Pope Francis is currently in New York City, but his next stop will be Philadelphia, to attend the World Meeting of Families. That destination brings to mind the city’s history of toleration: 18th century Philadelphia was the only city in the British Empire where the Catholic mass could be legally celebrated, and a long tradition of opposition to religious persecution is, in fact, one of the great contributions of the Quaker movement to the development of Christian thought and practice.
It wasn’t an easy thing for Christians to move from views, going back to St. Augustine, that persecuting heretics was a moral duty to the contemporary idea, stated very eloquently in the Vatican II documents, that religious liberty is a divine gift that we are all obliged to respect. The Catholic church opposed this crucial and vital idea with everything it had for hundreds of years; so did many Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists. It was the despised and marginalized Quakers and Anabaptists (now Baptists) who stood up for the truth at a time when the big churches were deep in error—and they were persecuted for their witness.
This history is important to remember, both to remind religious leaders that great institutions can go badly wrong and to promote solidarity with those in the world of Islam now fighting for the rights of freedom and diversity. Those who think that Islam will never change should remember that many of Pope Francis’ predecessors denounced religious liberty as an anti-Christian idea.