Liberty of conscience has always been a threat to tyrants, that is why they continually seek to suppress those holding opposing views.
Oppression exists in nations like North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, India, Cuba, China, Hong Kong, and increasingly in the United States with national leaders demonizing their opponents.
Islamic countries have “blasphemy laws,” Communist Countries “social credit scores,” and woke countries have “hate speech” laws which have been weaponized to discriminate hatefully against those the government deems "politically-incorrect."
Dictators have always forced their beliefs on subjects since before the time of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar, who ordered everyone to worship his statue when the trumpets were blown or be thrown into the fiery furnace.
What is rare in history is people having the freedom of conscience to believe and speak as they wish without fear of government reprisal.
A champion of freedom of conscience was William Penn.
In 1670, King Charles II of England aggressively enforced the Conventicle Act, prohibiting unauthorized meetings of "... more than five persons in addition to members of the family, for any religious purpose not according to the rules of the Church of England."
The word “conventicle” was derived from the word “covenant,” and referred to small gatherings of believers based on Jesus' promise in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Since Charles II’s father had been overthrown by Puritans, he was suspicious that anyone meeting in secret could be planning "an insurrection."
The English Book of Canon Law, Article 11, stated:
"All conventicles and secret meetings ... have ever been justly accounted very hateful to the state ...
No priests or ministers of the Word of God, nor any other persons, shall meet together in any private house or elsewhere ... under pain of excommunication ipso facto."
Dissenters were arrested, brought in for questioning, similar to "January 6th-type hearings," detained indefinitely, and even accused of plotting insurrections.
Under duress, they were compelled to confess to things they did not do.
Among those punished were Baptists, Quakers, Catholics and non-conformists who met "… in any other manner than according to the liturgy and practice of the Church of England."
Sentences included imprisonment without bail for 3 to 6 months, fines from 5 to 100 pounds sterling, and being deported for up to 7 years.
If officials did not administer punishments, they too were subject to penalties.
John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress was arrested in 1661 under an earlier Conventicle Act, for having held:
"... several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom."
Then the King and Parliament passed The Five Mile Act of 1665.
It forbade non-conforming and dissenting clergymen from preaching or living within five miles of a town, unless they swore never again to resist the government.
Thousands of ministers courageously defied this Act and were deprived of a means of making a living.
Not only were conventicles banned, but so were coffeehouses.
Coffee was a new drink introduced by Turks invading eastern Europe. It became popular in England with over 3,000 coffeehouses in London.
People met in them to conduct business, and also to gossip, distribute pamphlets, debate, and complain against the government.
Since Charles II was forced to live in exile for a decade after his father was overthrown, he was suspicious of any unauthorized meeting. He not not only banned “conventicles,” but in 1675 he banned coffee houses too.
Quakers refused to swear oaths in court, so they were immediately declared guilty and sentenced to prison or deportation.
Thomas Ellwood described the Conventicle Act:
"This Act broke down and overran the bounds … anciently set for the security of Englishmen's lives, liberties, and properties, namely, trials by jury; instead thereof, authorizing justices of the peace (and that too, privately, out of sessions) to convict, fine, and by their warrants distrain (seize property) upon offenders against it, directly contrary to the Great Charter (Magna Carta)."
On August 14, 1670, police padlocked the Quaker meeting-house on London’s Gracechurch Street.
Quakers gathered outside to hear the preaching of Quaker William Mead -- a former captain in Cromwell’s army, and 25-year-old William Penn.
Penn and Mead were arrested and held for weeks in prison, then brought to trial in what is known as Bushel’s Case.
The court recorded:
Penn: "I desire you would let me know by what law it is you prosecute me, and upon what law you ground my indictment."
Justice Howel: "Upon the common-law."
Penn: "Where is that common-law?"
Justice Howel: "You must not think that I am able to run up so many years, and over so many adjudged cases, which we call common-law, to answer your curiosity. You are a saucy fellow, speak to the indictment."
Penn: "This answer I am sure is very short of my question, for if it be common, it should not be so hard to produce ...
The question is not, whether I am guilty of this indictment, but whether this Indictment be legal.
It is too general and imperfect an answer, to say it is the common-law, unless we knew both where and what it is.
For where there is no law, there is no transgression; and that law which is not in being, is so far from being common, that it is no law at all."
Justice Howel: "Sir, you are a troublesome fellow, and it is not for the honor of the court to suffer you to go on ... Take him away."
The judge ordered Penn bound and gagged, but as he was taken away, he shouted to the jury:
"You are Englishmen, mind your Privilege, give not away your Right."
Juror Edward Bushel responded, "Nor shall we ever do."
When the jury refused to convict Penn, the judge ordered the entire jury thrown in jail:
"You shall go together and bring in another verdict, or you shall starve."
A plaque at London's Old Bailey Law Courts reads:
"Near this site William Penn and William Read were tried in 1670 for preaching to an unlawful assembly in Grace Church Street.
This tablet commemorates the courage and endurance of the jury: Thomas Vere, Edward Bushel, and ten others, who refused to give a verdict against them, although locked up without food for two nights and were fined for their final verdict of not guilty.
The case of these jurymen was reviewed on a Writ of Habeas Corpus and Chief Justice Vaughan delivered the opinion of the court which established "The Right of Juries" to give their Verdict according to their Convictions."
The jury then sued the judge and court officials at the King’s bench for false imprisonment. In their defense, court officials unbelievably cited the Spanish Inquisition as a precedent to justify their actions.
After a year, the jury won their case.
This established the principle that no jury could be punished for their verdict and was reflected in America’s Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the right to a fair trial by a jury of one’s peers.
Penn’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn, had offered to pay his son’s fine to get him released, but Penn urged him:
“I intreat thee not to purchase my liberty … I would rather perish than release myself … The advantage of such freedom would fall very short of the trouble of accepting it.”
Penn also wrote:
"My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot: for I owe my conscience to no mortal man."
Penn realized he was engaged in an act of civil disobedience for the sake of securing rights for future generations of Englishmen.
Penn was locked up on London's notorious Newgate Prison, 1670, where he wrote:
"By liberty of conscience, we understand not only a mere liberty of the mind ...
but the exercise of ourselves in a visible way of worship, upon our believing it to be indispensably required at our hands, that if we neglect it for fear or favor of any mortal man, we sin, and incur divine wrath."
Nevertheless, the Admiral paid his son’s and Mead’s fines, and they were released.
The father finally accepted his son’s views, telling him:
“Let nothing in this world tempt you to wrong your conscience."
Penn’s father had not only helped the Earl of Sandwich restore Charles II to the throne in 1660, but also lent him 16,000 pounds sterling.
He realized that after his death there would be no one to intercede for his son, so he spent his final days petitioning the King and the King’s younger brother, James, Duke of York, to be favorable to his son.
At the end of his life, the Admiral wrote:
“Son William … if you and your friends keep to your plain way of preaching, and keep to your plain way of living, you will make an end of the (intolerant) priests to the end of the world …
Bury me by my mother. Live all in love.”
On September 16, 1670, Admiral William Penn died at his residence at Wanstead, Essex, England. His son inherited an annual income from his estate of 1,500 pounds sterling.
Another dissenter in London's Newgate Prison, who defied government mandates restricting churches, was an early Baptist leader Thomas Helwys, who had written in 1612:
"The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them."
Thomas Helwys died in the Newgate Prison in 1616, but not before writing A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity:
"If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane laws made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more:
for men's religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man."
A later Baptist minister, John Leland, who helped found Baptist churches in America, wrote in Rights of Conscience Inalienable, 1791:
"Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience.
If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free."
Penn was arrested again on February 5, 1671, for speaking at a Quaker meeting with Thomas Rudyard.
When brought to court, Penn refused to take the oath, as it was against Quakers doctrine.
He was immediately imprisoned in Newgate Prison for eight months, this time without a jury trial.
Upon released, he met with the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, who was preparing to sail to America.
On April 4, 1672, Penn married his wife, Gulielma Springett, daughter of Sir William Springett, at King's Farm, Chorley Wood.
They lived in Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, and had eight children, of which only three lived to adulthood.
Penn ministered at Quaker meetings in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Bristol, where he welcomed George Fox back from America.
At a meeting in London, attended by over, 6,000, Penn, together with George Whitehead, George Keith and Stephen Crisp debated Jeremy Ives, Thomas Hicks, and others over theological views.
In 1673, Penn obtained from Lord Baltimore, the Catholic founder of the Colony of Maryland, an agreement to allow some freedom of conscience, excusing Quakers in his colony from the requirement of taking oaths.
Charles II attempted to issue a Royal Declaration of Indulgence suspending persecution of non-conformist Protestants and Catholics but England’s Keeper of the Great Seal refused to apply the seal.
Parliament not only rebuffed the King’s tolerant Declaration but passed an even more intolerant Test Act of 1673.
Jews were unsure of their future, so Rabbi Jacob Sasportas met with Charles II who assured them of protection.
During this new wave of persecution, George Fox was jailed, and Penn was imprisoned three times between 1673 and 1678.
Penn met with James, Duke of York, who being Catholic, took up the cause against religious intolerance.
George Fox was finally released.
Penn accompanied Fox on a trip to Holland and Germany, traveling with Quakers George Keith, Robert Barclay, George Watts, John Furley and William Tallcoatt.
They were received by Princess Elizabeth Palatine of the Rhine, who was Charles II's first cousin.
They spent time at Crisheim, Germany, where they attended a Quaker meeting and preached throughout the Rheinlands.
Penn returned to England and lived in Worminghurst, attending Quaker meetings in the nearby towns of Coolham and Horsham.
Quakers were political outsiders.
The Royalist Tory Party -- supporters of the King, persecuted Quakers, considering them Whigs -- the opposition party to the King; and Protestants within the Whig Party persecuted them for being Quakers.
Penn favored Whig candidate Algernon Sidney, who had returned from exile and stood for freedom of conscience.
As thousands of Quakers had been imprisoned, with some 300 dying, Penn went before Parliament in March of 1678, to plead for legislative relief, for the government to cease persecuting them, denying their freedom of conscience.
Unfortunately, Parliament was dissolved before doing anything.
Penn wrote England's Present Interest Considered, 1675, arguing that religious tolerance followed fundamental English law and would lead to prosperity:
"Force makes hypocrites, 'tis persuasion only that makes converts."
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