The Great Case Of Liberty Of Conscience

“The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience, so often debated and defended 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……”

William Penn was born in England and become a Quake, converted him from Anglicanism. Penn spent two years in prison for his beliefs, and wrote “the Great Case of Liberty of Conscience” during this time. Later, King Charles II gave Penn’s family a large grant in North America, which was named Pennsilvania. Penn came to American in 1682 and established a Quaker colony.

The Great Case Of Liberty Of Conscience

William Penn

The great case of Liberty of Conscience, so often debated and defended 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. . . .

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.’ . . .

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 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.

William Penn

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