Religious Liberty

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Readers should keep in mind that this article was written in the late 1950s.


Religious Liberty (freedom of conscience, tolera­tion). Toleration of a variety of religions or religious groups and opinions within the boundaries of a single state has often been a major problem, under both Christian and non-Christian governments. The Roman Empire was not completely intolerant when Christianity was established. On the contrary, it symbolized its tolerance by the erection of the Pan­theon at Rome, in which all the gods were to be rep­resented. When it became clear that Christianity was not a part of Judaism and would not give the Roman Emperor divine honor and worship, it was declared an illegal religion (religio illicita), in the time of the Emperor Trajan (ca. 96). After the failure of the policy of persecution became clear, edicts of toleration were issued in 311 and 313 making Christianity a permitted, i.e., tolerated religion. The pendulum then swung to the opposite extreme so that in 380 an edict was issued by the Emperor Theodosius making Christianity the state religion and the only tolerated religion. From that time on in the Empire, the only Christianity recognized was that of the ecumenical creeds (Nicea, Chalcedon, etc.). Not only were the non-Christian religions not tol­erated but no form of deviant (i.e., heretical) Chris­tianity was permitted. Heresy, as defined by the state church (Roman or Greek), became a crime against the state and punishable by death. There was no religious liberty, except for the one recog­nized religion. The Constantinian compromise of the essence of the church by union with the state meant the end of toleration. This was the state of affairs down to the Reformation.

But the Reformation brought no freedom of con­science or religious liberty to Europe. On the con­trary, the Reformers, in spite of early declaration seemingly supporting freedom of conscience, finally turned out to be as intolerant as the Roman Church (see Martin Luther). They were intolerant not only toward the Roman Church, but also toward other forms of Protestantism, and in particular bitterly in­tolerant of Anabaptism. When the principle of ter­ritorial churches, coextensive with the civil state, was established, in both Lutheran and Reformed areas, with only one religion tolerated, the rulers were often perplexed as to what to do with deviants from the established faith, particularly the Anabap­tists, who were so persistent and earnest in witness­ing to their faith and establishing their voluntary congregations. Seeking counsel from the religious leaders, such as Luther and Melanchthon, they re­ceived lengthy documents, numbers of which have been printed, commonly counseling complete in­tolerance and usually calling for severe persecution including death. While without doubt the motives of both rulers and Reformers were mixed, including fear for the established political and social order if toleration should be granted, yet the basic fact is that religious liberty was denied. The bitter persecu­tion of the Anabaptists everywhere, almost from the beginning, ordered on the basis of such sweep­ing decrees as that of the Diet of Speyer in 1529, is irrefutable evidence of the intolerance of both Catholic and Protestant civil and religious author­ities.

The victory for religious liberty was not won in Western Europe until the 17th and even 18th cen­turies (in certain Eastern European, and even West­ern European Catholic countries, not until the late 19th or even 20th century, and in some parts is not yet secure, notably Spain and Soviet Russia), and then it was to a large extent due not to the will of the dominant Christian churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, but to the will of rulers exhausted by religious wars and determined to find a basis for peace in the European community which would transcend the warring religious parties; or it was due to the growing rationalism, secularism, and materialism of the ever more powerful emerging middle class, which often placed religion low in the scale of cultural values.

Anabaptist-Mennonite Experience of Religious Liberty

The record of the suffering of the Anabap­tists and Mennonites under this policy of intolerance is reported in the various articles in this Encyclo­pedia covering countries, regions, and political units in general, and in the biographical articles on a num­ber of emperors, kings, etc., and need not be repeat­ed here. (See for instance Germany, Netherlands, etc.) Suffice it to say that often the rulers and land­holders were tolerant toward the Mennonites of the 17th century and later, because of their economic value, and frequently had great difficulties with the intolerant clergy of their domains. The fact also that citizenship was not a universal right, but a priv­ilege to be granted or withheld by the rulers or granted conditionally, had a direct bearing on toleration. In some areas in Germany, especially Mennonites were not granted full and unconditional citizenship until the second half of the 19th century.

By contrast the New World was a land of religious liberty and therefore a most attractive place of settlement for the harried Mennonites of Europe (outside the Netherlands, which as early as 1572 granted partial toleration to the Mennonites). While certain of the American Colonies had established churches (Massachusetts, e.g., down to 1844, Vir­ginia, etc.) and in the early days were rather in­tolerant, complete tolerance soon became the gen­eral rule and full religious liberty was written into the federal constitution (1787) and into the several state constitutions, William Penn's colony of Penn­sylvania (established 1681) from the beginning of­fered complete religious liberty (except for Catho­lics); in fact Penn planned it as a haven of refuge for persecuted Quakers and other persecuted re­ligious minorities. The Mennonites who settled in Pennsylvania from 1683 on enjoyed complete religious freedom and have suffered no persecution anywhere in the New World, except by mob action, or by punishment for violation of certain regulations or aspects of the legislation requiring military or civil service. Difficulties arising out of conscription do not invalidate, however, the basic principle of religious liberty and freedom of conscience which has been a fundamental and deeply cherished prin­ciple of the American nation from its beginning. The same holds generally true for Canada.

There has been occasional persecution of Prot­estant minorities in Latin-American countries where Catholicism is the established or dominant religion. Mennonite missions or colonies established in these countries have generally enjoyed full liberty of worship and propagation of their faith. A recent outbreak of intolerance and persecution in Colombia has caused some tribulation for the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonite mis­sions there.

The most serious case of denial of religious liberty for Mennonites in modern times has been Soviet Russia. It is true that Czarist Russia forbade prose­lyting of Greek Orthodox people, and in this sense certainly did not allow full freedom of propagation of faith (although allowing it among the non-Greek Orthodox people), but full freedom of worship was guaranteed to the Mennonites and other settlers im­migrating into Russia in 1788 and later, and this right was consistently maintained. The constitution of Soviet Russia guarantees full freedom of worship, but denies freedom of propagation of religion. In actuality freedom of worship was severely restricted in 1929-1941 through the closing of churches, im­prisonment, deportation, and even execution of clergy, severe limitation of religious activities such as instruction of children under 18, and all types of religious organizations except direct congregational structure. At times religious persecution was car­ried on under the guise of breaking resistance to collectivization of agriculture; and it is clear that the leadership of the Soviet state sought to break up any type of solidarity of religious, ethnic, or economic groups, which might conceivably be or become a source of continuing resistance to the communist regime or ideology in any form. Reli­gion, particularly for Mennonites, was one of the strongest bonds for the maintenance of a spirit of nonacceptance of the Marxist ideology. Mennonites in Russia were never guilty of any disobedience to the Soviet authorities or forcible resistance to gov­ernment measures, but they did endeavor to main­tain their church and community life as long as possible, and to nurture their children in the faith of their fathers. The clash with the Soviet state was inevitable and resulted in untold suffering, including the death of thousands in Russia, in forced labor camps, and in exile. Mennonite church life was completely broken up. Religious services were no longer held; probably no organized worship was conducted from 1935 to 1943. Since 1943, at first in a very slight and tentative way, and since 1953 more openly and extensively, Mennonite worship has been reviving, with regular preaching, choir singing, prayer meetings, etc. A severe handicap has been the death of ordained ministers, since very few survived the ordeal of 1935-1943. A further diffi­culty is the fact that liberty of worship is permitted by law only to registered congregations, and it has been impossible for the Mennonite congregations to secure legal recognition and registry since they have again emerged from the period of persecution.

Mennonite suffering in Russia has been further compounded by the fact of their German culture, language, and sympathies. It is difficult at times to determine whether their tribulations were due to their Germanic character, their economic skill, their sturdy non-Marxianism, or their religious stead­fastness. Perhaps the very combination of several undesirable (from the Soviet point of view) qualities made their lot more difficult. Certain it is that the Evangelical Christians and Baptists in Russia, though also subject to a certain amount of persecution in the dark days, have since 1943 enjoyed much more liberty than the Mennonites. A major reason may well be their Slavic character.

Advocacy of Religious Liberty

The Anabap­tists were the only Reformation group consistently advocating religious liberty, separation of church and state, freedom of the individual conscience, and toleration of divergence in religious matters, although individuals like Sebastian Franck and Seba­stian Castellio were outstanding exceptions, particu­larly the latter. The Anabaptists did not produce any extensive literary defense of their position, as did Castellio, but from the very beginning of the movement they gave constant witness to their strong convictions on this great principle. It was not only their Biblicism with its desire to follow both the commandments and example of Christ which mo­tivated them, but their fundamental conception of Christianity as a matter of voluntary commitment and free choice, their insistence on love to all as a universal Christian obligation with its corollary of nonviolence and nonresistance, their understanding of suffering as the way of victory or a theology of martyrdom, and their belief that faith is a gift from God and hence impossible to create by compulsion of man.

The place of Anabaptism in the history of re­ligious liberty has been recognized by a few scholars such as Ernst Troeltsch, Johannes Kühn, and Rufus M. Jones, but it has as yet not been brought out in sufficient clarity and strength to become a part of the commonly accepted understanding of the devel­opment of toleration, although certainly all who are at all seriously conversant with Anabaptist his­tory are aware of the general Anabaptist position. It must be admitted that the break-through to re­ligious liberty and toleration in Western Europe was due primarily to other forces, but the Anabap­tists were the prophets before their time, the pio­neers who had to raise their voices in a wilderness, who had to go counter to the entire spirit of their age, the 16th century. Professor Walther Kohler of Heidelberg declared that "they dare to claim a place in history as the pioneers (Bahnbrecher) of the modern world view with its freedom of con­science and freedom of faith." Ernst Troeltsch says, "All this [i.e., toleration, liberty, the rise of the modern free man, etc., in England] is not actually the work of Protestantism, but rather the work of a revived Anabaptism and Spiritualism (merged with a radicalized Calvinism), which thus received a belated compensation for the boundless suffering which this religion of toleration and personal convincement of conscience endured at the hands of all the confessions in the 16th century. Here the stepchildren of the Reformation finally enjoyed their great historical hour." Bradford Smith in his biog­raphy, Bradford & Plymouth (1951), does not hesi­tate to identify the Pilgrim libertarian tradition which ultimately won out over Puritan authori­tarianism in New England as essentially Dutch and Anabaptist in character.

Anabaptist Testimonies on Religious Liberty

Out of the fullness of material cited in H. S. Ben­der's "The Anabaptist and Religious Liberty in the Sixteenth Century" (MQR XXIX, 1955, 83-100) the following typical statements are here cited. Con­rad Grebel in the letter to Thomas Müntzer (1524) wrote: "The Gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves." Felix Manz, in Zürich court records of 1525 and 1526, admitted teaching that those of other faiths are to be left undisturbed in their practice. Balthasar Hubmaier in his four-page pamphlet Con­cerning Heretics and Their Burning (January 1524), which is called the first Protestant declaration for religious freedom, said, "So it follows that the slayers of heretics are the worst heretics of all, in that they, contrary to Christ's teaching and practice, condemn heretics to the fire." Hans Denck (1527) said, "Everyone should know that in matters of faith everyone should proceed as free, voluntary, and uncompelled." Kilian Aurbacher of Moravia wrote in a letter to Bucer in Strasbourg (1534): "It is never right to compel one in matters of faith, whatever he may believe, be he Jew or Turk. . . . And thus we conduct ourselves according to the ex­ample of Christ and the apostles and proclaim the Gospel according to the grace that He has en­trusted to us; we compel no one. . . . That this then also is an open truth, that Christ's people are a free, unforced, and uncompelled people, who re­ceive Christ with desire and a willing heart, of this the Scriptures testify." An appeal of the Zürich Anabaptists to the Zürich Council of 1589 asserts that "the state authorities have no place in the church of God, no right to control and persecute the conscience, and that this principle is one which they, the Swiss Brethren, have recently proved out of Scripture." Heinrich Bullinger, in his magnum opus against the Swiss Brethren, Der Widertoufferen Ursprung (1560), sets forth clearly and emphatically the Anabaptist belief in freedom of conscience, tries to refute it point by point, and defends the Zürich policy of intolerance and persecution. Among other things he charges that they asserted, "One cannot and should not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, for faith is a free gift of God." Menno Simons said, "Say, good reader, where have you, in all the days of your life, read in the apostolic Scriptures that Christ or the apostles have called upon the power of the magistracy against those who would not hear their doctrine or obey their words" (726) ? "Faith is a gift of God. ... It cannot be thrust upon a man by external force or by the sword" (605). The Hutterite Chronicle (in section written before 1542) says: "Faith is not to be compelled but is a gift from God." These testimonies are typical and could be multiplied from many sources.


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Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1959

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Bender, Harold S. "Religious Liberty." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 18 Oct 2021.

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Bender, Harold S. (1959). Religious Liberty. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 October 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 291-293, 1147. All rights reserved.

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