There is a legitimate, natural, Biblical and Reformed liberty of conscience and toleration, to some degree, in various spheres of life and authority. This page delineates their true limits and critiques their pretended allowances, or the abuse of these things.
Order of Contents
Statement of the Question & the Various Viewpoints
Whether the Magistrate has the Power to Compel to a Church Profession?
On Barring Spiritual Seducers from Civil Office
On Romanist Persecution & Tyrrany
On the Legitimate Civil Suppression of Romanism
Statement of the Question & the Various Viewpoints
“The plain English of the question is this:
Whether the Christian Magistrate be keeper of both Tables [of the Law]? Whether he ought to suppress his own enemies, but not God’s enemies, and preserve his own ordinances, but not Christ’s ordinances from violation? Whether the troublers of Israel may be troubled? Whether the wild boars and beasts of the forest must have leave to break down the hedges of the Lord’s vineyard; and whether ravening wolves in sheeps’ clothing must be permitted to converse freely in the flock of Christ? Whether after the black devil of idolatry and tyranny is trod under our feet, a white devil of heresy and schism, under the name of tender consciences, must be admitted to walk up and down among us?
Whether not only pious and peaceable men (whom I shall never consent to persecute), but those also who are as a pestilence or a gangrene in the body of Christ, men of corrupt minds and turbulent spirits, who draw factions after them, make a breach and rent in Israel, resist the truth and reformation of religion, spread abroad all the ways they can their pernicious errors, and by no other means can be reduced; Whether those also ought to be spared and let alone?…
Concerning this Question there are three opinions; two extremes, and one in the middle…
The first opinion is that of the Papists, who hold it to be not only no sin, but good service to God, to extirpate by fire and sword all that are adversaries to, or opposers of the Church and Catholic Religion… Suarez… lays down these assertions:
1. That all heretics, who after sufficient instruction and admonition, still persist in their error, are to be without mercy put to death.
2. That all impenitent heretics, though they profess to be Catholics, being convict[ed] of heresy, are to be put to death.
3. That relapsing heretics, though penitent, are to be put to death without mercy.
4. That it is most probable that heresy-archs, dogmatists, or the authors of an heresy, though truly penitent, yet are not to be received to favor, but delivered to the civil sword.
5. That a heretic who has not relapsed, if before sentence [be] past against him, he convert of his own accord, he is not to be punished with death, but with some smaller punishment, such as perpetual imprisonment, or the like… he says that schismatics may be punished with almost all the punishments of heretics… Some of them also maintain the compelling of infidels to be baptized, as [Duns] Scotus… and they who follow him.
The second opinion does fall short, as far as the former does exceed: that is, that the Magistrate ought not to inflict any punishment, nor put forth any coercive power upon heretics or sectaries, but on the contrary grant them liberty and toleration.
This was the opinion of the Donatists, against which Augustine has written both much and well, in diverse places: though himself was once in the same error… In the same error are the Socinians and Arminians… Mr. [John] Goodwin [an Arminian]… In which places he denies that the Magistrate, and particularly that the two Houses of Parliament may impose any thing pertaining to the service and worship of God under mulcts [fines] or penalties. So M. S. to A. S…. disputes against the coercive power of the Magistrate to suppress heresies and sects…
The third opinion is that the Magistrate may and ought to exercise his coercive power in suppressing and punishing heretics and sectaries, less or more, according as the nature and degree of the error, schism, obstinacy, and danger of seducing others, does require.
This as it was the judgment of the orthodox ancients… so it is followed by our soundest Protestant writers; most largely by Beza… What is it else that Calvin teaches, when he distinguishes three kinds of errors: some to be tolerated with a spirit of meekness, and such as ought not to separate betwixt brethren: others not to be tolerated, but to be suppressed with a certain degree of severity: a third sort so abominable and pestiferous, that they are to be cut off by the highest punishments?
And lest it be thought that this is but the opinion of some few, that the magistrate ought thus by a strong hand, and by civil punishments suppress Heretics and Sectaries: let it be observed what is held forth and professed concerning this business, by the Reformed Churches in their public Confessions of Faith…
A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (1649), Ch. 4, ‘The state of the question of compulsion of conscience and toleration’
“All the question is concerning the imperated [commanded] acts and these external, that is not touching opinions and acts of the mind, but that which is visible and audible in these opinions, to wit, the speaking, professed holding of them, publishing, teaching, printing, and known external persuading of others to be of our mind. So that the question will come to this, whether the Magistrate’s sword be to regulate our words that concerns our neighbor, as that we lie not, we forswear not, to the hurt of the life and credit of our neighbor, that we slander not, rail upon no man, far less against the prince and ruler of the people, but whether the words we utter or publish of God though never such blasphemies, and lies, because they come from the conscience (as is truths or words we speak for or against our neighbor did not flow from a conscience either good or ill) be above or beyond all swords or coercive power of men… But opinions in the Mind, acts of the understanding, can never be proved by witnesses and such as neither Magistrate nor Church can censure.” – pp. 46-47
“Then the true state of the question is not whether the sword be a means of conversion of men to the true faith, nor 2. whether heathen by fire and sword are to be compelled to embrace the truth [which is denied], nor 3. whether violence without instruction and arguing from light of scriptures, should be used against false teachers, nor 4. whether the Magistrate can punish the opinions of the mind, and strain internal liberty.
But whether or no ought the godly and Christian prince restrain and punish with the sword false teachers, publishers of heretical and pernicious doctrines, which may be proved by witness, and tends to the injuring of the souls of the people of God, in a Christian society, and are dishonorable to God, and contrary to sound doctrine; and so coerce men for external misdemeanors flowing from a practical conscience sinning against the second table, as well as from a speculative conscience (to borrow these terms here) when they profess and are ready to swear they perform these externals merely from and for conscience.” – p. 57
Confession of Faith (1645)
ch. 20, ‘Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience’
“III. They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord, without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life[o].
(o) Gal. 5:13; I Pet. 2:16; II Pet. 2:19; John 8:34; Luke 1:74, 75.
IV. And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God[p]. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or, to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church[q], and by the power of the civil magistrate[r].
(p) Matt. 12:25; I Pet. 2:13, 14, 16; Rom. 13:1 to 8; Heb. 13:17.
(q) Rom. 1:32 with I Cor. 5:1, 5, 11, 13; II John ver. 10, 11, and II Thess. 3:14, and I Tim. 6:3, 4, 5, and Tit. 1:10, 11, 13, and Tit. 3:10 with Matt. 18:15, 16, 17; I Tim. 1:19, 20; Rev. 2:2, 14, 15, 20; Rev. 3:9.
(r) Deut. 13:6 to 12; Rom. 13:3, 4 with II John ver. 10, 11; Ezra 7:23, 25, 26, 27, 28; Rev. 17:12, 16, 17; Neh. 13:15, 17, 21, 22, 25, 30; II Kings 23:5, 6, 9, 20, 21; II Chron. 34:33; II Chron. 15:12, 13, 16; Dan. 3:29; I Tim. 2:2; Isa. 49:23; Zech. 13:2, 3.
Ch. 23, ‘Of the Civil Magistrate’
III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven[e]: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed[f]. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God[g].
(e) II Chron. 26:18 with Matt. 18:17 and Matt. 16:19; I Cor. 12:28, 29; Eph. 4:11, 12; I Cor. 4:1, 2; Rom. 10:15; Heb. 5:4.
(f) Isa. 49:23; Ps. 122:9; Ezra 7:23, 25, 26, 27, 28; Lev. 24:16; Deut. 13:5, 6, 12; I Kings 18:4; I Chron. 13:1 to 9; II Kings 23:1 to 26; II Chron. 34:33; II Chron. 15:12, 13.
(g) II Chron. 19:8, 9, 10, 11; II Chron. 29 and 30; Matt. 2:4, 5.
Larger Catechism 1648
109. “The sins forbidden in the Second Commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion[f]…
Calvin, John – ‘A Sermon on the Duty of Civil Rulers to Enforce and Defend the True Religion and True Godliness in their Realms by drawing out the sword against all Heretics and others who trouble the Church, and by strictly punishing whoredom, drunkenness…’ being the 12th Sermon on 1 Timothy, the first on the 2nd chapter, namely vv. 1-2
Michael Servetus was burned for heresy at Geneva on Oct. 27, 1553.
Beza, Theodore – ‘The Magistrate’s Duty to Hunt the Little Foxes’ from Sermon 22 on Canticles, pp. 293-294
Bullinger, Henry – 2nd Decade, 8th Sermon, ‘Of Judgment… Wherefore, When, How and What the Magistrate Must Punish: Whether He May Punish Offenders in Religion or No’ in Decades
Cartwright, Thomas – Helps for Discovery of the Truth in Point of Toleration… wherein the Power and Duty of the Magistrate in Relation to Matters of Religion is discussed; as also whether the Judicial Laws given by Moses to the Jews are abrogated by the coming of Christ. More particularly in relation to some sins, viz. blasphemy, adultery, etc… †1603 12 pp.
Muriell, Christopher – An Answer unto the Catholics’ Supplication presented unto the King’s Majesty, for a Toleration of Popish Religion in England, wherein is contained a confutation of their unreasonable petitions and slanderous lies against our late sovereign Queen Elizabeth… together with an information unto His Majesty of diverse their wicked and treasonable practices, attempted in the life time of our late Queen... ToC (London, 1603)
Relating to the Synod of Dort
Vorstius was a chief leader and promulgator of Arminianism, and successor to Arminius in the theology chair at Leiden, Netherlands.
“But as for Conradus Vorstius himself, who as yet has abated no whit of his errors, and has obstinately contemned the admonitions, and judgments of Reformed Princes, Doctors, Universities, and Churches, not caring to make any due reparation of that scandal, which by his books he has raised, the Synod declares him to be altogether unworthy the function, and name of an orthodox professor, and doctor.
Lastly, this Synod does earnestly, and fervently entreat the illustrious and mighty LL. the [civil] Estates General, that they would be pleased by their authority, quickly to take away this scandal from the Reformed Churches; and withal to take order that the Belgic Churches be no longer infected with this spot, and with such heresies and blasphemous opinions; and that for the effecting hereof the writings of this Vorstius, and of other the like, may with all possible caution be suppressed. And withal prayeth unto God, more and more to keep, and establish the Reformed Churches in peace, and in the profession of Orthodox Doctrine, against such profane heresies, and contentions, and confusions arising out of them: and mercifully to enlighten, and bring back into the way of truth, the said Conradus Vorstius, and all others, that wander with him, that the Church may rejoice, rather for their conversion, than their confusion.”
“…the Estates of Holland, and West-Friesland, having in their Assembly viewed the sentence pronounced by the National Synod of Dort, against… Vorstius… all things duly considered… accordingly they remove… Vorstius from his functions in the said University…
forasmuch as it is evident, that his remaining in these parts is hurtful, as well to the common weal, as to the Church, they banish him out of Holland, and West-Freisland, charging him to depart thence within the space of six weeks, and not to return thither upon such arbitrary penalty as shall in that case be inflicted upon him, as a troubler of the public peace;”
“…an Act made for the dismissing of them from their spiritual functions: and appointing them to live as secular persons, the contents thereof being, that they should faithfully promise, with upright hearts and consciences, from thenceforth, not to intrude themselves, nor once take upon them to deal in any spiritual affairs, services or ceremonies, as Ministers, Teachers, or Officers of the Church, nor to meddle with the same in any manner whatsoever, openly or secretly, directly or indirectly, neither within nor without the Towns, Villages, and places of the United Provinces, nor the resorts thereof, but to behave themselves civilly, honestly, peaceably and modestly, as particular and Secular subjects ought to do, and to govern themselves orderly according to the commandments and precepts of the superior power, and to be obedient thereunto.
To the which Decree and sentence so pronounced, every one of them severally for himself… made answer, that concerning their consciences, they were not bound to be obedient unto the said General States [in this matter]… Their said answer and declaration being wholly conformable to the hurtful, dangerous and pernicious complot and league made by some of their confederates, in form and manner of an Anti-synod, without the consent and commission of the lawful Magistrates… that by their aforesaid proceedings, as also by all other their actions and comportments, it evidently appears, and is most manifest, that they stubbornly and wilfully continue in their insupportable stiff-neckedness, and disobedience against their lawful Magistrates, and that the same their proceedings tend only, to a further disquietness and trouble of the minds and wills of the good and faithful inhabitants and subjects of the said United Provinces, as also to the perturbation not only of politic government, but of the religion which they, by all the means they could devise hitherto have sought, and yet seek to with-draw and separate from the general and upright feeling, and consent of the true Reformed Churches, both within and without the land.
Therefore the said General States have declared… the said persons and their adherents aforesaid, to be hereby discharged, and wholly dismissed of, and from all spiritual functions, offices and duties usually performed in the Church, and merely made secular persons, and that they whose names are hereafter recited, be banished.”
Brookes, Matthew – A Sermon preached… wherein may be seen whom we are to repute heretics, and schismatics, what sleights they use to deceive, God’s just judgments on them, and how we may escape those nets which they lay for us: also good council to the magistrate, minister, and subjects, necessary for these times (London, 1626) See especially pp. 19-20.
Sanderson, Robert – Two Sermons, the former concerning the right use of Christian Liberty… The latter, concerning the persuasion of conscience… (London, 1635)
Sanderson (1587-1663) was an Anglican bishop, theologian and casuist.
Abbot, George – The Supplication of all the Papists of England to King James at his first coming to the crown for a Toleration of their Religion wherein, with much impudence, they profess and protest themselves to be the only obedient ones unto the sovereign Princes under whom they live, out of conscience to avoid sin: when not long after they fell upon that un-exampled piece of villany, the Gun-Powder Treason: whereunto is added, A Letter sent from Bishop Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury to the King, against toleration of the Popish Religion (London, 1642)
Abbot (1562-1633) was a reformed Anglican.
Rudyerd, Sr., Benjamin – ‘Two Speeches in the House of Commons: the first, concerning a contribution for the poor, naked, hunger-starved English, sent out of Ireland into England. The second, concerning toleration of religion in Ireland’ ToC (London, 1642)
Rudyerd (1572-1658) was an Erastian presbyterian, a member of the English House of Commons, and a member of the Westminster Assembly.
Palmer, Herbert – The Glass of God’s Providence towards his Faithful Ones held forth in a Sermon… being an extraordinary day of humiliation: wherein is discovered… the ungodly toleration pleaded for under pretense of Liberty of Conscience (London, 1644)
Rutherford, Samuel – Question 2, ‘Whether the Magistrate has Power to Compel Persons to a Church Profession?’ in The Due Right of Presbyteries (1644), pt. 2, Ch. 6, section 5, pp. 352-361
Miscellany Questions unknown date
pp. 30-41 of A Late Dialogue Betwixt a Civilian & a Divine Concerning the Present Condition of the Church of England… (London, 1644)
“But tell me now your opinion of another matter, and that is concerning liberty of conscience, and toleration of heretics and sectaries, for which there are so many books written of late…
This question about the toleration of those whose way is different from the common rule which shall be established, must be both stated and resolved, cum grano salis [with a grain of salt]. We must remember to distinguish persons from corporations or Churches, and both these from errors.
Again, to distinguish persons, whether godly and gracious, or loose and libertine, whether moderate and peaceable, or factious and turbulent; whether such as have deserved well of the public, or such as have done either no service or a disservice. To distinguish corporation, whether the question be of such only as have a present existence, or of all who shall join to such a way afterward. To distinguish errors, whether practical or doctrinal only, whether fundamental, or circa-fundamental, or neither of the two. To distinguish toleration, whether absolute, or hypothetical and conditional, whether anywhere, or in some few certain places only, whether indefinite and general, or limited and bounded, and if bounded, how far and how much: Whether such toleration as may stand with the Solemn League and Covenant, or such as is inconsistent therewith; whether such as is profitable for the public peace, or such as is apparently destructive thereto.” – pp. 30-31
73 English Ministers – A True Copy of a Letter from Diverse Ministers about Colchester in the county of Essex, to the Assembly of Divines, Against a Toleration [of Independency] (London, 1646) One paragraph
English Parliament – ‘Ordinances of Parliament in Second-Reformation England Concerning Blasphemy & Heresy’ 1646 & 1648
Church of Scotland – Act Approving 8 General Heads of Doctrine Against the Tenents of Erastianism, Independency and Liberty of Conscience, asserted in the 111 Propositions [by George Gillespie], which are to be examined against the next Assembly as prefaced to Gillespie, A Form for Church Government and ordination of ministers, contained in 111 Propositions.. (London, 1647)
“…in zeal for the true Reformed Religion, to give our public testimony against the dangerous tenets of Erastianism, Independency and which is falsely called Liberty of Conscience, which are not only contrary to sound doctrine, but more special lets and hinderances as well to the preservation of our own received Doctrine, Worship, Discipline and Government, as to the work of Reformation and Uniformity in England and Ireland…
8. …the Civil Magistrate may and ought to suppress by corporal or civil punishments, such as by spreading Error or Heresy, or by fomenting Schism, greatly dishonor God, dangerously hurt religion, and
disturb the peace of the Kirk, which Heads of Doctrine (howsoever opposed by the authours and fomenters of the foresaid Errors respectively) the General Assembly does firmly believe, own, maintain,
and commend unto others as solid, true, orthodox, grounded upon the Word of God, consonant to the judgement both of the ancient, and the
best Reformed Kirks.”
39 London Ministers & 13 Westminster Divines – ‘A Testimony to the Truth of Jesus Christ, and to our Solemn League & Covenant; as also Against the Errors, Heresies and Blasphemies of these times, and the Toleration of them…’ (1647; London, 1648) See especially the section listing out the errors of the sectaries on ‘The Errour of Toleration…’ about 3/4 the way down the page.
Real Persecution, or the Foundation of a General Toleration, Displayed and Portrayed by a proper Emblem, and adorned with the same Flowers wherewith the Scoffers of this last age have strewed their Libelous Pamphlets. Collected out of several books of the Sectaries to discover to world their wicked and abusive language against godly Presbyterian Ministers (London, 1647) The last part of this short tract appears to suggest that it was written to the Westminster Assembly.
Rutherford, Samuel – ‘A Brotherly and Free Epistle to the Patrons and Friends of Pretended Liberty of Conscience’ (1648) This is the Preface to his Survey of Spiritual Antichrist
A Testimony of the  Ministers in the Province of Salop [Shropshire], to the Truth of Jesus Christ and to the Solemn League and Covenant, as Also Against the Errors, Heresies, and Blasphemies of these Times, and the Toleration of Them… (London, 1648)
The Hearty Concurrence of Diverse Citizens and Inhabitants of the City of London; with the ministers of the province thereof, to their testimony to their truth of Jesus Christ, and to our Solemn League and Covenant. As Also Against the Errors, Heresies, and Blasphemies of these Times, and the Toleration of Them [London, 1648]
Church of Scotland (Commissioners of the G.A.) – ‘A Solemn Testimony Against Toleration, and the Present Proceedings of Sectaries and their Abettors, in England, in Reference to Religion & Government’ & ‘The Answer of Parliament to the Said Testimony’ (1649) in John Howie, Faithful Witness-Bearing Exemplified: a Collection… (Kilmarnock, 1783)
Presbyterians of London – ‘An Apologetical Declaration of the Conscientious Presbyterians of the Province of London, and of many thousands of other faithful, and Covenant-keeping Citizens… wherein their firmness and faithfulness to their first Principles, and to their Solemn League and Covenant is Conscientiously declared…’ (London, 1649)
Holdsworth, Richard – An Answer without a Question, or, The Late Schismatic Petition for a Diabolical Toleration of Several Religions, Expounded, being presented to the Juncto at Westminster, Aug. 16, 1646 by Colonel Pride and Lieutenant Colonel Goffe and others by the appointment of the Lord Fairfax their General: with some observations upon the mystery of their Iniquity, and the Juncto’s Answer Thereunto (London, 1649)
Holdsworth (1590-1649) was reformed and was an English academic theologian, and Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1637 to 1643. Although Emmanuel was a Puritan stronghold, Holdsworth, who in religion agreed, in the political sphere resisted Parliamentary interference, and showed Royalist sympathies.
‘A Short Defensative about Church Government, Toleration and Petitions about these things’ in A Vision of Unchangeable Free Mercy, in sending the means of grace to undeserved sinners... (London, 1646)
A Sermon preached to the Honourable House of Commons, in Parliament assembled: on Jan. 31, A day of solemn humiliation. With a discourse about toleration, and the duty of the civil magistrate about religion, thereunto annexed… (London, 1649)
Truth and Innocence Vindicated in a Survey of a Discourse concerning Ecclesiastical Polity, and the Authority of the Civil Magistrate over the consciences of subjects in Matters of Religion (London, 1669)
Fergusson, James – ‘A Brief Refutation of the Error of Toleration’ in A Brief Refutation of the Errors Toleration, Erastianism, Independency and Separation (1652; Edinburgh, 1692)
Downame, George – A Brief Sum of Divinity, Showing the plainest way, how a man ought to examine his ways in this life, to the attainment of Eternity. Wherein The whole Doctrine of Christian Liberty is briefly handled… (Oxford, 1652) 22 pp.
Dickson, David – ‘The Magistrate’s Duty to Suppress all Blasphemy & Heresy’ from Truth’s Victory Over Error 165?
Rutherford, Guthrie & other Ministers of Perth & Fife – ‘Testimony Against Cromwell’s Toleration’ (1659) in John Howie, Faithful Witness-Bearing Exemplified: a Collection… (Kilmarnock, 1783) pp. 90-120
Presbytery of Edinburgh – ‘A Testimony and Warning of the Presbytery of Edinburgh Against a late Petition tending (in the Scope and Design thereof) to the Overturning of the Ordinances and Truth of Christ in this Church’ 1659
“…some, upon designs best known to themselves, have projected, and (as we have the charity to believe) ensnared others to join with them in a Petition, for making void and abolishing all civil Sanctions establishing the Doctrine, Discipline, and Government of this Church (the fruits of the many prayers and sad sufferings of the Godly in this and former ages) that so they may enjoy a vast Toleration and encouragement in embracing vilest errors, which they are pleased to set off under the specious names of just Liberties and Gospel-priviledges.”
Guthrie, James – ‘Consideration Third: From the Toleration and Protection that is pleaded for, and allowed to many gross Errors and Heresies’ in Some Considerations Contributing unto the Discovery of the Dangers that threaten Religion and the Work of Reformation in the Church of Scotland (1660; Glasgow, 1780) about 1/4 the way down the page.
Baxter, Richard – Fair-Warning, or 25 Reasons against Toleration and Indulgence of Popery with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter to the King and all the bishops of Irelands’ protestation to the Parliament to the same purpose: with an Answer to the Roman-Catholics’ Reasons for Indulgence… (London, 1663) 39 pp.
van Mastricht, Peter – Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 5, 1.7.6, §XIX, Question 6, ‘Are heretics to be punished by death?’
Editor Michael Spangler: “On the punishment of heretics, van Mastricht says the Reformed take the middle way between the Romanist inquisition and Anabaptist and Remonstrant libertarianism. The Reformed teach, in his words: “That contumacious heretics, blasphemers who cannot be otherwise corrected, are, as the case arises, to be punished, even, if the case so requires, by death.”
And on the other hand, they deny: “That those merely seduced by the cunning of heretics are to be punished.” He makes many clarifying distinctions, in a brief compass reflecting a long history of careful Reformed thought on the matter, and he defends the position from Scripture.
The next question he treats is, ‘Ought the civil magistrate to coerce men to faith?’ This he firmly denies, against the papists who were currently persecuting the Huguenots. A distinction from the first question helps: the magistrate has no authority over the soul and conscience of a man, but he nonetheless does have it over his tongue and hands, and thus he can just as well punish a heresy by which his subjects’ soul is destroyed, as a robbery by which their body is destroyed.“
Renwick, James – The Testimony of Some Persecuted Presbyterian Ministers of the Gospel, unto the Covenanted Reformation of the Church of Scotland, and to the present expediency of continuing to preach the Gospel in the Fields, and against the present Antichristian Toleration in its nature and design, etc. 1688
Four Grand Questions Proposed, and Briefly Answered wherein is discoursed,  the Authority and Duty of the Magistrate in the matters of Religion,  the unlawfulness of a Toleration and General Liberty of Conscience,  the divine right of Christian Liberty in things indifferent,  the unlawfulness of repealing the laws against Popery and Idolatry ToC (London, 1689)
Houschone, William – The Conduct and Conveyance of our Fathers and Martyrs’ Testimony in the Church of Scotland Justified and Continued. The Parallel Testimony in 38 and 49 reciprocal, with the present testimony against Popery, Prelacy, Liberty of Conscience, stated and delineated, from the Bible, Reason, and Testimony of History ToC ([Edinburgh] 1690)
Wake, William – The False-Prophets tried by their Fruits, being a sermon preached… 1699, in which it is shown that the principles, and practices, of the Church of Rome (with relation to those whom they call heretics) are not only destructive of civil society, but are utterly irreconcilable with the Gospel of Christ (London, 1700)
Wake (1657–1737) was an Anglican priest and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1716 until his death in 1737.
Howie, John – ‘A Preface Concerning Association, Toleration, and what is now called Liberty of Conscience’ 17 pp. in Faithful Witness-Bearing Exemplified: a Collection… (Kilmarnock, 1783)
Howie was a Scot who had separatistic principles; not everything he says (without much more qualification) about associations is recommended.
Wilson, James R. – ‘Essay on Tolerance’ (1823)
Downame, George – The Christian’s Freedom wherein is fully expressed the doctrine of Christian liberty… (Oxford, 1635)
Reasons against the Independent Government of Particular Congregations: as also Against the Toleration of such Churches to be Erected in this Kingdom. Together with an answer to such reasons as are commonly alleged for such a Toleration… (London, 1641) 54 pp.
Edwards (1599-1647) was a major defender of Presbyterianism in England.
Cotton, John – The Bloody Tenet, Washed, and made White in the Blood of the Lamb: being discussed and discharged of blood-guiltiness by just defense. Wherein the great questions of this present time are handled, viz. how far liberty of conscience ought to be given to those that truly fear God? And how far restrained to turbulent and pestilent persons, that not only raze the foundation of godliness, but disturb the civil peace where they live? Also how far the magistrate may proceed in the duties of the First Table? And that all magistrates ought to study the word and will of God, that they may frame their government according to it. Discussed. As they are alleged from diverse Scriptures, out of the Old and New Testament. Wherein also the practice of princes is debated, together with the judgement of ancient and late writers of most precious esteem. Whereunto is added a reply to Mr. Williams answer to Mr. Cotton’s letter HathiTrust ToC (London, 1647)
The baptist, Roger Williams (1603–1683), who was exiled from puritan Boston, New England, was the first main promoter in America of the idea that the Magistrate was not to uphold the First Table of God’s Law. His 1644 book was entitled, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience… (see Wikipedia). Williams responded to Cotton’s work in 1652, with a piece entitled, The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy by Mr. Cotton’s Endeavour to Wash it…
Cradock, Walter – Gospel-Liberty, in the Extensions [and] Limitations of it. Wherein is laid down an exact way to end the present dissensions, and to preserve future peace among the saints… (London, 1648) on 1 Cor. 10:23
Rutherford, Samuel – A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (London, 1649) This ed. includes an extended Table of Contents.
A disputation was a form of debating in the schools upon a given topic. That it is ‘free’ means that it is not constrained to that format or rules, and is open to all.
The civil toleration of erroneous Christian sects and heresies had been growing in England during the 1640’s and threatened Scotland with the invasion of Oliver Cromwell. Here, Rutherford argues from Scripture against what would later become the predominant viewpoint of American politics, even arguing against the first, leading proponent of that view, Roger Williams (1603–1683), a baptist who was kicked out of the puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony for, amongst other things, teaching relentlessly that the civil magistrate is not to uphold the First Table of God’s Moral Law.
‘To the Godly & Impartial Reader’
“I offer (Worthy Reader) to your impartial and ingenuous censure these my ensuing thoughts against Liberty of Conscience, from which way, looking to me with a face of atheism, I call the adversaries, Libertines, not intending to reach a blow to any godly man, or to wound those who out of weakness are captivated with that error, but to breed in the hearts of the godly a detestation of that way, which in truth has its rise from Libertinism, and savors rankly of wide, loose and bold atheistical thoughts of the majesty of God, as if our conscience had a Prerogative Royal beside[s] a rule… and our faith and hope [according to it] must be resolved in the first principle of skepticism. So it seems to me, for the young daughters of the mind, the simplest acts of apprehending, knowing, believing God and divine truths are innocent, harmless ill-less soul-works, being from under all dominion of either free-will or a divine Law; and the mind [according to it, being] a free-born absolute Princess, can no more incur guiltiness in its operations about an infinite Sovereign God and his revealed will by this lawless way, than the fire in burning, the sun in enlightening, the stone in moving downward, be arraigned of any breach of Law, if toleration have place.
All certainty of believing, all steadfastness, rooting and unmovable establishing in the truth, all life of consolations and comforts in the Scriptures, all peace of heavenly confidence, all joy unspeakable and full of glory, all lively hope, all patient and submissive waiting for the fruits of the harvest, all wrestling in prayer, all gloriation in tribulation and all triumphing in praising, all rejoicing in the Spirit, being bottomed on fallible opinions, on doubtful disputations of skeptics, may be the reelings of windmills, fair fancies and dreams; for who (say they) is infallible? and who hath known the mind of the Lord? so as the truth must be monopolized to any one sect or way? Who in faith or fullness of assurance can convince or rebuke gainsayers, heretics, or such as bring another doctrine, as those whom you so labor to convince and rebuke?
3. Conscience is hereby made every man’s rule, umpire, judge, Bible, and his God, which if he follow, he is but at the worst, a godly, pious, holy heretic, who fears his conscience more than his Creator, and is to be judged of you a saint.
4. Hence conscience being deified, all rebuking, exhorting, counter-arguing, yea all the ministry of the Gospel must be laid aside; no man must judge [a] brother [an] idolater, or brother Familist, or saints to be Socinians, or men of corrupt minds, perverse disputers, vain-janglers, wresters, rackers or torturers of Scripture, whose words eat as a canker, who subvert whole houses, who speak the visions of their own head and see false burdens, for all these who were of old, but are now quite gone out of the world; for who can make a window in any man’s soul and see there heart-obstinacy which only does essentially constitute the heretic, the blasphemer, the false prophet [according to them]?
But is not brotherly forbearance, Christian indulgence a debt we owe to brethren, saints, and the truly godly in errors, and mind infirmities, which by a natural emanation or resultance get the fore-start of freewill? To which I shall speak in these few considerations:
1. It is much to be desired with the prayers and suits of the children of God that where there are two opinions, there may be one heart, that the Father of Spirits would unite the hearts of all the children of one Father and the heirs of one house.
2. Papists here have exceeded in boundless domination and tyranny over the consciences of men: and what ever is contrary to the lawless decrees of their councils and popes is an unexpiable heresy and cannot be purged but by fire and fagot. 2. Whoever refuse subjection of conscience to that enemy of Christ, and to that woman-mistress of witchcrafts, on whose skirts is found the blood of the martyrs of Jesus, is presently an heretic, and his arguments answered with burning-quick [alive]: this tyranny over conscience we disclaim; yet for that, ought not the other extremity of wild toleration be embraced.
3. We cannot think but all saints in this side of glory carry to Heaven with them errors, mistakes and prophesying in part [1 Cor. 13], and the fairest stars and lights in this lower firmament of the Church are clouded, and the benefit of the moon serves to enlighten the under garden of lillies, where ‘Christ feedeth, till the day break, and the shadows flee away.’ And here brotherly indulgence and reciprocation of the debt of compassionate forbearance of the infirmities one of another must have place.
4. Yet so, as there can be no conflict of grace against grace, nor can the taking off the foxes which destroy the vines be contrary to the gentleness and meekness of the saints in fulfilling the law of love and bearing one another’s burdens, nor can love seated essentially in a new born child of the second birth be contrary to the zeal of God in withstanding to the face a Saint looking awry, and walking not with a straight foot according to the truth of the gospel; which way if heeded in sincerity, should breed more union of hearts, and be a greater testimony of faithfulness to a straying sheep than our cruel meekness and bloody gentleness in a pretended bearing with tender consciences under a color of paying the debt of bastard love, while as we suffer millions to perish, through silence and merciless condolency with them in their sinful depraving of the truth.”
ch. 24, ‘Whether punishing of seducing Teachers, be inconsistent with the meekness of Christ?’
“It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spiritual and diabolic cruelty to many thousand souls, whom he did pervert, and by his Book, does yet lead into perdition.” – p. 257 (290)
Lyford, William – The Instructed Christian, or the Plain Man’s Senses Exercised to Discern Both Good and Evil, being a discovery of the Errors, Heresies, and Blasphemies of these Times, and the Toleration of them, as they are collected and testified against by the ministers of London, in their testimony to the truth of Jesus Christ (†1653; 1655) 350 pp.
Bolton, Samuel – The True Bounds of Christian Freedom: Or a Treatise wherein the rights of the law are vindicated, the liberties of grace maintained; and the several late opinions against the law are examined and confuted… (London, 1656)
Clarke, Samuel – Golden Apples. Or Seasonable and Serious Counsel from the Sanctuary to the Rulers of the Earth, held forth in the Resolution of Sundry Questions, and Cases of Conscience about divisions, schisms, heresies, and the Toleration of Them. Collected out of the writings of the most Orthodox, and Judicious Divines, both Presbyterians, and Independents ToC (London, 1659)
Clarke (1599-1683) was an English presbyterian who took part in the Savoy Conference, was ejected in the Great Ejection of 1662 and is known for his ecclesiastical biographies.
Ferguson, Robert – A Representation of the Threatening Dangers, impending over Protestants in Great Britain With an account of the arbitrary and popish ends, unto which the declaration for liberty of conscience in England, and the proclamation for a toleration in Scotland, are designed (Edinburgh, 1687)
Ferguson (c.1637-1714) was a Church of Scotland minister and Anglican clergyman who was ejected in the Great Ejection of 1662. He was also a political pamphleteer and conspirator, known as “the Plotter”.
Edwards, Jonathan – A Third Letter Concerning Toleration: In Defense of the Argument of the Letter concerning Toleration, briefly Considered and Answered (Oxford, 1691)
This Edwards (c.1638-1712) was a reformed, Anglican bishop and vice-chancellor of Oxford.
Brown, John, of Haddington – The Absurdity and Perfidy of all Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, Popery, in Britain: in two letters to a friend, in which the doctrine of the Westminster Confession of faith relative to toleration of a false religion, and the power of the civil magistrate about sacred matters… are candidly represented and defended Buy 1780 160 pp.
Brown (1722-1787) was the grandfather of John Brown of Edinburgh and was one of the leading seceder ministers of the Scottish Church.
Bruce, Archibald – Free Thoughts on the Toleration of Popery (1780) 480 pp.
Bruce (1746-1816) was a Secession (Anti-Burgher) minister author and professor of Divinity (successor to Moncreiff). ‘When the British Parliament repealed the penal statutes against Roman Catholocism in 1778, Bruce defended legal restraints in’ this work.’ (DSCH&T)
John Trapp & William Perkins
By ‘Christian magistrate’ in the quote below, Perkins is assuming the context of a Christian nation, and the ruler’s obligation to a wayward, baptized people.
Commentary on Lk. 14:23
“Ver. 23, ‘Compel them’ – This may be meant (says Mr. [William] Perkins) of the Christian magistrate; for that is the magistrate’s duty in respect of the outward profession.”
The Dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland, or, A Treatise Concerning Scandal... (1659), pt. 3, ch. 13, p. 247
“4. We may add this consideration, that hitherto toleration of errors and diversity of corrupt opinions have ever been looked upon, and made use of, as a most subtle means for undermining and destroying of the Church.
It is marked of that skillful enemy of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Julian [A.D. 331-363], that having improven his subtilty to the utmost to find out means to destroy the Church by craft, which his predecessors by violence could not obtain, amongst other means he concluded this: Not to raise open persecution but to give liberty to all the differing bishops and teachers (which then, after the Council of Nicea and Constantine’s death, were very many and bitter in their differences) to follow their own way, and to vent their own opinions without all fear of any restraint: and therefore did call them that he might make intimation thereof to them for their further encouragement therein;
The words which he used to them, as they are marked by Ammianus and cited by Lodovicus Molineus (p. 560) are: Ut consopitis civilibus discordiis, suae quisque Religioni serviret intrepidus, that is, in sum, That everyone forbearing civil discords, should worship in his own religion without control or fear: And is it like, that this shall prove a mean useful for the good of the Church, which that expert child of the devil did make use of to destroy the same?”
Appendix, p. 14 in Isaac D’Huisseau, The Re-Union of Christians: or, The Means to Re-Unite All Christians in One Confession of Faith (d. 1672; London: Henry Mortlock, 1708) This was a French reformed work, translated into English.
“Why truly, after all other means have been used, and costly experiments tried, I believe none will be found more successful, than to maintain the established [English] Church in all its rights, privileges and revenues, keeping close to the constitution which has been so long settled and naturalized to us, supporting it on its ancient basis, without making any material alteration, and hereby sapping the foundation on which ’tis built; but taking care that those who differ from it really on principle, they shall be easy, by granting them such a limited toleration and liberty that they may rest secure [that] they shall not suffer merely for conscience sake, whilst they behave themselves peaceably under the government, and do not make use of any pretended difference in opinion to disturb the peace of the State or the established Church.”
Whether the Magistrate has the Power to Compel to a Church Profession?
Due Right of Presbyteries (1644), pt. 2, Ch. 6, section 5, pp. 352-3, 6 Considerations
1. The Magistrate may compel to the means and external acts of worship, and to desisting from external false worship of the false God, or of the true God worshipped in a false way he cannot compel to internal acts of faith, love and such like, as having no power over the conscience.
2. There is one consideration of a Heathen or Pagan nation which never received Christianity and the true faith, and another consideration of a nation baptized and professing Christ.
3. A Magistrate may compel a heathen nation to the negative reverence of Christ in a indirect way, and that with the sword, though he cannot compel to the positive worshipping of Him: if a Christian Prince subdue a Pagan nation, he cannot force them with the sword to a positive receiving of the doctrine of the Gospel, but if it be a nation expressly blaspheming Christ, as the nation of the Jews now do, he may compel them to an abstinence from a professed blaspheming of Christ, because he is to use the sword against blasphemy.
4. The weapons of the Church as the Church are not carnal, but spiritual and mighty through God.
5. The compelling power of the Magistrate is terminated upon external worship as abstracted from either hypocrisy or sincerity in worship.
6. Though no man resist the Magistrate in a matter of religion, except in a hypocritical way, save only he who thinks he has reason and is led by the judgement and inditement [conviction] of conscience to resist, yet is not the enlightment of conscience, but only the Word of God the rule of man’s obedience or resisting in actions, purposes and conversation.
[Rutherford goes on to prove these positions in the next 6 Conclusions on pp. 353-357]
The Dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland, or, A Treatise Concerning Scandal… (1659), pt. 3, ch. 4, pp. 252-4
“7. They [civil magistrates] might and ought to give their countenance unto, and join their authority with, such ecclesiastic statutes, overtures, or means, as Church-judicatories or officers might be about to make use of for this end in their places; and this can be no more prejudice to liberty, to countenance with their authority the ordinance of discipline, than to confirm by their authority the ordinance of preaching the Gospel.
9. In recovering a people, in a reeling and staggering time, a magistrate may engage them to formerly received truth, and interpose his authority for this end, as is recorded of Josiah, 2 Chron. 34:31-33. Also,
10. He may and ought to remove all false worships, and endure no corrupt preaching, or writing, or meetings for that end, or administrating of corrupted sacraments, or any ordinance other than what is allowed; for, Josiah did cause the people stand to the Covenant that was made, and having removed all idolatrous worship, he made Israel to serve the Lord, that is, he made them abandon corrupt worship, and wait on pure ordinances, as keeping of the sabbaths, offering of sacrifices, etc. and that according to the manner prescribed by the Lord.
Neither was it a wronging of their liberty, to do so, because:
1. It was the preservation of their liberty, to keep them from the abominable bondage of these evils.
2. It was their duty to abstain from these, and to follow the ordinances purely, and the magistrate may well put people to that.
3. It is one thing by force to keep folks from dishonouring God in a corrupt religion, (as Josiah did) another to force them to a religion; the one belongs to the ordering of the outward man, the other to the inward.
4. He might order them to keep the ordinances, and in going about them to keep the rule, because that is but a constraining of them to the means whereby religion works, and a making them, as it were, to give God a hearing, leaving their yielding and consenting to Him, when they have heard Him, to their own wills, which cannot be forced; yet it is reason that when God comes by His ordinances to treat with a people, that a magistrate should so far respect His glory and their good as to interpose His authority to make them hear.
5. Also, there is a difference between the constraining of a circumcised or baptized people, to worship God in the purity of ordinances, as they have been engaged thereto, which was Josiah’s practice, and the constraining of a people to engage and be baptized, which were not formerly engaged; because, actual members of a Church have not even that liberty as others have, to abandon ordinances: and this puts them to no new engagement in religion, but presses them to continue under former engagements, and accordingly to perform: Hence we see, that both in the Old and New Testament, Church-members have been put to many things, and restrained from many things, which had not been pertinent in the case of others. See, 2 Chron. 15:13.”
On Barring Spiritual Seducers from Civil Office
The Dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland, or, A Treatise Concerning Scandal… (1659), pt. 3, ch. 14, p. 256
“8. They [civil magistrates] may and ought to make such [spiritual seducers] incapable of public places of trust, and remove them from such: Because,
1. They cannot be supposed to employ their power singly.
2. Because such trust agreeth not to men and subjects as such, but are voluntarily conferred as tokens of respect put upon men eminently qualified, and as may be for the good of the commonwealth: And therefore it cannot be justly accounted a marring of their liberty as men or subjects. Upon this ground was Maachah the mother of Asa removed from being Queen, or having any government, 1 Kings 15:13; 2 Chron. 15:16, yet it cannot be said she was wronged when she was so dealt with.”
Due Right of Presbyteries (1644), pt. 2, Appendix, p. 355, 357
“This opinion is the way to Arminian liberty of conscience, that men in a Christian commonwealth may be of any religion, and the Magistrate is to behold men as an indifferent spectator, not caring what religion they be of, whether they be Papists, Jews, Pagans, Anabaptists, Socinians, Macedonians, etc. which should infer that the Magistrate were no nurse-father of the true Church, nor yet a preserver of religion, if men might be of any religion…
…only our brethren who deny that the Magistrate can compel any to an external profession of the Gospel, do herein follow Arminians and Socinians. So the Remonstrants [Arminians] and Episcopius [their leader] deny that the Magistrate can use any bodily punishment against heretics. The learned [reformed] Professors of Leiden observe that Arminians here teach that same with the Socinians…”
On Romanist Persecution & Tyranny
Barlow, Thomas – A Discourse Concerning the Laws Ecclesiastical and Civil Made Against Heretics by Popes, Emperors and Kings, Provincial and General Councils, Approved by the Church of Rome, with a Preface Against Persecuting & Destroying Heretics, by a Cordial Friend to the Protestant Religion now by Law Established in these Realms (London, 1682) ToC
Du Moulin, Pierre – Papal Tyranny, or a Discourse showing what Tyranny the Popes have Exercised over England for Some Ages, under Color of Absolution & Satisfaction. And from what Horrible Bondage England was Delivered by the Light of the Gospel (London, 1674) 80 pp.
England’s Grievances in Times of Popery, Drawn out of the Canon Law, Decretal Epistles & Histories of those Times: with Reasons why all Sober Protestants may expect no better dealing from the Roman-Catholics should God, for their sins, suffer them to Fall under the Pope’s Tyranny Again (London, 1679)
Popery & Tyranny, or the Present State of France, in relation to its Government, Trade, Manners of the people and Nature of the Country as it was sent in a letter from an English gentleman abroad to his friend in England, wherein may be seen the Tyranny the Subjects of France are under… (London, 1679)
‘A Brief Account of the Present Persecution of the French Protestants’ 2 pp. appended to The French Convert: being a True Relation of the Happy Conversion of a Noble French Lady from the Errors & Superstitions of Popery to the Reformed Religion... (London, 1699), pp. 80-82
Oates, Titus – ‘French Persecutions: or what Protestants must expect from Papists if they get the power over’um’ in A Balm Presented to these Nations, England, Scotland & Ireland: to cure the wounds of the bleeding Protestants & open the eyes of the deluded papists… (late 1680’s?) 3 pp.
The Edict of Nantes, which had allowed the toleration of Protestantism in some parts of France, was revoked by the French king in 1685; what followed was disaster for Protestants.
R.B. – Martyrs in Flames, or Popery (in its True Colors) Displayed. Being a Brief Relation of the Horrid Cruelties and Persecutions of the Pope and Church of Rome for many hundred years past, to this present age, inflicted upon Protestants in Piedmont: With an abstract of the cruel persecution lately exercised upon the Protestants in France & Savoy in the year 1686 & 1687: Together with a short account of God’s judgment upon popish persecutors (London, 1693)
On the Legitimate Civil Suppression of Romanism
A Model for the French King, or the Memorable Acts of Henry the Eighth Extirpating Popery and Introducing the Protestant Religion, Collected out of the Most Authentic Records of the most Memorable Things Referring to the Reformation, for public good (London, 1682)
See also our more extensive Latin section on our page The Civil Magistrate’s Authority Around Spiritual Things (Circa Sacra), which includes the piece by Voet mentioned below.
Pareus, David – An Inaugural Oration on Protecting Heretics by a [Civil] Trust: Even, seriously, Whether it ought to be Determined for Jesuits & Sophists of the Papacy… having conferred with… Abraham Scultetus in Most Frequent Conferencing… (Heidelberg, 1618) 30 pp.
Calvin, John – A Defense of the Orthodox Faith about the Sacred Trinity, contra the Monstrous Errors of Michael Servetus of Spain, wherein is Displayed that Heretics ought to be Coerced by the Law of the Sword… (Robert Stephani, 1554) 260 pp. This book was subscribed by 15 Genevan ministers.
“Concerning this question [of civil toleration] there are three opinions; two extremes, and one in the middle [which is the reformed view]. So it is resolved not only by Dr. Voetius, in his late disputations De Libertate Conscientiae [On Liberty of Conscience], but long before by Calvin, in his Refutation of the errors of Servetus, where he disputes this very question, Whether Christian Judges may lawfully punish Heretics.” – Gillespie, Wholesome Severity
Lentolo, Scipione – An Orthodox Response for the Edict of the Most Illustrious, Three Doctors of Divinity of the Covenanted States of Raetia, Against Heretics and Other Disruptive Promulgators of the Raetian Churches, in which is Disputed out of the Word of God the Authority & Office of the Magistrate in Coercing Heretics ([Geneva] 1592) 347 pp.
Lentolo (1525-1599) was a reformed, Itallian minister who succeeded Jerome Zanchi at a church in Chiavenna, Italy, and had suffered under the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Raetia was a province of the Roman Empire at the time, which now consists of parts of modern day Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy.