Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
A Plea for Toleration
By William Penn (16441718)
From Tract on The Proposed Comprehension
ALTHOUGH the benefits wherewith Almighty God has universally blessed the whole creation are a sufficient check to the narrowness of their spirits, who would unreasonably confine all comforts of life within the strait compass of their own party (as if to recede from their apprehensions, whereof themselves deny any infallible assurance, were reason good enough to deprive other dissenters of natures inheritance, and, which is more peculiar, Englands freedoms); yet since it fares so meanly with those excellent examples, that many vainly think themselves then best to answer the end of their being born into the world when, by a severity which least of all resembles the God of Love, they rigorously prosecute the extirpation of their brethren; let it not seem unreasonable, or ill-timed, that we offer to your more serious thoughts the great partiality and injustice that seem to be the companions of a comprehension, since you only can be concerned at this time to prevent it by a more large and generous freedom.
First, then, liberty of conscience (by which we commonly understand the free exercise of any dissenting persuasion) is but what has been generally pleaded for, even by the warmest sticklers for a comprehension, and without which it would be utterly impossible they should be comprehended. The question then will be this, What ground can there be why some, and not all, should be tolerated? It must either respect conscience or government: if it be upon matter of mere religion, what reason is there that one party should be tolerated and another restrained; since all those reasons that may be urged by that party which is comprehended are every whit as proper to the party excluded? For if the former say they are orthodox, so say the latter too. If the one urge, it is impossible they should believe without a conviction; that the understanding cannot be forced; that mildness gains most; that the true religion never persecuted; that severity is most unworthy of her; that sound reason is the only weapon which can disarm the understanding; that coercion doth rather obdurate than soften; and that they therefore choose to be sincere dissenters, rather than hypocritical conformists; the other party says the same. In fine, there can be nothing said for liberty of conscience upon pure conscientious grounds by any one party in England, that every one may not be interested in; unless any will undertake to judge that of five sorts of dissenters two are really such on conviction, and three upon mere design. But if such sentence would be looked upon as most arrogant and unjust, how can it be reasonable that those whom some endeavour to exclude should be thus prejudged; and such as are comprehended be therefore so only from a strong opinion of their reality? We may conclude then, that since liberty of conscience is what in itself comprehenders plead, and that it is evident to affirm this, or that, or the other party orthodox is but a mere begging of the question, what may be urged for one is forceable for any other; conscience (not moveable but upon conviction) being what all pretend themselves alike concerned in.
But they say, That such as are like to be comprehended are persons not essentially differing; that it were pity to exclude them whose difference is rather in minute matters than anything substantial; whereas you err in fundamentals. But how paradoxical soever such may please to think it, that we should therefore plead the justice of taking those in, some unkindly would have left out we know not; however, we believe it most reasonable to do so, for certainly the reason for liberty or toleration should hold proportion with the weighty cause of dissent, and the stress conscience puts upon it. When matters are trivial they are more blameable that make them a ground for dissent, than those who perhaps (were that all the difference) would never esteem them worth contending for; much less that they should rend from that church they otherwise confess to be a true one. So that whoever are condemnable, certainly those who have been authors and promoters of separation upon mere toys and niceties, are not most of all others to be justified. Had they conscientiously offered some fundamental discontent, and pleaded the impossibility of reconciling some doctrines with their reason or conscience, yet promising quiet living, and all due subjection to government, they might have been thus far more excusable, that people would have had reason to have said, Certainly small matters could not have induced these men to this disgraceful separation, nor anything of this life have tempted them to this so great and troublesome alteration. But to take pet at a ceremony, then run from the church, set up a new name and model, gather people, raise animosity, and only make fit for blows, by a furious zeal kindled in their heads against a few ineptiæ, mere trifles; and, being utterly vanquished from these proceedings, to become most earnest solicitors for a comprehension, though at the same time of hot pursuit after this privilege, to seek nothing more than to prevent others of enjoying the same favour, under the pretence of more fundamental difference; certainly this shows, that had such persons power, they would as well disallow of a comprehension to those who are the assertors of those ceremonies they recede from, as that for mere ceremonies they did at first zealously dissent, and ever since remain more unjustifiably fierce for such separation. And truly, if there were no more in it than this, it would be enough for us to say, that some in England never rent themselves from the Church at all, much less for little matters; that they never endeavoured her exile, but she found them upon her return, which they opposed not; nor yet since have any ways sought to install themselves in her dignities, or enrich themselves by her preferments. We appeal then to all sober men, if what is generally called the Episcopal party in England can, with good conscience and true honour, disinherit those of their native rights, peace and protection, and leave them as orphans to the wide world, indeed a naked prey to the devourer, who from first to last have never been concerned, either to endeavour their ruin or any ways withstand their return; whilst it may be some of those who have been the most vigorous in both, and that for circumstantial and not essential differences, may be reputed more deserving of a comprehension than we are of a toleration.
But it will yet be said, you are inconsistent with government; they are not: therefore you are excluded, not of partiality, but necessity. What government besides their own they are consistent with we leave on the side of story to tell, which can better speak their mind than we are either able or willing to do. But this give us leave to say in general, if any apprehend us to be such as merit not the care of our superiors, because supposed to be destructive of the government, let us be called forth by name and hear our charge; and if we are not able to answer the unbiassed reason of mankind, in reference to our consistency with the peace, quiet, trade, and tribute of these kingdoms, then, and not before, deny us all protection. But that men should be concluded before heard, and so sentenced for what they really are not, is like beheading them before they are born. We do aver and can make it appear, that there is no one party more quiet, subject, industrious, and in the bottom of their very souls greater lovers of the good old English government and prosperity of these kingdoms among the comprehended than, for aught we yet see, may be found among those who are like to be unkindly excluded. However, if such we were in any one point, cure rather than kill us, and seek the public good some cheaper way than by our destruction. Is there no expedient to prevent ruin? Let reason qualify zeal, and conscience opinion.