A narrative is spun by modern proponents of “Natural Law Two Kingdoms” that we owe religious freedom to the Enlightenment, not to Scripture. In Two Cheers (again) for the Enlightenment, D. G. Hart claims that “Protestants had to come out of their theocratic slumber by means other than those supplied by the reformers.” Scripture alone was insufficient. Of course, this is historically inaccurate. Protestants did argue against theocracy because of Scriptural convictions prior to the Enlightenment. Of course, Hart doesn’t consider these Protestants to qualify. He states “All Christians except for Roger Williams and the Anabaptists were Constantinian before 1780. No one could imagine a society that wasn’t Christian.” Apparently Roger Williams and the “Anabaptists” don’t qualify as competent theologians, so therefore “no one” could imagine religious liberty, and therefore we needed the Enlightenment to save us (because Enlightenment thinkers were better theologians than Roger Williams and the Anabaptists?).
Though the Seeker Roger Williams had some theological problems, his beliefs on religious liberty did give more mainstream theologians pause to reconsider their position. One of those men was Increase Mather.
INCREASE MATHER (1639-1723). Even more than his illustrious son Cotton, Increase Mather, is representative of American Puritanism in seventeenth-century New England. As a leader of Boston’s ministry, he became the defender of Puritan orthodoxy during its decline; as president of Harvard, he guided the college through its most difficult period; as a political figure, he secured a new charter for Massachusetts when the old had been revoked; and as a voluminous writer, he published in widely diverse disciplines.
BIOGRAPHY: INCREASE MATHER (1639-1723)
Mather was John Cotton’s son-in-law. Cotton was Williams’ first and primary opponent in the debate over religious liberty. Their exchanges went through several rounds and were published in England with several Westminster Divines chiming in as well. It was the center of the debate over liberty of conscience and the central text debated between the two men was the parable of the wheat and the tares.
After living 70 years in theocratic New England, Mather repented of his support for religious persecution and stated his agreement with Roger William’s position. He gives an account of his change of mind in his autobiography, quoted below (language modernized). I recommend reading the whole memoir. It’s fairly short but it really gives you a taste of the godly mindset of these men and helps you understand what they were wrestling with.
Memoirs of the Life of the Late Reverend Increase Mather
Chap IV: Mr. Mather’s Principles as to Toleration.
Although the great Light of Africa (as has been observed by some who have read the Fathers) was once of the same opinion with the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who expressed a just abhorrence of forcing religion upon a man by persecution; yet afterwards he changed his mind, being willing ot justify some violences offered by the Catholics in that age to the Donatists. What horror must it produce to consider what is reported concerning the most faithless and bloody tyrant in the world! He could not be prevailed upon to rescind all his edicts in favor of the most loyal subjects that ever lived until the epistles of so great a saint as Augustine, unto Bontifacius and Vicentius were shown unto him; and yet in those and in the other epistles, published by the Archbishop of Paris, to justify the most accursed persecution that ever was known, his arguments are but trifling.
New-England being a country planted by a people whose design was to maintain the faith and order of the gospel in evangelical churches, and to transmit them down to posterity; and their commonwealth being looked on as authorized of God to preserve their churches; and the civil rulers esteemed, not only members, but protectors of the churches, there were laws enacted which inflicted punishment on the broachers of pernicious errors, and on them who made invasions on the ecclesiastical constitution, which was esteemed the highest glory, and chief interest of the country. The Jews did not ever value themselves more for the temple at Jerusalem than the people of that province for their primitive model of ecclesiastical polity.
Toleration was of course declared against, as bringing more mischiefs into the church, than the trojan horse into the city, whose ruin soon followed its admission. It was commonly said “Antichrist was coming in at the back door, by a general liberty of conscience.”
Mr. Mather was never for carrying matters to extremities; and utterly disliked the bitter spirit which he saw in some, who had a great influence on public administrations. It is a pity any of those laws should stand on record, some of which were never executed, and all of them long since repealed.
It is true, he supposed the civil magistrate might restrain seducers; but upon maturer thoughts, he became fully satisfied with what our Savior declared, “That tares must be tolerated” and was utterly against the nonsensical way of converting men to the faith by penalties. It is plain, the man who is a good neighbor and a good subject has a right to life and to civil enjoyments; and it is not his being of this or that opinion in religion, but his doing of something which directly tends to the hurt or subversion of human society that forfeits this right.
As to blasphemies and essays to poison men with atheism, profaneness and contempt of morality, which destroy ligaments of human society, they can lay no claim to a toleration.
A good subject has a title to all temporal possessions and enjoyments, before he is a Christian; and it looks odd, that a man should forfeit his title, upon his embracing the faith, or because he does not happen to be a Christian of the uppermost party among the subdivisions.
All acts of religion, produced by external compulsion, are in no wise acceptable to God; but, on the contrary, a contempt of him who searches the hearts.
I know it is pleaded, that orthodoxy ought to be uppermost and supported and heterodoxy to be suppressed. But the uppermost side is always orthodox; and when there is a revolution in the civil state, it ceases to be so of course. They, who are most vehement for oppressing an inferior party, when the tables are turned, resent their being persecuted as deeply as others.
The punishing of idolaters with death, among the Israelites, ought not to be urged in defense of persecution. The land of Canaan was held by deed of gift from God immediately; and the condition by which they held their title to it, was their observation of the law of Moses, in which idolatry was expressly forbid, and the committing of it was high-treason; they being under a theocracy, did thereby renounce their allegiance to God their sovereign. At the same time foreigners, who came to the land of Canaan, were not compelled to embrace the Mosaic laws; and when many of the Jews fell into the grossest heresies, yet while they kept the law of Moses, abstaining from idolatry, etc, the magistrate inflicted no civil penalty.
The Sadducees overthrew some fundamental principles of religion; yet we do not find that the blessed Jesus reproached the Pharisees, for not persecuting them as they could have done.
The Christian faith brings us into no earthly Canaan, and has no weapons but what are spiritual: and it must be allowed, as most agreeable to Christian Religion that the only punishment inflicted on the erroneous should be instruction; which if they will not regard, their eternal perdition is owing to themselves.
As to the sanguinary laws against the Quakers in New-England, Mr. Mather was in Europe when made and executed and he had (blessed be God) neither part nor lot in that execrable fact.
There were some others in New-England who differed from the churches there in no other article but that of infant baptism. Mr. Mather was so far from treating them in an unchristian manner, that he bore a part in ordaining a pastor to a church of Baptists in Boston. As for them, who cannot hold communion with other Christians, who differ from them in no point that touches any fundamental article of Christianity, they are welcome to enjoy their own sentiments: but they do well to forbear censuring others, whose principles allow them to join at the Lord’s Supper with those, whom in judgment of charity they ought to believe Christ owns as his disciples in this world and to whom at the Day of Judgment he will say, “Come ye Blessed.”
A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience
Mather’s comment “A good subject has a title to all temporal possessions and enjoyments, before he is a Christian; and it looks odd, that a man should forfeit his title, upon his embracing the faith” likely has reference to the concept of national covenanting. Consider Samuel Rutherford’s explanation of the role of a magistrate in a pagan vs a Christian nation:
Yet let not us go on with Egid-Coninck to say, that if it was lawful to make war with any nation for wrongs done to men, how much more for injuries done to God? for making of war is an act of magistracy, and so suppose some jus, some power and authority, that we have either by the law of nature, to defend our life, peace, liberties, or for avenging of such heinous injuries done to the Nation as cannot in justice be decided, but by the sword. So that sin, as sin, or as greatest sins, are not the just cause of war, but sins as most destructive to human society, for which by the principles of the Law of nature, they may be convinced of fearful breaches; now these that are Idolaters, the nations that worship God in Idolatrous way, and being of a strange Religion, worship a strange God, though they do the greatest injury to God that can be, yet in regard they being other nations as independent on us, as we are on them; and do it not in order to the destruction of our of our peace, liberty, and lives, we have not jus over them, nor authority to make War with them, except God gave us a command to destroy them, nor is this a good consequence, we may by war revenge injuries done to men, ergo, far more, by war, me we revenge injuries done to God: for war is an act of revenging justice: that supposeth some authority given of God, over such a nation as we come out against in war.
2. Every just war is some way defensive, in regard every act of Magistracy, is an act of defending of the peace, life, and liberty of the society, or the members thereof, and a propulsion of violence, by violence; and this is the intrinsic end of Magistracy, to hold off unjust violence, by just and harmless violence; for if the life of a murderer be not taken away by the sword of a Magistrate, he will still take the life of another man, qui semel malus, semper malus presumitur, he that is once wicked, is still presumed to be wicked, except his wickedness be restrained, and to offend a nation or person that hath not offended us, must be unjust violence, and unlawful war: and to make war against a nation that hath worshipped a strange God, and injured God, and not us, supposeth that we must instruct them of a wrong done to God, by teaching them, and instructing them in the true religion: for suppose they worship the works in the men’s hands, and worship Satan as some Indians do and so by their own conscience may be convinced, and so are inexcusable in soro Dei, before Gods tribunal, yet are they not so inexcusable, in soro humano, before mans tribunal, as we can make war against them, till we inform and instruct them positively of the true Religion. But they that shed our blood, and invade our peace and liberties, are by the Law of nature convinced, and by demands of reparation made to them, quickly silenced, and need not to be instructed in their hearts. But it may be said, what if that Nation will not be informed of the true Religion, and will go on contumaciously to dishonor God, and reproach the true God? shall we not upon a mere quarrel for Religion, make war against them, and avenge the injuries done to God, and defend his truth, no less than with the sword,we defend our own lives and liberties?
I answer there is not the like reason: for God and nature given to the strongest, a jus and authority over oppressors, to repel unjust violence, with innocent violence but that we should force the true religion on Idolaters, we have not the like ground, except they did attempt to obtrude their false ways upon us, and injure our souls: for there is a vast difference between a people never receiving the true Religion, and a people who have embraced, and submitted to laws, that have enacted the profession of the true Religion: those that never professed the true Religion, cannot be compelled to receive it by the Sword of another Nation, except they first subdue them in a just war, and be masters of them, and they may educate the posterity of the subdued people, and discharge the duty of parents to them, and impose laws on themselves, to cast away the Idols of their fathers house, and to learn the knowledge of the true God: but they cannot make the not receiving of the true Religion the ground of a war: for we read not of any such cause of war in the Scripture. It is true, God did command his people to destroy the Canaanites, but idolatry was not the quarrel, Josh. 11.19. There was not a nation that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hittites the inhabitants of Gibe on all (other) they took in battle, 20. For it was of the Lord to harden their heart, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favor ,but that he might destroy them as the Lord commanded Moses. And those that they subdued in the Wilderness, denied them harmless passage through their land…
That nations of another Religion are not gained to Christ by the Sword; nor can we make war against them, because they are Idolaters, and follow a false Religion… Pagans must be allured, and not compelled by wars to the faith… Paul the third defined well, that the Western Indians being capable of life eternal, were true Lords of their possessions, and could not be justly deprived thereof.