Tertullian and the Rise of Religious Freedom

Document Type

Book Review

Publication Title

The Russell Kirk Center - The University Bookman

Publication Date




The conventional history of religious freedom in the West, the one most of us have heard since high school, portrays Christians as implacable foes. Convinced of their righteousness and addicted to state power, the story goes, Christians opposed religious freedom for centuries, until Enlightenment figures like Locke, Jefferson, and Madison overcame them by force of rational argument. The Enlightenment forced religious freedom on Christians, who endorsed the concept only reluctantly, and only after they had exhausted themselves in generations of intra-Christian slaughter. Christians endorsed religious freedom more or less strategically, as a mechanism for preserving themselves after their intellectual opponents had successfully carried the day.

Like most conventional histories, this one contains a lot of truth. But it also contains many simplifications and distortions. In his helpful new book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, Robert Louis Wilken corrects the record. (Full disclosure: Professor Wilken presented a draft of Liberty in the Things of God in a colloquium our Center for Law and Religion sponsors at St. John’s University). Wilken is one of the greatest historians of Christianity living today, and in this short book, which he calls “an historical essay” rather than “a complete history,” he convincingly demonstrates why we should not understand the rise of religious freedom simply as a defeat of Christian ideas. The real story is more complicated.