Religious Liberty: An American Experiment

Religious Toleration and Religious Liberty

In this lesson, students will explore the evolution in the United States from religious toleration to religious liberty. Students will examine the difference between the two, analyze documents concerning both, and evaluate the significance of this change.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


A dramatic shift in thinking took place between 1776 and 1791 that culminated in the creation of American religious liberty. Prior to 1776, enlightened Americans promoted the idea advanced by the European Enlightenment that religious toleration was a major step forward for religious conscience. After almost two centuries of European wars of religion following the start of the Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke supported the idea of toleration of other people’s religious conscience, or allowing them to believe in their religious faith. From 1607 through the Founding Era, colonial and state government policy followed this model of religious toleration. Such toleration implied that the civil authority, in which established churches created a demand for uniformity, could grant or revoke the privilege of free religious exercise by religious minorities. Within this environment, colonists of many faiths such as Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and Roman Catholics experienced persecution and legal penalties for their religious views.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence claimed that all humans had natural rights which no government or person could violate without their consent. At the same moment, George Mason included in the Virginia Declaration of Rights what seemed a liberal-minded clause for religious toleration for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. However, James Madison altered that clause to one of religious liberty of conscience as an unalienable right of humans. Over the next decade, Madison and Thomas Jefferson worked together for disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia to protect liberty of conscience. Others embraced the natural right of religious liberty, most notably President George Washington, when he wrote letters to numerous religious denominations asserting the principles of liberty of conscience as a fundamental right of all. When the states ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, the First Amendment protected the free exercise of religion by all Americans. The natural right of freedom of conscience had replaced the mere toleration of others’ beliefs to become America’s deeply-cherished “first freedom.”


“We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.” - Thomas Jefferson, Reply to Virginia Baptists (1808)


  • Read and discuss Founding documents related to the concept of religious toleration.
  • Read and discuss Founding documents related to the concept of religious liberty.
  • Compare and contrast the concepts of religious toleration and religious liberty by analyzing quotes from the Founders.
  • Read and discuss the contribution of President George Washington to religious liberty.


  • Handout A: The American Journey from Religious Toleration to Religious Liberty
  • Handout B: Religious Toleration
  • Handout C: Religious Liberty
  • Handout D: Quote Cards
  • Handout E: Letters to the Congregations: George Washington and Religious Liberty
  • Two shoeboxes


  1. Have students read Handout A: The American Journey from Religious Toleration to Religious Liberty and individually answer the comprehension and critical thinking questions.

Warm-up 5 minutes

  1. With the entire class, spend a few minutes discussing the following questions:
    1. What does religious toleration mean?
    2. What does religious liberty mean?
    3. What is the difference between religious toleration and religious liberty?

Activities 30 minutes

Activity I

  1. Assign students in pairs and have them read and assign half the groups to complete Handout B: Religious Toleration and half to complete Handout C: Liberty of Conscience.
  2. Within the groups, students will analyze the quotes relating to religious toleration or liberty of conscience and then summarize the best arguments for their position in the space provided on Handout B or Handout C.
  3. Once students have finished with Handouts B and C, ask students in a few groups to share the best arguments from their side.

Activity II

  1. Using two shoeboxes or other similarly sized boxes, label one RT: Religious Toleration and label another RL: Religious Liberty.
  2. Distribute the Handout D: Quote Cards to the students. Students should read the quote, determine whether it represents religious liberty or religious toleration, and then place the quote cards in the box representing their choice. Have the students defend their choice by explaining how the quote supports either religious toleration or religious liberty.


  1. Discuss the difference between religious toleration and religious liberty according to the following questions:
    1. After reviewing the primary sources, is it more ideal to enjoy religious toleration or religious liberty? Why?
    2. Which principles of the American Founding supported religious liberty? Why did these principles have that effect?


  1. Students should complete Handout E: Letters to the Congregations: George Washington and Religious Liberty.


  1. Have students research religious liberty at the Library of Congress on-line exhibition “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” and write a paragraph analyzing a primary source, visual, or biography from the website.
    1. The exhibit can be found at

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