The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience

In this 1670 document, William Penn (1644–1718) makes his most comprehensive statement on religious toleration, which serves as a theoretical foundation for his experiment in the practice of religious liberty in Pennsylvania. The statement was written during a sojourn in Ireland. Here Penn makes an essentially religious argument for religious toleration, resting his appeal on divine authority. Unlike many others, however, Penn does not turn to scripture, but rather, to the inner revelations—“what God has discovered to us”—perceived by practicing Quakers. Penn claims that intolerance violates liberty of conscience and is not only an offense against others, but also, ultimately, an offense against God.


First, Then we say that Imposition, Restraint and Persecution, for matters relating to conscience, directly invade divine prerogative, and divest the Almighty of a due, proper to none besides himself.  And this we prove by these five particulars.

1) First, If we do allow the honour of our creation, due to God only, and that no other besides himself has endowed us with those excellent gifts of understanding, reason, judgment, and faith, and consequently that he only is the Object as well as the Author, both of our faith, worship, and service, then whoever shall interpose their authority to enact faith and worship, in a way that seems not to us congruous with what he has discovered to us to be faith and worship or to restrain us from what we are persuaded is our indispensable duty, they evidently usurp this authority, and invade his incommunicable right of government over conscience: ‘For the inspiration of the Almighty gives understanding: And faith is the gift of God,’ says the divine Writ.

2) Secondly, such magisterial determinations carry and evident claim to that infallibility, which Protestants have been hitherto so jealous of owning, that to avoid the Papists, they have denied it to all but God himself.  Either they have forsook their old plea, or if not, we desire to know when, and where,  they were invested with that divine excellency, and whether imposition, restraint, and persecution, were ever deemed by god the fruits of his Spirit…

3) Thirdly, it enthrones man as king over conscience, the alone just claim and privilege of his Creator, whose thoughts are not men’s thoughts, but has reserved to himself, that empire from all the Caesars on earth: For if men, in reference to souls and bodies, things appertaining to this and the other world, shall be subject to their fellow-creatures, what follows, but that Caesar (however he got it) has all, God’s share and his own too? And being Lord of both, both are Caesar’s, not God’s.

4) Fourthly, It defeats God’s work of grace, and the invisible operation of his eternal Spirit (can which alone beget faith, and is only to be obeyed, in and about religion and worship) and attributes men’s conformity to outward force and corporal punishments. A faith subject to as many revolutions as the powers that enact it.

5) Fifthly and lastly, such persons assume the judgment of the great tribunal unto themselves; for to whomsoever men are imposedly or restrictively subject and accountable in matters of faith, worship and conscience; in them alone must the power of judgment reside; but it is equally true that God shall judge all by Jesus Christ, and that no man is so accountable to his fellow creatures, as to be imposed upon, restrained, or persecuted for any matter of conscience whatever.

Thus, and in many more particulars, are men accustomed to intrench upon Divine Property, to gratify particular interests in the world; and (at best) through a misguided apprehension to imagine they do God ‘good service,’ that where they cannot give faith, they will use force; which kind of sacrifice is nothing less unreasonable than the other is abominable: God will not give his honour to another; and to him only, that searches the heart and tries the reins, it is our duty to ascribe the gifts of understanding and faith, without which none can please God.

[From Selected works of William Penn in Five Volumes, 3rd ed., vol. 3 (London: James Phillips, 1782), 12-13.]

A Seasonable Caveat Against Popery

Also written in 1670, on the same Irish journey during which Penn composed “The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience.” It was constructed as a point by point reply to Christopher Davenport’s tract, An Explanation of Roman Catholick Belief (1656).  Penn’s critical reply is hardly his most well-considered piece, often comparing the “greatest evils” of Catholicism with an idealized portrait of Protestantism. While Penn retracted much of this injurious rhetoric in his 1685 essay, “Persuasive to Moderation,” the inflammatory nature of this earlier work should not be dismissed. It is a reminder that even this staunch defender of religious liberty was sometimes prone to the religious rhetoric and mud-slinging of his time.

X.  Of Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

…It is a great truth, that bishops, pastors, teachers etc. were given by Christ Jesus, for the work of Ministry; but what then? Can Romanists make use of this to justify their most injurious and tyrannical hierarchy? Do the scriptures of truth tell us, that ever God gave lordly, proud, and voluptuous popes, cardinals, primates, archbishops, deans, chapters, friars, nuns etc. for the edifying of the Church, and the Body of Christ? The primitive bishops were to be ‘blameless,’ not living in all manner of uncleanness; ‘gentle,’ no strikers, no brawlers, nor persecutors of their brethren, as are the Popes of Rome; ‘apt to teach,’ not by roaring bulls to excommunicate; ‘to eat and drink such things as were set before them,’ not racking and grinding the faces of the poor, the widows, and the fatherless, and extorting their labours, to greaten their revenues, to live in idleness, pomp, and lust…

In short, the Romish hierarchy is so far from being suited within the order of the Gospel, by them quoted in their confession; that the whole design of their lordly popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, Jesuits, and other friars of many sorts, (esteemed of the religious tribe) is but to overbalance the civil power, and render themselves masters of the swords and purses of princes and commonwealths, to maintain them in ease, idleness, plenty and pleasure, and to blind the understandings of them they abuse…

To conclude, If we would not receive a thief, until he has repented: let the Papist first recant his voluminous errors; not know in scripture, nor ever heard of for three hundred years together after Christ…

Thus, while some Protestants (and those chiefly concerned in these affairs) are mostly busied in persecuting dissenters, I hope it will not be ill resented, that one of them has, in the mean time, undertook (though with much brevity) an enervation of the Romanists’ faith, at least a detection of their craft…and present way of infatuation amongst the people.  But we must once more declare, it is not to our purpose to bring them under persecution; but to present the people with such an information, as may prevent them from ever having power to persecute others.

[From Selected works of William Penn in Five Volumes, 3rd ed., vol. 3 (London: James Phillips, 1782), 87-88.]