Liberty of Conscience

TimeWatch Editorial
October 14, 2016

John Bagnell Bury was born in the year 1861. He passed away in the year 1927. He was an accomplished academic with some degrees that are easily identifiable today, and some that are not. He held an M.A., a F.B.A which stands for Fellow of the British Academy. The British Academy is to the arts what the Royal Society is to the sciences, and being elected a Fellow of the British Academy is generally regarded as the highest academic distinction that a British scholar in the arts, humanities or social sciences can receive; basically it means that your fellow-academics regard you as one of the leaders of your field. He also held an Hon. D.LITT (Doctor of Letters) Of Oxford, Durham, And Dublin, And an Hon. LL.D. which is a doctorate-level academic degree in law, Of Edinburgh, Glasgow, And Aberdeen Universities; he held the position of Regius Professor Of Modern History, Cambridge University. A Regius professor is a university professor with royal patronage or appointment.

The reason for my detailed biography is to reveal the absolutely high regard with which John Bury was embraced by his colleagues and his peers. The author of many books, there is one in particular that captures the attention, especially in these times when the validity of parts of the Constitution of the United States is seriously being reevaluated by some. The book was originally published in the year 1913. The title is, “A History of Freedom of Thought.” In his very first chapter of that book on page 7, he says the following:


“IT is a common saying that thought is free. A man can never be hindered from thinking whatever he chooses so long as he conceals what he thinks. The working of his mind is limited only by the bounds of his experience and the power of his imagination. But this natural liberty of private thinking is of little value. It is unsatisfactory and even painful to the thinker himself, if he is not permitted to communicate his thoughts to others, and it is obviously of no value to his neighbors. More over it is extremely difficult to hide thoughts that have any power over the mind. If a man’s thinking leads him to call in question ideas and customs which regulate the behavior of those about him, to reject beliefs which they hold, to see better ways of life than those they follow, it is almost impossible for him, if he is convinced of the truth of his own reasoning, not to betray by silence, chance words, or general attitude that he is different from them and does not share their opinions.” John Bagnell Bury, “A History of Freedom of Thought,” Page 7

The power of the concept expressed is itself demonstrated by the revealed characteristics of today’s society. One does not have to speak, because sooner or later the content of the mind will reveal itself in actions, regardless of whether there is an attempt to hide those actions or not. Dr. Bury’s point then is that freedom of thought is less than what is required to properly exist in the society. He continues:


“Some have preferred, like Socrates, to face death rather than conceal their thoughts. Thus freedom of thought, in any valuable sense, includes freedom of speech. At present, in the most civilized countries, freedom of speech is taken as a matter of course and seems a perfectly simple thing. We are so accustomed to it that we look on it as a natural right. But this right has been acquired only in quite recent times, and the way to its attainment has lain through lakes of blood. It has taken centuries to persuade the most enlightened peoples that liberty to publish one’s opinions and to discuss all questions is a good and not a bad thing. Human societies (there are some brilliant exceptions) have been generally opposed to freedom of thought, or, in other words, to new ideas, and it is easy to see why.” John Bagnell Bury, “A History of Freedom of Thought,” Page 8

It is clear then that those who were responsible for the First Amendment to the Constitution, men like James Madison, understood this concept. This is why both freedoms are clearly stated. Society, however regardless of the stated principle of freedom of thought, does not necessarily push the idea. If one is to enjoy such freedom, one must seek it and demand it under all circumstances; otherwise the restrictions that often harness our thinking will take absolute control. Listen to how Dr. Bury expresses the thought.


“The average brain is naturally lazy and tends to take the line of least resistance. The mental world of the ordinary man consists of beliefs which he has accepted without questioning and to which he is firmly attached; he is instinctively hostile to anything which would upset the established order of this familiar world. A new idea, inconsistent with some of the beliefs which he holds, means the necessity of rearranging his mind; and this process is laborious, requiring a painful expenditure of brain-energy. To him and his fellows, who form the vast majority, new ideas, and opinions which cast doubt on established beliefs and institutions, seem evil because they are disagreeable.”
John Bagnell Bury, “A History of Freedom of Thought,” Page 9

So how do we protect and sustain freedom of thought? And will there ultimately be a clash of ideas regarding it?


“Although the liberty to publish one’s opinions on any subject without regard to authority or the prejudices of one’s neighbors is now a well-established principle, I imagine that only the minority of those who would be ready to fight to the death rather than surrender it could defend it on rational grounds. On the other hand, those who have the responsibility of governing a society can argue that it is as incumbent on them to prohibit the circulation of pernicious opinions as to prohibit any anti-social actions. They can argue that a man may do far more harm by propagating anti-social doctrines than by stealing his neighbor s horse or making love to his neighbor s wife. They are responsible for the welfare of the State, and if they are convinced that an opinion is dangerous, by menacing the political, religious, or moral assumptions on which the society is based, it is their duty to protect society against it, as against any other danger.”
John Bagnell Bury, “A History of Freedom of Thought,” Page 9

So the conflict will come. The argument has already been defined and we are warned concerning what we should be doing. Listen to what Testimonies Volume 5, says on pages 713 and 714.


“It is our duty, as we see the signs of approaching peril, to arouse to action. Let none sit in calm expectation of the evil, comforting themselves with the belief that this work must go on because prophecy has foretold it, and that the Lord will shelter his people. We are not doing the will of God if we sit in quietude, doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience. Fervent, effectual prayer should be ascending to heaven that this calamity may be deferred until we can accomplish the work which has so long been neglected. Let there be more earnest prayer; and then let us work in harmony with our prayers.”--Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 713, 714.

Be warned, be ready.

Cameron A. Bowen

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