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Elisha Williams on the unalienable right every person has to think and judge for themselves (1744)

The American Congregational minister Elisha Williams (1694–1755) argues that every person has an unalienable right to read, think, argue, and speak about religious matters without outside interference or control:

The rights of conscience are sacred and equal in all, and strictly speaking unalienable. This right of judging every one for himself in matters of religion results from the nature of man, and is so inseperably connected therewith, that a man can no more part with it than he can with his power of thinking.

The members of a civil state do retain their natural liberty or right of judging for themselves in matters of religion. Every man has an equal right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in the affairs of religion. Every one is under an indispensable obligation to search the scripture for himself (which contains the whole of it) and to make the best use of it he can for his own information in the will of God, the nature and duties of Christianity. And as every Christian is so bound; so he has an unalienable right to judge of the sense and meaning of it, and to follow his judgment wherever it leads him; even an equal right with any rulers be they civil or ecclesiastical. This I say, I take to be an original right of the humane nature, and so far from being given up by the individuals of a community that it cannot be given up by them if they should be so weak as to offer it. Man by his constitution as he is a reasonable being capable of the knowledge of his Maker; is a moral & accountable being: and therefore as every one is accountable for himself, he must reason, judge and determine for himself. That faith and practice which depends on the judgment and choice of any other person, and not on the person’s own understanding judgment and choice, may pass for religion in the synagogue of Satan, whose tenet is that ignorance is the mother of devotion; but with no understanding Protestant will it pass for any religion at all. No action is a religious action without understanding and choice in the agent. Whence it follows, the rights of conscience are sacred and equal in all, and strictly speaking unalienable. This right of judging every one for himself in matters of religion results from the nature of man, and is so inseperably connected therewith, that a man can no more part with it than he can with his power of thinking: and it is equally reasonable for him to attempt to strip himself of the power of reasoning, as to attempt the vesting of another with this right. And whoever invades this right of another, be he pope or Cæsar, may with equal reason assume the other’s power of thinking, and so level him with the brutal creation. A man may alienate some branches of his property and give up his right in them to others; but he cannot transfer the rights of conscience, unless he could destroy his rational and moral powers, or substitute some other to be judged for him at the tribunal of God.

About this Quotation:

Elisha Williams (1694–1755) was a Congregational minister in Connecticut and Rector of Yale University. In The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants (1744) he applied Lockean notions of natural rights and religious toleration to criticise local laws which prevented ministers preaching outside their own parish. He argued that the liberty to think and judge was an “unalienable right” that was an essential part of what it meant to be a human being. It was a right which literally could not be “alienated” (given away or sold, or even taken away by force) without destroying the person. The right of judging for oneself was one that humans had in the state of nature and which they continued to hold after the first governments were formed. This right included the right to read (and discuss) books which may or may not be acceptable to the ruling authority. Williams wittily argues that “In a state of nature men had a right to read Milton or Lock for their instruction or amusement: and why they do not retain this liberty under a government that is instituted for the preservation of their persons and properties, is inconceivable.” What would make this argument for freedom of conscience really radical and universal in its application was when it was extended from protecting just religious freedom of belief and action to all forms of belief and the actions which result from these beliefs, as would happened in the First Amendment of the American Constitution in 1791.

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