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James Dodson

THERE is one objection which we have left for consideration in a separate section, as it is generally urged as totally eversive of the magistrate’s power about religion; and from the vague and ambiguous manner in which it is usually proposed, requires elucidation. This is liberty of conscience, or the right which all men are said to have to act in religious matters according to the dictates of their own judgment and conscience. The Synod, in their New Testimony, have often introduced this liberty; they blame the reformers for not paying due attention to it; they disclaim all obligation from the Solemn League to do anything inconsistent with it, and they teach it, as a principal duty of magistrates, to secure men in the full enjoyment of it.[1] But there is only one place in which they have given a formal statement of their sentiments on the subject. ‘A liberty of worshipping God (they say) in the way which they judge agreeable to his will, is a right common to all men. They may and often do err, and offend the most high God, by substituting a false worship in the place of that which he requires: but no power on earth may take their right from them; yet this cannot be pleaded in behalf of principles or practices obviously hurtful to civil society, still less in behalf of those which are subversive of it. Therefore, the civil magistrate does not go beyond the duty of his office, when he punishes such practices, or restrains the propagation of such principles.’[2] As we do not propose here to enter into an argumentative discussion of this subject, we shall merely state the following propositions, which may serve to remove some of the ambiguities with which it is often involved, and set aside the force of the objection which is urged from it against the lawful exercise of authority in such matters.

1. The liberty and rights of men admit of a different consideration, according to the law or authority to which they are viewed as relating, as divine or as human; and with reference to human authority there is a difference, as it is political or ecclesiastical. Absolute incontrollable liberty is not the right of men in any of these respects. If we view men as in a state of society, and as religions and rational beings, it is absurd to suppose that every one has a right to act as he pleases, or as his own mind may dictate, in all matters, whether religious or moral, without being subject to restraint from the common authority.

2. To assert the right of men to think and act as they please, without respect to the moral law, and without being responsible to God, would be atheistical. And to suppose that men, who are subjected to a divine law, natural or revealed, are exempted from blame in every thing which they do agreeably to their judgment and conscience,—would be to deny a fixed rule of good and evil superior to man; would make conscience the ultimate standard of their actions, and render errors and crimes, in such cases, innocent. We do not suppose that this is meant in the doctrine of the Synod: although the general sentiment advanced by them is couched in such loose and unguarded expressions, as may lead to such an inference, and is an adoption of the language of those who, in this controversy, have vindicated that dangerous tenet.

3. The rights of conscience, in the present controversy, immediately respect the avowed sentiments and practices of men in religious matters, with reference to political government and external restraints. The internal, or (as they are called) elicit acts of the mind, no human authority can take cognizance of, or restrain. These are subject to the control of God alone. Nor can human authority certainly distinguish between what is realty maintained or done from the persuasion of conscience, and what is not. The plea in foro humano, must be of equal force whether it be real or pretended.

4. All rights among men imply correspondent obligations and duties. All just rights are to be respected and preserved inviolate. In this respect, the obligations and limitations of civil and ecclesiastical authority agree, and the condemnation of unwarrantable hindrance or restraint applies to both: although they differ as to the extent of their care and authority about religious matters, and restrain in different ways. Ecclesiastical authority may be, and often has been guilty of violating and unwarrantably restraining the rights, private judgment, and liberty of men in these matters, as well as that authority which is civil.

5. Under the expression, ‘a liberty of worshipping God in the way in which they judge agreeable to his will,’ must be included both opinions and practices, and the right pleaded must apply to these in all the different modifications, according to what men may account religion, or which puts on that guise and pretext. It must comprehend whatever is substituted in the room of genuine religion, be it idolatry, superstition, fanaticism, and corrupt Christianity, on the one hand; or, on the other, scepticism, infidelity, indifference, contempt of all public worship, &c. It is vain to attempt to veil or deny the extent of the principle. To confine the right to the simple acts of worship is absurd, as well as inconsistent with the new scheme. To limit it to those who worship according to the scriptures is ridiculous, when it is declared to be ‘a right common to all men.’ The principle exempts men from cognizance and restraint in all matters respecting religion. It must exempt those who chose to live in ignorance of religion, who act from hatred or aversion to it, from a spirit of licentiousness and profanity, and against light and knowledge, as well as those who act from motives of conscience and duty; and for one of the latter sort, there will be found ten of the former, among mankind at large. It is thus a screen for ignorance and irreligion, as well as for conscientious errors.

6. The rights of conscience, even when the plea may be real and credible, are not the same, either in a political or ecclesiastical view, when urged on the side of truth and duty, and when employed in behalf of sentiments and conduct which are opposite to both, and injurious to social interests and rights, which authority is bound chiefly to preserve. When acting in behalf of truth, and in the way of duty, persons have peculiar claims, which they can urge in any court, and which are entitled to regard from any authority. These cannot be prejudicial to the public good, or encroach upon the just rights of either civil or ecclesiastical rulers. It is otherwise with falsehood and corruption in religion, which as they are always hurtful to the individual, so they often prove highly detrimental to society.

7. Liberty of conscience, and the powers which God hath ordained, do not destroy one another.[3] By the law of God and of reasonable society, due regard must be paid to mutual rights; they must be balanced and adjusted so as to harmonize, and conspire to the public good. In cases where they may appear jarring and incompatible, some subordination and limitation may be necessary, and the primary and superior must have the preference. Societies have rights as well as individuals. But,

8. The due exercise of public authority, ecclesiastical or civil, in defending, promoting, settling, and supporting religion, does not imply a denial of the right of private judgment, or private liberty; but only a regulation and subordination of them in society, as the very nature and rules of it require. It implies no necessity of believing, no imposition upon conscience.

9. The rights of conscience, and of acting according to private judgment, in things moral and religious, with reference to political government, cannot be determined, without, at the same time, determining the rights of government. From the knowledge of the nature, ends, extent, and rights of the latter, must the former be ascertained, in subordination to the law of God, by which both must be regulated. Opposite rights cannot exist together, but must destroy one another. To suppose that the magistrate has a right to interfere with religion, and yet, that every man in society has a right to act, in every respect, as he judges right in this matter, is absurd. Therefore,

10. Roundly to assert, that no power on earth (even understanding it of secular and coercive power), can take cognizance of, or restrain, to a certain degree, any avowed doctrines or practices of a religious kind, which are agreeable to men’s consciences, is only a begging of the question in dispute; as it denies that the care and authoritative maintenance of religion is a duty of the civil magistrate, and implies, that matters of this kind fall not within his province. If they in any manner pertain to his office, or affect the objects and interests committed to his care, they must be in so far subjected to the regulations of law, and the restraints of administration, without respect to the internal principle from which the external acts may proceed. The Synod are obliged to allow this, in so far as the existence, or mere secular interests of society are concerned. For, after saying, ‘no power on earth may take their right from them;’ they add, ‘yet this cannot be pleaded in behalf of principles or practices obviously hurtful to society, still less in behalf of those which are subversive of it.’ But these principles and practices may be such as men judge agreeable to God’s will, and reckon themselves bound in conscience to publish and persist in; yet the Synod allow that the civil magistrate justly ‘punishes such practices, or restrains the propagation of such principles.’ Thus they infringe upon and admit of exceptions to the uncontrollable rights of conscience, so that it is no universal rule. And, by parity of reason, it is of as little force to restrain lawful authority in other acts, beyond these admitted, if they also are competent unto him. The objection from liberty of conscience is thus dropped, and the controversy resolves into the question, Whether civil authority is confined merely to the secular interests of society, or if the public maintenance and support of religion is not an important branch of the duty of magistrates? and this question we have examined in the preceding section.

11. The doctrine of the Synod does not secure persons from persecution on account of religion. They are obliged to admit, that those in authority are the proper judges of what may be necessary for the welfare of society, and what may injure its peace and security. A judgment about religious opinions and practices is in this way conceded to them, in the exercise of which, matters of this kind may be as much brought under their power as by the common doctrine of Protestants; and by the abuse of which, the rights of conscience are as fully and irremediably exposed to be injured, and all severities and modes of political persecution may be practised, as on the other hypothesis. Upon this principle, worshipping assemblies may be shut up or restrained, ministers silenced, or ministerial liberty abridged, ecclesiastical courts dissolved or prohibited, the freedom of the press forbidden, and those who, from conscience and duty, transgress these arbitrary laws, exposed to fines, imprisonment, and death. These are not mere conjectures or suppositions. Those who are acquainted with the history of persecution know, that the most severe and sanguinary examples of it, in our own and in other countries, have been vindicated upon this principle; and that those engaged in carrying them on have refused that they restrained or punished men for their religious opinions and practices as such, but because these were injurious to the peace of society, and dangerous to existing governments. We know that the Presbyterian church, with her courts and discipline, has become the object of political jealousy, and been represented as dangerous to government and the peace of society; and in such representations, the warm partizans of toleration and liberty of conscience have joined with persons of a different stamp. Those rulers who consider ‘only the secular interests of society,’ and to whom religion may be a matter as indifferent in their private character, as we are now taught it is foreign to them in their public character, will regard infidels and persons who despise all religion, but who can comply with and forward all their measures, as ‘good and peaceable members of society;’ while those who fear God may become the objects of jealousy and restraint, because they condemn public evils, alarm, dispirit, or distract the nation by denouncing national judgments, or inculcating national reformation, particularly if they shall add to all this, the dangerous heresy of teaching that it is the duty of rulers, as they would wish to escape the vengeance of heaven, to support religion, and suppress reigning impieties.

12. The doctrine of the Synod on this head is chargeable with giving a license to sin. We do not found this charge on the supposition, that the laws of men directly effect the conscience, or constitute the formal nature of sin or duty; nor upon the supposition that the authority of rulers reaches to all external actions of men which are morally evil. But, to give a liberty to men to commit things known and acknowledged to be evil, which ought to be prohibited or restrained by punishment in the state, or censure in the church, and to teach or grant this under the notion of a right,—is, in so far, a license to sin, a virtual dispensation with the law of God, by discarding lawful authority, and loosing the obligation to just laws among men.—Those who teach that men have a liberty to do any thing that is sinful, without being liable to be controlled by just laws, are chargeable with proclaiming a liberty to sin, although they should, at the same time, teach that they would offend God by so doing. The exercise of authority and laws is appointed by God as a means of preventing the spread of iniquity in the world, it must therefore be criminal in any to proclaim a liberty or exemption from these in any thing which falls under their cognizance. The Synod have proclaimed a liberty and right to all men, to act in all matters concerning religion, in the exercise of which they may openly offend the Most High, without being liable to control or punishment from any power on earth, except merely for such opinions and practices as are ‘obviously hurtful to society,’ and interests ‘only secular.’ They have given a liberty to men to vent and propagate ‘all blasphemies,’ declaring that the magistrate ought not to interpose the sword, or use the authority committed to him by God, for the suppression of these or similar evils, but is restricted to the employment of advice and example, (New Testimony, p. 198). Is not this, upon the matter to declare all the laws which have been made and are yet in existence for restraining such offences, to have no moral force, and to release the consciences of men from their obligation? This is not to "lift up a standard" against iniquity, when it has "come in like a flood;" it is rather to remove the barriers which have been already planted to impede its progress, and to open the sluices, that it may overflow and deluge the earth.

Lastly, Although civil and ecclesiastical society do not take cognizance of religion in the same manner, to the same extent, and for the same purposes, yet the general principle respecting the liberty and rights of conscience affects both, and would vindicate a general toleration and license in the church as well as the state. We do not suppose that it was the design of the Synod to apply the principle to ecclesiastical authority and restraints; but it is the tendency of the principle and reasoning with which we have to do. And if any person seriously considers the topics of argument which are usually brought forward, and insisted upon respecting private judgment and the rights of conscience, he must perceive, that they are either altogether impertinent and inapplicable to the subject, or else that they apply to all other kinds of human authority, as well as civil; that their tendency is to set aside all public judgment and restraint in such matters, and to make religion an affair entirely of personal and individual concern, in which "every man does what is right in his own eyes." This has also been the gradual operation of the principle: after being urged against the exercise of civil authority in religious matters, it has been employed against church authority. It is well known that this use was made of it by the Sectarians in England during the time of the Commonwealth, with whom the doctrine of Liberty of Conscience was the most darling tenet. It was revived by the Dissenters in England and Ireland near the beginning of the late century, who employed the most favoured topics of modern declamation as to dictating to consciences, depriving men of the right of private judgment, &c., in pleading exemption from human tests of orthodoxy, and the restraints of church authority with respect to opinions which they judged agreeable to scripture. In our own time we have abundant evidence of a similar operation of the same principle.

[go to SECTION IX.]


[1] N[ew] Testimony, p. 31, 160, 197, 219.

[2] These declarations in favour of Liberty of Conscience are to be viewed as a substitute for the testimony formerly borne against different instances of toleration. See Display, vol. i,.p. 66, 94, 95, 233, 287. This the Synod have now expunged as in direct opposition to the tenet which they have adopted. What was formerly only tolerated, they now declare to have a right to uncontrolled liberty. They must now condemn the toleration of false religion, because it proceeds upon the supposition that rulers have a right to interfere in religious matters, and implies some restriction of an independent prerogative.

[3] Confession of Faith, chap. 20. sect. 4.