This is the third in a series of five articles on the history of Christian persecution up to the end of the seventeenth century. (Editors note: the first and second articles can be found here and here.) This article and the remaining two provide an overview of how the existing consensus about persecution among both Catholics and Protestants gradually broke down. While subsequent articles examine how toleration actually came to be implemented, this article focuses on some of the first authors to argue powerfully against the existing persecutory paradigm.1 They were marginal voices at the time, but were not ignored, and, in rejecting the long-standing Christian persecutory impulse, they laid down an important marker for the future.

The preceding article explored the persecutory paradigm prevailing in Europe at the start of the Reformation and showed that persecution was primarily undertaken not out of hate (as is so often supposed), but instead out of love:

  • love of God, who hates false religion and sin, even while loving sinners
  • love of truth, which leads to salvation
  • love of one's fellow man, since the souls of countless men and women hung in the balance and might be eternally damned if they were deceived by the false doctrine of heretics, who must therefore be silenced
  • love of heretics and blasphemers, whose sins were hated, but who, it was hoped, might be brought to their senses (and thus to truth and salvation) by force

Persecution was additionally undertaken to preserve social and political unity, but this had a distinctly religious dimension, for it was universally assumed that religious unity was essential to the health, indeed the very survival, of a polity or society.

As the previous article also showed, contrary to cherished myths in Protestant countries, the Reformation initially produced little or no change in the established way of thinking about religious diversity and persecution. But the Reformation did eventually have consequences for religious liberty.

The persecutory paradigm had emerged in Christendom when religious heterodoxy was demographically and geographically very limited. For more than 11 centuries, from the initiation of Christian persecution under Emperor Theodosius I until the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, most people, in most places, would never have witnessed an execution for heresy or blasphemy. Indeed, they would rarely if ever have encountered genuine religious dissidents.

One of the chief consequences of the Reformation was that the numbers of people potentially subject to the horrors of persecution greatly increased, and came to include good Catholics as well as "heretics"—a term that, as we saw in the previous article, Protestants continued to use for those whom they and Catholics alike condemned. Lutherans and Calvinists persecuted each other and Catholics, while Catholics persecuted both Lutherans and Calvinists (who they termed heretics!), and everybody persecuted Anabaptists and anti-Trinitarians. Even so, religious heterodoxy was a reality; adherents of the rival confessions existed in much greater numbers and across more of Christendom than ever in the 1,100 years before the Reformation.

This had two further consequences. First, violence against religious dissidents was far more common and thus entered the consciousness of common people in countries across Christendom. But second, the utility of that violence came to be doubted—the idea that persecution actually could purge respective bodies politic of heresy, or restore the unity of Christendom, had become highly dubious. What soon became apparent was that, in some nations, persecution would not suffice: instead, wholesale religious warfare would have to be waged and the moral and ethical implications of that were no less troubling than persecution. Moreover, in countries where rival confessional parties were entrenched, it quickly became clear that war would have no greater success than persecution in restoring unity.

Thus, the persecutory paradigm became increasingly untenable in the century after the Reformation, as people across Christendom faced the fact that their society was confessionally divided. It was natural that new attitudes to religious diversity and to persecution began gradually to emerge. Now, there were always people who were not particularly bothered by either the execution of heretics or holy war; but the century after about 1550 was one of increasing and increasingly widespread religious violence, and the number of voices calling for alternatives to killing in the name of Christ and Christian unity increased. The Christian persecutory paradigm eventually collapsed in the face of the reality of religious division.

Rejecting Violence
The actual horrors of immolation alive, of breaking at the wheel, of hanging, drawing, and quartering, and of torture—all commonly applied against religious dissidents—were now widely witnessed and spoke powerfully against the idealized view of persecution as an act of Christian love. Attitudes began to change. For example, in 1556 the former head of the English Church, Thomas Cranmer, was executed for heresy. Within three days a foreign Catholic ambassador wrote that Cranmer's immolation had caused a great "commotion" among the common people, "as demonstrated daily by the way in which the preachers are treated, and by the contemptuous demonstrations made in the churches."2 The same year, a devout Roman Catholic urged the bishop of London to stop burning Protestants, because the hostile public response meant the heretics did more harm in their dying than in living.3

Because executions were public, their horrors were evident to all, including members of the lower orders; and even though torture was typically conducted in private and referred to in public by euphemisms, there was some awareness of its horrors. For example, in 1581, also in England (which by this time was Protestant again), the authorities captured the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, whom many contemporaries regarded as one of the finest writers and thinkers of the extraordinary generation that included Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and who had written a series of explosive tracts against the regime's religious policy. Campion was tortured "not only [on] the rack, but also [by having] metal spikes driven between the flesh and fingernails and the nails pulled out." When he finally went on trial for treason, he "pleaded 'not guilty' to the indictment" and was "ordered, as custom required," to raise his hand, but he had been racked so severely that he could not even do that and required assistance.4 Even though those attending were all devoted Protestants, many were taken aback, and word quickly spread. Found guilty, Campion suffered the execution reserved for traitors: "hanging, drawing, and quartering," that is, he was half-strangled, castrated, and disemboweled, while still alive—effectively, execution by being tortured to death.

Increasingly there was repugnance at such brutal treatment on the basis of religious belief. In 1612 one Edward Wightman was burned alive in London, after being condemned by a Protestant ecclesiastical court as a "blasphemous heretique" for denying the Trinity. According to eyewitnesses, even the "common people" were "much startled" by "such burning of heretics . . . pitying in all pain, and prone to asperse justice itself with cruelty, because of the novelty and hideousness of the punishment." It is striking that although other anti-Trinitarians condemned about the same time were not released from prison, the death sentences that had been imposed on them were never carried out. Wightman was in fact the last person ever burned for heresy or blasphemy in England.5 King James I continued to persecute both Roman Catholics and Puritans, but wrote to the archbishops and bishops of the Church of England that he thought "the shedding of blood . . . should not be exacted for diversity of opinion."6

Repudiating Persecution
Gradually the instinctive revulsion at violence began to be expressed in print, particularly in the 1550s and early 1560s by Reformed Protestants (Calvinists). This was ironic, because most Reformed theologians at the time, following Calvin, tended to be strongly intolerant; it reflected, however, the fact that Reformed churches were well organized and obdurate, and themselves resisted persecution where they were not in power, even while imposing it where they were.7

A Huguenot theologian, Augustin Marlorat, himself later martyred, declared that it is in being overcome that the saints, in turn, overcome—the sign of divine election lay in fact in being persecuted, rather than in persecuting.8 John Daus, an English Puritan, asserted that "the true church of Christ [is] known in this, that it suffereth persecution, and doeth not persecute again." In contrast, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the "church of Antichrist [was] her bloody persecutions."9 This hostility to persecution was given shape and argumentative force by the theologian Sebastian Castellio and another scholar Jacopo Aconcio (or Jacobus Acontius); they, like the Huguenots and Puritans, were writing from a Reformed context, although Calvin drove Castellio out of Geneva. They produced the first significant theoretical treatises arguing against all persecution.

Sebastian Castellio published what has been called "the first manifesto in favor of toleration."

In 1554 Castellio, who had been born in France but had emigrated first to Geneva and then to Basle, published (anonymously) what has been called the "first manifesto in favor of toleration," though such a characterization of his views is premature.10 Initially at least, Castellio "did not say . . . that every man has the right to believe what he chooses and to assert his belief."11 However, his views on toleration matured, and by 1562 he was arguing, on principle, that it was wrong to force people to violate their consciences.12

One of his major themes was that among followers of Jesus religious differences did not deserve the ultimate sanction. Fellow Christians, whose only fault was sincerely to differ from the majority view on issues where Scripture itself was often unclear, should not be punished more severely than thieves. And yet, Castellio reproved his readers, "those who confess themselves Christians are slain by other Christians without mercy by fire and water and the sword and are treated more cruelly than murderers or robbers." "Who," he exclaimed, "would today wish to become a Christian"—and he posed the disturbing question, What if those who had been punished actually were, not heretics, but martyrs? After all, Christ Himself had been killed by the religious leaders of His day for heresy and blasphemy!13 Similarly referencing the first Easter, the Italian Aconcio, who had emigrated to Protestant England, affirmed that church leaders of all sides were quick to condemn but slow to show the humility demonstrated by Christ, and that their mutual anathematizing engendered only dissension, not the unity for which Christ had prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.14 Castellio and Aconcio also both strongly criticized the several sixteenth-century scholars—Catholic as well as Protestant, and including Luther and Calvin—who ingeniously interpreted Christ's parable (recorded in Matthew 13) of the weeds in the wheat, which is typically seen as an argument for toleration, to allow for the persecution and even execution of the theologically heterodox.15

Arguing From Humanity
Another author who recognized that one man's heretic was another man's martyr, and thus rejected persecution was the English scholar John Foxe, whose Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Dayes (better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs) became a best seller in the newly Protestant England of Elizabeth I and remained one of the most popular books in England and the United States into the nineteenth century. Foxe became famous for his stories of Protestant martyrs, but it is important to note that he did not only complain about persecution of Protestants by Roman Catholics—his objection to persecution was not partisan. As the eminent historian Geoffrey Elton pointed out, after Protestants came to power in England, Foxe opposed putting religious opponents to death.16

Foxe twice tried to use his influence to stop executions. He wrote to Elizabeth I and to her Privy Council on behalf of Dutch Anabaptists condemned to be burned at the stake in London in 1575. He argued that it was inconsistent with the gospel "to burn with fiery flame . . . the living bodies of wretched men."17 Demonstrating an unusual ability to see past doctrinal heterodoxy to common humanity, he explained that while condemning their erroneous teaching he wanted to save their lives, memorably declaring: "Vitae hominum, ipse homo quu sum, faveo" — "I am for men's lives, since I am a man myself."18 Two of the Anabaptists were burned in any case and one died in prison, but two were spared, possibly because of Foxe's pleas. Six years later he also appealed, albeit unsuccessfully, for clemency for Edmund Campion.19

Foxe only stood to lose by these interventions at the highest levels of power. He was probably impelled primarily not by a principled belief in toleration, such as that which motivated Castellio and Aconcio, but rather by simple horror of the flames for which the Anabaptists were intended or the torments intended for Campion. However, Foxe was consistent in his opposition to imposing the ultimate sanction on those one disagreed with about matters of faith: it did not matter whether those condemned were Protestants, Jesuit priests, or marginal Christians whose views were so extreme that Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike concurred in seeing them as heretical. Foxe did not believe that anyone should be killed in the name of Christ. In this, he was unusual; as we will see in the next two articles in this series, for most advocates of toleration there was at least one group too repellent and appalling to tolerate. Foxe's arguments for mercy encompassed even those for whom he felt no sympathy.

Even he, however, had one group he did not think could be tolerated: Foxe was prejudiced against Jews (as Luther had been before him), believing that, because of their rejection of Christ, there could be no hope for them and denouncing them as full of spiderlike "poison."20 Yet as Elton observes, Foxe wrote at a time when there were no Jews in England; even if one granted his anti-Semitic presumptions, "Jews . . . could do him and the realm [of England] no harm," whereas by his own logic, Catholics could—and still he urged "as much mercy" toward them as possible.21 This suggests a true generosity of spirit at odds with his appalling sentiments. Perhaps the key is that he had met Catholics and Anabaptists and so could identify with them in human terms; had he ever actually met Jews he might similarly have been more tolerant. While his anti-Semitism must not be merely dismissed as unimpor­tant, it does not discredit his general willingness to see past ideological difference to common humanity.

The arguments of Castellio, Foxe, and others were often adopted by subsequent theorists of toleration. However, it is important to note that Roman Catholics as well as Reformed Protestants, and statesmen as well as scholars, identified the problems with the persecutory paradigm and argued for toleration. In the next article, we turn to the statesmen, for it was their arguments that resulted in the first laws providing for coexistence between rival religious groups and for protection, rather than persecution, of heterodox minorities.

David J. B. Trim is a historian, having held professorships in England, as well as active membership in the Cromwell Society. He is now an archivist in Silver Spring, Maryland.

1 A comprehensive and superb survey of the literature for and against religious toleration in the two centuries after the Reformation is provided by John Marshall in John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
2 Quoted in Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 607.
3 Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society Under the Tudors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p.234.
4 Michael A. R. Graves, "Campion, Edmund [St. Edmund Campion] (1540-1581)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Vol. IX, pp. 874, 875.
5 John Coffey, Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, 1558-1689 (Harlow: Longman, 2000), pp. 114, 115.
6 Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, 1603-1610, p. 40.
7 See Richard Bonney and D. J. B. Trim, Persecution and Pluralism: Calvinists and Religious Minorities in Early-Modern Europe, 1550-1700 (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), on which the following discussion draws.
8 Augustin Marlorat, A Catholike Exposition Upon the Revelation of Sainct John, English edition (London: 1574), folio. 157r.
9 Preface to English translation of Heinrich Bullinger, A Hundred Sermons Upon the Apocalips of Jesu Christe (London: 1561), in Richard Bauckham, Tudor Apocalypse (Abingdon: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1978), pp. 62, 66 (spelling modernized).
10 Marian Hillar, "Sebastian Castellio and the Struggle for Freedom of Conscience," in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 10 (2002): 31-56 (available at, accessed Aug. 28, 2010).
11 John Plamenatz, Man and Society: Political and Social Theories From Machiavelli to Marx, new edition, rev. M. E. Plamentaz and Robert Wokler (New York: Longman, 1992), Vol. I, pp.124, 125.
12 Mario Turchetti, "Middle Parties in France During the Wars of Religion," in Philip Benedict et, al, eds., Reformation, Revolt and Civil War in France and the Netherlands 1555-1585 (Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 1999), p. 171.
13 Hans R. Guggisberg, Sebastian Castellio, 1515-1563: Humanist and Defender of Religious Toleration in a Confessional Age, trans. Bruce Gordon (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), p. 86
14 Aart de Groot, "Acontius's Plea for Tolerance," in Randolph Vigne and Charles Littleton (eds.), From Strangers to Citizens: The Integration of Immigrant Communities in Britain, Ireland and Colonial America, 1550-1750 (Portland, Oreg.: Sussex Academic Press, 2001), pp. 48-54.
15 See Roland H. Bainton, "The Parable of the Tares as the Proof Text for Religious Liberty to the End of the Sixteenth Century," Church History 1 (June 1932): 85-87.
16 G. R. Elton, "Persecution and Toleration in the English Reformation," Persecution and Toleration, Studies in Church History (1984), vol. 21, p. 177.
17 Quoted in John T. McNeill, "John Foxe: Historiographer, Disciplinarian, Tolerationist," Church History 43 (June 1974): 223.
18 Quoted in translation in McNeills, and in original and in translation by Elton, p.175; the English version given here is a blending of Elton's and McNeill's translations.
19 See Elton, pp. 174, 177.
20 Quoted in Marshall, p. 378.
21 Elton, p. 174.

Article Author: David J. B. Trim