A History of Religious Toleration

Based on Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton, 2003)

The First Amendment of the American constitution (1789) is arguably one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment era. The Amendment’s Establishment Clause imposes the separation of church and state, while the Free Exercise Clause prevents the state from restricting religious practices. Taken together, these clauses ensure religious freedom for all Americans. The Amendment was the culmination of a centuries-long struggle in which the advocates of religious toleration risked their livelihoods, their freedom, their lives.

Heresy Before the Reformation

This struggle began in the sixteenth century, which has been described as the most intolerant period in the history of the world’s most intolerant religion, Christianity. How did Christianity reach such a state?

Heresy was not a crime in the Jewish or Greco-Roman traditions, but appeared very early in Christian history. It followed directly from the Christian belief that certain religious truths had to be accepted to gain salvation. The church determined what these truths were; anyone who did not follow its lead would be damned. Dissenters risked their own salvation, and by leading astray other members of the community, they imperilled the salvation of others.

The apostle Paul raised the issue of heretics several times in his letters. He advised that they should be admonished, and if they do not reform, they should be banned from the religious community. No harsher punishment was possible because church membership was voluntary.

In the fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the state became an active participant in church matters. For example, the Council of Nicea (325), which issued the first clear declaration of the church’s tenets, was convened at the behest of the emperor Constantine. In the Council’s aftermath Constantine issued bans on certain heresies and began to systematically eradicate paganism. Religious pluralism, once fundamental to the empire’s character, was brought to an end. The first executions for heresy occurred in the same century, under the emperor Maximus in the West and under the emperor Theodosius I in the East. Executions for heresy were uncommon, but they did demonstrate both the power and the danger of a church and state alliance.

Europe underwent an economic, social, and cultural retrenchment when the western empire collapsed. The major work of the church became the conversion of the Goths, the Vandals, and all of the other peoples that had migrated into the empire’s territories from the north and north-east. Heresies became less prominent and were less worrisome to the church.

In the eleventh century the Christian church acrimoniously divided into the eastern Orthodox church and the western Catholic church. The Catholic church retained a near hegemony over religious belief in the West. Its power was increasingly vested in the bishop of Rome, for whom the title “pope” was soon reserved.

There was a resurgence of heresy in the same century. Many of the heresies were a reaction to an increasingly comfortable and complacent church hierarchy. The dissenters believed that the church had lost its way, and that it had to return to the virtues espoused by Christ. The church establishment, on the other hand,  held to its claim that there was no salvation outside the church and that heretics endangered both themselves and their fellow Christians. Its response to dissent was severe: some heresies were extinguished, while others were driven underground. Military action was sometimes required. Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathars in 1209, effectively exterminating them. The church also launched a crusade against Bohemia in 1415 to defeat the reform movement led by the heretical preacher John Hus — he was burned at the stake. There were no successful heretical movements between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries.

Canon law, which was first drawn up following the Investiture Crisis of the eleventh century,  formalized the church’s position on heresy. It called for the use of force, with the assistance of the state if necessary, to end heresy. It did not include death as a punishment.

The fourth Lateran Council (1215), convened by Innocent III, ordered that heretics were to be turned over to secular authorities for punishment. The secular authorities, in turn, were required to suppress heresy in their jurisdictions as a condition of remaining within the church. Heretics could be stigmatized, expelled from office, or deprived of certain rights.

Some sovereign rulers (including Louis IX of France, who would later be declared a saint, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II) officially mandated the death penalty for heresy in the early thirteenth century. The burning of heretics was mandated in France in 1270, and in England in 1401.

The Inquisition dates from the thirteenth century:

Papal legislation of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries had placed the detection of heretics in the hands of the bishops by ordering them to undertake circuits of their dioceses once or twice annually to ferret out heresy. In 1233 Gregory IX issued two bulls that made the persecution of heresy a special responsibility of members of the Dominican order, who were empowered to go as judges into different places to investigate heresy and to proceed without appeal against heretics and their receivers, defenders, and helpers…The inquisitors superseded the bishops in importance as the chief instrument of the church and the papacy in the discovery and suppression of heresy.1

Those convicted of heresy by the Inquisition were asked to recant their false beliefs. Those who did recant were required to perform penances and could incur further penalties, including imprisonment. Those who refused to recant were transferred to the secular authorities, who executed them. They were executed not for their personal wrongs, but because they “corrupted the faith,” endangering the salvation of other members of the religious community.

Salvation was understood to be the goal of every human. The church’s position that there was no salvation outside the church, and that the heretic was not only damned but risked leading others into damnation, was used to justify even the most ruthless acts.

The Reformation

The Catholic Church’s near hegemony over religious belief in Europe was brought to an end by the Reformation of the 1520s.

By overthrowing the Catholic Church in parts of Europe, by creating new churches and forms of religious life, Protestantism shattered forever the unity of Western Christianity and led to civil conflict and religious war, as well as to profound changes in society, politics, and culture. One of its greatest immediate consequences was a diversity of churches and sects on such a scale that it made the problems of religious disunion and toleration inescapable.2

The Reformation began when Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) in Saxony. The printing press allowed it to be widely distributed. Ninety-Five Theses was a condemnation of the church’s practice of selling indulgences; despite its relatively narrow focus, it received a great deal of attention. Those people who believed that the church had fallen away from the Christian message supported Luther, and those who did not considered him a heretic.

Luther widened his criticism of the church in 1520, and laid out the two principles that would become fundamental to Protestantism. First, he argued against the church’s claim that priests were a necessary intermediary between man and God.

Every true Christian was a priest, he held, the clergy were in no way more holy than the laity, and the only religious authority binding on Christians was the word of God in the Bible.3

Second, he argued that religious ritual and good works were not the key to salvation. Salvation was “justified by faith”: it came exclusively from the acceptance of Christ as one’s saviour. The pope responded to Luther’s criticism by excommunicating him and condemning his writings.

In the following year Luther was called before the Imperial Diet, a consultative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire. He was asked to recant, and when he refused, he was banned from the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick III, the elector of Saxony, protected Luther from further punishment. Luther returned to Saxony as a refugee.

There was increasing support for Luther’s ideas in Saxony and elsewhere, but there were others who wished to take reform even further. Radical sects began to appear, leading to peasant revolts in parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Luther condemned the revolts, and the princes crushed them.

Although he was himself a heretic in the opinion of the Catholic Church, Luther had no interest in religious toleration.

For Luther, as for his medieval Catholic predecessors, religious unity presupposed that Christian society and the church must be coterminous. It is therefore not surprising that in the German lands that became Protestant under Lutheran influence, and where the prince replaced the pope and ecclesiastical hierarchy in the control and supervision of the church, all Christians were required to belong to the latter as the only religious body recognized by the state. This principle was enshrined in the Peace of Augsburg of 1555.4

Most states adopted a single religion. Those states that remained Catholic suppressed every vestige of Protestantism — their understanding of heresy had not changed. In 1522 the Inquisition of the Netherlands convicted three monks of Lutheran heresies. One of them died in jail, but the other two were burned at the stake: they were the first Protestants to burn. Those states that became Protestant were equally intolerant of Catholicism.

Reformation Protestantism felt a deep revulsion against what it called Catholic superstition. When a city or principality became Protestant through the action of its governing body or ruler, what usually followed was the compulsory suppression of the Catholic Mass, the doctrine of purgatory, and the cult of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints; the destruction of altars, religious images, and ornaments used in Catholic rites; the taking over of Catholic churches for Protestant worship; the abolition of monasticism and expropriation of monasteries; the confiscation of ecclesiastical property by the state, and other far-reaching changes.5

The Protestant states were also intolerant of reform sects whose theology differed from that of mainstream Protestantism. They saw themselves as reformers but the sects as heretics.

John Calvin, Michael Servetus, and Sebastian Castellio

A number of prominent preachers — including Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Karlstadt — pushed forward the Protestant cause, but they did not always do so in unison. They agreed on the most fundamental principles of Protestantism — the authority of the Bible and justification by faith — but readily fell out over other matters. Fearing the splintering of the reform movement, John Calvin, then a young and unknown scholar, composed a clear and systematic guide to the movement’s theology. This guide, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), proved to be immensely popular, and Calvin would revise and reissue it several times over the course of his life.

The book established Calvin’s position as a pre-eminent Protestant theologian, and in the same year as it was published, Calvin was asked to take charge of the Protestant church in Geneva. He was expelled from Geneva in 1538 as a result of a conflict with the city council, but was recalled to the city in 1541 and spent the remainder of his life there.

Calvin was able to completely dominate Geneva. Upon his return,

…the town council enacted his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which provided for the religious education of the townspeople, especially children, and instituted his conception of church order. It established four groups of church officers and a “consistory” of pastors and elders to bring every aspect of Genevan life under the precepts of God’s law.

The activities of the consistory gave substance to the legend of Geneva as a joyless theocracy, intolerant of looseness or pleasure. Under Calvin’s leadership, it undertook a range of disciplinary actions covering everything from the abolition of Catholic “superstition” to the enforcement of sexual morality, the regulation of taverns, and measures against dancing, gambling, and swearing.6

The only permissible theology was Calvin’s theology, and Calvin worked tirelessly to promote it. Ultimately, Lutheranism was limited to Germany and Scandinavia, but Calvinism spread throughout Europe, from Britain and Scotland in the west to Romania and Hungary in the east, and then into North America.

Calvin’s orchestration of the trial and execution of the dissident theologian Michael Servetus — he was burned alive in 1553 — darkens his reputation. It has been argued that it should not do so. Calvin’s actions were entirely consonant with the morality of his time. Moreover, many dissenters were put to death during this period by both the Protestant and Catholic churches. By and large their names are not remembered, and neither are the names of their persecutors. Why should Servetus and Calvin be different?

Perhaps because the execution of Servetus precipitated a dispute over religious toleration between Calvin and a little known theologian named Sebastian Castellio. Castellio set out a comprehensive case for religious toleration, while Calvin reiterated the centuries-old arguments for the relentless persecution of heretics. Castellio advocated change; Calvin dug in his heels. From this perspective, the assertion that Calvin’s actions exactly mirrored the morality of his time is as much censure as praise.

Castellio’s case for religious toleration begins with an examination of the concept of heresy. He finds that there is no concrete test of heresy:

I can discover no more than this, that we regard as heretics those with whom we disagree. This is evident from the fact that today there is scarcely one of our innumerable sects that does not look upon the rest as heretics, so that if you are orthodox in one city or region, you are held for a heretic in the next.7

Judging doctrine, he argues, is not like judging conduct. People of all Christians sects, and indeed Jews and Muslims as well, can recognize a robbery. Their agreement extends to many aspects of moral conduct — murder, theft, and adultery are all judged to be wrong — but different sects of Christians, even though they agree on certain fundamentals, do not agree on what constitutes heresy. If they were allowed to slaughter each other over these disagreements, there would soon be few Christians left.

The eradication of this persecution is within the power of the state, for it is always the state that exacts punishment. It must take no part in doctrinal disputes. If doctrinal disputes arise, the parties should attempt to persuade each other through reasoned argument and through the example of their own charitable and merciful behaviour. Neither party should be able to declare the other a heretic, burn their books, and call upon the state to carry out punishment.

If a good physician can defend his opinions without the aid of the magistrate, why cannot the theologian do the like? Christ could, the apostles could; surely their disciples can.8

Castellio argues that prosecutions for heresy are actually harmful to religion itself, because the fear of punishment will induce men to accept almost anything.

Nothing is too monstrous to teach the people when to doubt is prohibited, since if you doubt or do not believe, you are put to death.9

Theology is clarified through reasoned debate, he argues, and it is corrupted by the violent imposition of uniformity.

At some times Castellio argues directly against Calvin, whose willingness to prosecute heresy had given him a stranglehold over Geneva:

If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified.10

Calvin’s willingness to use violence to subdue heretics stemmed in part from his insistence that Christian theology is clearly revealed in the scriptures. This claim becomes a pivotal part of Castellio’s attack on heresy.

[Castellio] first notes Calvin’s anger that anyone could say the Scriptures are obscure. If they aren’t obscure, he replies, why does Calvin write so many commentaries to make them clear? The Geneva reformer writes about them daily, differing from those who have written on the same topics before, and says that he has written his Institutes of the Christian Religion as an instrument necessary for the understanding of Scripture. Every day he harangues the people, writes and disputes, always to clarify the Scriptures, which he nevertheless affirms are perfectly clear.11

Castellio does affirm that everything that is vital — everything that is necessary to man’s salvation — is clearly laid out in the scriptures. What is unclear are peripheral issues such as predestination and the trinity, issues that mesmerize theologians but have no bearing on the daily life of the people. Yet it is these peripheral issues that are made the basis of charges of heresy, and that result in horrible punishments. For Castellio, the way forward is clear. Let God decide what is heresy and what punishment must be exacted. And let men, during their life on earth, focus on what is essential to their salvation.

Castellio demands a clear demarcation between the secular and spiritual realms, with the state’s power confined to the secular realm.

Whereas the magistracy punishes actions, God punishes the thought; the magistrate is concerned with the body, God with the soul, and “not to distinguish” these two domains “is just to confuse everything.”12

Castellio died in 1563. His writings were influential long after his death, particularly in Italy, England and the Netherlands. The Dutchman Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, himself an advocate of religious toleration, wrote of Castellio that there was “more truth, more fear of God, and more edification in a single page of his…than in all the books of Calvin and [his successor] Beza.”

The Netherlands

The power of the state — in particular, the state’s monopoly over the use of violence — gave Christian intolerance its brutal edge. For Castellio the solution was evident: the state should remove itself from matters of religious dogma. The Dutch, however, were able to develop a religiously tolerant society during the seventeenth century by adopting essentially the opposite policy. The state continuously involved itself in religious issues, almost always in an effort to moderate the behaviour of an uncompromising Calvinist church. This policy was a response to the particular situation in which the Dutch found themselves.

In the sixteenth century the Netherlands were more urbanized, more industrialized, and more prosperous than any other part in the world, but they were not self-governing. They were Spanish colonies, and Spain was an improvident master. Despite the fabled treasure of the New World silver mines, Spain collected seven times as much revenue from the Netherlands as it did from the New World. Spain also opposed the spread of Protestantism among the Dutch, and brought the Inquisition to the Netherlands in an attempt to impose Catholicism as the sole religion. For both financial and religious reasons, the Dutch rebelled against Spanish rule.

The Dutch revolt began in 1566 and continued indecisively for several years. By 1576, however, all seventeen of the Dutch provinces were committed to driving out the Spanish, and the rebels were in control of the important provinces of Holland and Zeeland. Religious toleration was already a political imperative. The southern provinces were strongly Catholic, and even in the northern provinces, the majority of the population was Catholic. Yet, the rebellion’s most fervent supporters were Protestants — and in particular, members of the Calvinist Reformed Church — who wished to ensure their own religious freedom. The success of the revolution required these two groups to work together, which in turn required a significant measure of religious toleration. The Dutch political leadership preached toleration, but the Calvinists were dedicated to their own short-term interests.

After the Dutch rebels occupied Holland and Zeeland in 1572, the Calvinists suppressed Catholic worship in both provinces, killing and expelling the Catholic clergy, and took over the churches. While demanding freedom for themselves, they denied it to Catholics wherever they gained control. In the years after 1579, in a development aided by the progress of Spanish reconquest, the heavily Catholic southern provinces of the Netherlands abandoned the revolt and returned to Spanish rule. The northern provinces allied themselves in the Union of Utrecht and in 1581 declared their independence of Philip II’s rule. This was the prelude to the gradual formation of a separate federal republican state in the northern Netherlands, which fought on to preserve its independence and was not fully recognized by Spain until 1648. 13

The Reformed Church became the official state religion in all of the rebel provinces, even though it represented a minority of the population in every one of them.

The political leadership were confronted with a society in which strident Calvinists held significant power, but in which Catholics and non-Calvinist Protestants constituted the majority of the population. And they were still at war, still required to maintain some semblance of unity among the population. They were able to manage this situation because they were not themselves dogmatic.

The governing class of Holland and the Dutch Republic as a whole were the regents, the life members and officials of the States General and the provincial States, plus the magistracy of the towns, who collectively administered the country’s affairs. An elite that tended over time to become a hereditary patriciate, the regents were for the most part not zealous Calvinists; some of them prized the tradition of Erasmian humanism, and while they cannot be said to have favoured religious diversity, they were mainly moderates who were opposed to persecution…More tolerant than the Calvinist ministers, they tended toward the position known as Erastianism, a view that owed its name to the ideas expressed by the German anti-Calvinist physician and theologian Thomas Erastus (d. 1583), who held that the church, its ministers, and its ecclesiastical jurisdiction and discipline must be entirely subject to the civil magistrate…While the Dutch regents supported the Reformed Church as the sole religious institution sanctioned by the state, they also denied it full autonomy, insisting on its subordination to the country’s political rulers. The governing bodies on which they sat managed the church’s property and appointed and paid the salaries of ministers. They strove to moderate doctrinal disputes that could trouble the civil order and exercised ultimate control over the Church’s affairs. This relationship and regent primacy, while they gave rise to frequent conflicts, contributed during the seventeenth century, despite the absence of official toleration, to the growth of a broadly tolerant society in the republic.14

This de facto toleration extended to Catholics and to non-Calvinist Protestants, and even to the Jews who settled within the Dutch republic.

The extension of religious toleration to non-Christians was still unusual, although Jews had experienced de facto toleration on other occasions and in other places. The problem with de facto toleration is that it can disappear in an instant. What makes the jurist and theologian Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) interesting is that he was prepared to go beyond the de facto toleration of non-Christians.

In his famous treatise The Law of War and Peace [1625], Grotius reduced true religion, common to all ages, to four universal principles. They were that God exists and is one; that he is invisible and more exalted than visible things; that he cares for human affairs and judges them most righteously; and that he created all things besides himself. All four principles, Grotius stated, were contained in the Ten Commandments, and out of them rose the opinions that God is to be honoured, loved, worshiped, and obeyed. He also explained that war could not be justly waged against those unwilling to accept the Christian religion or who err in their interpretation of the divine law. On this account he barred all punishment of heretics. The common beliefs Grotius discerned among mankind pointed to an underlying unity both among Christians and between Christianity and other religions.15

These teachings did not become an indelible part of Dutch culture. The state that tolerated Catholics and Jews also actively suppressed Antitrinitarians (those who did not accept the Christian dogma of one god in three persons) and a number of other Protestant sects.16

Atheism in the modern sense was beyond comprehension. Instead, atheism was a charge leveled against people such as Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza, whose beliefs were deemed to be insufficiently conventional. Spinoza, for example,

… conceived of God and nature as one and the same power. His system recognized no personal deity or divine providence concerned with human affairs. Nature, or God, determined all phenomena by an absolute and intrinsic necessity. God’s decree consisted of the universal laws of nature, from which there were no exceptions. Miracles did not exist, and belief in them was a superstition: nothing could violate the regularity of the order of nature, which was identical with God. Philosophy and faith were completely independent of each other; philosophy, founded exclusively on reason, had truth alone as its object, while the sole object of faith was obedience or compliance with the moral precepts of religion, such as love of neighbour…The Scriptures were not a divinely revealed body of truths, and their purpose was to teach faith and therefore obedience, not to convey information or knowledge about nature.17

Spinoza, who was Dutch, sometimes published anonymously and under a false publisher’s imprint to protect himself from approbation. The Reformed church was sufficiently powerful that some of his tracts were banned during his lifetime, and after his death, the entirety of his work — and any printed discussion of it — was banned. But it is likely that he would have been convicted of heresy, perhaps burned at the stake, if he had lived in any other European country.

Religion and Political Stability

England and France were not nearly as tolerant as the Netherlands. England’s Anglican church was controlled by the government (the king was the church’s head), which used its power to force observance to a common liturgy. People who failed to attend the Anglican services could be legally punished, and Catholics and the more extreme Protestant denominations were persecuted. The Civil War dramatically increased the power of the Puritans (those who believed that the Anglican church had not been sufficiently “purified” of Catholic rites), and they too sought to impose their values on England. Matters became more complex after the Restoration, as both Charles II and James II were suspected of seeking to restore Catholicism. It was in part this suspicion that led to the Glorious Revolution (1688). In France, where the wars of religion had been particularly bloody, the Edict of Nantes was imposed in 1598. The Edict did not so much extend toleration to the Huguenots (members of France’s Calvinist church) as attempt to lock down the prevailing situation. The Huguenots were allowed freedom of worship in specified locations and had some civil liberties restored, but were required to pay the Catholic church’s tithe and respect its holy days. The Edict began to fray even in the early seventeenth century, and when Louis XIV became king in 1661, it was first debased and then (in 1685) revoked. Louis imagined France as a Catholic nation, with himself as its final arbiter on both secular and religious matters. The unstated premise in both England and France was that religious uniformity made the country stronger.

Spinoza disputed this premise.18 Like Hobbes, he believed that people created their societies by transferring some of their natural rights to a government, which then set the laws under which everyone lived. The government’s right to make law extended even to religious matters, and obedience to the law was every person’s duty. However, as a practical matter, the government’s ability to legislate religious matters was limited.

[Spinoza] points out that no one is able to give up the freedom to think and judge…Attempts to suppress thought and speech hurt good men but fail to restrain the wicked; they produce nothing but hypocrisy, sycophancy, and corruption, while persecution of belief through legislation has led to innumerable divisions in the Christian churches and drives men to resistance.19

True religious uniformity is impossible because governments cannot control thoughts and beliefs. It is possible to impose a superficial uniformity, but an imposed uniformity might engender the very divisions that it was intended to prevent. Spinoza proposed that the government should instead allow freedom of conscience on religious matters, and then govern in a way that leads to civil peace despite the ensuing diversity of opinion. For Spinoza, freedom of conscience was not a right, but a pragmatic bit of policymaking.

John Locke was willing to go further. His Letter concerning Toleration (1689)

…began with the new and remarkable claim that toleration was “the chief distinguishing mark of a true church.”…Love, charity, and goodwill, according to Locke, were the true meaning of the Christian religion, and persecution was therefore contrary to the gospel. He described persecutors as wicked hypocrites actuated by pride and lust for power who masked their unchristian cruelty under the pretext of the advancement of religion and care for the commonwealth. Both reason and the gospel, he held, mandated the toleration of different opinions in religion, and it seemed to him monstrous that men were blind to so obvious a truth. Beside censuring the practice of persecution among Christians, he also deplored the persecution of pagans and idolaters and the forcible conversion of the Indians in America.20

He then went on to discuss the boundaries between government and religion. The former existed to deal with all worldly matters: life, liberty, health, property. The latter existed to deal with spiritual matters. The civil magistrate should confine himself to the worldly matters, and the individual must take charge of his own soul. Compelled religious practices are essentially meaningless, because no individual will forgo the care of his own soul to comply with a manmade law. Compelled practices are also hypocritical, and therefore contemptuous of God. The only guarantor of salvation is faith, which is a purely personal matter. For Locke, then, freedom of conscience was a right:

The magistrate had no responsibility for souls and therefore no right to impose articles of faith, doctrines, or forms of worship by law.21

Locke also emphasized that churches were a form of “free and voluntary society,” and as such, no church — not even one sanctioned by the state — could exercise control over another church. There can be no heresy because there is no preferred position from which to weigh theological issues: every church “is orthodox to itself and erroneous or heretical to others.”

The boundary between the governmental and religious spheres is sometimes fuzzy. Locke discusses two such cases. The first case concerns a church’s authority when dealing with its own members. A nonconforming member can be persuaded, even excommunicated, but he can never be punished in a way that impacts his life, liberty, health, or property. These things — worldly things — lie wholely within the sphere of government. The second case concerns the relationship between beliefs and actions. Each person should have complete liberty over thoughts and beliefs, and over all doctrinal matters, because they concern only himself (specifically, only his own salvation). But the government must concern itself with conduct or moral actions, because these things have an impact on other members of society. If the government does impose laws in this area, no person can sidestep them by arguing freedom of conscience. Obedience to the law is every citizen’s duty: if he chooses not to obey the law, he must accept the legally prescribed punishment.

Locke, like Spinoza, argued that imposed religious practices were more likely to destabilize a society than to stabilize it.

[Locke] denied that dissenting sects, conventicles, and religious meetings would present a danger to the state if tolerance prevailed. Only “one thing gathers people for sedition,” he declared, “and that is oppression…Take away the unfair legal discrimination against [the sects], change the laws, take away the penalties they have to endure, and everything will be safe and secure.” 22

If men were persecuted and delivered up as prey for their religion, it was no wonder that they would finally consider it lawful to resist force with force and take up arms to defend “the rights which God and nature have granted them.” The commonwealth’s security would consequently be much greater if all good subjects, whatever their church, enjoyed “the same favour of the prince and the same benefit of the laws, without any distinction on account of religion.” The logic of Locke’s theory of toleration thus led him to envisage freedom of worship as a right of all churches and sects irrespective of their differences, and he likewise insisted that this freedom be extended also to pagans, Muslims, and Jews, none of whom should be excluded from the commonwealth because of religion.23

Locke believed that freedom of conscience was a universal right, not one confined to a few Christian denominations.

The French philosopher Pierre Bayle agreed with Locke on this issue. He argued that each person had to rely upon his own conscience to determine his own religious convictions. Since it was impossible to determine whether any person’s convictions were true, every person who diligently pursued religious truth had to be treated as the equal of any other. The Trinitarian was the equal of the Antitrinitarian, and the Muslim was the equal of the Christian. Bayle’s idea of toleration is decidedly modern. Toleration does not mean, “I know that I am right and you are wrong, but I choose to withhold the blow.” It means, “Neither of us can know whether we are right, but we can live peacefully all the same.”

Toleration and the Enlightenment

The English Parliament passed the Toleration Act in 1689. Its scope was limited, in that it applied only to dissenters who were Trinitarian Protestants, and even for them, it left certain proscriptions in place. The Act might well have been influenced by John Locke and other tolerationists, but it wasn’t necessarily enacted out of deep philosophical conviction. It might well have been Parliament’s payback for the support of the dissenters during the Glorious Revolution. In any case the Toleration Act was the first step in transforming England into a more tolerant country. Within a few decades Voltaire would claim that an Englishman “goes to heaven by whatever path he chooses.”24 He would also claim that in England, religious diversity and political stability went hand in hand, just as Locke had predicted.

If there were only one religion in England, there would be great danger of despotism. If there were two religions, they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty religions, and they live together in peace and happiness.25

The diversity of beliefs proved to be far greater than Locke and the other tolerationists had ever imagined. They had been sincere Christians, basing their philosophy on a careful analysis of the scriptures, and their intent had been to strengthen Christianity rather than to weaken it. But the philosophers of the Enlightenment began to read the scriptures far more critically, and to doubt their conformity with science and other factual sources. Key concepts such as original sin were discarded by many. Some philosophers — especially in France — proclaimed themselves to be atheists, in the modern sense of the word. Other intellectuals adopted deism, a religion sheared of all concepts that could not be deduced from the world itself. The Christians of previous centuries had dedicated themselves to the salvation of their souls; the deists often doubted that they had souls. At least in England, the religion of the majority of the people also changed. It became less dogmatic, more humane and benevolent, more concerned with this world and less concerned with the next.

Toleration had many advocates in America. Some of them based their views on the scriptures, and sought to reinvigorate Christianity by removing the dead weight of compulsion. William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, and Roger Williams, the Puritan founder of Providence, were prominent among them. Others were influenced by the Enlightenment, and in particular by the writings of Locke and Montesquieu. In either case their views were readily absorbed by de novo states.

In the seventeenth century, the colonies of Maryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, founded respectively by Catholics, Baptists, and Quakers, introduced legal regimes of freedom of conscience and worship for differing religious beliefs. During the eighteenth century the principle of religious toleration became rooted in the concept of natural rights, the doctrine that inspired the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. The ordaining of religious freedom in the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776 stated that “all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings,” and prohibited all compulsion in religion or deprivation of the civil rights of any citizen on account of religious belief or mode of worship. Most notable was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and passed by the Virginia legislature in 1786 through the efforts of James Madison and the pressure of the dissenting sects of Baptists…Both Jefferson and Madison were men of the Enlightenment whose ideas on toleration were strongly influenced by Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration.26

James Madison was also instrumental in the inclusion of toleration in the Constitution of the United States.

[In 1791] the Bill of Rights proposed by James Madison, which comprised the first ten amendments incorporated in the Constitution, provided for complete freedom of religious belief and practice…It is significant that the [First Amendment] linked these provisions to other rights by also barring Congress from making a law abridging freedom of speech, the press, and the people’s right to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for redress of grievances.27

One of the groups benefiting from the slow spread of toleration, both in Europe and in America, was the Jews.

Their former pariah status as an oppressed alien people within Christian society came to an end as they were gradually accorded full legal equality and the rights of citizenship in England, France, and other European countries. In the United States, Jews, although long liable to prejudice and discrimination, always enjoyed civil equality and citizen rights.28

If there was a rapprochement between the Jews and the rest of society, the accommodations came from both sides. The Jews had previously tended to be religiously conservative, and in some ways to value their separation from the rest of society as a means of self-preservation. Now the Jews began to embrace Enlightenment values, and Judaism became more liberal in the same way as Protestantism had become more liberal. The emergence of common cultural values eased the Jews’ integration into Western society. The Jews would soon transform Western society (for better and for worse) through the thinking of such persons as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein.

Just Plain Rights

John Locke made religious freedom a right, but the Constitution of the United States made it just one of a number of inalienable rights. In France the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) followed a similar approach, arguing that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” A broad conception of rights — political, intellectual, and religious — would later spread to other European countries and is now well-entrenched.

It was the view of John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1859) that the need for such rights only became apparent once democratic government had been established. The people’s lack of power had been all too clear to them when they had been ruled by despots, and it had seemed then that representative government would give them the protection that they desired. The experience of democratic government proved otherwise:

It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority. The people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.29

There had to be limits on what society can do, either through its elected government or through the force of public pressure.

All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people.30

People were not tenacious enough in their pursuit of these limits, says Mill, except in one instance: religious freedom.

It is accordingly on this battle field, almost solely, that the rights of the individual against society have been asserted on broad grounds of principle, and the claim of society to exercise authority over dissentients, openly controverted.31

The long struggle for religious freedom did not simply establish the right to worship as one pleases. It also created the template for the modern society’s array of human rights.


  1. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 41.
  2. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 47.
  3. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 59.
  4. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 73.
  5. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 67.
  6. William Bouwsma, “Explaining John Calvin,” The Wilson Quarterly (1989), p. 70.
  7. Castellio, Concerning Heretics. Quoted by Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 107.
  8. Castellio, Concerning Heretics. Quoted by Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 110.
  9. Castellio, Concerning Heretics. Quoted by Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 111.
  10. Castellio, Against Calvin’s Book. Quoted by Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 116.
  11. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 117.
  12. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 119.
  13. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 150.
  14. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, pp. 151-2.
  15. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, pp. 175-6.
  16. TheTrinity seemed to be a line in the sand for Christians. The last two persons to be executed for heresy in England (1612) were Antitrinitarians. When England passed its Toleration Act in 1689, it applied only to Trinitarian Protestants — Antitrinitarians would not receive official protection until 1813.
  17. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, pp. 181-2.
  18. Benedict Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (1670).
  19. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 185.
  20. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 260.
  21. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 261.
  22. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 264.
  23. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 265.
  24. Voltaire, Letters on the English (1733).
  25. Voltaire, Letters on the English (1733).
  26. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, pp. 301-2.
  27. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, pp. 302-4.
  28. Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, p. 306.
  29. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), ch. 1.
  30. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), ch. 1.
  31. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), ch. 1.