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How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West

Author: Perez Zagorin

Princeton University Press, 2003

Perez Zagorin lived from 1920 to April 26, 2009. Wikipedia describes him as "a world-renowned historian who specialized in 16th and 17th century English/British history and political thought, early modern European history, and related areas in literature and philosophy." From 1965 to 1990, he taught at the University of Rochester, New York.

Perez Zagorin writes of the 16th century as "probably the most intolerant period in Christian history." In that century thousands of people were executed as heretics. One of them was Michael Servetus, burned alive in 1553 on order from John Calvin and city authorities for having delved into theological speculations that deviated from what Calvin was certain was the truth.

The trial and execution of Servetus, writes Zagorin, provoked a great controversy concerning religious toleration. It was a religious debate championed by Sebastian Castellio, a relatively unknown who in 1554 wrote a small book, Concerning Heretics – anonymously and with false names for the printer and the place of publication.  

John Calvin's righteousness inclined him toward intense condemnation. He called the author of Concerning Heretics that "dog. He called him a "monster" and "the worst plague of our time" and, of course, "the chosen instrument of Satan." Calvin was not a careful thinker: he falsely accused Castellio of endorsing all of Servetus' teachings.

Calvin's successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza, continued the attacks on Castellio, drawing from the Bible and Christian history. According to Zagorin, Beza described heretics as those "who, despite admonition, obstinately resisted the truth and disrupted the peace and unity of the church with their false teaching." It is the church, observed Beza, that decides what is heresy, not the city magistrate who carries out the church's wishes to execute. The magistrate's duty, claimed Beza, was to protect civil society, and he added that the only difference between heresy and other crimes was that heresy was far more heinous.

Castellio argued that heresy was no more than a religious disagreement. "A heretic," claimed Castellio, "is not someone whom we can say for certain is guilty of error, and we should not silence argument by destroying books or people, making it impossible to know their beliefs and what they have to say in their own defense." Castellio drew from his own Christianity. He advocated charity. Those who think themselves wiser should be more merciful, he claimed, and unity and peace would be better served if there was more charity and forbearance. Those who think themselves wiser, Castellio claimed, should teach by example rather than punish by execution. Killing Servetus, claimed Castellio, was not defending a doctrine.   

There were others before Castellio opposed to the killing of heretics, and the best known of them was Erasmus (1469? – 1536), who had had an influence on Castellio. A devout Catholic, Erasmus proposed that it was in the interest of the Church to tolerate different points of view and that such toleration might produce truth. In other words, Erasmus believed in progress regarding ideas. He believed that heresy should be combated only with spiritual weapons so long as no crime was involved against civil peace and secular authority.

What Erasmus and Castellio were up against was the notion of the Catholic Church and then the Protestants that they were the sole custodians of religious truth. But it was not only church authority that favored combating heresy. Zagorin suggests that from the 1200s into the 1600s it was supported by public opinion -- perhaps a necessary ingredient for its occurrence. 

The concept of heresy and coercion in religion had been supported by the foremost intellectual for both Catholics and Protestants, Bishop Augustine of Hippo. But Augustine had not advocated killing heretics. And before the 11th century, writes Zagorin, heresy was not punished by death. The first execution for heresy writes Zagorin, "is said to have occurred at Orleans in 1022" at the order of the French king, Robert the Pious. In 1034 heretics were burned to death in Italy in the diocese of Milan, and in Germany in 1051 the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III executed heretics. Zagorin writes, "We hear of heretics being killed by mobs." In France, he continues, "The burning of heretics became universal during the thirteenth century and was made part of Louis IX's legislation in 1270. And in 1401 England's parliament instituted death by fire for heresy."

Fast forwarding to the 16th century, an exception to Catholicism's general intolerance, writes Zagorin, was in Poland, where the growth of Lutheranism and Calvinism among the nobility led several Polish kings to support coexistence between Catholics and Protestants – in the interest no doubt of the peace and stability that kings usually want within their realms. It was a policy that encouraged Protestants to seek refuge and a home in Poland.

Toleration was advanced in the Netherlands in the 1600s for the purpose of unity in a struggle against the rule of the Habsburg Spanish emperor, Philip II – an advocacy that failed, writes Zagorin, "owing largely to the intolerance of the Calvinists." During the conflict with the Habsburgs, Calvinists gained control among the Dutch, and they suppressed Catholic worship, killed or expelled Catholic clergy and took over Catholic churches while demanding freedom for themselves. But after the Dutch won their independence from Habsburg rule their society became known as the most tolerant and pluralistic. Calvinist leaders combined state and church but moderated their position regarding rival theology and strove to avoid discord within their society, deciding it would be best that people of rival faiths live in peace. Civil accord also suited business interests. The Dutch were growing commercially, their society having become more wealthy and bourgeois – the bourgeoisie preferring order above everything but income. It was another instance of change inspired not so much by people reading the ancient Greeks but by the social dynamics of the times – not unlike Hegel's thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Tolerance came a little later to England. Into the 1640s intolerance was a problem among the English, not to be resolved until the end of the century. England's Puritans were Calvinists, as were the Presbyterians and those who broke away from the Presbyterians – the Congregationalists, or Independents, who held that each congregation had the right to govern itself.  And there were other breakaway groups, such as the Quakers and Baptists, all at odds with the Church of England.

Among men of faith in England was Roger Williams, who in 1644 published what Zagorin describes as "...not only the most sweeping indictment of religious persecution thus far written by an Englishmen, but one of the most comprehensive justifications of religious liberty to appear during the seventeenth century." Williams was to found the colony of Rhode Island and to have an impact on the creation of liberty in the United States, where intolerance by Puritans was manifest.

Zagorin writes pages on the early writings on toleration by a son of Calvinists, England's John Locke (1632-1704), and he writes pages on the French thinker, Pierre Bayle 1647-1706) Late in their lives, according to Zagorin,

... the fires of religious passions were slowly dying down in Europe and the last age of faith in Western civilization springing from the Protestant Reformation was gradually expiring. Rationalist, deist, empiricist, and skeptical trends were making steady inroads in philosophy and theology and, together with the beginnings of the historical criticism of the Bible, were undermining orthodox religion and fostering free thought, indifference, and unbelief. These developments, whose growing effects were felt chiefly among members of the educated upper classes, intellectuals and men of letters, marked the inaugural state of the Enlightenment in Europe, an era that proclaimed the autonomy and supremacy of human reason.