Freedom of Conscience

In 1785 Founder James Madison, acutely aware of the dangers inherit in the religious/political alliances of Europe that had sown constant turmoil and persecution for centuries, wrote, “The religion then of every man must be left to . . . conviction and conscience. . . .This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

Every week millions of people attend worship services across America. It is a long-standing and integral part of the nation’s fabric. The freedom to worship as a person chooses is at the heart of any democracy. It is easy to take these rights for granted and forget that it was not always so.

Only 500 years ago religious faith and society in general was dominated by an authoritative union of church and state. The church had grown corrupt, yet wielded enormous power and influence over the kings, barons, princes, and common people of the European states.

Claiming to hold the keys of heaven, the church dominated society, claiming divine right to purge heretics and dissenters. The Scriptures were not readily available to common people, and the gospel of grace was obscured by dogma, tradition, rituals, opulence, and power. There were no options without dire consequences. Essentially freedom of conscience did not exist.

But history began to take a radical turn when a young German priest named Martin Luther, inspired by the first chapter of Romans and alarmed at the selling of indulgences to obtain forgiveness for sins, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, inadvertently launching a reformation that would change the course of religious and cultural history—and rock Europe like a thunderbolt.

Luther, a gifted scholar and pious monk with a doctorate of theology and a teaching position at Wittenberg University, had been headed for a career in law before joining the priesthood. Though living an austere life of self-denial in Erfurt’s St. Augustine Monastery,Martin existed in an uneasy state of penance. His efforts in good works to earn God’s favor left him empty and feeling unworthy of forgiveness. He was to find peace in the study of the apostle Paul’s writings from the books of Romans and Galatians.

Luther was deeply disturbed by the church’s selling of indulgences—official pieces of paper offering forgiveness of sins past and future for money or buying merit to free the souls of relatives from purgatory. In 1517 a fiery monk, Johann Tetzel, traveled throughout the cities and towns of Germany peddling indulgences in a dramatic campaign to raise funds for the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

It was a flashpoint, and Luther publicly came out against the practice and other concerns in his famed 95 theses. Luther’s intense study in Romans and Galatians revealed the gospel of grace—that salvation was a free gift through the blood of Christ and could not be earned through church rituals or purchased by money, penance, indulgences, and the works of individuals.

Feeling a tremendous burden lifted and realizing he could not earn his way to heaven, Luther did not originally intend to break with the church. His was an appeal to debate and reform within existing structure. But as his writings and teachings spread, they caused grave concern to ecclesiastic authorities, who branded him a dissenter and heretic.

By 1521 Martin Luther found himself—one solitary monk—facing the intimidating combined authority of church and state in a tense, crowded hearing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet in Worms, Germany.He was given a chance to recant, but there were really few options at this point.

Luther refused to recant, and though he knew that Jan Huss, a Czech priest and rector of Charles University in Prague, had been burned at the stake a century prior for similar teachings, he could not defy his conscience. In the hushed assembly his words rang out: “I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture. . . . My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus, I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

He turned to leave the assembly, and was allowed to pass because he had previously been given a letter of protection guaranteeing 21 days of safe travel upon the initial summons to the hearing at Worms. Now denounced, labeled a heretic and outlaw, Luther knew he was living on borrowed time.

It is said that half of the territorial princes of Germany were in sympathy with Luther’s stance, and Frederick of Saxony, the progressive Elector who had founded the University of Wittenberg, decided to act. Fearing Luther would soon be killed, he sent mounted horseman to swoop in and “kidnap” the outlaw priest as he left the city. They whisked him away in secret to the safety of Wartburg Castle, where for 11 months Luther lived in disguise. There, sheltered behind the safety of castle walls, he translated the New Testament into the German language. Now the country’s princes and common folk could read the Holy Scriptures for themselves.

Though he was a branded man, and the Diet of Worms had ordered his writings illegal and burned, the courage of this Wittenberg priest, with his scriptural emphasis that humans could approach God on an individual level and be accepted through the grace of Christ directly, proved to be the catalyst of the Reformation.

The winds of reformation had been stirring throughout Europe and now they spread like wildfire. Supercharged by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and the mass volume capabilities of the printing press (the Internet of its day), the writings of Luther and other Reformers crossed the Alps, penetrating into the heart of Europe. Between 1518 and 1525 Luther published more works than the next 17 most prolific Reformers combined.

In Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli sought reform. Later, Frenchman John Calvin, originally in exile, established the Calvinist school of thought in Geneva, the Huguenots in France, the Waldensians in the Cottian Alps between France and Italy, the Moravians—whose origins are tied to the martyred Jan Huss—the Anabaptists, and many others sought freedom of religion apart from the dictates of Rome’s established church.

The venerable Reformation Wall, on the campus of the University of Geneva, stands 30 feet tall and 325 feet in length. Purposely built into the old city wall, it honors the Reformed Church Calvinist branch of the Reformation. Frozen in stone, the towering figures stand imposing and stoic.

In Worms, Germany, another massive monument honors Luther and other key figures of the Reformation. Cast in bronze, they too tower above the viewer. Yet the story of the Reformation cannot be fully appreciated standing in the shadows of heroic figures sculptured in stone or bronze—it is far too layered and complex.

As the Bible became more accessible, people began to question the dynamics of ecclesiastical and secular power, which had become closely intertwined. The established church’s authority was challenged across the European continent. Centuries of feudal suppression, nascent nationalism, and caste hierarchy swirled heavily in the flammable mix.

The unholy alliance of church and state powers suppressed dissenters violently. Millions of people died in the persecutions, uprisings, and religious wars that stained Europe. Along with the Counter-Reformation and the emergent Inquisition the numbers of fatalities rose to unthinkable levels. Often nationalism and political power overshadowed religious concerns and propelled aggression. Intolerance of others’ beliefs by some Reformers, themselves aligned with regional powers, also resulted in persecution of those who opposed them.

Lost in the violence and smoke were the words of Christ: “Love your enemies”; “Put away your sword; those who use the sword will die by the sword”; and “My kingdom is not of this world.” These words were forgotten, ignored, cast aside, as violence bred more violence.

An integral part of the Reformation saga was the mass-produced Bible, with the life-changing words of Romans and Galatians, placed in the hands of everyday people so they could read it in their own language.

In England this was the passion of the brilliant young scholar/priest William Tyndale, who was fluent in eight languages. Tyndale’s life held all the drama of a high suspense spy novel in the vortex of conviction and tragedy.

More than a century earlier another English priest, John Wycliffe, now heralded as the Morning Starof the Reformation, had translated an English version of the Bible. In his time there was no movable type mass printing presses and Wycliffe’s Bible was painstakingly copied by hand. Both Wycliffe and his translation were fiercely opposed. Many of his followers, derisively called Lollards, were burned at the stake with their hand-copied Bibles tied to their chests. Tyndale’s task would be a daunting one, laced with danger. Printing of Scripture in the English language was prohibited. Without political protection at home, Tyndale’s New Testament translation went to press in Cologne, Germany, in 1525.

The established church/state powers of England—Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Bishop John Stokesley, and Henry the VIII—sought to silence Tyndale’s voice and crush his printed pages. The authorities moved to arrest him and seize the Bibles, but Tyndale moved further south to Worms, Germany, to stealthily resume his work with another printer, and produced a pocket edition of the Bible. He was hunted like an outlaw, working clandestinely, yet Tyndale’s New Testaments were smuggled by ship back to England in cargos of grain, bales, and merchandise.

Again, on the run, Tyndale continued his work within a small fellowship of believers in Antwerp, a city known for the quality of its movable type printers. Copies of his New Testament and writings continued to discreetly flow back to his English homeland, as he continued translating the remaining chapters of the Bible.

Several English agents, like bloodhounds, had sought Tyndale’s capture. One nefarious agent, Henry Phillips, infiltrated the Antwerp fellowship, befriended Tyndale, then betrayed him to kidnappers, who dragged the Reformer to imprisonment in Belgium.

Facing an ecclesiastical tribunal, Tyndale would not betray his conscience and recant.He was strangled and burned at the stake as a heretic. Away from his homeland and hunted like a dog, Tyndale’s last words were: “May God open the king of England’s eyes.”

In many ways Tyndale’s story is the purest of the reform leaders.He was not aligned with political power and in turn suppressed no one.Today the eloquence of his phrasing, scholarship, and word choices rate him with Shakespeare as a major influence in the development of the English language.

Ironically short years later in 1539 Henry VIII, his ecclesiastical loyalties shifted, would authorize publishing of what is known as the Great Bible, largely based on Tyndale’s translation.Subsequently, the widespread King James Version was also primarily based on Tyndale’s translation work.

England and Europe would continue to struggle with religious liberty as individual freedom was tossed to and fro with the particular beliefs of rotating regimes. Catholics, Protestants, and divisions thereof persecuted each other in a vicious cycle as religion and political power remained suffocatingly entwined.

Beginning in 1620, seeking relief from religious tensions in their native England, nonconformist Puritans sought a new life, a theocratic independent society—a “city upon a hill,” across the Atlantic Ocean in the New World of North America.

Through the administration of the enterprising Massachusetts Bay Colony, along with other such groups, Puritan settlements were established in the colonies. Yet Puritans who themselves had left opposition in England to create an ideal society based on their particular view of faith had little tolerance for anyone else’s point of view. Laws for mandatory church attendance along with other religious/civic mandates were established, and violators were punished. Public pillory, the stocks, ear nailings, whippings, public humiliation, tongues pierced by augers, or worse were instruments of civic/religious force in New England. Quakers in particular were persona non grata—at least four were executed for their beliefs. Roman Catholics often faced suppression in the early colonies.

Roger Williams, a young Puritan minister, saw the injustice and against the sacredness of the individual conscience. He felt that religious beliefs should not be enforced by civic law, and also radically proposed that Native Americans should be paid for their lands as settlements spread. Such opinions did not go over well with church/state authorities in New England, and Williams was called a heretic and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, eventually being sentenced for deportation back to England.

Though ill, Roger Williams fled Salem in winter cold. He was eventually discovered and sheltered by the Wampanoag tribe. Given land by Sachem Mannosoit, he again had to move via a territorial warning from the Plymouth colony. Crossing the Seekonk River, Roger negotiated a deal for land with the Narragansett tribe. Joined by his followers, Williams established the free-thinking colony of Providence, in what is now modern-day Rhode Island. William’s settlement, committed to liberty of conscience (or “soul freedom”)and separation of church and state, is a vital touchstone of modern democracy.

The Reformation, human weakness and regretful intolerance in some facets notwithstanding, has indeed made an incredible impact on Western culture. Not only were the dangers of religious/political power unions exposed, but unjust of caste systems in Western civilization were broken down. Opportunities for the common people to rise above oppression arose as the feudal system began to crumble.

In parallel with the Renaissance, new directions in individual expression, art, literature, science, commerce, and education emerged. Models of civic government with far-reaching influence developed.

At its heart the Reformation sought to let people know they were free to approach God directly as individuals. One need not go through a system of ritual, intercession, and hierarchy to earn God’s favor; salvation was God’s free gift through Christ. As the book of Romans proclaims: “The just shall live by faith.’’

The great challenge of the Reformation, and of civilization, is whether we will grant the same tolerance in belief to others as we ourselves desire. Freedom of conscience is a sacred trust.

Today our world screams in the pain of ethnic and religious intolerance. Amid the fear, desperate men cling to and grasp for temporal power. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, people of all races and faiths suffer in the madness. The individual is too often forgotten amid angry rhetoric, labels, and violence.

What right does any person have, regardless of his or her faith, to play God? to assume to act as judge and jury for God? Religion by coercion is empty and tragic, and does not change the heart.

When future president James Madison, that indispensable Founder, penned the Bill of Rights, containing that First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, religious liberty and freedom of conscience was paramount in his mind as a safeguard for the new nation. Madison, a student of theology, observer of history, and tireless progressive thinker, made sure the United States became the first nation to enshrine in its constitution the Reformation concept of the rights of conscience.

In the 1947 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) document, the modern human rights movement also acknowledged Luther as they soughta philosophical basis for an international bill of rights. Their document cited the Reformation, because of its “appeal to the absolute authority of the individual conscience,” as one of the historical events most responsible for the development of human rights. Amazingly, contemporary media in print, radio, television, the Internet, and social media is bristling with fiery appeals and public campaigning to link Christian faith to political power once again. In the rush to do so, the painful lessons of history, the sacrifices of scholars, brave men and women, and martyrs, are trampled in a scramble to obtain temporal influence, those of faith and politicians using each other shamelessly. Faith is so much more than force and political power.

There were good reasons that James Madison felt so strongly about keeping church and state separate and safeguarding a respect for individual conviction and conscience when authoring the Bill of Rights during the founding of the United States. Freedom of conscience is sacred trust.


Article Author: Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.