The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom

The Annual William E. and Carol G. Simon Lecture on Religion in American Public Life

April 10, 2019
Wilken Lecture poster

Robert Louis Wilken, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity, University of Virginia

Much writing on religious freedom focuses on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and on the Enlightenment. But the developments of those centuries are only intelligible when seen in a longer historical perspective. The ideas that undergird religious freedom have their origins centuries earlier in the writings of the church fathers and in medieval thinkers. They did not forge a doctrine of religious freedom, though the term “religious freedom” was first used by Tertullian in the third century, and for centuries their thinking was only a quiet murmur heard by the few. Nevertheless, writings defending the freedom and dignity of human beings from the early centuries were not forgotten and laid a foundation on which later generations could build. As the inheritance of the past was buffeted “by the rough torrent of occasion,” the Reformation of the sixteenth century, a doctrine of religious freedom as a natural right belonging to all human beings took shape. In the seventeenth century, its form can be seen in the writings of Roger Williams, John Owen, the English separatist, William Penn, John Locke, and in the eighteenth century in Philip Furneaux, whose Essay on Toleration was read by James Madison.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science and past president of the American Academy of Religion, the North American Patristics Society, and the Academy of Catholic Theology. He is chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the publisher of First Things. Professor Wilken’s most recent book is Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (Yale University Press, 2019). Among his other books are The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (2013), The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (2005), The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (2004), The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (2003), John Chrysostom and the Jews (1983), and Remembering the Christian Past (1995).  He has taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Fordham University, the University of Notre Dame, the Institutum Patristicum (Augustinianum) in Rome, the Gregorian University (also in Rome), and Providence College. He and his wife Carol live in Washington, D.C. Professor Wilken received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.


The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom


Lewis Library 120

Cosponsored by:

  • The Witherspoon Institute

Photo Album:

  • Matthew Franck, Robert Louis Wilken, and Robert George
  • Robert Louis Wilken
  • Robert Louis Wilken