John Brown: Implications of Tolerating False Religions

John Brown: Implications of Tolerating False Religions

From On the Absurdity of Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy or Idolatry

John Brown of Haddington explains why he is opposed to freedom of religion in its broadest sense. 

Although authorities should not force beliefs upon subjects, that does not mean that they should not restrict propagation of gross heresies and the like.

Magistrates ought never attempt to force men to believe with their hearts even the most fundamental truths of religion, or to [force them to] practise any religious duty — that being the wrong means appointed by God for convincing them of the truth or inducing them to a cordial performance of religious duties, 2 Cor 10:4, 5. But it would be highly absurd to hence infer that magistrates may not [should not] restrain men from robbing nations or churches of those divine truths which God hath graciously entrusted to them and which are inexpressibly profitable to them, or [to] restrain them from propagating gross heresies, blasphemies, [and] idolatries, which undermine and exclude the true religion, provoke God to destroy nations, and are the fruitful seeds of contention, confusion, and every evil work. No magistrate can compel me to love my neighbour as my self, or can justly compel me to divide mine inheritance with him; but he may lawfully punish me for calumniating [i.e., making false and defamatory statements] or robbing him.

It is therefore extremely uncandid of the advocates for magisterial [civil] tolerations of heresy, blasphemy, and idolatry, to always attempt blending or placing on an equal level, true and false religion, [for example:]

  • mere neglect of some positive duties of religion compared to shocking insults upon, and opposition to, the duties of religion;
  • lesser and secret mistakes in religion compared to the most damnable heresies, blasphemies, and idolatries, openly and obstinately professed and practised, as if these were equally objects of toleration, restraint, or punishment; or
  • to confound a mere forbearance to punish with an authoritative licence to openly profess and practise what is criminal respecting religion.

True Religion should not just be tolerated; it should be established.

The true religion ought never to need a toleration. It [rather] ought to always have an establishment; whereas a false one ought never to be established, magistrates having no power against the truth but [rather only] for the truth.

Magistrates may rightfully withhold punishment of small violations, and should not punish for matters of indifference.  They should, however, not forgo punishing what is plainly contrary to the Law of God and give men liberty to sin.

There are many mere neglects or lesser mistakes in religion, against which it would not be proper for magistrates to enact civil laws, in this present state of imperfection.  And if there be no civil law against them, they cannot be punishable as crimes.  (“Where no law is, there can be no transgression.”)  Mere forbearance to punish what is plainly contrary to law is, in some cases, necessary, and in imitation of God himself, and gives no positive encouragement to wickedness. However, a positive or authoritative toleration proclaims to men a liberty to sin, and promiseth them protection in so doing.

A flour, bran and arsenic example

If the provider for an army deliver to them fine flour mixed with some particles of bran, and a large quantity of arsenic, is his delivery of the fine flour, or even of the mixture of bran, as criminal and punishable as that of the mixture of arsenic? No man that is not mad will pretend it. For the fine flour he deserves the highest encouragement; for the bran he may be justly forborne; but for the arsenic he deserves to be hanged.

The type of toleration to be opposed

The toleration which I mean to oppose, if plainly and candidly expressed, would run thus:

The Law Maker’s Oath of Office:

“We, the King and Parliament of ___, as powers ordained of God, ministers of God for good to men;

as the ordinance of God for the terror and punishment of evil doers, and the praise of them that do well;

as nursing fathers to the church of Christ; in order that all our subjects may come to the knowledge of the truth, and lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty,

do hereby,

in the name and authority of The Most High GOD, from whom we have derived all that governing power which we possess,

that we, ruling in His fear, may exercise it wholly in obedience to his law, and to promote his declarative glory in the world:

  • grant to all and every one of you, our said subjects, an authoritative toleration or legal licence;
  • openly and obstinately to pervert, contradict, and revile the declarations of God contained in his word;
  • and in the most insolent and abusive manner to blaspheme his nature, perfections, purposes and works, particularly of the redemption of mankind;
  • and to corrupt his worship, represent him in it, in the most absurd and abominable forms; or rob him of it, giving it to devils, monsters of wickedness, brutes, stocks, or stones, in his stead;
  • and with all your might to exert yourselves, in making your fellow subjects do the like.

And we do hereby,

in the same name and authority of God, the King of nations, promise you every kind and degree of civil protection in all such behaviour, as you can profess, or pretend, your consciences do dictate or allow;

providing always, that you commit your outrage only against God, your, and our Maker and Sovereign;

but do not disturb the external peace of the nation, in reviling the civil character, seizing or hurting the civil property, or any way abusing the body of any of your fellow sinners of mankind.”


The Law Maker’s Heart:

The correspondent warrant of conscience which we mean to impugn, if honestly expressed, would run thus:

 “I Conscience, as the great deputy of The Most High GOD, Lord, and Lawgiver of the world, implanted in every man’s breast, for his temporal, spiritual, and eternal advantage,

do hereby,

in God’s name and authority, and in the exercise of my power which is wholly derived from him, and to be exercised for his glory, in trying all things by His law, and approving and holding fast that which is good:

  • warrant and authorize all and every one of you, sons and daughters of men;
  • to devise, believe, openly and obstinately profess, and zealously propagate every damnable heresy, and blasphemous opinion; and
  • to practise and propagate every absurd and abominable form of idolatry, which Satan, who deceiveth the world, with a heart deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and given up of God to strong delusion, belief of lies, vile affections, and a reprobate sense, can make you think innocent or proper.

And, I do hereby,

in the same name and authority, grant you my sacred claim of right to all manner of liberty and protection from the civil magistrate in so doing;

providing always, that you commit such injury and outrage only against God, your infinitely excellent, high, and gracious Proprietor and Superior,

and do no civil injury to the body, character, or property of your fellow creatures.”

Such is indeed the toleration which many praise or plead for.