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John Locke was arguably one of the most influential thinkers on American colonial political thought, but does his reach extend beyond the political realm? Geoffrey C. Bowden argues that Elisha Williams, a rector at Yale in the 1740s, appropriates Locke’s famous doctrine of property to reconceive the nature of religion as a form of personal property and resulting ecclesial institutions as based on contract. Williams’ adoption of Locke for religious thinking instantiates a form of theological discourse in America that continues on the contemporary scene. The essay concludes by querying whether religious institutions that adopt the moral and political structure of rights-based democracies can actually serve as the moral ballast to the excesses of democracy, as Tocqueville observed. Mr. Bowden is Professor of Philosophy at Malone College.

In March of 1792, James Madison published a small piece in the National Gazette entitled “Property,” in which he elucidated the different types of property that one may possess. He begins the piece in the following way:

This term [property] in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual. ”In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage. In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property. In the latter sense, a man has property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.1

For Madison, property could be understood in two different ways, first, as material and external to the person who claims a right to the property in exclusion of every other person, and, second, as encompassing non-material goods such as beliefs, knowledge, and the free expression of ideas. Madison explains that this latter sense of property is “larger and juster,” larger obviously because it contains the former sense within it, while extending to what we would call intellectual property and the free communication of those opinions and beliefs. But why does Madison claim that this larger category of property is also “juster”? He appears to believe that claims involving property of the latter sort, in the form of opinions and beliefs, and especially religious opinions and beliefs, are weightier. Persons own them in a much more fundamental way than we own external goods, and so any claim to them appeals to the demands of justice at the highest level.

In this paper, I explore the historical roots of one peculiarly provocative claim that Madison makes in these opening lines of his article, namely, the idea that religion or religious beliefs are personal property. Madison’s restatement of this position is the result of a confluence of events and circumstances that began with the Protestant Reformation and concluded with its most eloquent expression in mid-eighteenth century America in the writings of Elisha Williams, a rector at Yale University. This formulation in the mid-eighteenth century constitutes a radical shift in the understanding of religion and religious belief from the dawn of the Christian era through the Middle Ages. Madison maintains that others, including the state, may not impose profession of faith or practice on an individual or place limitations on one’s religious speech. But it is more than this. He insists that religious belief and practice are in a deep sense at the disposal of the individual. In the same way that a person may sell his real property, so a religious believer may change his beliefs, practices, or church whenever he deems this to be appropriate or desirable. To have claimed that one’s religious opinions were the possession of the individual and at the individual’s disposal would no doubt have been foreign to the religious mind in the Middle Ages. The dominance of the institution of the church and the theological and moral authority of the clergy therein left little room for the individual to think of religious belief as something peculiarly one’s own.2 But the Middle Ages are not the only period in which this individualistic view would have seemed alien. Other, less hierarchical denominations within early American Christianity emphasize the role of the local or denominational church body as a community of believers and as the proper agent of religious and doctrinal discernment, over against the isolated individual. For an individual in an Anabaptist church to claim he or she has the authoritative interpretation of a biblical text likely would draw the ire of the local congregation just as much as if a lay person were to do so in the Catholic Church in America, both during the founding era and in the current practice of these traditions.

Nevertheless, Madison’s view that religious opinions and practices were one’s personal property appears to be a popular view in contemporary American society and in many American denominations. Walter Shurden, a Baptist historian and apologete, recently defended a set of “core” Baptist beliefs centered on the idea that the individual is the sole authority with regard to his religious beliefs and practices. One of the “four fragile freedoms” enumerated by Shurden is “soul freedom,” described as follows:

Soul Freedom affirms the sacredness of individual choice …. Baptists never crouch in a defensive position when the charge of individualism is hurled at them. With all of its inherent weakness, individualism is to a great degree a Baptist badge of honor.3

Shurden’s view stands in stark contrast to the view that the church as a whole, whether through the clergy or a more congregational polity, is the agent of doctrinal and interpretive authority.

The conceptions of religion, individual authority, and ecclesiastical authority operative with American society have contemporary relevance for the health of the democracy. At least as early as Alexis de Tocqueville, religion’s role within the American democratic society has been viewed as critical to containing the excesses of democracy. Tocqueville contends,

every religion also imposes on each man some obligations toward mankind, to be performed in common with the rest of mankind, and so draws him away, from time to time, from thinking about himself …. Thus religious peoples are naturally strong just at the point where democratic peoples are weak. And that shows how important it is for people to keep their religion when they become equal.4

It is by the imposition of moral obligations on people that religious institutions provide a fundamental service for democratic societies, an imposition that the political institutions of the society do not make. One recent commentator on the relationship between liberal polities and civil associations queries whether

the extraliberal or nongovernmental reservoirs from which liberalism has drawn in the past to foster the virtues necessary to maintain itself—in particular, the family, religion, and the array of associations in civil society—have undergone substantial transformations and can no longer be counted on in the way that the classic liberal tradition counsels.5

If religion and religious institutions take the same liberal democratic shape that our political institutions have, then do they cease to play the role that liberal democratic societies need them to play? This paper will not attempt to answer this question, because it is first necessary to probe the historical roots of the transformation that religion and religious institutions have undergone in American thought and society. This essay locates some of the earliest roots of that transformation in mid-eighteenth century Protestant thought.

Elisha Williams’s “Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants” constitutes one early attempt to conceptualize and defend the notion that religion is a form of property. Constructing an “amalgam” of Lockean political philosophy and Protestant theology,6 Williams offers a uniquely American understanding of Christian political theology, religious freedom, and the nature of churches and religious beliefs and practices. This essay argues that Williams’s formulation of religion as property unveils the extent to which John Locke’s influence on early America extends much farther than political theory, inspiring a fundamental reconceptualization of religious belief and practice in some circles of Protestant colonial America.

The argument of this essay is largely exegetical, demonstrating the manner in which Elisha Williams utilizes the political and moral philosophy of John Locke, as found primarily in the Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, not only to shape colonial understandings of religious freedom, but to establish a new structure for understanding the very nature of religion that has endured to the present in some theological circles.

The Lockeanization of American Protestantism: Religion as Property

During the period in which Elisha Williams was a rector at Yale University, the Great Awakening had already begun to penetrate the parish centers of New England and had caused quite a stir.7 Clergy who previously had enjoyed uncontested spiritual authority and leisurely tenures in the local pulpits were shaken suddenly by the influx of preachers and prophets who had come to revive New England Christianity. The clergy defended their territory by advocating local ordinances that placed restrictions on when and where guest preachers could sermonize, so as to control the phenomena of “sheep-stealing” and radical Christian “enthusiasm.”

It is against the reasoning behind one such local ordinance that Elisha Williams constructs his treatise on “The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants.” Williams employs several different types of arguments for religious freedom, based largely upon his reading of Locke. Williams cites and praises Locke explicitly as the chief advocate of what can be called the negative argument for religious freedom, in which individuals retain their inalienable right to believe what they want with regard to religion. But the bulk of Williams’s treatise is not devoted to this negative argument, but to a radically individualized conception of Christianity, which admits of no external or intermediate authority outside of Christ and the scriptures and the individual’s interpretation thereof.

Williams adopts wholesale Locke’s contention that civil society is based upon a social contract in which individuals relinquish some of their basic natural rights, but do not, indeed cannot, relinquish the basic right to develop their own religious beliefs.8 Problems arise for Williams and other Christians within the Puritan covenantal tradition because they are confronted quickly with two separate and potentially competing conceptions of religious authority. As seen in John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” individuals are not conceived as the locus of religious authority; rather, the “unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace” will guide Christians within the context of the community bound together by love.9 If the individual had any role in the formation of doctrine, it was through his reading the scripture with others within the congregation in dialogue and discipline.

When Williams accepts the Lockean position that individuals possess and retain the natural right as individuals to decide for themselves what to believe in the religious realm, there emerge two different perspectives from which to understand religious authority. From the perspective of the political society, the individual is by and large the sole authority for his or her understanding of religious matters.10 But from the perspective of the Christian community, the individual’s authority is nestled within the context of the church as a body, unified in its belief and practice in service to God. The status of individual authority is ambiguous at best.

Aware that there may be a conflict between the authority of the individual within the context of the church and that same authority conceived from the perspective of civil society that may result in theological and practical problems, Williams attempts to integrate the conception of the individual authority found within the Lockean political tradition into the ecclesiastical realm. What results is are conceptualization of the nature of religion in Protestant thought.

Williams pursues this reconceptualization in a remarkable fashion. Put succinctly, he takes Locke’s labor theory of property as the paradigm for rethinking the nature of religion and religious authority.11 Williams begins his presentation of Locke’s negative argument for religious liberty with a basic account of the labor theory of property, originally utilizing this account in the manner that Locke does, to reveal how our rights are rooted in self-ownership and how the political society acquires the chief purpose of protecting property: “And every man having a property in his own person, the labour of his body and the work of his hands are properly his own, to which no one has right but himself.” Further, “The great end of civil government, is the preservation of their persons, their liberties and estates, or their property.”12 When arguing for religious freedom on specifically Christian grounds, Williams reappropriates the paradigm of property to locate the individual as the locus of religious authority. He is not explicit about his use of Locke’s labor theory of property for this purpose, but the text provides a substantial amount of evidence to support this claim. The parallel nature of Locke’s theory of property and Williams’s theory of religion is perceived best in five steps.

The Divine Gift: Scripture

First, Locke begins with the basic observation that the whole world has been given by God to the people of the earth in common.13 In the beginning, no one owned any piece of real property. Everyone was created equal in this respect. No one by nature had any more claim to a piece of land than anyone else. The earth provided the many things that people needed to survive and thrive, such as water, food, and shelter from the elements, but these things would be of no use unless people had the means by which to appropriate these goods.

Williams offers a parallel to Locke’s claim that God provided a grant of common property beginning in the second paragraph of his treatise: “That the sacred scriptures are the alone rule of faith and practice to a Christian, all Protestants are agreed in.”14 This principle is repeated over and over again throughout Williams’s excursus, with the explicit purpose of elevating the status of scripture over any “humane authority.” Just as property we find in the earth is used to sustain us physically, so too have the scriptures been given to us in common to nourish the people of the earth spiritually:

Every one is under an indispensable obligation to search the scripture for himself …. Man by his constitution as he is a reasonable being capable of the knowledge of his maker; is a moral & accountable being: and therefore as every one is accountable for himself, he must reason, judge and determine for himself.15

Since everyone is accountable before God, God has provided the scriptures for every individual to examine for him or herself so as to have a fair chance of being judged favorably by God. In an important sense, Williams echoes Locke’s concern in the Letter that atheists not be tolerated in society. Because the scriptures have been given to all in common, there is no excuse for unbelief.

Scripture has been given to us by God so that we might have the resources necessary to live a disciplined, moral existence and have the proper doctrinal understanding of the nature of Christianity. That the scripture has been given in common is evident from the fact that God did not provide a different set of inspired writings for each individual. Rather, he provided one set of writings that all were to experience in their own way.

Self-Ownership and Intellectual Property

The second major principle in Williams’s reconceptualization of religion is an adaptation of Locke’s formulation of the most basic natural right: self-ownership. Locke asserts that human beings own themselves, and, consequently, they own their own labor, including the work of their hands.16 Locke, like others in his day, is drawing on the connection between “propriety,” understood as the peculiar nature or exclusive character of a thing, such as the self, and property as possessions. For instance, in a work published in 1680, Richard Baxter provides a brief instance of the manner in which the term property developed out of the basic uses of “propriety”:

Every man is born with a propriety in his own members, and nature giveth him a propriety in his Children, and his food and other just acquisitions of his industry…. And men’s lives and Liberties are the chief parts of their propriety. That is the peoples just reserved Property, and Liberty, which neither God taketh from them, by the power which his own Laws give the Ruler, nor is given away by their own fore said consent.17

It is this exclusivity of character found in the meaning of propriety and linked appropriately with the human self that provides the foundation for thinking about human self-ownership as the moral basis for the acquisition of real property for Locke.

Human beings have a right to their own persons and a right to say what can and cannot be done to their persons. This right is bestowed on all equally, and thus self-ownership provides the foundation for moral and political equality in the Lockean theory. The right to one’s own person implies a right to the preservation of oneself, such as a right to self-defense, and an immunity against the intrusion of others. Thus, any attempt to harm another person is a violation of this right to self-ownership. Furthermore, when a person decides to use his or her body to labor on a particular project, that labor also belongs to the person.18 Locke admits clearly that a person can make contracts with others to sell one’s labor for wages, but it is up to that person to do with his labor as he sees fit. There are no natural slaves for Locke, or persons whose labor is naturally the right of another person.

For Williams, Locke’s principle of self-ownership is especially important. Williams commences his discussion of the “Origin and End of Civil Government” with this assertion: “Reason teaches us that all men are naturally equal in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another …. all are born naturally equal, i.e. with an equal right to their persons.”19 Like Locke, Williams roots moral and political equality in this natural right to one’s own person. Williams follows Locke further in maintaining that self-ownership implies a moral right to one’s own labor: “And every man having a property in his own person, the labour of his body and the work of his hands are properly his own, to which no one has right but himself.”20

Williams, however, moves beyond Locke’s theory to construct a new theory of religion based on self-ownership. Williams provides an inchoate account of what is referred to in legal circles as “intellectual property,” or the work of a person’s mind, through the process of reasoning and judging. Because we own our bodies, which includes our brains and, thus, our reasoning powers, we also own our ideas, opinions, and judgments, such as our conscience:

A man may alienate some branches of his property and give up his right in them to others; but he cannot transfer the rights of conscience, unless he could destroy his rational and moral powers, or substitute some other to be judged for him at the tribunal of God.21

Some branches of a person’s property may not be relinquished to others, because they are a part of the human being as such. For Williams, it seems a natural extension of Locke’s theory to suggest that human beings, because they own themselves and their physical labor, own their intellectual labors also. The work of our minds and consciences belongs to us and cannot rightfully, if at all, be taken away from us and cannot rightfully be submitted to the will of any other human being. A free conscience is an inalienable right.

However, Williams suggests that, like our physical labor, we may submit our consciences to the will, opinion, and judgment of others, much to our discredit:

To submit our consciences to the guidance of any man or order of men, is not to reason and act according to our own understanding; but to take every thing for true, that our spiritual guide affirms to be so, and that merely upon his authority, without examining into, or seeing the truth and reasonableness of it.22

He contends that when human beings fail to exercise their reason and understanding in matters of religion, and simply accept as truth the opinions of other authorities, they fail to utilize the resources that have been afforded to them. This brings us to the third and crucial point of the new conceptualization.

Appropriating Scripture: Theology as Personal Property

For Locke, when human beings mix their labor with the common property that God has provided, the property becomes their own, private property. The very nature of private property is exclusivity. If I own a piece of property, you do not own the same piece of property. It is mine and it is not yours. So if I hit upon a tract of land that belongs to no one else and I begin to work the land, plant crops, and use the timber to construct a house, the land, the yield of the crops, and the house become mine. Others are free to use other pieces of land in the same fashion, but this particular piece they are not free to use, without my permission of course. I have a moral right to the land and its yield. It is important to note that the labor theory of property does not apply to land that has been appropriated already by someone else. The only way to acquire such land and/or property is through contract.

Williams argues that human beings, because they own themselves and, therefore, own their reason and judgment, can mix their intellectual labor with the common gift of scripture and appropriate for themselves their own understanding of the Christian religion. After asserting that the “right of judging every one for himself in matters of religion results from the nature of man,” Williams contends that“ inasmuch as the scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice a Christian; hence every one has an unalienable right to read, enquire into, and impartially judge of the sense and meaning of it for himself.”23 Not only do Christians have the moral right to do so, they have the “obligation” to do so, since the scriptures are to be the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian.24 This borrows from a theme contained in Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, where Locke argues that it is the nature of religious belief that it cannot simply be given from one person to another, as property can be given.25 Instead, religious beliefs can be acquired only through the examination of reason and conscience, which necessarily must be done by the individual who is to hold the belief. For Williams and Locke, becoming a Christian is fundamentally an individualistic enterprise.

Unlike real property, where an individual stakes a claim to a piece of property or to some object and makes it his own in exclusion of all other people, when individuals mix their reasoning powers with the scriptures, they are not claiming a portion of the Bible for themselves in exclusion of all other persons. The situation does not arise in which one person claims the Book of Jeremiah and another seizes the Gospel of Mark, affording no one else the opportunity to partake of the spiritual bounty found within these writings. Rather, the mixing of one’s intellectual labor with the scriptures results in the formation of one’s own understanding ofthe Christian faith, replete with theological doctrine, moral prescription, and ceremonial practice. This “intellectual” or “spiritual” property belongs to the one who labored to produce it.

Man by his constitution as he is a reasonable being capable of the knowledge of his Maker; is a moral and accountable being: and therefore as every one is accountable for himself, he must reason, judge and determine for himself. That faith and practice which depends on the judgment and choice of any other person, and not on the person’s own understanding judgment and choice, may pass for religion in the synagogue of Satan, whose tenet is that ignorance is the mother of devotion; but with no understanding Protestant will it pass for any religion at all. No action is a religious action without understanding and choice in the agent.26

Again, Locke’s discussion of property provides the model for this point, where he argues that the property resulting from the mixing of one’s labor with the common property acquires most of its value from the labor itself, and the “raw material” actually constitutes a small portion of the finished product.27 With Williams, the scripture provides the beginning points for the development of theological, moral, and ceremonial doctrine, but the mass of beliefs and practices resulting from one mixing one’s spiritual labor with the scriptures expands significantly beyond the confines of the scriptures themselves. It is this interpretive process, resulting in individual understandings of scripture, which allows the single source, scripture, to be used in such a diverse range of ways.

It should be noted that this passage points to a role that exclusivity plays in Williams’s understanding of the Christian faith that is unrelated to the parallel with Locke’s doctrine of property. The authorities from whence one derives one’s understanding of the faith are mutually exclusive for Williams. A Christian can take his understanding of the faith either from the scriptures or from “humane authorities.” He states, “For if [the Christian] is to be governed and determined therein by the opinions and determinations of any others, the scriptures cease to be a rule to him.”28 These “humane authorities” can be of two kinds: civil and ecclesiastical. While Williams makes his case for religious freedom in the civil realm, he argues also for a weaker form of ecclesiastical authority, in which religious rulers do not simply prescribe beliefs for individuals to accept without question. Rather, religious rulers play the pedagogical role of advocating beliefs that the individual believer must test ultimately by the standard or rule of scripture. That the scriptures play the role of the ultimate authority for the Christian excludes both political rulers and church officers from that highest position of authority. Williams anticipates an objection from the clergy:

it is [the priest’s] duty to explain the scriptures, and the people’s duty at the same time to search the scriptures to see whether those things they say are so …. The officers Christ has commissioned in his church, as pastors or bishops, are to teach his laws, to explain as they are able the mind and will of Christ laid down in the scriptures; but they have no warrant to make any laws for them, nor are their sentiments the rule to any Christian.29

The radically individualistic character of Williams’s understanding of the Christian faith comes to the fore with this point. The argument he espouses to protect religious freedom from the threat of political tyranny serves to strip the ecclesiastical authorities of any power over the individual as well. One and the same argument fends off two enemies of the Christian faith: political and ecclesiastical tyranny.

Church as Social Contract

The fourth point continues the parallel with Locke’s presentation of the nature of private property. For Locke, when individuals acquire property in the state of nature, they acquire not merely a means to improve their lives but a source of potential war. Property becomes an item over which men, without a common judge, compete and fight. The solution is the creation of a common judge through a social contract.

Williams does not suggest that once people acquire their spiritual property that others will seek to damage or steal it. The fact that it is spiritual property necessitates that Williams be creative in his parallel of Locke’s theory. There is no war between believers to protect their own personal understandings of the faith (though, indeed, there have been and probably will continue to be wars to protect institutionalized understandings), but those understandings may dictate that individuals congregate with others who believe in similar ways, and so it is incumbent on (some) believers to form a church or ecclesiastical society to fulfill the demands of their understanding of the faith. But Williams does not think the church possesses collective authority independent of the authority of the individuals that compose it in the process of belief formation and the establishment of worship practices:

Some are fond of the notion, that the church has the power to decree rites and ceremonies in religion: and I am as willing for the present to allow the civil authority has as much power to do it, as those ecclesiastical rulers; because for any thing I can tell at present, my neck might be as easy under the usurpation of a civil ruler, as an ecclesiastical one: But neither of ‘em have any power of determining in the case supposed.30

Individuals form the church by consenting with one another to form a centralized ecclesiastical authority, whose polity appears to be congregational in form, which is based upon the common beliefs of those who consent to its formation and oversight of the activities of the church. Williams describes the genesis of the church in this way:

As this is the right of each individual; so also of a number of them agreeing in their sentiments in these things, to agree to observe the ordinances of Christ together, for their mutual edification according to the rules of the gospel, which makes a particular Christian church.31

Williams draws upon the language Locke employs in the Second Treatise to delineate the proper relationship between the church and its congregants and the church and any outside authorities. Williams conceives the church as a voluntary institution composed of individual believers who share common beliefs about the scriptures, and who consent with one another to establish a set of practices for worship.32 No outside authority has the moral right to interfere with the assembly’s beliefs or practices:

Every church or worshipping assembly has the right of choosing its own officers: Tho’ it may ordinarily be a point of prudence for a church destitute of a pastor, to consult pastors of other churches where they may be supplied with a person suitable for that office; yet that no way supposes, the full power of election does not lie with the church.33

The assembly’s collective authority is derived from the consent of those who compose the assembly. Where Locke’s civil society serves the primary purpose of protecting rights, Williams’s ecclesiastical society has the primary purpose of providing a venue in which individuals may practice their religious convictions withothers who share their beliefs. This leads to the fifth and final principle.

Right of Revolution as “Leaving Church”

Perhaps the most famous or infamous of all of Locke’s political ideas is his advocacy of the right of revolution, conditioned on the government’s not fulfilling its primary responsibility of protecting rights. Since governments are formed initially out of the state of nature for the purpose of protecting the property and person of the persons engaged in the social contract, when the government fails to protect those rights, then it has failed to achieve its purpose and the people of the society have retained the right to construct for themselves a legislature and an executive that will both make just laws and enforce them in a fair manner.

An ecclesiastical assembly, on the other hand, is formed for the purpose of providing a body within which individual Christians can practice their beliefs about worship and morality. These assemblies should be formed initially on the basis of shared understandings and judgments about the scriptures, which yield the beliefs and practices of the Christian life. If an individual judges that the ecclesiastical society has altered its original understanding in a detrimental or unorthodox manner, the individual retains the right to leave the assembly or attempt to convince the members thereof to change the understanding to the more orthodox position. If a number of Christians within an assembly judge that the greater body has strayed from the best understanding and practice, then they have the right to withdraw and form a separate assembly. Williams puts the matter as follows:

And if on experience of such a method of regimen as they have agreed to, and farther light, they judge any of them, (sic) there is good reason for them to forbear practicing farther in that form; they are not held to continue therein, but have right to act according to their present light; they having no other rule but the sacred scripture, they have always a right to act their judgment according to that rule. So also if a greater or lesser number of Christians in any particular church, shall judge another way of worship, or method of discipline, more agreeable to the mind of Christ, than what is practiced in that church; they have right to withdraw, and to be embodied by themselves.34

He formulates a similar principle in this way:

Where a minor part cannot in judgment acquiesce in the choice made by the major part of the worshipping assembly, they have a right to withdraw and choose a minister for themselves, or if not able to support one may attend divine worship in a neighbouring church where they find they may do it to greater edification.35

Locke makes the same point in his Letter Concerning Toleration about the right of religious believers to withdraw from a particular church. However, both Locke and Williams’s points do seem to have a parallel in the civil realm. Just as political bodies have the purpose of preserving and protecting property, ecclesiastical bodies have the purpose of preserving and protecting spiritual property. In the ecclesiastic realm, this requires positive activity, because the property takes the form of understandings of a way of life that must be put into either ceremonial or moral practice. Simply protecting religious believers from attacks because of their beliefs is not enough to preserve spiritual property. There must be an institution with an active, positive agenda. And when this institution deviates from the beliefs and practices of some of its members, those members retain the right to withdraw from the institution and form another that will preserve their spiritual beliefs and practices.

Differences do exist between Locke’s theory of revolution and Williams’s theory of exit from a church body. While Locke advocates the overthrow of a government that violates the natural right to property of the persons in the social contract no matter how small the revolutionizing portion, Williams does not claim that an individual has the right to change the doctrinal position of a church or church leadership without the approval of a majority of the people in the church. Individuals simply retain the right to withdraw from the fellowship, and a group of individuals who withdraw may then form a separate assembly. If a majority within a church seeks to change the leadership and the official understanding of the scriptures, the church polity should be majoritarian and afford them the means by which to make the changes. In that case, the minority still retains the right to withdraw.


Madison’s arguments for religious freedom in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” appear to draw heavily from Locke, and thus bear a striking resemblance to Williams’s recounting of the negative argument for religious freedom.36 However, Madison would have been more acutely aware of the religious mentality in the new republic, which is probably what pushed him in the direction of Williams’s reconceptualization of religion as property and moved him away from the Lockean elevation of reason as our “only star and compass.”37 While Madison does not provide the parallel to Locke’s doctrine of property that Williams offers, his intellectual prominence in the construction of the new nation, and his role as one of the chief architects of the First Amendment, afforded his idea that religion is personal property a much grander stage than Williams could have given it. This radically individualized version of Christian existence helps mitigate the tension that arises between the notion of religious authority implicit in the liberal political structure and the robust ecclesiastical authority guiding the Christian tradition heretofore.

Theorists of liberal democratic societies have recognized the dangerous implications that importing a liberal conception of authority into the ecclesiastical realmhas for the moral and civic development of citizens.38 If liberal political regimes do not impose a rigorous moral education on citizens or habituate citizens to the service and sacrifice needed for the political community to function, then the moral development and community spirit must be developed by other institutions within that society. Churches have played no small role in the moral and civic development of citizens in liberal societies, but in order for them to continue to play this role, one wonders if they can function simply as assemblies of people who have come to believe similar doctrines, independently of the assemblies themselves. Must not the churches possess some moral and doctrinal authority over their congregants, even if the polity of the congregation is communal, and not hierarchical?39

Nevertheless, many church leaders and lay people continue to think of the Christian faith as personal property, with individuals possessing the freedom to believe and practice as they please, and have whatever results recognized as authentic Christianity.40 The power of the liberal conception of religious authority remains influential, but may subvert the much-needed institutions of civil society that democracies rely so heavily upon for the moral and civic development of citizens.

Cite this article
Geoffrey C. Bowden, “Piety and Property: Locke and the Development of American Protestantism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 37:3 , 273-287


  1. James Madison, “Property” in Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: The Library ofAmerica, 1999), 515. Italics in original. For a discussion of Madison’s views on freedom of conscience and property rights during the founding period, see Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 84-97, 181-84.
  2. This is not to say that there was not disagreement with the official position of the church,and often explicit dissent. For example, consider the controversy at the University of Paristhat began in the late thirteenth century over the reading of Aristotle, which resulted inofficial action being taken against the writings of a theological giant, Thomas Aquinas.
  3. Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys,1993), 23-24.
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, pt. 1, ch. 5. As civil institutions, churchesserve the function of controlling individualism in American society in Tocqueville’s estima-tion.
  5. Peter Berkowitz, Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Uni-versity Press, 1999), 6.
  6. Some of the most interesting work done on the relationship between Lockean political phi-losophy, Whig theory, and Protestant theology in early America is by Michael P. Zuckert. Hediscusses the unique amalgam in early America in his The Natural Rights Republic (NotreDame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996). Much of the background for this paper isestablished by Zuckert, who, rightly in my estimation, claims that Locke “conquers Ameri-can political thought” during the eighteenth century. This paper is an attempt to take Zuckert’sthesis further, showing how Locke’s influence transcends political thought by having a trans-formative effect on religious thinking as well.
  7. See The Great Awakening at Yale College, ed. Stephen Nissenbaum (Belmont, CA: WadsworthPublishing Co., 1972), and Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land (New York: PenguinBooks, 1984), 108-26. For research that places Elisha Williams in his historical context, seeRichard Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee (New York: Norton, 1970) and Christopher Grasso,A Speaking Aristocracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 50-64.
  8. See especially Williams, “The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants” in Political Ser-mons of the Founding Era, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997), 59-63.
  9. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” in Puritan Political Ideas, ed. Edmund S.Morgan (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 92.
  10. Williams states, “This right of judging every one for himself in matters of religion resultsfrom the nature of man, and is so inseperably connected therewith, that a man can no morepart with it than he can with his power of thinking.” Williams, “Essential Rights and Liber-ties,” 62.
  11. The question arises as to why Williams did not deal with Locke’s explicitly religious writ-ings. We have no record of what Williams read from Locke. However, Williams was attempt-ing to deal with a political problem concerning religious toleration. Thus, it makes sense thathe would focus on Locke’s political writings, including the Letter Concerning Toleration, toconstruct arguments against Connecticut’s statute restricting the right of itinerant preachersto speak.
  12. Williams, “Essential Rights and Liberties,” 57, 58.
  13. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1988), 286. Some prominent and influential discussions of Locke’s theory of propertyare Jeremy Waldron, The Right to Private Property (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 137-252;Michael P. Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Uni-versity Press, 1998), 247-288; Alan Ryan, Property and Political Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,1984); Karl Olivecrona, “Locke’s Theory of Appropriation,” Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1974):220-34; and John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-sity Press, 1969), 214ff.
  14. Williams, “Essential Right and Liberties,” 55. Notice the echoes of Luther’s doctrine of solascriptura.
  15. Ibid., 61-62. Emphasis added.
  16. This is a much-debated interpretation of Locke’s Second Treatise, largely because Locke statesonly a few pages before this claim that human beings are the property of God (Locke, Tw oTreatises, 271). If God owns human beings, then one person’s harming another person isfundamentally damaging God’s property. For a discussion of the interpretive issues involvedin this debate, see James Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries (Cam-bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 105ff; Jeremy Waldron, The Right to Private Prop-erty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 177ff; and Michael P. Zuckert, Natural Rights and theNew Republicanism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 216-22. Waldron hasprovided an extended account of the theological underpinnings of Locke’s labor theory inhis God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2002), 158ff.
  17. Richard Baxter, The Second Part of the Nonconformist’s Plea for Peace, quoted in Locke, Two Treatises, ed. Laslett, 287.
  18. Locke, Two Treatises, 287-88.
  19. Williams, “Essential Rights and Liberties,” 56.
  20. Ibid., 57. Italics in original.
  21. Ibid., 62.
  22. Ibid., 66.
  23. Ibid., 62-63.
  24. There is a significant confusion in Williams’s theory at this point. The scriptures are to bethe rule of faith and practice for Christians, but not necessarily for people of other faiths. Therole of the scriptures as a rule has a scope limited to those who believe, and thus the scrip-tures lack a universal role. From this perspective, it seems as if it is possible not to be aChristian and, therefore, not have the scriptures be the rule of faith and practice. However, ifthe scriptures are given by God in common to all people to perceive the nature of God throughChrist, then there is an underlying universal purpose for the scriptures. In what way arepeople to become Christians if not by reading the scripture and understanding the messageof God’s grace contained therein? Williams’s position might be clearer if he were to claimthat scripture is the rule of faith and practice for all people, and those who accept and followthat rule are truly Christians and those who do not are not.
  25. Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 26, 28.
  26. Williams, “Essential Rights and Liberties,” 61-62. Notice the allusions to the Catholic Churchas the “synagogue of Satan.” Williams’s anti-Catholic rantings grow stronger and more ex-plicit in the latter portions of the piece, referring to the pope as the “vice-gerent of the Devil” (p. 93). Williams is not unique among his peers in his anti-Catholicism.
  27. Locke, Two Treatises, 296.
  28. Ibid., 63.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid., 68.
  31. Ibid., 99.
  32. Locke presents a similar view in his Letter Concerning Toleration, 28. For a discussion of therole of consent in Locke’s thinking about religion and religious toleration, see Selina Chen,“Locke’s Political Arguments for Toleration,” History of Political Thought 19 (1998): 167-85.While Locke shares Williams’s ecclesiology of the voluntary assembly, he is less explicitlycommitted to a congregational or democratic polity than Williams.
  33. Williams, “Essential Rights,” 100.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., 101.
  36. For a recent provocative account of Madison’s theory of religious freedom in “Memorialand Remonstrance” and its relationship to Lockean social contract theory, see Vincent PhillopMunoz, “James Madison’s Principle of Religious Liberty,” American Political Science Review97 (2003): 17-32.
  37. Locke, Two Treatises, 182.
  38. Tocqueville and Berkowitz would be the more prominent thinkers concerned about thisissue.
  39. Several contemporary theologians see individualism as the main crisis confronting the Prot-estant church. See John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecu-menical (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), chs. 1, 5; Stanley Hauerwas, In GoodCompany: The Church as Polis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).
  40. See again Walter Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smythand Helwys, 1993).

Geoffrey C. Bowden

Geoffrey C. Bowden, History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, MaloneUniversity