Religious Liberty in John Milton's Polemical Prose

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Pugh, John Milton
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Middle Tennessee State University
In a twenty-year prose career championing liberty, John Milton wrote works about the most important issues of his day, including religious liberty, freedom of publication, and freedom from tyranny. In addition, he wrote several tracts advocating for marriage reform. Throughout this entire period, the issue of freedom of conscience, the individual’s ability to live according to personal and moral conviction without interference from the church or state, remained central to his thought. Although most prominently covered in his early-1640s writings against the Church of England, predominantly in Of Reformation and The Reason of Church Government, a concern for this natural right appears throughout all of his polemical prose, from The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, to Areopagitca’s defense of freedom of expression, and lastly, to Milton’s two most extensive works on civil liberty, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and The Ready and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Analyzing, among others, all of these works, this thesis demonstrates the centrality of religious liberty throughout Milton’s prose treatises. Treating each phase of Milton’s prose career as its own separate, independent sphere dilutes the central unity of his beliefs. Religious liberty is the most important freedom a Protestant society can possess, but threats to the other aspects of liberty are equally dangerous because each is a necessary component of one’s right to practice according to one’s conscience. Corrupt prelates and power-hungry bishops are palpable threats to a Christian’s soul, but so too are bad spouses, tyrannical kings (and monarchy in general), and censorship. Liberty, as a general concept, has been given to humanity so that it can pursue God’s Truth unhindered. As this thesis argues, all of Milton’s polemical prose works were written with this end in mind.
Liberty, Religion, English literature