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Jul 5, 2017

Soul Liberty, Toleration, and the Emergence of Religious Freedom in the Colonies

Religious toleration took different paths in different parts of colonial America.

By the dawn of the American Revolution, the concept of religious toleration in the colonies was no longer a fringe belief.  The thirteen colonies were a religiously diverse bunch, including Anglicans, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and many more.1  Despite all the wars in Europe (some of which spilled over into the colonies), a practice of toleration persisted on the other side of the Atlantic.  In Maryland, as in France, toleration came out of necessity; in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, by contrast, it originated in the values of the men who founded those colonies.

Over fifty years prior to John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, a Puritan preacher from Massachusetts colony was putting forward similar ideas.  Unlike many of his Puritan brethren, who wanted to purify the Church of England, Roger Williams called for complete separation.  Williams believed in what he called “soul liberty,” or the idea that a person’s conscience was a gift from God, and they should be free to follow it.2  As such, the Church of England, by merit of it being a state institution, violated people’s God-given consciences by compelling them to adhere to moral standard other than their own.  In order for people to truly have freedom of conscience, Williams argued, religion had to remain separate from the government.  It is for this reason that Roger Williams is often regarded as the person who originated the concept of separation of church and state.

Williams’ calls for freedom of conscience, along with his advocacy for complete separation from the Church of England and his interest in and frequent interaction with Native Americans, led to his exile from Massachusetts.  Williams and his followers founded Providence Plantation in 1636, which would evolve into the larger colony of Rhode Island.  He made it clear that “soul liberty” truly extended to everyone, stating, “The conscience is found in all of mankind, more or less: in Jews, Turks, Papists, Protestants, pagans.”3  Of Jews and Muslims in particular, Williams believed they could be good citizens if they “obeyed the law in earthly matters,” despite being non-Christians.4  Religious freedom became the founding principle of Rhode Island, and the colony gained a reputation for liberty that continued up until the Revolution.  Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain and the last colony to ratify the Constitution, doing so only after the inclusion of the Bill of Rights.  Rhode Island’s record of religious freedom was not flawless, however:  A generation after Williams’ death and facing political pressure in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, Rhode Island passed laws restricting the civil rights of Catholics.

Pennsylvania and New York were two other colonies known for their establishment of religious freedom.  Quaker leader William Penn founded Pennsylvania5 in 1681, and seeking to grow the colony, made it a bastion of religious freedom.  Penn attracted not just Quakers, but all manner of persecuted religious minorities in Europe to his new colony.  Some, like the Amish, remain in Pennsylvania to this day.  The citizens of New Netherland enjoyed religious freedom under the Dutch Republic via the Union of Utrecht.6  While the Dutch Republic received Jewish refugees from Spain and its colonies, a good chunk of these refugees immigrated to the island of Manhattan in New Netherland.  In the aftermath of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, New Netherland came under English control and became the colony of New York.  In part due to the large Jewish population in Manhattan, the English retained the Dutch’s policies of toleration.

In his case for religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson would make specific mention of its success in Pennsylvania and New York:

Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsided without any establishment [of religion] at all.  The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it.  It has answered beyond conception.  They flourish infinitely.  Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order; or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it.7

Tolerance among Protestant denominations exploded in the thirteen colonies as well.  Following the Great Awakening, the number of Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists expanded rapidly, and individual colonies became more religiously diverse.  As a result, the establishment of a single Protestant sect became impossible with most colonies favoring Protestantism in general with only Catholics, Jews, and more obscure Protestant sects facing persecution.  In Virginia, much to Thomas Jefferson’s chagrin, there were still laws on the books implicitly prohibiting the practice of certain religions.  Denial of the Trinity was a crime punishable by imprisonment, a law targeting Unitarians and Jews.  Also punishable with jail time was denial of the divine authority of scripture, a law targeting Catholics, who followed the institutions of the Catholic Church and not scripture alone.  Unitarians could have their children taken away from them, and Catholics were expressly banned from holding political office.  By Jefferson’s time, these laws were rarely enforced, but they showed that Virginia was still far away from true religious freedom.8

In 1776, the Virginia legislature passed the Virginia Declaration of Rights, one of the most famous precursors to the Bill of Rights.  Authored principally by George Mason, then a delegate in the Virginia legislature, the Declaration of Rights listed the rights of the citizens of Virginia.  In the sixteenth and final section of the Declaration, George Mason wrote “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”9  Mason’s draft was widely popular among the other delegates, as it followed the convictions set forth in John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, which was politically popular at the time. 

Not everyone was a fan of Mason’s draft though.  Thomas Jefferson and his ally, James Madison, both opposed Mason’s Declaration, arguing that it did not go far enough in protecting the liberties of Virginians.  When it became clear that Mason’s draft was going to move forward, Jefferson and Madison changed their tactics and instead fought for small changes to the draft’s language.  Madison, like Jefferson, disliked the term “toleration”, as it implied there was a superior religion in the eyes of the state, and therefore Virginians would not have equal liberty.10  Madison instead lobbied for “toleration” to be replaced with “free exercise”, a term later enshrined in the First Amendment.  With Madison’s revisions, the final version of the sixteenth section of the Virginia Declaration of Rights read:

That religion, or the duty we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.11

The Virginia Declaration of Rights did not allow for the same freedom of religion called for by the later First Amendment.  For starters, it made an explicit reference to Christianity, thus the church and state were not fully separated.  Furthermore, the Declaration only prohibited the government from interfering with someone’s free exercise of religion (therefore nixing prior laws regarding baptism and the Trinity) and made no guarantee of full civil rights for the practitioners of certain religions. 

Future bills brought before the Virginia legislature would be the center of similar battles.  A Bill for the Naturalization of Foreign Protestants was introduced to the legislature in 1777, laying out the process in which Protestant immigrants may become Virginian citizens.  Jefferson changed the name of the bill to A Bill for the Naturalization of Foreigners, and later to A Bill for the Naturalization of Persons.  Again, Jefferson objected to legislation that would only extend citizenship rights to Protestants, arguing that non-Protestants too deserved equal rights.  The bill never made it past the House of Delegates, but it strengthened Jefferson’s resolve to push toward true religious freedom.12

In 1779, Jefferson introduced A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom to the Virginia legislature, his answer to the shortcomings of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  His bill would see to it that the practice of an individual’s religion had no impact on their civil rights and further drove a wedge between the church and the state.  Echoing Roger Williams 150 years later, Jefferson begins by declaring, “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and writes of how unjust it was to levy taxes on citizens who practiced a religion other than the one propagated by the state:

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money, for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical …13

Jefferson reasserted that civil rights would be extended to all Virginians, regardless of religious affiliation:

That our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions than our opinions in physics or geometry …14

Among the civil rights Jefferson argued all men should have was the right to hold political office:

That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying on him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right …15

This section of the bill proved to be more controversial than any other.  While most Protestants could live with non-Protestants sharing equal liberty with them, fewer could endure the prospect of a non-Protestant in a position of authority.  It was the conversion of kings and rulers following the Reformation in Europe that had led to countless wars and rebellions.  Virginians did not wish to suffer a political leader outside the religious mainstream, and religious tests were a means of keeping such undesirables out of office.  Could a Catholic, for example, truly be trusted to uphold the laws of the colony, or would his first allegiance be to the Pope in Rome?

The fight over the abolition of religious tests was contentious in both Virginia and in the larger thirteen colonies.  Here, hypothetical Muslims re-entered the conversation.  If the ban on religious tests for office was to be truly universal, could that mean a Muslim could one day hold office?  Could a “Mahometan”, a practitioner of a religion popularly viewed as heretical, fanatical, and conducive to tyranny, be entrusted with political power?  Following along this line of thinking, the Founders were confronted with one final, inevitable question: Could a Muslim become President?


  1. The Puritan movement had died out by the time of the Revolution.  It is important to remember that Puritans were not so much their own religious sect, but a group of dissenters from the Church of England.  When King Henry VIII broke off from the Catholic Church, the newly formed Church of England retained many of its Catholic customs.  This troubled the Puritans, who wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its Catholicism and push it in a more truly Protestant direction.  The Church of England eventually liberalized many of its customs, bringing many Puritans back into the fold.  Other Puritans became Congregationalists and Unitarians.
  2. Denise Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Quran (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 57.
  3. William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: America’s Founding in Religious Freedom (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 171.
  4. Spellberg, 61.
  5. Despite the name, Penn did not name Pennsylvania after himself.  The name was chosen by King Charles II, after Penn had called his colony Sylvania.
  6. The Union of Utrecht was a political treaty to unify several northern provinces of the Netherlands during their revolution against Spain.  Acknowledging the many Catholics in the provinces and the high number of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal, religious toleration was a political necessity.  The Union of Utrecht was far from a perfect guarantee of religious freedom, leaving much of the power up to local cities, as evidenced by the persecution of Puritans fleeing England.
  7. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 167.  Jefferson completed the original version of this manuscript in 1781.
  8. Miller, 11.
  9. Ibid, 6.
  10. Ibid, 7.
  11. George Mason, (June 12, 1776).  “The Virginia Declaration of Rights.”
  12. Spellberg, 108.
  13. Thomas Jefferson, (January 16, 1786).  “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.”
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.

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