How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West


Corrigan, John
September 01, 2005
Church History, 670, Volume 74; Issue 3; ISSN: 00096407

How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. By Perez Zagorin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. xvii + 371 pp. $29.95 cloth.

This intellectual history proposes that during the last four hundred years a fundamental shift in values and attitudes has occurred in the West, and that the embrace of toleration is a central part of that process of change. The emergence of a critical attitude towards intolerance, and the coalescence of ideas and arguments that eventuated in a theory of universal toleration preceded, at each step along the way, the realization of toleration. In our global society, toleration to a large extent remains an unrealized ideal.

Zagorin explains how the fourth-century Christian church came to enforce religious uniformity, and, with particular attention to Augustine's writings against the Donatists, how a theory of weeding out heretics from among the faithful (drawing on the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30) and of "compelling them to come in" (from Luke 14:21-23) came to serve as a biblically grounded, enduring platform for persecution of Dissenters. Luther and Calvin are cast as culprits in advancing this agenda through their anxieties about heresy, and, especially in the case of Calvin, their willingness to exercise power ruthlessly in stamping it out. The pioneering efforts of Erasmus, whose imaging of Jesus as a loving, generous, and appealingly simple manifestation of God opposed him to violence of every sort, and the vision of social solidarity based on the exercise of conscience in Thomas More's Utopia (1516) were buried under a mountain of internecine Christian slaughter in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Anabaptists, persecuted throughout the sixteenth century, had little opportunity to remake the social order through their emphasis on religious groups as voluntary societies.

Some of Zagorin's heroes are familiar, and some are known less for their contributions to the idea of toleration than for other accomplishments. The most interesting of Zagorin's cases is that of the Geneva-trained humanist scholar Sebastian Castellio. Castellio's Concerning Heretics, occasioned in 1553 by the author's revulsion at the burning of the heretic Michael Servetus earlier that year in Geneva, argued passionately against the notion of heresy and persecution, and proposed that toleration was beneficial to a society. Castellio criticized the Calvinists for playing God and ignoring the conscience of individuals, and he challenged Calvin directly by maintaining that reason and religion worked together in bringing about the good society. For Zagorin, his "achievement should be far more widely known and recognized," because of "the character of his thought and his intellectual and moral firmness in the struggle for toleration" (144).

Likewise underestimated, according to Zagorin, is the Dutch writer Dirck Coornhert, a somewhat unorthodox Catholic, who, in the early years of the Republic, fashioned, in several publications, a plea for toleration in which he claimed that religious freedom, the exercise of individual conscience, and pluralism were good for the state. In an atmosphere of free and open discussion of ideas, with Scripture as the final arbiter, morality would be strengthened as debate revealed right and wrong belief. Hugo Grotius and Jacob Arminius are more familiar figures who make an appearance here, and so is Roger Williams, the Cambridge-trained nonconformist who is best known for his role in placing the colony of Rhode Island on a foundation of religious liberty. Zagorin's interest in Williams is for his authorship of The Bloudy Tenent (1644), however. Characterizing it as the first unflinching indictment of religious persecution written by an English person, "a work of exceptional courage, vision, and consistency" (208), Zagorin stresses that it extolled freedom of conscience and proposed that toleration be extended to Catholics and non-Christians, and not merely to minority Protestant groups. Zagorin subsequently explores the efforts of English writers such as Milton (and his similar emphasis on conscience), and others associated with the Puritan revolution, before bringing his narrative to a close with a rich discussion of writings on toleration by John Locke and Pierre Bayle. The former of these is important for his claim that religion is a matter involving the individual and that the state's concern is with the group, and that toleration is in fact a better safeguard of peace than the state's insistence on imposing religion upon its citizenry. Bayle's writings include an important reinterpretation of the Lukan language "compel them to come in" that challenged Christian deployment of the text since Augustine in defense of persecution. Bayle, who argued for universal toleration and pluralism, also advised that the reality of the "erring conscience" must be accepted as a consequence of toleration.

Zagorin's history of the idea of toleration offers an opportunity for the reader to reflect upon how the issue of toleration was closely wound up with thinking about the nature of society, and theory about how social bodies held their shape through religiously grounded solidarity. One wishes, however, for a more pointed analysis of that central thread to the story, and, especially, for some reference to the social upheavals that spurred thinking about toleration in the first place. We learn about Servetus and a few other figures, and there is some discussion of the political and religious struggles in England in the twenty or so years after 1640. Zagorin, however, does not reference the appallingly cruel Thirty Years War or other wars of religion that burned themselves into the collective memory of Europeans and framed their thinking about toleration in profound ways after the mid-seventeenth century. The consequence is that the men in these pages, cast largely as heroes by the author, remain somewhat adrift in history, at risk, still, of being underappreciated for their contributions to making social worlds in which pluralism is accepted as beneficial to collective livelihood. If we knew more about their times, we might be in a better position to understand how tolerance, first used as a term in the modern sense in connection with religion in France in 1562, seems such a distant reality when considered in relation to present day global conflicts involving religion.