an unwise man that provides means where he designs no end, how near is he kin to him that proposes an end inobtainable. Experience has told us, 1. How invective it has made the imposed on. 2. What distractions have ensued such attempts. 3. What reproach has followed to the Christian religion, when the professors of it have a used a coercive power upon conscience. And lastly, that force never yet made either a good Christian, or a good subject. (p, 171.)

3. Unity, (not the least, but greatest end of government is lost) for by seeking an unity of opinion (by the ways intended) the unity requisite to uphold us, as a civil society, will be quite destroyed. And such as relinquish that, to get the other (besides that they are unwise) will infallibly lose both in the end. (p. 172).

In short, what religious, what wise, what prudent, what good natured person would be a persecutor; certainly it’s an office only fit for those who being void of all reason, to evidence the verity of their religion, fancy it to be true, from that strong propensity and greedy inclination they find in themselves to persecute the contrary; a weakness of so ill a consequence to all civil societies, that the admission of it ever was, and ever will prove their utter ruin, as well as their great infelicity who pursue it.

And though we could not more effectually express our revenge than by leaving such persons to the scope of their own humours; yet being taught to love and pray for our persecutors, we heartily wish their better information, that (if it be possible) they may act more suitably to the good pleasure of the eternal just God, and beneficially to these nations. (p. 185).

Penn was aware of the counterargument that by arguing for freedom of conscience, he was also arguing for religious Dissenters to be able to attack and murder everyone else, and deals with it in the following passage:

Object. 3. But at this rate ye may pretend to cut our throats, and do all manner of savage acts.

Ans. Though the objection be frequent, yet it is as foully ridiculous. We are pleading only for such a liberty of conscience, as preserve the nation in peace, trade, and commerce; and would not exempt any man, or party of men, from not keeping those excellent laws, that tend to sober, just and industrious living. It is a Jesuitical moral, to kill a man before he is born: first, to suspect him of an evil design, and then kill him to prevent it. (p. 175).

Trump’s embrace of Fascists and anti-Semites, and his automatic suspicion of all Muslims, as somehow a threat to America, is here explicitly condemned by one of the very first founders of America, and a leading figure in the centuries-long campaign for freedom of conscience in Britain. Penn was one of the founders of the great American tradition of religious liberty, a tradition which Trump is determined to attack and uproot. He must not be allowed to do so.

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One Response to “William Penn on Religious Toleration”

  1. 61chrissterry Says:

    Reblogged this on 61chrissterry and commented:
    First founders of America had religious tolerence, unfortunately, is this so for the President-elect.

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