How the Magna Carta Gave Way to the Rise of Religious Liberty

Two men take a close look at the four existing original Magna Carta manuscripts that date back to the early 1200s. More than 43,700 individuals participated in a public ballot to win one of 1,215 entry tickets to view the four historical pieces on display together at the British Library in early February. Photo by Nick Cunard for British Library
Two men take a close look at the four existing original Magna Carta manuscripts that date back to the early 1200s. More than 43,700 individuals participated in a public ballot to win one of 1,215 entry tickets to view the four historical pieces on display together at the British Library in early February. Photo by Nick Cunard for British Library

Eight hundred years ago on June 15, 1215, a group of English nobles at Runnymede forced a reluctant King John to endorse a document of grievances against royal authority.

Written by Stephen, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Magna Carta was designed to be a compromise between rebellious nobles and the king. The work contained allusions to protecting religious liberty that, remarkably, would be embraced by England, the United States and much of the West today in subsequent centuries.

Before discussing how the Magna Carta — “The Great Charter,” now at its 800th anniversary — started the long journey of governments recognizing the principle of religious freedom, some clarifications are in order.

The Magna Carta itself was not written specifically to address religious freedom and, in fact, the document functioned primarily as a set of grievances on the part of some rebelling nobles against King John and a set of actions and compromises to address those grievances.

Revised time and time again in the centuries that followed, new information impacted the original issues in 1215. Later English rulers signaled their support or opposition to these various revisions. And finally, more significant language in other important documents of later ages enshrined religious liberty on both sides of the Atlantic.

With those clarifications, and with aspects of religious freedom quite different in the 21st century than in 1215, various provisions of the Magna Carta nevertheless shaped the unfolding concept of religious liberty. For instance, Article One stated, “First that we have granted to God, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”

While this provision seems incredible for its time and comports well with contemporary Western and Christian thinking, it should be noted that Article One was written in the context of a three-way fight for English church dominance between the papacy, the king and some members of the English nobility. The provision itself seems directed more against royal interference with the church and the fact that many English churchmen had joined in the rebellion against King John.

Furthermore, while declaring that the English church “shall be free,” it was understood in 1215 (300 years before the Reformation) that the church functioned as part of the universal church dominated by the papacy and that it possessed the beliefs and practices set forth by the papacy. As an aside, the pope himself later annulled the document. Although unstated, perhaps he became concerned with how the document might restrict papal influence within the British Isles in the future. Nevertheless, as a principle, Article One established a bold precedent for future religious freedom.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Stephen Douglas Wilson

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