J. Brown against Toleration: Historical Background

J. Brown against Toleration: Historical Background

From On the absurdity of Authoritative Toleration of gross Heresy, Blasphemy or Idolatry

According to John Brown, the idea of civil toleration of false religion came first from heretics of the past – Donatists, Socinians, and Arminians.   The civil magistrate’s role in suppressing false religion was also opposed by English Independents and many of those in New England (who ended up tolerating groups such as Quakers).  John Brown of Haddington outlines this history in these opening statements of his first letter.


How God himself connected religion and the civil welfare of nations in his ancient laws, almost the whole of the Old Testament bears witness. That religion is the great basis of civil happiness was the common, [and] the avowed belief of every sensible heathen: It was, for aught I know, the infamous monster Tiberius, who first pretended, “that the gods alone ought to regard or resent the injuries done them.”

The Early Reformation: From the Church Ruling Governments to Distinct Roles for Each

Before the happy Reformation, the popish clergy had reduced civil rulers into mere tools for executing their pleasure in religious matters; and pretended that they had no power of judging in them. To free these rulers from such anti-Christian claims, the Protestant reformers, everywhere, as their confessions of faith and other writings make evident, loudly maintained that to magistrates themselves, independent of clergymen, belongs a distinguished power in the reformation and preservation of religion.

The Erastian View:  The Civil Magistrate Should Rule the Church

Not long after, Erastus, a German physician, and his followers, to curry favour with their respective princes, pretended “that magistrates are the proper lords of the Christian church, from whom their ministers and other rulers derive their whole power, and to whom they must be accountable.” This notion, exceedingly flattering their ambition, was too greedily embraced by most of the Protestant princes; nor do I know of one Protestant church which has not suffered by means of it. [See Samuel Rutherford on The divine right of church-government and excommunication…]

The Anabaptist View:  No Role for the Civil Magistrate in Promoting Religion

Meanwhile, the German Anabaptists, having experienced the frowns, and sometimes the improper severities of magistrates, copied after the ancient Donatists in the like circumstances, and warmly contended that magistrates have no more power about religious matters than any private person, and ought to punish none for different sentiments in doctrine and forms of worship. The Socinians and remonstrant Arminians, except when magistrates favored themselves and promoted their cause, zealously contended for the same notion, at least in the case of ministers and worship, which were not maintained at the public expense.

English Independents: Siding with the Anabaptist View

Many, if not most of the English Independents in the last century were much of the same mind; and hence, by their influence, some passages in the Westminster Confession of Caith could never obtain a ratification by the English Parliament, or a place in their own Savoy Confession. Part of these passages, relative to the magistrate’s power, are also dropped from the confession of faith agreed to by the Independents of New England in 1682. Most of the English Dissenters of this century seem to be much of the same mind, especially such as might otherwise have been exposed to danger on account of their open maintenance of Arian, Socinian, and Quaker blasphemies – Locke and Bishop Hoadly, and some others of the Episcopalian party, warmly espoused the same cause.

The Church in Scotland: Moving away from its Confessional View

This notion never received much countenance in Scotland, till Mr. Glafs of Tealing commenced [became] a furious new-fashioned Independent. He mightily contended that:

  • The Jewish nation was an ecclesiastical one, and their kings [were] ecclesiastical rulers.
  • Christian magistrates have no more power in religious matters than private Christians, and [therefore] magistrates ought not:
    • employ their power in advancing the true religion,
    • make laws with penalties in favour of [the true religion],
    • restrain or punish heretics or false teachers, or
    • give more encouragement to good Christians [any more] than to other peaceable subjects.
  • The example of the reforming kings of Judah in punishing idolatry and false worship, and in promoting the true religion, is not now to be imitated.
  • Our fathers’ national covenanting against popery and other wickedness, in favour of the true religion was unwarrantable, and is not binding upon us.

Doctor Wishart, principal of the College of Edinburgh, in his sermons [has] contended that:

  • Magistrates have only a right to punish such crimes as strike immediately against the persons or property of men;
  • [Magistrates should] not to punish anything which strikes immediately against the honor of God, [such] as blasphemy or heresy
  • All men ought to have civil liberty to think and speak as they please, providing they make no attack upon the welfare of civil society.
  • None ought to be hampered in their search after truth by any requirement of their subscriptions to formulas or confessions of faith
  • Children in their education ought never to be biased to a side by learning catechisms which maintain the peculiar principles of a party.

These or the like notions have been adopted by not a few of the pretenders to modern illumination.