Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true, and the other well pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation. Laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence or ill-husbandry of the possessors themselves. The care of the salvation of men's souls cannot belong to the magistrate; because, though the rigour of laws and the force of penalties were capable to convince and change men's minds, yet would not that help at all to the salvation of their souls. The care, therefore, of every man's soul belongs unto himself, and is to be left unto himself. For if afterwards he discover anything either erroneous in the doctrine or incongruous in the worship of that society to which he has joined himself, why should it not be as free for him to go out as it was to enter? Not even Americans, subjected unto a Christian prince, are to be punished either in body or goods for not embracing our faith and worship.
And upon this ground, I affirm that the magistrate's power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws. These considerations, to omit many others that might have been urged to the same purpose, seem unto me sufficient to conclude that all the power of civil government relates only to men's civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come. Only it is to be observed that, in this case, the law is not made about a religious, but a political matter; nor is the sacrifice, but the slaughter of calves, thereby prohibited. Because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. But it will be urged still, that civil assemblies are open and free for any one to enter into, whereas religious conventicles are more private, and thereby give opportunity to clandestine machinations.
Will the magistrate provide by an express law that such a one shall not become poor or sick? Not a magisterial care, I mean if I may so call it , which consists in prescribing by laws and compelling by punishments. These are not the business of religion. It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men's opinions; and that light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties. I answer, that this is not strictly true, for many civil assemblies are not open to every one. Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgment that they have framed of things. Thus, therefore, that matter stands. Even today, his letter poses a challenge to religious intolerance, whether state-sponsored or originating from religious dogmatists.
These things being thus determined, let us inquire, in the next place, how far the duty of toleration extends, and what is required from every one by it. Place and time of meeting must be agreed on; rules for admitting and excluding members must be established; distinction of officers, and putting things into a regular course, and such-like, cannot be omitted. For the civil government can give no new right to the church, nor the church to the civil government. Let us now consider what a church is. It is in vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man's profession.
The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. I know that seditions are very frequently raised upon pretence of religion, but it is as true that for religion subjects are frequently ill treated, and live miserably. I answer: If this be so, why are there daily such numerous meetings in markets and courts of judicature? You will say, by this rule, if some congregations should have a mind to sacrifice infants, or as the primitive Christians were falsely accused lustfully pollute themselves in promiscuous uncleanness, or practise any other such heinous enormities, is the magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in a religious assembly? Magistracy does not oblige him to put off either humanity or Christianity; but it is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties. You will say, by this rule, if some congregations should have a mind to sacrifice infants, or as the primitive Christians were falsely accused lustfully pollute themselves in promiscuous uncleanness, or practise any other such heinous enormities, is the magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in a religious assembly? Let us therefore deal plainly. For there being but one truth, one way to heaven, what hope is there that more men would be led into it if they had no other rule to follow but the religion of the court, and were put under the necessity to quit the light of their own reason, to oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign themselves up to the will of their governors, and to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born? No man whatsoever ought therefore to be deprived of his terrestrial enjoyments upon account of his religion.
No man can be forced to be rich or healthful whether he will or no. How great soever, in fine, may be the pretence of good-will and charity, and concern for the salvation of men's souls, men cannot be forced to be saved whether they will or no. No violence nor injury is to be offered him, whether he be Christian or Pagan. In teaching, instructing, and redressing the erroneous by reason, he may certainly do what becomes any good man to do. Forasmuch as no society, how free soever, or upon whatsoever slight occasion instituted, whether of philosophers for learning, of merchants for commerce, or of men of leisure for mutual conversation and discourse, no church or company, I say, can in the least subsist and hold together, but will presently dissolve and break to pieces, unless it be regulated by some laws, and the members all consent to observe some order.
Is it not both lawful and necessary that they should meet? Place and time of meeting must be agreed on; rules for admitting and excluding members must be established; distinction of officers, and putting things into a regular course, and such-like, cannot be omitted. I grant it; but this is common to him with other men. For if afterwards he discover anything either erroneous in the doctrine or incongruous in the worship of that society to which he has joined himself, why should it not be as free for him to go out as it was to enter? Again, you will say that religious communion does exceedingly unite men's minds and affections to one another, and is therefore the more dangerous. This is the fundamental and immutable right of a spontaneous society; that it has power to remove any of its members who transgress the rules of its institution; but it cannot, by the accession of any new members, acquire any right of jurisdiction over those that are not joined with it. Faith only, and inward sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God.
For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. These he treats like children, and indulges them even to wantonness. Only the magistrate ought always to be very careful that he do not misuse his authority to the oppression of any church, under pretence of public good. Again: That church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. You will say that assemblies and meetings endanger the public peace, and threaten the commonwealth. What I say concerning the mutual toleration of private persons differing from one another in religion, I understand also of particular churches which stand, as it were, in the same relation to each other as private persons among themselves: nor has any one of them any manner of jurisdiction over any other; no, not even when the civil magistrate as it sometimes happens comes to be of this or the other communion.