The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom

By Robert Louis Wilken

When churches began to appear in the cities of the Roman Empire in the first century people had a quite different understanding of religion from what we have today. The most significant difference was that people living in a city or territory followed the same religion. Through public rituals and private ceremonies people were bound together in a single civic and religious community. Religion was very much part of the fabric of life and no form of social life was secular. For this reason the Romans were suspicious of people who worshipped “foreign” gods and were unwilling to observe the customs that marked the life of the city as a whole.

The rise of Christianity presented Roman authorities with a unique challenge because Christians shunned the public religious rituals observed in cities, for example the sacrifice of a bull or goat in front of a temple. Because Christians met in homes or other private places they aroused suspicion and their religion was called a “superstition”, by which was meant a degraded cult alien to others. In some cases Christians were arrested and brought before local magistrates or the provincial governor and asked to account for their behavior. By good fortune we possess a number of documents, called “acts of the martyrs”, that record what happened when Christians were asked to explain themselves.   

 One of the earliest “acts” is an account of a group of Christians in North Africa, present day Tunisia, who were arraigned in the chambers of the proconsul Saturninus. They were asked to swear by the “genius of our Lord the emperor.” When they refused Saturninus lost patience with them, accusing them of maligning our sacred rites. “We too are a religious people,” he said. “Why will you not worship our gods?” In another account a wealthy Roman Christian named Apollonius was brought before the governor who said: “I urge you to change your mind, and to worship and venerate the gods all of us worship and venerate, and so continue to live in our midst.” In plain English: if you want to live here, do what the rest of us do.

Christians, protesting that Roman officials treated them unjustly, wrote “apologies”, i.e. defenses of Christian practice, to the emperor or to Roman officials. In these writings we see the first evidence that Christian thinkers were beginning to set down a theological rationale for the freedom to practice the religion of their choice. Among the earliest and most astute apologists was a man named Tertullian who lived in ancient Carthage (present day Tunis). He was the first Christian to write in Latin – most had written in Greek – and was well schooled in philosophy and law. He was a gifted stylist and his writings are spiced with arresting phrases such as “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

One of Tertullian’s treatises, the Apology, is an incisive critique of Roman policy toward Christians. The principal charge against us, wrote Tertullian, was that we do not follow Roman ways. We are not considered true Romans because we do not worship the gods of the Romans. But he asks, why must everyone pray in the same way?” Let one man worship God, another Jupiter; let one lift up hands of supplication to the heavens, another to the altar of Fides (good faith).” Then he comes to his point: “See that you do not end up fostering irreligion by taking away freedom of religion and forbid free choice with respect to divine matters, so that I am not allowed to worship what I wish, but am forced to worship what I do not wish. Not even a human being would like to be honored unwillingly.”

Tertullian is the first in the history of Western civilization to use the phrase “freedom of religion”. Religion, says Tertullian, is more than dutiful gestures and solemn rituals; it arises from inner conviction; feigned observance makes a mockery of religious devotion. By using the term “freedom” Tertullian advances the truth that human beings are moral agents able to act on the basis of their beliefs. “It is unjust,” he writes, “to force freemen to offer sacrifice against their will; divine service requires a willing mind.”

In their daily life Christians lived side by side with others, shopped at the same butchers and green grocers, ate the same food, wore the same attire. It was only when they gathered together to pray that they set themselves off from others. In defending freedom of religion Tertullian is less interested in the beliefs of individuals; he wished to secure a place for Christian communities within Roman society. Which is to say the phrase “freedom of religion’ enters the vocabulary of the west with reference to the privileges of a community, not primarily to the rights of individuals. 

A decade after Tertullian wrote his Apology Christians in Carthage were again visited by persecution. In response Tertullian wrote a short tract to the local proconsul, a man named Scapula, defending the “association” of Christians, as he calls them. In this work he states the fundamental argument that underlies all later discussion of religious freedom: “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

Although Tertullian had been trained in the law and for a time may have practiced law, he is not making a legal argument. His case is moral and theological. Without the ability to choose an agent is not responsible for his acts. In support of this teaching Christian thinkers appealed to scriptural texts, for example from Deuteronomy: “I have set before you this day good and evil, choose the good (Deut. 30:15).” When Tertullian says that one should be able to practice the religion of one’s choice, he is speaking of the freedom to act on the basis of one’s reasoned judgment.

Although early Christian apologists seldom cite the Scriptures because they are writing to people who do not honor the Scriptures, it is evident that biblical texts underlie their arguments, for example “You desire truth in the inward being” (Ps 51:6). In another treatise he cites Genesis 1:26-27, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” and explains that being created in the image of God means that “human beings were created free by God, with power to choose and to act.” Which is to say that the Christian defense of religious freedom in the early centuries rests on a biblical foundation.

Tertullian, like other early Christian writers, believed that Christians should obey the governing authorities. But their obedience to political authority has limits, because their first loyalty is to God. In the words of 1 Peter: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him. . . . Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:13).” Political authorities are to be obeyed only in their sphere, not when they assume honors due only to God.

As Christians defended themselves to their critics they also appealed to the integrity of conscience. In a famous passage in the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says that even though the Gentiles do not have the Jewish law there is a law written in their hearts, to which “their conscience bears witness” (Rom 2:15). Conscience was understood as a form of knowledge, from the Latin scientia (knowledge) and con (with), best translated as consciousness or recollection. It signified that one’s acts bear moral significance and can be judged by others, hence the addition of “with” to “knowledge”. A good conscience, wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca, welcomes the crowd because there is no need to hide what one has done, whereas a bad conscience weighs heavy on one’s mind even when alone. Defending himself to the Christians at Corinth Paul says that his “boast is this, the testimony of conscience” that I have behaved toward you with “holiness and godly sincerity (2 Corinthians 1:12).”

But Paul does not simply echo ancient usage. He uses the term conscience as a judge of past actions, but also with reference to future behavior. The gentiles who do not have the law do by nature what the law requires; it obligates them to do what is “written on their hearts.” Origen of Alexandria, the most brilliant Christian thinker in the first three centuries, said that conscience has a dual role. The “testimony of conscience” judges what one has done, he writes, but also serves as a “pedagogue to the soul, a guide and companion. . . to admonish it to do what is best as well was correct and convict it of faults.”

Because of its role as tutor of the soul, conscience must be free; it cannot be subject to outward restraints. Tertullian used the term conscience to explain why Christians cannot participate in Roman religious rites. We refuse to offer sacrifices, he writes, because of “our conscience.” For Tertullian conscience was “knowledge of the soul”, an inner certainty that comes not from oneself but from God. Following one’s conscience then is not about being true to oneself; it is about obedience to God.

Tertullian was the most incisive writer to defend the freedom of Christians to practice their beliefs in the cities of the Roman Empire, but there were others. The most notable was Lactantius, another Latin writer who lived at the beginning of the fourth century. He held a position as teacher of rhetoric in Carthage, but was appointed to a chair of Latin oratory in the Greek-speaking city of Nicomedia in Bithynia in Asia Minor. He moved in the company of leading intellectuals in the city, some of whom were defenders of traditional Roman religion, yet he decided to be received into the Church.

He moved to Trier in Gaul where emperor in the west Constantine asked him to tutor his son Crispus. During his stay there he wrote a major work, the Divine Institutes, defending and expounding Christian teaching. Leading philosophers, most notably Porphyry, denounced Christians because they “had abandoned the customs of our fathers, which sustain every people and city, and are impious and atheistic.” For Porphyry there could be no dual loyalty; civil duty and religious devotion were complementary.

The principal issue, said Lactantius, was that the Romans will “not allow God to be worshipped by others.” That is, Christians will not allow Christians to worship God as they wish. They use force to compel them to observe the “public rites.” Instead of trying to persuade us by arguments, they rely on violence. But, writes, Lactantius, “religion cannot be imposed by force,” The will can be moved to act “only by words, not by blows.” If the mind is not persuaded, religious acts are a mockery of God.

Tertullian had made the argument that religious faith could not be coerced; Lactantius writing a hundred years later restated Tertullian’s fundamental point. But unlike Tertullian his defense of freedom of religion is sprinkled with words from the Bible, “faith, love, fear, truth” though he does not cite biblical passages. Yet the biblical basis of his thinking is apparent. For example when Lactantius says that “God sees the secret place of the heart” he is using the language of the psalms: God “knows the secrets of the heart” (Ps. 44:21). But he does not identify his source.

For Lactantius religion is a firm inner adherence to God and makes explicit what was implicit in Tertullian; only in giving of oneself can one revere God. Lactantius was a man of letters, not a theologian or philosopher, and he is a minor figure in the history of Christian thought. But he displayed a clear-headed understanding of the authority of religious faith. His thinking on the incompatibility of religion and coercion would endure. And he has the unique distinction of being cited in the Declaration of Religious Liberty (Dignitatis humanae) of Vatican Council II.  

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.  He is the author of Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom.