There are no rights held so sacred among men, as the rights of conscience. They are deservedly so held. Conscience has its rights, and they are, indeed, sacred rights. They ought however, to be understood, lest we attach something to conscience as a right, which deserves a very different name. The best things are most liable to be abused. The excess of liberty is licentiousness.
The rights of conscience, as well as all other human rights, are derived from God, and are bounded by the law accompanying their delegation. The law of God embraces the whole man, and all his rights, and all his relations. This is not always attended to, in considering this subject.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, as originating in their judgment, or in their authority. To believe such doctrines, or obey such commands, as the rule to regulate the conscience, is to betray the true freedom of the conscience; and to require this to be done, is to require implicit faith and blind obedience, and is the destruction of liberty of conscience.
It, however, ought never to be forgotten, that God himself is the rightful Lord of the conscience, and constantly holds it subject to his law. Conscience never was by its author intended to be itself a law; but as the vicegerent of heaven, it is appointed as a judge to decide according to the law furnished by the legislator of the universe, for that purpose. This law, and not conscience, is the rule both of belief and action. There can, therefore, be no right of conscience inconsistent with the divine law—no right but what is derived from it. Modern claims for the rights of conscience, are not kept within the bounds of sober reason. In their eagerness to discard the unjust claim of one man to lord over the conscience of another, some have assumed a ground which gives conscience a negative over the divine law itself. I, with great satisfaction quote here, the words of an eminent scholar and divine, the Rev. Dr. [Samuel B.] Wylie, of Philadelphia. They fully express my sentiments on this subject.
“All power to be found among the creatures, is, necessarily, derived from God. He is the original source and fountain from which it flows, For in him we live, and move, and have our being.*[Acts 17:28.] All this delegated or derived power, should be exercised to his glory, and regulated by his law, Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.†[1 Cor. 10:31.] To effect this end, all our powers should be directed; and of this, his law is the unerring rule. By this, therefore, all rational beings are indispensibly bound. God has given them no right to do what it prohibits. To suppose men to possess any such right, is wicked and blasphemous. This would be the same as to suppose God to say to them, I, as the Supreme Legislator, give you my law. To the least breach of it, I annex the penalty of eternal damnation; yet I give you a right to violate this my law, and to wage war with your God, and direct your artillery, against the Sovereign of the Universe!” From this the Dr. justly argues, “that no man has a right to worship God any other way, than he himself hath prescribed in his law—that it is criminal for a man’s conscience to approve any way repugnant to this sacred rule—and that this crime cannot legitimate another, or make an action right, which God expressly condemns, under pain of eternal wrath.”
“If conscience can legitimate,” continues this accurate reasoner, “what God’s law condemns, it must be paramount to the divine law, and, consequently to the Legislator also, in having a negative over the requisitions of both the one and the other.
Were this the case, it would not only free from criminality, but would render virtuous, laudable, and praise-worthy, the most damnable errors—the most horrid blasphemies, and detestable abominations; if but dictated by the consciences of Pagans, Mahometans, &c. Then the Egyptians worshipping God under the form of a snake or crocodile, would be as lawful, yea, as commendable, as doing it precisely according to the manner which he has prescribed in his word, provided that, in both cases, conscience said amen!
But, supposing for a moment, that men had such a right, let us enquire how they came by it? Either they must have it by derivation from God, or they must hold it independently of him. It cannot be by derivation from God: it would be absurd in the nature of it, and incompatible with the essential holiness of his character.
To suppose God giving to his moral subjects a law, to the breach of which he annexes eternal punishment, and at the same time, giving them a right to break it, is inconsistent and impossible. Right would be opposed to right—a right to obey, and a right not to obey!—A man may be persuaded in his conscience, that a false way of worshipping God is the most proper way”—According to the modern claims for unlimited rights of conscience, “he has a right to worship this false way! But worshipping in a false way offends God. No matter, he has a right (of conscience) to offend God; for if worshipping falsely, and offending God, are equivalent; seeing he has a right to do the one, he has a right to do the other!!!” [Two Sons of Oil, p. 7, 41, 42.]