It is a principle of human action and obligation recognized in both Testaments, that when the requirements of human authority conflict with those of the Father of spirits we must obey God rather than man. The rights of conscience and the rights of God thus coincide, and to trample on the one is to deny the other. And when earthly governments invade this sacred territory they invade the exclusive domain of God and make war upon the very authority from which they have their right to be.
The plea of its necessity for the support of orthodoxy, the maintenance of the truth, and the glory of God will not avail for its justification, for God has not ordained civil government to inflict imprisonment, exile, and death upon religious dissenters, or even heretics; and his truth and glory he has arranged to take care of in quite another fashion. What Justin Martyr and Tertullian in the early Church and Luther in the Reformation-time declared, must for ever stand among the settled verities of Heaven: that it is not right to murder, burn, and afflict people because they feel in conscience bound to a belief and course of life which they have found and embraced as the certain will and requirement of their Maker. We must ward off heresy with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and not with the sword of the state and with fire.
PERSECUTION FOR OPINION’S SAKE.
And yet such abuses of power have been staining and darkening all the ages of human administration, and, unfortunately, among professing Christians as well as among pagans and Jews. Intolerance is so rooted in the selfishness and ambition of human nature that it has ever been one of the most difficult of practical problems to curb and regulate it. Those who have most complained of it whilst feeling it, often only needed to have the circumstances reversed in order to fall into similar wickedness. The Puritans, who fled from it as from the Dragon himself, soon had their Star-Chamber too, their whipping-posts, their death-scaffolds, and their sentences of exile for those who dissented from their orthodoxy and their order. Even infidelity and atheism, always the most blatant for freedom when in the minority, have shown in the philosophy of Hobbes and in the Reign of Terror in France that they are as liable to be intolerant, fanatical, and oppressive when they have the mastery as the strongest faith and the most assured religionism. And the Quakers themselves, who make freedom of conscience one of the chief corner-stones of their religion, have not always been free from offensive and disorderly aggressions upon the rightful sphere of government and the rightful religious freedom of other worshipers. Even so treacherous is the human heart on the subject of just and equal religious toleration.
SPIRIT OF THE FOUNDERS.
It is therefore a matter of everlasting gratitude and thanksgiving that all the men most concerned in the founding of our commonwealth were so clear and well-balanced on the subject of religious liberty, and so thoroughly inwove the same into its organic constitution.