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It likewise led, because of the prevailing hatred of Jews as enemies of Christ, to frequent charges of ritual murder against Jews and to the instigation by Catholic religious preachers of repeated massacres of Jews in Europe. And it led also to the medieval church's legitimation of religious persecution, the creation of the papal Inquisition and its machinery of heresy hunting and prosecution, the Albigensian Crusade in the thirteenth century against the Catharist heresy in southern France, and the killing of innumerable fellow Christians whom the church denounced as heretics.

How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West

The sixteenth century, which witnessed the Reformation and the beginning and spread of Protestantism, was probably the most intolerant period in Christian history, marked not only by violent conflict between contending Christian denominations but by an upsurge of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in western Europe. When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other outstanding religious reformers undertook their successful revolt against the Catholic Church and established their own Protestant churches, the latter showed themselves to be no less intolerant of heretics and dissenting Christians than was the Catholic Church.

In the attempt by Catholic and Protestant governments in Europe to stop the spread of heresy, and in the civil and external wars of religion waged between Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, countless thousands of people on both sides perished or were forced to go into exile as the victims of religious persecution. It was the long and terrible history of the inhumanity of Christianity in its dealing with differences of religious belief, a history not yet ended even in his own time, that caused the famous eighteenth-century French thinker Voltaire to declare that "of all religions the Christian is undoubtedly that which should instill the greatest toleration, although so far Christians have been the most intolerant of men.

It is at this point that we confront the problem mentioned in this chapter's title. If Christian Europe and the Western world were so intolerant in religion for so many hundreds of years, and indeed in some places down to the later nineteenth century and even beyond, 3 how did it happen that their leaders and members came eventually to change their opinion and to endorse the principle of religious toleration? Anyone today who looks at the values and practices associated with Western liberal democracies in Europe and America can hardly fail to observe that most of their citizens prize none of them more highly than they do religious toleration and freedom of religion.

To be sure, they regard political freedom as equally precious and indispensable; but they also commonly recognize that in our own time this freedom with its related political rights is so closely tied to the existence of religious toleration and liberty that the two have become essentially inseparable. Between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, therefore, a huge and enormously significant shift of attitudes and values regarding differences in religion gradually occurred in Western societies.

Instead of the age-old assumption that it is right and justifiable to maintain religious unity by force and to kill heretics and dissenters if necessary, the opposite assumption came to prevail that it is wrong and unjustifiable to use force and to kill in the cause of religion, and, moreover, that religious toleration and freedom are morally and politically desirable and should be given effect in laws and institutions.

This is the very momentous, far-reaching change in Western civilization that needs to be explained, and with whose origins and earlier development this book is concerned. It will help us grasp the magnitude of this change if we keep in mind that it is in some ways even more novel than the emergence in the West of liberal and democratic societies during the past several hundred years in the aftermath and principally as the result of the English, American, and French revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Dr. Alan Charles Kors — "The Rise of Religious Toleration in the West"

I stress this point because some of the conceptions and practices underlying liberal and democratic polities were of very old origin, having been a part of the Western tradition since classical antiquity and familiar in both Greek and Roman political thought and experience. Ancient Athens in one of the greatest periods of its history was, despite the existence of slavery, a democracy of free male citizens, and there were other Greek city-states, although we know much less about them, that were also democracies.

Similarly, republican Rome, the feudal regime in medieval Europe, and numerous cities of medieval and Renaissance Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, were all well acquainted with certain ideas, institutions, and principles of civic and political liberty, ruler limitation, and self-government. In comparison with these, the fundamental principles and values that sustain religious toleration and freedom of religion are innovations and late arrivals in world history and did not become a part of the Western tradition until recent times.

As a consequence, this is an ambitiously constructed book, which builds a bridge between the seventeenth-century and the early twenty-first. He focuses on four Anglo-American case studies: the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay chapter 2 ; the English Revolution, chapter 3 ; the Restoration and Glorious Revolution chapter 4 ; and early Pennsylvania chapter 5.


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The Pennsylvania chapter is the most original, but all four of these case studies are richly detailed and soundly judged. Chapter 6 draws out the main conclusions from the case studies, and argues against the three modern myths about toleration identified in the introduction. In Massachusetts Bay, for example, dissenters like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson represented a fundamental challenge to the authority of the magistrates and a threat to the established order.

John Winthrop and the other magistrates emerge not as bigoted theocrats stamping on freethinkers, but as moderate conservatives faced by perfectionist zealots.

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Murphy also shows that though tolerationists insisted on the compatibility of religious pluralism and political order, their own colonies dramatised the tension between conscience and community. In Rhode Island, Roger Williams lamented the almost anarchic state of affairs created by rival sectarian factions, whilst in Pennsylvania the dissident Quaker George Keith was prosecuted for sedition after denouncing the Quaker magistrates.

By emphasising the genuine fear of disorder, Murphy unlike Zagorin helps us to understand why tolerationist claims were so controversial and implausible. To contemporaries it was far from obvious that religious diversity was compatible with political cohesion. However, in laying such stress on the concern for order and community, Murphy tends to underplay the importance of the specifically theological case for persecution.

During the Puritan Revolution, for example, the issue of heresy dominated the toleration controversies, and conservative Calvinists emphasised their otherworldly passion for the welfare of souls. Heresy was a less prominent issue during the Restoration period, though Thomas Hobbes was still very worried about the prospect of new heresy trials. It is revealing that Zagorin who offers a more Whiggish picture of the controversy highlights the heresy hunting of antitolerationists, whereas Murphy who presents a more revisionist analysis foregrounds the antitolerationist concern for cohesive community.


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  • Modern readers can grasp the concern for order, but find it harder to appreciate the passion for theological truth. A rounded account, however, needs to emphasise both. In taking issue with this claim, Murphy is singing from the same hymn-sheet as Zagorin, for both emphasise the decidedly Christian character of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tolerationism.

    These sectarian Protestants promoted religious voluntarism, and by championing individual conscience against the demands of community, they contributed to a more subjective view of conscience. Liberty of conscience could apply to people who believed the wrong thing false religion for the right reason because it was a dictate of their conscience.

    Although Murphy offers a fine guide to the main lines of tolerationist argument, there are a couple of significant features of the case for toleration that deserve more attention. Leading tolerationists in the English Revolution worked on the assumption that the authority of magistrates comes from the people, who transfer certain powers to their rulers by means of a contract.

    The radical Independent John Goodwin who is cited by both Zagorin and Murphy argued that in the state of nature, the people had no coercive power over religion and were therefore unable to delegate such a power to the magistrate. The power of magistrates was essentially civil not spiritual, and a Christian ruler had no more authority over religion than a pagan.

    At one level, the millenarian expectations of some early modern tolerationists can make them seem less modern and less liberal. Had they come to terms with intractable religious pluralism or were they anticipating the rapid emergence of millennial unity? Were they more interested in the imminent rule of God and his saints than in modern liberties? At another level, millenarianism fuelled tolerationist convictions, persuading radical Protestants that the centuries of Antichristian tyranny were drawing to a close and that the age of Christian liberty was about to dawn.

    As such, it is presented as a liberal concern with individual autonomy, equality and reasonableness. Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

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