Toleration and the Establishment of Religion

Archibald Bruce

The paragraphs which follow are taken from the writings of Archibald Bruce (1746-1816), in 1786 elected Professor of Divinity for the General Associate Synod. Bruce belonged to the Secession tradition, which separated from the national Church of Scotland in 1733, objecting to the appointment of parish ministers by patronage. After departing from the national church, the Secession fathers had maintained their adherence to the propriety of a national establishment of religion. Bruce defended this propriety by reference to biblical precedent: “Upon the whole, we may conclude, that the office and acts of Jewish kings and magistrates, so far as founded on the principles of natural equity, and regulated by the common law, and directed to the ordinary ends of civil government, still furnish an imitable precedent, for all who bear rule in a commonwealth. That the exercise of their office in reference to the honor of God, and the maintenance of his worship as then settled, within their line, without encroaching either on God’s supreme prerogative, or the rights of his immediate ministers, affords an analogical proof of the right and duty of Christian rulers, to promote not only the general interests of religion, but also to countenance and support, under similar restrictions, that particular system of religion, that, by positive institution, has superseded the Jewish; paying still due attention to the changes that have been introduced, and the great differences between these two systems.”

In 1804 Bruce’s synod changed its testimony on this point, and Bruce’s protest led to his expulsion in 1806, when together with Thomas M’Crie and four other ministers, Bruce formed the Constitutional Associate Presbytery, continuing their witness to the obligation of nations and magistrates to promote the honor of God and the welfare of true religion. These changes in belief taking place in Scottish churches form the background for Thomas M’Crie’s essays about principled church unions, recently republished as The Unity of the Church.

In 1778 the British parliament repealed the penal acts which had placed restrictions on Roman Catholicism ever since the Reformation. Bruce responded with a 463-page treatise on the toleration of Popery, which expatiates on the dangers which Romanism has posed to civil and religious liberties.

For sentiments similar to those expressed below, see Thomas M’Crie, “Brief View of the Evidence for the Exercise of Civil Authority About Religion,” and “On Liberty of Conscience,” (for which Bruce supplied preliminary notes) in Statement of the Difference (Edinburgh 1871), especially pp. 147-50, 158-166; M’Crie’s The Unity of the Church (Dallas 1989), pp. 160-166; M’Crie’s Miscellaneous Writings (Edinburgh 1841), pp. 468-486; William Cunningham, “The Civil Magistrate and Religion,” in Historical Theology, vol. 2, pp. 557-569; James Bannerman, “The Spiritual Independence of the Church, and the Principles of Toleration,” “Liberty of Conscience: Its Extent and Limits,” and “The Doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith on Church and State,” in The Church of Christ, vol. 1, pp. 148-185, and see also vol. 2, pp. 374-391; Robert Shaw, Exposition of the Westminster Confession, pp. xix-xxiii; and finally, John Owen, “Of Toleration, and the Duty of the Magistrate about Religion” (1648), in Works, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 8, pp. 163-206.

Excerpts from Free Thoughts on the Toleration of Popery. . . . Wherein the Question concerning the Repeal of the Penal Statutes is examined (Edinburgh 1780), pp. 259-266, 276-279, and 349-350.

But still it is said, that magisterial authority, human laws and penalties, are antichristian weapons, altogether foreign to the spiritual nature of the Christian church, and inconsistent with the methods of promoting religion recommended in the gospel. To have recourse to them even against Papists, is to fight Popery in the spirit and with the unhallowed arms of Popery; whereas lenity, forbearance, instruction and persuasion, would be both more suitable to the religion of Jesus, and more effectual for the ends proposed. But we plead not that these are weapons at all competent to the church, or fitted for her spiritual warfare; this would be antichristianism indeed; but as the sole right of those into whose hands the sword is delivered, and who bear it not in vain. And in their hands we plead for the use of them, not for offense, but defense; not directly for the propagation or vindication of truth, but for preventing injuries and injustice; not for destroying mens’ lives, liberties or property, but for saving them; not for the conviction, conversion, or spiritual salvation of sinners, but for the restraint of the lawless and disobedient; not for the punishment of any as heretics, but for the terror and punishment of them as evil doers.

And we have apostolic authority for it too, that the law is good, as well as the gospel, if a man use it lawfully. Nor are these weapons, in the hands of those to whom they properly belong, unlawfully used, carnal as they are, in behalf either of sacred or civil liberties, against those who are equally enemies of both. Neither the scepter nor the sword are become so profane and unhallowed as to be incapable of being employed on the side of a good as well as a bad cause, and in the cause of the church and religion as properly as in any other. Or are they in themselves antichristian, and wholly unlawful to the professors of the gospel? This were to fall into the dreaming schemes of Anabaptists, Quakers, and enthusiastical sectaries.

Or has the church no external rights, no outward liberties, no temporal privileges, as to which the civil powers can be helpful to her? Or are there no disadvantages, no temporal dangers, to which she is exposed, from which the magistrate, under God, may liberate or defend her? If not, what then are we to make of the received doctrine of all the Protestant churches on this head; and what mean our legal establishments, and the civil securities given to the churches in Britain and elsewhere? Because the kings of the earth have committed fornication with the mother of harlots, must they therefore be debarred for ever from all chaste and friendly intercourse with the spouse of Christ, and kept from giving and receiving mutual aids, and interchanging with her reciprocal acts of kindness? Because their power was formerly abused, and prostituted to antichristian purposes, is its nature thereby changed and corrupted, so that it cannot admit of a right application? Nay, rather the strange unhallowed perversion of that power under Popery, the close union and coalition of temporal with spiritual authority, and the place which compulsive laws and external force have had, and still have, in the antichristian system, render it indispensably necessary that they should be employed by Protestants against it.

By the help of the temporal power, and not without the aid of the material sword, as well as the invisible and spiritual panoply of Christians, was the liberty of professing the reformed religion obtained, and publicly settled, in all the nations of Europe, who are now so happy as to enjoy it; and, by the help of the same power, through the aid of political laws and penal sanctions, hath it been hitherto preserved. And it would be folly in the highest degree to relinquish these advantages, and forego the use of these lawful and appointed means of defense, and go forth naked to the enemy, while he still keeps the field, armed with such hostile weapons.

We would not be mistaken. We say not that the religion of Christians and Protestants, in itself considered, properly owes its birth, progress, or preservation in the world, to these means; but the external liberty of professing it, and the public temporal safety of its professors certainly doth. The light and evidence of the gospel of truth coming in the demonstration of the Spirit, and with power, hath always been sufficient, and is undoubtedly the most proper and competent mean for the first of these purposes; but it is no less sure, that civil authority and human means of a secular nature, are the most proper, and often the only competent means, for the last of them. The woman when persecuted by the red dragon, though under the special protection of heaven, was nevertheless helped by the earth. For this very reason, that the church has no coercive power, but is confined to the use of spiritual weapons alone, the civil magistrate with whom it is lodged, is bound to exert it in her defense against all oppression and violence.

Nor doth the use of such means, for these ends, imply the least suspicion of the truth and intrinsic excellence of our divine religion; nor confess any defect or weakness in the kingdom and laws of the Redeemer; nor indicate want of faith in the divine promises and securities for their preservation. It is undeniable, that Christianity was at first propagated, not only without such aids, but even in opposition to the powers and all the terrors of this world: nor could pure Christianity, the religion of Protestants, be ever totally destroyed under all the hellish rage of persecution, when the kings of the earth were of one mind in giving their power to the beast, – and it would subsist still, should it ever fall again under the same unhappy circumstances, – though every human law were repealed, and every advantage gained in its favor since the Reformation were lost.

What then? Are we therefore to reject these advantages, destroy all human securities, and, by observing lying vanities, forsake our own mercies? Is persecution then more eligible than peace? Should we choose strangling and death rather than life; and fly to prisons and dungeons, rather than enjoy the free air and light of heaven? Must Christians, in order to testify their faith in divine promises, lay aside the use of all human and ordinary means? Must they voluntarily fly into the wilderness of suffering when they are not driven, or precipitate themselves into the fiery furnace before they are cast? This would be the highest pitch of enthusiasm; this, instead of trusting God, would be most ungratefully and presumptuously to tempt him.

Men may please themselves, and amuse others, with chimerical notions and finespun theories; but certainly religion is to be supported and advanced by ordinary means, and by methods congruous to the principles and constitution of human nature, without denying or excluding the extraordinary and supernatural work of God about it: and whatever refinements about the nature of Christ’s kingdom many seem now to run into, yet it is a demonstrable truth, confirmed by the uniform experience of all ages, that his kingdom is of such a nature, as that its interests may be deeply affected by the laws and administration of earthly kingdoms; according as these are favorable or opposite to it, so may it receive much benefit or hurt from them.

Whatever mischiefs have arisen from the improper, injudicious interference of the temporal powers with the matters of religion, yet who will say that their protection, support and countenance are not more advantageous for the progress, advancement and maintenance of any religion, true or false, than the contrary: whereas, on the other hand, it must, in the nature of things, be a great, and, with multitudes, an insuperable obstacle against the reception of the truth, and the success of the best of causes, that men should have every external evil to dread, and the strongest passions of human nature to combat and conquer, in order to follow, with integrity, the light of truth, and the convictions of conscience. Christianity may subsist under all external disadvantages; but there is a great difference between subsisting and flourishing.

There is also a wide difference between the influence of religion internally on the hearts of men, and the enjoyment of the spiritual blessings of the kingdom of Christ, which no human laws, or external force, can either directly further or prevent; – and the full enjoyment of the peace, liberty, rights and privileges which belong to that kingdom, as a visible organic society, in its extensive and prosperous state in the world. To the former of these, the countenance of civil authority is not necessary; but it is to the last. Though it be not necessary to the church’s being, it is to her well-being. And it is perhaps impossible to produce an instance of religion publicly and generally flourishing in any nation, or of a church, in the last sense explained, having the full and peaceable enjoyment of her privileges, when the rulers and laws of the state have been in direct opposition, or unfriendly to them.

But it is farther pled, “The statutes against Roman Catholics were too rigorous and severe, nay, in the highest degree barbarous and sanguinary: and therefore, if they ought not to be totally repealed as in their very nature unlawful and antichristian, they ought at least to be rendered more moderate.” This is now become common language, and in this odious light are these acts now held forth; so that whoever would attempt to vindicate them is in danger of being represented as little better than a cannibal.

Whatever may be said as to some clauses and circumstances of these statutes, or of some of the more early acts as originally framed, for which we shall not here seek an apology (though that might perhaps be found in the peculiar circumstances of the time), we may pronounce them to be in the main, and in the particulars which were the principal objects of the late repeal, not only just and necessary, but, all things considered, also humane. As far as could consist with the public safety, these laws, so freely and sometimes so indecently arraigned for their inhumanity, appear to carry tenderness in them to the unhappy offenders. Even the most severe of them evidently discover a reluctance to proceed to the last extremity by touching their lives: sanguinary, therefore, in the proper sense of the word, they cannot justly be called, while Papists were not subjected by them to capital punishment, at first instance. It was still in their power to avoid this punishment, and none could be in danger of it, but by their own obstinacy, and deliberate repeated contempt of the laws.

By the Judaical laws, which were adapted to the peculiar constitution of the Jewish nation, commonly called a theocracy, idolatry was made punishable by death. In the early period of the Reformation, Popish idolaters were subjected to the same punishment, as by the 104th act, Parliament 7, of James VI. Not only were masses prohibited, but pilgrimages, saints’ days, carols, and other Papistical rites, under this penalty, if they continued in these practices after pecuniary pains inflicted. Likewise by James VI’s Parliament 6, chapter 71, ratified by the Scotch act of King William 1700, all persons, going abroad for education, were obliged within twenty days after their return to make the confession of their faith as then established, or to fly the kingdom within forty days thereafter, or be pursued as adversaries to the religion.

It is very probable that the framers of these acts, not adverting duely to the difference between the Jewish polity and the civil government of other nations, were of opinion that idolatry and superstition were, in their own nature, state crimes, and that a dissent or difference from the religion established was directly punishable by civil pains. It is undeniable that sentiments of this sort were long and almost universally prevalent even in Protestant nations. But upon these principles and ideas the penal statutes against Papists cannot perhaps be vindicated: nor doth it appear that, upon these principles alone, they were enacted or executed. But, however that might be, the peculiar nature of the idolatry and of the religious system of Papists complexly taken, and its evil aspect, and dangerous tendency, in regard to the civil rights and liberties of mankind, and the interests of Protestant governments and commonwealths, still leave room, and afford unquestionable ground for justifying the general nature, scope, and spirit of these laws: and were the situation and circumstances of the times wherein they were enacted more fully known, and the imminent dangers and sufferings which our ancestors felt, or to which they were daily exposed by the turbulent dispositions and practices or Papists (of which we can scarce now form any proper idea), these might go far to justify, at least to apologize for all the severity of the letter of them.

We might further have pled, that the toleration of a false idolatrous religion, when carried farther than mere forbearance of force and punishment, abstracting from the immediate hurt done to society, is in itself absolutely unlawful. That Popery is such a religion may be taken for granted, when we are dealing with professed Protestants. Upon what principles then of nature or religion can acts including any degree of approbation, or positive encouragement to it, and affording it protection and security, be vindicated? If it will be allowed, that those are highly culpable and guilty who grant it a full and exclusive establishment, it must be admitted to be a degree of the same guilt to support it by a positive legal toleration, whereby its interest may be at least partially, and sometimes very effectually and successfully promoted.

And between the conduct of Popish and Protestant governments there is this great difference, that what the former do in this respect they account to be done to the true religion, and think they do God good service, and have at least the merit of consistency, by abstaining with the greatest care from whatever hath the remotest appearance of encouraging what they are convinced is erroneous or heretical: while the latter are chargeable with countenancing Popery under the notion of heresy and idolatry, known and confessed to be such. By the immutable principles of truth and morality, are not all under obligation to discourage, instead of countenancing evil? How can men legitimate what the supreme Legislator forbids, or human laws pretend to tolerate and secure what the divine expressly enjoin to be destroyed?

The word toleration is equivocal; and in many of our modern reasonings and declamations, and even in some of the most eminent writers on the subject, the idea of it appears not be to fixed with sufficient precision. It seems needful to preserve a distinction between negative and positive toleration. The former may and ought to be extended to all religions whatever, or rather to the persons professing them, when public safety and the good of society do not forbid: the latter, as well as a legal establishment, is due only to truth, and a religion intrinsically good. It is true that the religious truth or falsehood of any system is not immediately the rule or ground of toleration, or any act of human legislation, but public utility, and political good, are to be considered in these alone. But these have a very close and inseparable connection. Truth and utility, properly understood, must always coincide: and the last can never be determined or settled till the first is previously known.

We are sometimes told, that civil government ought to make no distinction of one religion from another, but should hold them all upon a level; and that the worst and most corrupt is equally entitled to his countenance and protection with the best and purest: nay, some divines themselves seem to insinuate, that all religions, even the grossest idolatries, if they be not directly destructive to the state, are therefore reconcilable even with Christianity itself; telling us, “That while the gospel tolerates nothing immoral, nothing prejudicial to the state or to individuals, yet it tolerates all religions, however different from itself;” not scrupling to announce to the world in broad capitals, “That though every religion were enumerated which now exists, from the rising to the setting sun, the Christian religion will tolerate them all, provided they teach no opinions which are destructive to the state, or dangerous to the particular members of it.”

Not to insist on the great impropriety of confounding civil and ecclesiastical toleration together; and of ascribing to the gospel what is the peculiar office of civil magistracy alone; – such vague doctrine is liable to the most dangerous misconstruction. It sounds as if Christianity allowed men to approve of all other religions, or to be indifferent about their success; as if there were nothing in the gospel opposite and hostile unto any different religion, that might be peaceable in the state. In this sense, nothing can be more false or glaringly absurd than the assertion.

Christianity as well as ancient Judaism, and indeed every religion that is founded on truth, and hath a system of faith, worship and discipline, positively fixed by a divine invariable standard, must necessarily, from its nature, be intolerant of all others. Light and darkness are not more opposite to each other than Christianity is to every species of false religion; and it obliges persons of every character and station in life, who believe and profess it, to renounce, hate, and oppose, and by every lawful and proper mean, to suppress and destroy, every degree of irreligion, error, heresy, superstition, and idolatry, from the least to the greatest, as well as injustice, vice, and immorality; without permitting any to give them such securities as are inconsistent with these duties, or which may tend to prevent the application or influence of such means.

Wherefore Christianity, so far from tolerating and associating with every religion under the sun, and admitting a general communion with all sorts of error and idolatry, can, in fact, tolerate no religion whatever, different from itself: nor is political safety or danger, or the mere consideration of a religion being either innocent or noxious to a state, the rule or reason by which the tolerance or intolerance of the gospel as such proceeds; nor has it any thing to do in the question, about the right of persons and communities to believe, profess, support, propagate, approve or positively allow, or to oppose, discountenance, hinder, or extirpate any religion as such; for that depends upon the truth or falsehood, the good or evil, the lawfulness or unlawfulness of such a religion in itself considered. – To understand and explain the doctrine of toleration as some seem to have done, is to lay the foundation-stone of deism and universal skepticism; and is indeed to make Christianity a more irrational and inconsistent system than Popery itself. It would make it every whit as absurd as the ancient system of Pagan polytheism, which, admitting a plurality of deities, allowed an intercommunity among them and their worshipers.

But if by toleration be meant nothing more than an exemption from penal laws and sufferings purely for religious opinions and matters of faith and conscience, and if the meaning of such assertions be, that Christianity will allow those who profess it to suffer others to live, and to continue in their errors, undisturbed by force and punishment, until it may please God, through the use of all rational and Christian means, to enlighten and convert them; while there is nothing in their religion, or in the manner of their professing and maintaining it, inconsistent with the peace and safety of civil society, or threatening violent destruction to the lawful institutions of a nation, or to the temporal or religious liberties of others, – nothing can be more true and undeniable.

Excerpts from A Historico-Politico-Ecclesiastical Dissertation on the Supremacy of Civil Powers in Matters of Religion, Edinburgh 1802, pp. 57-59.

The truth is, Presbyterians do not reckon it inconsistent either with religion, good policy, or Christian liberty, to have some particular religious system publicly defined, approved, protected, and maintained, which may be called the National Religion; nor are they enemies to all sorts of laws or provisions securing the external regard or conformity of those who are to act in important public offices, that the public order of religion may neither be interrupted nor its honor or safety violated, but that the countenance and support which it may be proper for secular authority and laws to afford it, may be readily and cheerfully given.

They believe, that, in certain circumstances, it may be not only lawful, but also wise policy and a religious duty, to settle what may be called religious tests, not only excluding enemies or dissenters from the external advantages attending the national religion, arising from the positive countenance of the laws, and the active concurrence of those who possess public power, but even incapacitating them for exercising civil authority, which they could not be supposed to employ in behalf of that religion. They also think that such laws and provisions may have a gradual progression bearing proportion to the improvements of a people in civil government, and ecclesiastical reform.

At the same time they believe, that the above state of things, is not always, nor absolutely necessary, either to a civil or ecclesiastical constitution; that it is not always practicable, at least in the same degree; that to insist for it, or attempt to effect it indiscriminately in all places and circumstances, and with respect to all differences and parties in religion, may neither be safe, political, nor conducive to the interests of religion or general edification: They admit, that in settling a national religion, by legislative authority, and in framing and administrating laws as to those who dissent from it, the utmost wisdom, prudence, and caution are requisite, lest any, within or without the establishment, in public office, or in private station, be obliged to believe or do any thing inconsistent with the supreme standard of religion given to men, or contrary to the light and free determination of their consciences, incompatible with the charge they have of their own souls, or the charity they owe to their neighbors: That all compulsion in matters of mere religion, is absolutely unlawful: That a coercive power cannot be properly applied but when public right or order, social peace or safety, require it: That all exclusive acts, or penal laws, must be defensive, not offensive; that they must not therefore be carried to a greater length, nor extend to a greater number of persons or things, nor be continued a longer time than the principle of self defense in reference to government, religion, and liberty, warrant: That civil sanctions, exclusive and penal laws, are not the business of the church, but belong only to the civil rulers; who are responsible for the proper or improper application of them: That it is most suitable to the nature of true religion, and to the character and duty of ecclesiastics, instead of having any active hand in enacting or executing, or in importuning the civil powers to multiply or add to the rigor of such laws, rather to plead for mildness, forbearance, and moderation, so far as self preservation and public safety will admit, even where such penalties may be justly deserved on account of religious tenets and practices that hurt civil society, and social security; yet, in fine, when the avowed principles of any religious party, or sufficient experience of their managements, put it out of doubt that they cannot be satisfied with permission to believe, profess, and propagate, by fair and equal means, their peculiar system, but that they must strive to impose it; or that they cannot be possessed of secular interest or authority, without employing it in acts of force and injury against those who differ from them in faith, worship, or ecclesiastical government, to exclude or suppress such by compulsory laws, they account no persecution.

Such, at present, are the general sentiments of modern Presbyterians in Scotland; if their ancestors exceeded the limits here expressed, in any of their acts and proceedings, they do not reckon themselves obliged either to imitate or exculpate them in this. Though their religion were to be adopted by the British legislature, and to be publicly established throughout the empire, they would never so much as entertain a wish that any of the laws made in these unsettled and turbulent times of a compulsive or penal kind, not found in the common principles of sound policy, nor warranted by a like necessity, should ever be revived, or that civil incapacities, forfeitures, or any sort of outward punishment, should be annexed to spiritual censures.

These, as being no necessary part of their religious system, they have long ago peaceably conceded, even where their religion is already the national establishment. They are content that they should sleep for ever; unless the same reasons of state, or similar dangers, should render them necessary: of which necessity those who are entrusted with the civil authority will always have the sole right of judging; over whom or their acts in their own province Presbyterian ministers and courts claim no control, nor so much as a vote among them; however they might judge it their duty or right, in certain cases, to offer their distinct representations or petitions, or interpose their official advice or admonitions. With what justice then can their religious opinions or system be prescribed by the laws of a free nation; or put in any competition with those of papists or prelatists, in respect of intolerance!