Reformation, Tolerance, and Persecution

Editors' note: This is the fifth and final article in a series on the history of Christian persecution up to the end of the seventeenth century. The first, second, third, and fourth articles can be found here and here, here and here.

In considering religious toleration, it is helpful to bear in mind that it is not as generous and all-encompassing as religious freedom. The very word is noteworthy. As one distinguished historian of the French Reformation observes: "In English, tolerance is a purely pragmatic attitude. . . . One tolerates a necessary evil that cannot be avoided. This was precisely the meaning tolérer had in the late sixteenth century."1 As we saw in the previous article, the other term used in sixteenth-century France when proposing toleration was that Protestants be "suffered" to practice their faith.

"Toleration" presupposes that there is a majority religion whose adherents may allow (even if reluctantly) other points of view to be expressed, perhaps even to flourish, but leave no doubt that there is a "right" way to believe and worship. This is different from a political and social framework in which all religions and sects are treated as equal—their members may assert their respective grasp of truth or closeness to the divine to be unique or supreme, but those views are not endorsed by the society or polity as a whole.

Toleration was rarely accorded because of ethical or moral conviction that it was Christlike. When it was conceded, it usually was very restrictive in terms of what was tolerated: liberty of conscience was usually all that could be permitted at first. Now, to be sure, as the historian Nicola Sutherland observes, this was not a negligible concession: "While belief is beyond external control, freedom of conscience was a valuable liberty, since dissenters were liable to betray themselves."2 Nevertheless, if the freedom to believe is not accompanied by the freedom to worship, and to carry out the wider practices that are characteristic of virtually all religions, the believer is really given very little liberty at all. Because the nature of most religions is that they have a public manifestation, when religion is legally restricted to a purely domestic and private practice it is really still being persecuted.

Yet these were not the only limits on toleration. It generally was intended to be temporary; was often granted out of expediency, when persecution or war had failed to destroy a minority; or out of revulsion at violence, but with no presumption that it would endure; and was additionally or alternatively conceded in the expectation that dialogue would allow for more effective conversion than warfare.

This is not, to be sure, the whole story. There were places in the early-modern world where "the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion" was granted, permanently and on the grounds of principle.3 Yet even when this was the case, there is a considerable difference between the toleration granted to minority groups by a privileged faith (such as by the Catholic Church in early-modern France, the Reformed Church in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, and the late-seventeenth-century Church of England) and the genuine freedom of religion that exists in the Netherlands and England today but which arguably first came into being in the United States of America in the early nineteenth century. "Toleration" was rarely or never (at least until well into the eighteenth century) "liberty" as it has come to be understood by modern political theorists.

In considering toleration, however, it is worthwhile observing that in addition to the limited concept of religious toleration, there is a broader "philosophical concept of toleration" that expresses "the more positive attitude of permitting difference as a source of benefit for all."4 In the seventeenth century—and indeed, more recently—even those who were tolerant in the first sense very often were not tolerant in the second.

The Persecutory Impulse
Persecutory attitudes certainly persisted and were held by otherwise liberal, progressive men. Even opponents of arbitrary, absolutist civil government might envisage religious toleration as fairly circumscribed. The Spanish writer Diego de Saavedra Fajardo (1584-1648), like his kinsman Miguel de Cervantes, queried traditional hierarchical social values and was a proponent of peace in an age when war was generally seen as the ultimate aristocratic virtue. Nevertheless, he had no doubt that violence "was often necessary in defense of true religion" and that "the cross of crusade sanctioned all" actions carried out in its name.5 In the 1640s, in the English parliament that waged a civil war against the crown, overthrew the monarchy, and created a republic, the term toleration was "consistently used . . . pejoratively."6

So influential was the paradigm of unity enforced by persecution that even some of the first Christian skeptics still accepted that religious uniformity was essential. The Dutch academic Justus Lipsius, "a leading skeptic and irenicist in post-Reformation Europe," was "a firm supporter of religious persecution," on the traditional grounds that "religious pluriformity would lead to civil strife and encourage religious fanatics who in turn would destabilize society, something which had to be prevented at all costs." The most Lipsius would concede was that "if repression turned out to be politically too costly" (as was the case in several European countries, including France and the Netherlands), then, and only then, should "toleration be contemplated." So willing was he to contemplate persecution that, in his classic Six Books of Politics or Civil Doctrine (1589, first English edition 1594), as the scholar Ole Peter Grell points out, Lipsius chillingly urged that "religious dissenters . . . be shown no clemency, but [instead] be burned, since it was better to sacrifice one member rather than risk the collapse of the whole commonwealth."7

In the seventeenth century the great political theorist Thomas Hobbes vigorously argued "that a politician was preferable to a fanatic," so that the religious beliefs of the citizens of a polity could be subordinated to the needs of the polity as a whole. Hobbes insisted on a "distinction between public and private religion: outwardly, at least, the believer had to conform to the religion of the ruler."8

Roger Williams

Roger Williams and Repression
Roger Williams believed that religious liberty (or "soul liberty," as he termed it) was an absolute right, rather than a concession.9 He argued that the state of men and women's souls were a matter only for God, and that, since salvation was a product of an innately personal transaction—the acceptance by the individual of Christ's sacrifice and then the transmission of divine grace to that individual—what people believed and how they practiced their faith was intrinsically beyond the scope of state power. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he urged that liberty of "consciences and worships [should] be granted to all men in all nations and countries"—even to those who were "paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian" (meaning, by the last, Roman Catholics).10

In his willingness to allow a right of public worship not only to different types of Protestants but also to Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and pagans, Williams was extremely unusual. Many tolerationists were like John Foxe, who could tolerate groups he could identify with even though he disagreed with them, but not groups who were without his sympathies. Williams demanded toleration even for groups whose views he detested, such as Catholics. Yet in our admiration for his open-mindedness in an era of oppression, we have perhaps focused too much on his "commitment to the principle of religious toleration," and thereby, as an eminent historian of Puritanism suggests, "domesticated Williams into a gentle liberalism."11

Williams was clear, however, that "a false religion . . . will not hurt the church no more than weeds in the wilderness hurt the enclosed garden."12 However, Williams also had no doubt that the weeds would be destroyed. His polemic against the "bloody tenet of persecution" also eagerly anticipates the ultimate harvest, when "the angels, with their sharp and cutting sickles of eternal vengeance," would scythe down the followers of the antichrist "and bundle them up for the everlasting burnings."13

In addition, Williams did not reject all forms of religious repression. For Williams the very basis for separation of church and state was also a basis for not conceding complete liberty to Roman Catholics. Williams, like many other Protestants, believed that no Catholic could ever be a good citizen of a Protestant state on the (spurious) grounds that their primary allegiance would always be to a foreign sovereign (the pope), and therefore held that even though the state should allow Catholics to practice their religion freely in private, it could also require them to wear distinctive clothing and prohibit them from bearing arms. Yet imposing social and civic sanctions on a group meant that true religious freedom was being denied.

John Locke

John Locke and Intolerance
Locke, too, denied that any group should be persecuted on account of their religious beliefs—but accepted that they could be persecuted on civil or social grounds. He too does not seem to have recognized that this still amounted to religious persecution.

Locke's landmark Epistola de Tolerantia (1689), better known as A Letter Concerning Toleration, is generally agreed by scholars of most shades of opinion to be the "classic statement" of the principles of religious toleration. Yet in it he still made exceptions to the rule of toleration. To be sure, he did so nominally on secular grounds, arguing that civil authorities ought generally to tolerate religious beliefs and practices, but were under no obligation to tolerate "opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society."14 But to Locke, this meant that atheists did not deserve to be tolerated. Similarly, he argued that toleration ought not be extended to those who "ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince."15 This could conceivably have perhaps applied to Muslims, since the title of Caliph had been assumed by the Ottoman sultans, but in fact it is very clear from the context that Locke means Roman Catholics.16 And Locke simply assumed that neither atheists nor "papists" could be good citizens: the former because people who disbelieved eternal punishment and reward would not keep oaths or contracts; the latter because their primary allegiance would be to the pope, not their own state.
However, the pope's place as head of the church was an integral part of Catholicism, and so the alleged distinction that sanctions were being imposed for secular reasons, rather than religious ones, was in reality specious. Furthermore, recent English and British history would have shown Locke that English Catholics did not necessarily obey the pope ahead of the British sovereign—they were capable of distinguishing between the pope's requirements as head of the Catholic Church and his desires as an Italian prince. Locke was simply motivated by his prejudice, as Williams had been.

We can admire Locke's arguments for toleration and the fact that he ruled out, on a priori grounds, the very possibility of state intervention in religious matters, and thus drew "a demarcation line between church and state," whose contours were adopted and then developed further by James Madison, among others, in adumbrating the concept of separation of church and state.17 However, his inability to grasp that Roman Catholics and atheists could be good citizens stemmed from prejudice, not reason. He was himself guilty of that irrationality regarding heterodox religious opinion that he condemned in others as "monstrous."18

Persecution and Prejudice
We are all creatures of our own time. It is easy for historians to criticize thinkers who transcended their times in some ways for not doing so in other ways. My point here is not that we should dismiss the significance of Williams and Locke as important advocates of toleration and critics of persecution. They played a key role in concluding the paradigm shift away from persecution to toleration. However, I do want to highlight how alluring the Christian persecutory impulse is; even those who think they have overcome it have very often still succumbed to it to some extent.

Even tolerationists could be intolerant, because it was universally assumed that there must be some group(s) so alien that persecuting them was justified. Many Protestant tolerationists drew their line at Roman Catholics, Quakers, and/or anti-Trinitarians. Most Roman Catholics agreed on the last group. Many Catholics and Protestants agreed about Jews and Muslims. Almost all Christians agreed on atheists.

For a religious freedom paradigm to endure and not instead revert to a tolerationist paradigm, people must not be prejudged solely on the basis of their religion. In every faith or church there are people who are ethical and unethical, moral and immoral, generous and selfish, noble and ignoble, peaceful and violent, respectful and bigoted—and tolerant and intolerant.

The Reformation and Toleration
A little more than a quarter of a century ago one of the leading historians of the sixteenth century argued that whereas Protestant attitudes "did not preclude genuine toleration for varieties of the faith . . . the attitude of Catholics did."19 Few scholars today would agree, and we saw in the penultimate article of this series that, at least among statesmen, as opposed to theologians, the most passionate sixteenth-century critics of persecution were Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, while authorities of all confessions tended to be predisposed against confessional plurality and in favor of persecution, even so, as the editors of one important collective study of tolerance and intolerance conclude, there is evidence that "Protestant authorities were more likely to grant freedom of belief to individuals than were their Catholic counterparts."20

While this remains debated by scholars, what does seem to be clear is that the Reformation was important for the history of religious liberty: not by immediately effecting a sea change in opinion on confessional diversity, persecution, and the place of the state in religious affairs; nor by producing, in the Reformation era, genuinely tolerant societies or polities; but rather "in its questioning of authority and blind obedience." To be sure, "its insistence on the right of individuals to exercise private judgment" was not realized in its own time.21 But the principle was an immensely important one; a new study even identifies the Reformation concept of an individual right to exercise judgment in religious matters as the real foundation of the separation of church and state in the United States of America.22

Even if that were not the case, however, and even though it meant different things to those who initially propounded it than to subsequent generations, the concept was a vitally significant precedent. Having once been envisioned, it was grander than those who first advocated it could visualize, but its inner logic was such that some of those who followed would naturally push toward its logical extent and occupy the conceptual terrain that its first advocates had hoped would remain terra incognita. Yet that first visionary conceptual step, which opened up the intellectual territory, was vital.

One of the most distinguished historians of seventeenth-century Puritanism suggests that although the "pursuit of freedom" was not what inspired "revolutionary Puritans," it was "an unintended consequence of [their] activities."23 In a similar way, the Protestant Reformation was neither a tolerationist nor a religious-libertarian movement—but without it, religious liberty as we understand it today would not exist.

Religious Belief and Toleration
Religious liberty is the fruit not of the skepticism that emerged in the seventeenth century, but of zealous, fervent Christians. Skeptics, because they believed in little, often found it easy nominally to conform themselves to official religion; and many, like Lipsius, argued that others ought to be forced to do likewise, for the general good. Skeptics often shared the ancient presumption that a society divided in religious could not flourish. As the historian John Coffey writes: "In the eighteenth century . . . . it was perfectly possible to inhabit the brave new world of printing, science, urbanization, religious pluralism, commercial prosperity, and global exploration, and still remain wedded to traditional ideals of religious uniformity and coercion."24

It was fervently religious tolerationists who were not willing to conform nominally, and who, because of their own firm convictions, could see that whatever the fate of individuals, it was improbable that a whole movement characterized by inner faith could be destroyed by external force. They accordingly "insisted that the enforcement of uniformity was bound to fail, and would lead only to rivers of blood."25 By the end of the seventeenth century Christians typically could no longer contemplate that prospect with equanimity.

Today persecution seems so hateful that it is easy to assume that it derived from hate—it seems so manifestly wrong and unchristian that it is easy to assume that the impulse to persecute comes only from what we perceive as the darker side of humanity. But if that were so, it would not be as common. Persecution often springs from our higher, rather than our baser, instincts—harassment of the heterodox does not always derive from the desire to hurt, but sometimes from the desire to help; religious liberty is often denied out of the finest of motives. In trying to counteract the seemingly perpetual human addition to persecution, therefore, we need to recognize that generosity of spirit and humane instincts are not enough, for they have been found among persecutors. Those who combine Christian faith with a commitment to complete religious freedom consistently need to be on guard against any desire to compel others, even for the best of motives.

David J. B. Trim is a historian with a long experience teaching at universities in the U.S. and the U.K. He currently writes from Silver Spring, Maryland, where he is director of the Office of Archives and Statistics for the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

1 Mark Greengrass, "Religious or Secular? The Edict of Nantes, Reformation and State Formation in Late Sixteenth-century France," in Ruth Whelan and Carol Baxter, eds., Toleration and Religious Identity: The Edict of Nantes and Its Implications in France, Britain, and Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003), p. 126.
2 N. M. Sutherland, "Persecution and Toleration in Reformation Europe," in W. J. Sheils, ed., Persecution and Toleration, Studies in Church History, ([Oxford]: Basil Blackwell for the Ecclesiastical History Society, 1984), vol. 21, p. 159.
3 I use here the language of George Mason, in his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), quoted in Vincent Philip Muñoz, God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 33.
4 Greengrass, p. 126.
5 Quoted in R. A. Stradling, Spain's Struggle for Europe, 1598-1668 (London, Hambledon Press, 1994), xv, xvi.
6 Blair Worden, "Toleration and the Cromwellian Protectorate," in Sheils, p.200.
7 Ole Peter Grell, "Introduction," in Ole Peter Grell and Bob Scribner, eds., Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 2.
8 Richard Bonney and D.J.B. Trim, eds., "Introduction", in Persecution and Pluralism: Calvinists and Religious Minorities in Early-Modern Europe, 1550-1700 (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), p. 59.
9 Edwin S. Gaustad, Roger Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 95.
10 The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, discussed (1644), quoted in Norah Carlin, "Toleration for Catholics in the Puritan Revolution," in Grell and Scribner, p. 219.
11 William Lamont, "Pamphleteering, the Protestant Consensus, and the English Revolution," in R. C. Richardson and G. M. Ridden, eds., Freedom and the English Revolution: Essays in History and Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p. 82.
12 Quoted in Grell and Scribner, p. 219.
13 Quoted in Richardson and Ridden, p. 82.
14 Quoted in Muñoz, p. 29, citing English translation, ed. James H. Tully (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), p. 49.
15 Ibid., p. 50.
16 Cf. Heiko A. Oberman, "The Travail of Tolerance: Containing Chaos in Early Modern Europe," in Grell and Scribner, pp. 14-16.
17 Ibid., p. 16; Muñoz, pp. 23-35 (though cf. p. 29).
18 Quoted (both in Latin and in translation) in Grell and Scribner, Oberman, pp. 15, 16.
19 G. R. Elton, "Persecution and Toleration in the English Reformation," in Sheils, p. 185.
20 Grell and Scribner, p. 12. (Italics supplied.)
21 Ibid.
22 Nicholas Miller, "The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestantism and the Separation of Church and State," (PhD diss., Notre Dame, 2010); synopsis at [accessed July 26, 2010].
23 Richardson and Ridden, p. 89.
24 Coffey, p. 218.
25 Ibid., p. 217.

Article Author: David J. B. Trim