Dozens of religious freedom scholars, advocates, and supporters met on June 1 at the Washington D.C. Religious Freedom Center to commemorate and discuss the implications of the Protestant Reformation for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The one-day event, themed “Commemoration of the 500-year Anniversary of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation: Conversations on the Reformation, Christian Identities, and Freedom of Conscience,” sought to delve into the multiple connections between the watershed 16th-century event and our ongoing contemporary quest for freedom of conscience and worship.
“The 16th-century world lived in the grip of fear, explaining every disease outbreak with all kinds of superstitions,” said Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist Church. People would ask how they could ever be righteous before God, he said. “The Protestant Reformation was an answer to those questions,” Diop explained.
People Who Made a Difference
In compact 15-minute presentations, scholars from different Christian traditions emphasized the trailblazers and ideas that changed the religious landscape forever. At the same time, presenters often focused on lesser-known or even contradictory approaches of some of the Reformers.
“The kingdom of God was central to [Martin Luther’s] beliefs,” said Diop. “His theology expected the end of the world. So, in this doctrine too, he was a Reformer.”
Diop also pointed out that while Luther’s work opened ways for the freedoms we enjoy today, there was a long way to go. “At first, religious freedom was granted to States, not to individual persons,” he said, as he added that such a path often ends in tragedy, resulting in violence and suffering. “Claim to truth must be paved with the individual freedom to believe or not.”
While Luther was the most obvious reference in the commemoration talks, presenters also emphasized other forerunners of the principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
“George Fox believed that Christian life should inform and affect everyday life,” said Gretchen Castle, general secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation, in referring to the founder of the Quaker movement in 17th-century England. “He believed faith and actions are not separated, which is still reflected in the Quaker’s commitment to making the world a better place.”
Founder of the US State of Pennsylvania, William Penn, was another name mentioned when reflecting on the trailblazers of the promotion of freedom of conscience. Penn, who was a Quaker, is credited with bringing and applying the principles of freedom of worship to America in the 17th century.
David Little, research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, reminded attendees that for the first reformers, “religious uniformity was the foundation of public safety and prosperity.” Advocates of individual freedoms, however, such as Roger Williams, emphasized that freedom of conscience is the cornerstone of religious freedom. “He got it right,” said Little, “many years before [US Constitution signatories] Madison and Jefferson.”
An Adventist Approach
Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, summarized the specific Adventist contribution to freedom of conscience and worship.
“Believing that we are created in the image of God is the basis of human dignity,” Wilson said. “All human beings are endowed with dignity and infinite worth, and human conscience is an essential part of it.”
After briefly reviewing the adamant commitment of Adventist pioneers to freedom of conscience, Wilson explained that such emphasis is ingrained in the character of God Himself.
“Seventh-day Adventist pioneers believed that acting according to one’s conscience is an inalienable right,” Wilson said, and referring to the Bible book of Revelation 12 and 13, he added: “Followers of Jesus do not force others. Freedom of conscience is a universal right—it is for all.”
Wilson concluded by saying even when their rights are violated, Seventh-day Adventists seek the welfare of others for God’s sake. “Seventh-day Adventists are determined to help develop a global culture that respects every person’s freedom of conscience,” he said.
An Ongoing Process
It is difficult to trace a straight line from the Reformation to our current focus on religious freedom, said Neville Callam, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. We must remember, however, that “any alliance with secular powers will eventually force us to submit to one of those powers,” he said. “It is one of the reasons why Reformation needs to keep informing our witness and our life.”
César García, general secretary of the Mennonite World Conference, concurred. “Using politicians to support Christianism affects the ability of the churches,” he said. “To know the truth always implies a voluntary decision.”
This ongoing commitment should inform everything we do in the present, not only in church but especially outside of it, said Castle. “[We] desire a church that is always reformed and reforming,” she said. “This is our spiritual imperative—to act and be active, to take risks for social change, and to choose to love.”