William Penn, The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience, 1670


William Penn


William Penn was born in London in 1644. George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends or Quakers, converted him from Anglicanism. Penn was sent to jail for his beliefs. He spent two years in confinement and wrote extensively on religious freedom. This essay was written during one of his imprisonments. Penn argues that “liberty of conscience” is not “a mere Liberty of Mind” but a liberty to “exercise” religion. He contends civil restraint and persecution of religion carries an “evident claim of [civil] Infallibility” and “enthrones Man as king of conscience King Charles II owed Penn‘s father a large debt, and decided to repay it by giving the family a grant of territory in North America, called Pennsilvania in honor of William’s father, an admiral. In 1682, Penn arrived in America and established one of the most civilly liberal colonies. He returned to England to work for the persecuted Quakers. In 1686, through his influence, all persons imprisoned on account of their religious beliefs were released.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

* * * *

Pg. 186

THE great case of Liberty of Conscience, so often debated and defended (however dissatisfactorily to such as have so little conscience as to persecute for it) is once more brought to public view, by a late Act against Dissenters, and Bill, or an additional one, that we all hoped the wisdom of our rulers had long since laid aside, as what was fitter to be passed into an act of perpetual oblivion. The kingdoms are alarmed at this procedure, and thousands greatly at a stand, wondering what should be the meaning of such hasty resolutions, that seem as fatal as they were unexpected. Some ask what wrong they have done? Others, what peace they have broken? And all, what plots they have formed to prejudice the present government, or occasions given to hatch new jealousies of them and their proceedings? being not conscious to themselves of guilt in any such respect.

For mine own part, I publickly confess myself to be a very hearty Dissenter from the established worship of these nations, as believing Protestants to have much degenerated from their first principles, and as owning the poor despised Quakers, in life and doctrine, to have espoused the cause of God, and to be the undoubted followers of Jesus Christ, in his most holy strait, and narrow way that leads to the eternal rest. In all which I know no treason, nor any principle that would urge me to a thought injurious to the civil peace. If any be defective in this particular, it is equal both individuals and whole societies should answer for their own defaults; but we are clear.

* * * *

Pg. 187

The terms explained, and the question stated.

First, By Liberty of Conscience, we understand not only a mere Liberty of the Mind, in believing or disbelieving this or that principle or doctrine; but ‘the exercise of ourselves in a visible way of worship, upon our believing it to be indispensably required at ‘our hands, that if we neglect it for fear or favor of any mortal man, we sin, and incur ‘divine wrath.’ Yet we would be so understood to extend and justify the lawfulness of our so meeting to worship God, as not to contrive, or abet any contrivance destructive of the government and laws of the land, tending to matters of an external nature, directly or indirectly; but so far only as it may refer to religious matters, and a life to come, and consequently wholly independent of the secular affairs of this, wherein we are supposed to transgress.

Secondly, By imposition, restraint, and persecution, we do not only mean the strict requiring of us to believe this to be true, or that to be false; and upon refusal, to incur the penalties enacted in such cases; but by those terms we mean thus much, ‘any coercive let or hindrance to us, from meeting together to perform those religious exercises which are according to our faith and persuasion.’

The question stated.

For proof of the aforesaid terms thus given, we singly state the question thus;

Whether imposition, restraint, and persecution, upon persons for exercising such a liberty of conscience as is before expressed, and so circumstantiated, be not to impeach the honour of God, the meekness of the Christian religion, the authority of Scripture, the privilege of nature, the principles of common reason, the well-being of government, and apprehensions of the greatest personages of former and latter ages?

First, Then we say, that Imposition, Restraint, and Persecution, for matters relating to conscience, directly invade the divine prerogative, and divest the Almighty of a due, proper to none besides himself. And this we prove by these five particulars:

First, if we do allow the honour of our creation due to God only, and that no other besides himself has endowed us with those excellent gifts of Understanding, Reason, Judgment, and Faith, and consequently that he only is the object, as well as the author, both of our Faith, Worship, and Service; then whosoever shall interpose their authority to enact faith and worship in a way that seems not to us congruous with what he has discovered to us to be faith and worship (whose alone property it is to do it) or to restrain us from what we are persuaded is our indispensible duty, they evidently usurp this authority, and invade his incommunicable right of government over conscience: ‘For the Inspiration of the Almighty gives understanding: And Faith is the gift of God,’ says the divine writ.

Secondly, Such magisterial determinations carry an evident claim to that Infallibility, which Protestants have been hitherto so jealous of owning, that, to avoid the Papists, they have denied it to all but God himself.

Either they have forsook their old plea; or if not, we desire to know when, and where, they were invested with that divine excellency; and whether Imposition, Restraint, and Persecution, Were ever deemed by God the fruits of his Spirit. However, that itself was not sufficient; for unless it appear as well to us that they have it, as to them who have it, we cannot believe it upon any convincing evidence, but by Tradition only; an anti-protestant way of believing.

Thirdly, It enthrones Man as king over conscience, the alone just claim and privilege of his Creator; whose thoughts are not as mens thoughts, but has reserved to himself that empire

Pg. 188

from all the Caesars on earth: For if men, in reference to souls and bodies, things appertaining to this and the other world, shall be subject to their fellow-creatures, what follows, but that Caesar (however he got it) has all, God’s share, and his own too? And being Lord of both, both are Caesar’s, and not God’s.

Fourthly, It defeats God’s work of Grace, and the invisible operation of his eternal Spirit, (which can alone beget faith, and is only to be obeyed, in and about religion and worship) and attributes mens conformity to outward force and corporal punishments. A faith subject to as many revolutions as the powers that enact it.

Fifthly and lastly, Such persons assume the judgment of the great tribunal unto themselves; for to whomsoever men are imposedly or restrictively subject and accountable in matters of faith, worship and conscience; in them alone must the power of judgment reside: But it is equally true that God shall judge all by Jesus Christ; and that no man is so accountable to his fellow-creatures, as to be imposed upon, restrained, or persecuted for any matter of conscience whatever.

Thus, and in any more particulars, are men accustomed to intrench upon Divine Property, to gratify particular interests in the world; and (at best) through a misguided apprehension to imagine ‘they do God good service,’ that where they cannot give faith, they will use force; which kind of sacrifice is nothing less unreasonable than the other is abominable: God will not give his honour to another; and to him only, that searches the heart and tries the reins, it is our duty to ascribe the gifts of Understanding and Faith, without which none can please God.

Source: Select Works of William Penn. To Which is Prefixed a Journal of His Life. (1771).