Religious Liberty.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  THE magistate may advert to subjects connected with religion, so far as the public good requires, and as Christianity permits,—or, upon these, as upon other subjects, he may endeavour to promote the welfare of the people by Christian means. What the public welfare does require, and what means for promoting it are Christian, are separate considerations.

  Upon which grounds, those advocates of religious liberty appear to assert too much who assert, as a fundamental principle, that a government never has, nor can have, any just concern with religious opinions. Unless these persons can show that no advertence to them is allowed by Christianity, and that none can contribute to the public good,—circumstances may arise in which an advertence would be right. No one perhaps will deny that a government may lawfully provide for the education of the people, and endeavour to diffuse just notions and principles, moral and religious, into the public mind. A government, therefore, may endeavour to discountenance unsound notions and principles. It may as reasonably discourage what is wrong as cherish what is right.

  But by what means? By influencing opinions, not by punishing persons who hold them. When a man publishes a book or delivers a lecture for the purpose of enlightening the public mind, he does well. A government may take kindred measures for the same purpose,—and it does well. But this is all. If our author or lecturer, finding his opinions were not accepted, should proceed to injure those who rejected them, he would act, not only irrationally, but immorally. If a government, finding its measures do not influence or alter the views of the people, injures those who reject its sentiments, it acts immorally too. A man’s opinions are not alterable at his own will; and it is not right to injure a man for doing that which he cannot avoid. Besides, in religious matters especially, it is the Christian duty of a man, first, to seek truth, and next to adhere to those opinions which truth, as he believes, teaches. And so again it is not right to injure a man for doing that which it is his duty to do. When, therefore, it is affirmed, at the head of this chapter, that the magistrate may advert to subjects connected with religion, nothing more is to be understood than that he may endeavour to diffuse just sentiments, and to expose the contrary. To do more than this, although he may think his measures may promote the public welfare, would be to endeavour to promote it “by means which the moral law forbids.”

  To inflict civil disabilities is “to do more than this,” it is “to injure a man for doing that which he cannot avoid,” and “that which it is his duty to do.” Here, indeed, a sophism has been resorted to in order to show that disabilities are not injuries. It is said of the dissenters of this country, that no penalty is inflicted upon them by excluding them from offices, that the state confers certain offices upon certain conditions, with which conditions a dissenter does not comply. And it is said that this is no more a penalty or a hardship than, when the law defines what pecuniary qualifications capacitate a man for a seat in parliament, it inflicts a penalty upon those who do not possess them. I answer, Both are penalties and hardships, and that the argument only attempts to justify one ill practice by the existence of another. It will be said that such regulations are necessary to the public good. Bring the proof. Here is a certain restraint: “The proof of the advantage of a restraint,” says Dr. Paley, “lies upon the legislature.” Unless, therefore, you can show,—what to me is extremely problematical,—that the public is benefited by a law that excludes a poor man from the legislature, the argument wholly fails. Consider for what purpose men unite in society, “in order,” says Grotius, “to enjoy common rights and advantages,”—of which rights and advantages, eligibility to a representative body is one. Those principles of political rectitude which determine that a law which needlessly restrains natural liberty is wrong, determine that a law which needlessly restrains the enjoyment of the privileges of society is wrong also. It is therefore not true that a dissenter suffers no hardship or penalty on account of his opinions. The only difference between disabilities and ordinary penalties is this, that one inflicts evil and the other withholds good; and both are, to all intents and purposes, penalties.

  But even if the legislator thought he could show that the public were benefited by this penalty, upon conscientious dissidents, it would not be sufficient,—for the penalty itself is wrong,—it is not Christian; and it is vain to argue that an unchristian act can be made lawful by prospects of advantage. Here, as everywhere else, we must maintain die supremacy of the moral law.

  All these reasonings proceed upon the supposition that a man does not, in consequence of his opinions, disturb the peace of society by any species of violence. If he does, he is doubtless to be restrained. It may not be more necessary for the magistrate to inquire what are a man’s opinions of religion, than for a rider to inquire what are the cogitations of his horse. So long as my horse carries me well, it matters nothing to me whether he be thinking of safe paces or of meadows and corn-chests. So long as the welfare of the public is secured, it matters nothing to the magistrate what notion of Christianity a citizen accepts. But if my horse, in his anxiety to get into a meadow, leaps over a hedge and impedes me in my journey, it is needful that I employ the whip and bridle: and if the citizen, in his zeal for opinions, violates the general good, it is needful that he should be punished or restrained. And even then, he is not restrained for his opinions but for his conduct; just as I do not apply the whip to my horse because he loves a meadow, but because he goes out of the road.

  And even in the case of conduct, it is needful to discriminate, accurately, what is a proper subject of animadversion and what is not. I perceive no truth in the ingenious argument, “That a man may entertain opinions, however pernicious, but he may not be allowed to disseminate them; as a man may keep poison in his house, but may not be allowed to give it to others as wholesome medicine.” To support this argument you must have recourse to a petitio principii. How do you know that an opinion is pernicious? By reasoning and examination, if at all; and that is the very end which the dissemination of an opinion attains. If the truth or falsehood of an opinion were demonstrable to the senses, as the mischief of poison is, there would be some justness in the argument; but it is not; except, indeed, that there may be opinions so monstrous, that they immediately manifest their unsoundness by their effects on the conduct; and if they do this, these effects, and not the dissemination of the opinion, are the proper subject of animadversion. The doctrine, that a man ought not to be punished for disseminating whatever opinions he pleases, upon whatever subject, will receive some illustration in a future chapter. Meantime, the reader will, I hope, be prepared to admit, at least, that the religious opinions which obtain among Christian churches are not such as to warrant the magistrate in visiting those who disseminate them with any kind of penalty. What the magistrate may punish, and what an individual ought to do, are very different considerations: and though there is reason to think that no man should be punished by human laws for disseminating vicious notions, it is to be believed that those who consciously do it will be held far other than innocent at the bar of God.

  All reference to creeds in framing laws for a general society is wrong. And it is somewhat humiliating that, in the present age, and in our country, it is necessary to establish this proposition by formal proof. It is humiliating, because it shows us how slow is the progress of sound principles upon the human mind, even when they are not only recommended by reason but enforced by experience. It is now nearly a century and a half since one of our own colonies adopted a system of religious liberty which far surpassed that of the parent state at the present hour. And this system was successful, not negatively, in that it produced no evil, but positively, in that it produced much good. One hundred and fifty years is a long time for a nation to be learning a short and plain lesson. In Pennsylvania, in addition to a complete toleration of “Jews, Turks, Catholics, and people of all persuasions in religion,”1 there was no disability or test exacted of any professor of the Christian faith. “All persons,” says Burke, “who profess to believe in one God are freely tolerated. Those who believe in Jesus Christ, of whatever denomination, are not excluded from employments and posts.”2 The wisdom or justice of excluding those who were not Christians from employments and posts may be doubted. Penn, however, did much; and far outstripped in enlightened institutions the general example of the world. If he had lived in the present day, it is not improbable that a mind like his would have seen no better reason for excluding those who disbelieved Christianity than those who believed it imperfectly or by parts. The consequences, we say, were happy. Burke says again of Penn, “He made the most perfect freedom, both religious and civil, the basis of his establishment; and this has done more towards the settling of the province, and towards the settling of it in a strong and permanent manner, than the wisest regulations could have done on any other plan.”3 “By the favourable terms,” says Morse, “which Mr. Penn offered to settlers, and an unlimited toleration of all religious denominations, the population of the province was extremely rapid.”4 And yet England is, at this present hour, doubting and disputing whether tests are right!

  Nor is example wanted at the present day.—“America, the question is not, What is his creed? but, What is his conduct? Jews have all the privileges of Christians.—No religious test is required to qualify for public office; except, in some cases, a mere verbal assent to the truth of the Christian religion.—While I was in New-York,” adds Duncan, “the sheriff of the city was a Jew.”5—It is vain to make any objection to the argument which these facts urge, unless we can show that the effect is not good. And where is the man who will even affect to do this? But if it should be said that what is wise and expedient with such national institutions as those of America would be unwise and inexpedient with such institutions as those of England or Spain, it will become a most grave inquiry, whether the fault does not lie with the institutions that are not adapted to religious liberty:—for religious liberty is assuredly adapted to man.

  Observe what absurdities this sacrifice of universal rectitude to particular institutions occasions. There may be ten nations on a continent, each of which selects a different creed for its preference, and excludes all others. The first excludes all but Catholics,—the second all but Episcopalians,—the third all but Unitarians,—the fourth all but the Greek Church; and so on with the rest. If it be right that Unitarians should be intrusted with power on one side of a river, can it be right that they shall not be intrusted with it on the other? Or, if such an absurdity be really conducive to the support of the incongruous institutions of the several states, is it not an evidence that those institutions need to be amended? And are not the principles of perfect religious liberty, nevertheless, sound and true?

  Englishmen have not to complain of a want of toleration. But toleration is a word which ought scarcely to he heard out of a Christian’s mouth. I tolerate the religion of my brother! I might as well say I tolerate the continuance of his head upon his shoulders. I have no more right to hold his creed at my disposal, or his person in consequence of his creed, than his head. The idea of toleration is a relic of the effects of the papal usurpation. That usurpation did not tolerate: and Protestants thought it was a great thing for them to do what the papacy had thus refused. And so it was. It was a great thing for them. Very imperfectly, however, they did it; and it was a great thing for Penn, who was brought up in a land of intolerant Protestants, to declare universal toleration for all within his borders. But—(and we may reverently say, Thanks be to God!)—we live in happier times. We have advanced from intolerance to toleration; and now it is time to advance from toleration to religious liberty: to that religious liberty which excludes all reference to creeds from the civil institutions of a people.


  The reader will perhaps have observed, that religious liberty and religious establishments are incompatible things. An establishment presupposes incomplete religious liberty. If an establishment he right, religious liberty is not; and if religious liberty he right, an establishment is not. Differently constituted religious establishments may no doubt, impose greater or less restraint upon liberty; but every idea of an establishment of a church preferred by the state-imposes some restraint. It is the same with tests. A test, of some kind, is necessary to a church thus preferred by the state; for how else shall it be known who is a member of that church, and who is not? Religious liberty is incompatible with religious tests; for which reason again, all arguments by which this liberty is shown to be right are so many proofs that religious tests are wrong. These considerations the reader will be pleased to bear in mind, when he considers the question of religious establishments.

  Tests are snares for the conscience. If their terms are so loose that any man can take them with a safe conscience, they are not tests. If their terms are definite, they make many hypocrites. Men are induced to assent, or subscribe, or perform (whatever the requisitions of the test may be), against their consciences, in order to obtain the advantages which are contingent upon it. An attempt was once made in England co introduce an unexceptionable test; by which the party was to declare “that the books of the Old and New Testaments contained, in his opinion, a revelation from God.” But whom did this exclude? Perhaps Deists, Mahometans, Pagans, Jews. But, as a snare, the operation was serious; for, simple as the test appears, it was liable to great uncertainty of meaning. Did it mean that all the books contained a revelation? Then some think that all the books are not authentic. Did it mean that there was a revelation in some of the books of the Bible? Then Jews, Mahometans, Pagans, and some Deists might, for aught that I know, conscientiously take it. No unexceptionable test is possible. There are, to be sure, gradations of impropriety; and in England we have not always resorted to the least objectionable. It was well observed by Charles James Fox, that “the idea of making a religious rite the qualification for holding a civil employment is more than absurd, and deserves to be considered as a profanation of a sacred institution,”


  A few, and only a few, sentences will be allowed to the writer upon the great, the very great question of extending religious liberty to the Catholics of these kingdoms. I call it a very great question, not because of the difficulty of deciding it, if sound principles are applied, but because of the magnitude of the interests that are involved, and of the consequences which may follow if those principles are not applied.—The reader will easily perceive, from the preceding contents of this chapter, the writer’s conviction, that full religious liberty ought to be extended to the Catholics, because it ought to be extended to all men. If a Catholic acts in opposition to the public welfare,—diminish or take away his freedom. If he only thinks amiss,—let him enjoy his freedom undiminished.

  To this I know of but one objection that is worth noticing here, that they are harmless only because they have not the power of doing mischief, and that they wait only for the power to begin to do it. But they say, “This is not the case,—we have no such intentions.” Now, in all reason, you must believe them, or show that they are unworthy of belief. If you believe them, religious liberty follows of course. Can you then show that they are unworthy of belief? Where is your evidence?

  You say, their allegiance is divided between the king and a foreign power. They reply, “It is not:” “We hold ourselves bound, in conscience, to obey the civil government in all things of a temporal and civil nature, notwithstanding any dispensation to the contrary from the pope or Church of Rome.”

  You say, their declarations and oaths do not bind them, because they hold that they can be dispensed from the obligation of all oaths by the pope.—They reply, “We do not:” “We hold that the obligation of an oath is most sacred; that no power whatsoever can dispense with any oath, by which a Catholic has confirmed his duty of allegiance to his sovereign, or any obligation of duty to a third person.”

  You say, they hold that faith is not to be kept with heretics.—They reply, “We do not.” “British Catholics,” say they,” have solemnly sworn that they reject and detest that unchristian and impious principle, that faith is not to be kept with heretics or infidels.” These declarations are taken from a “Declaration of the Catholic Bishops, the Vicars Apostolic, their coadjutors in Great Britain:” 1825. They are signed by the Catholic bishops of Great Britain, and are approved in an “address” signed by eight Catholic peers and a large number of other persons of rank and character.

  Now I ask of those who contend for the Catholic disabilities, What proof do you bring that these men are trying to deceive you? I can anticipate no answer, because I have heard none. Will you then content yourselves by saying, We will not believe them? This would be at least the candid course, and the world might then perceive that our conduct was regulated, not by reason, but by prejudice, or the consciousness of power. “It is unwarrantable to infer, a priori, and contrary to the professions and declarations of the persona holding such opinions, that their opinions would induce acts injurious to the common weal.”6

  But if nothing can be said to show that the Catholic declarations do not bind them, something can be said to show that they do. If declarations be indeed so little binding upon their consciences, how comes it to pass that they do not make those declarations which would remove their disabilities, get a dispensation from the pope, and so enjoy both the privileges and an easy conscience? Why, if their oaths and declarations did not bind them, they would get rid of their disabilities to-morrow! Nothing is wanting but a few hypocritical declarations, and Catholic emancipation is effected. Why do they not make these declarations? Because their words bind them. And yet (so gross is the absurdity), although it is their conscientiousness which keeps them out of office, we say they are to be kept out because they are not conscientious!

  I forbear further inquiry: but I could not with satisfaction avoid applying what I conceive to be the sound principles of political rectitude to this great question; and let no man allow his prejudices or his fears to prevent him from applying them to this, as to every other political subject. Justice and truth are not to be sacrificed to our weaknesses and apprehensions; and I believe, that if the people and legislature of this country will adhere to justice and truth with regard to our Catholic brethren, they will find, ere long, that they have only been delaying the welfare of the empire.

1 Clarkson’s Life of Penn.
2 Account of European Settlements in America.
3 Ib.
4 American Geography. See also Anderson’s Deduction of the Origin of Commerce.
5 Duncan’s Travels in America.
6 C. J. Fox: Gifford’s Life of Pitt, vol. ii.

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