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Early Modern Period

The Protestant Reformation created the most serious challenge to toleration in early modern Europe. Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1564), and Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) were the three most influential leaders of this movement, which permanently divided Christian Europe. Each demanded toleration for their own movement, but could be intolerant of other religions. Early Catholic responses included violent repression of the Protestants, but Humanists like Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536) called for a more irenic response of continuing dialogue and peaceful admonition.

Early Protestants soon justified being left alone based on their interpretations of the Bible. Spiritualists like Hans Denck (c. 1495–1527) and Sebastian Franck (c. 1499–c. 1542) and mystics like Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) felt that God is within every man, and religious individualism is God's purpose. Persecuted Anabaptists from Balthasar Hubmaier (1485–1528) and David Joris (c. 1501–1556) to Thomas Helwys (c. 1550–c. 1616) and Leonard Busher (dates unknown) argued that religious persecution is against the spirit of Jesus Christ and that judgment about matters of faith should be left to God. Menno Simons (1496–1561), founder of the Mennonites, argued for Christian pacifism, and Italian Protestants like Bernardino Ochino (1487–1564) and Celio Secondo Curione (1503–1569) defended their right to religious toleration on such grounds as faith is a gift from God, it is tyranny to punish an error of the soul, and God's church has room for great variety.

At first the Protestants could claim the high moral ground because they did not use violence like their Catholic opponents. Then, in 1553, Michael Servetus (1511–1553) was burned for antitrinitarian heresy in Calvin's Geneva. This provoked Sébastien Castellio (1515–1563) to write some of the first sustained defenses of toleration. De haereticis (1554; Concerning heretics) collected the irenic opinions of several writers and essays by the author under false names. "Heretic" is just the word we use to describe those with whom we disagree, he asserts. The suffering of persecution is actually the sign of a true Christian, and persecution of people who are acting in accord with their consciences promotes hypocrisy and is harmful to everybody. In later works Castellio drew on the ancient skeptics for their rejection of pretended certainty and argued for the separation of church and state. Other writers including Jacobus Acontius (1492–1566) and Mino Celsi (d. c. 1575) followed up on Castellio's thinking. Among these, Dutchman Dirck Coornhert (1522–1590) insisted that civil unity was more important than religious unity; he was one of the first to argue in favor of tolerating atheists.

Throughout the early modern period, the ideal of the primitive church as voluntary and nonviolent appealed to many people. It could be carried to the point where Pietist Gottfried Arnold's Impartial History of Churches and Heretics (1699–1700) redescribed most alleged heretics as pious, and most of the orthodox as the real heretics.

Catholic toleration.

In the Anglophone world there has long been a tendency to claim that most theories of toleration came from the Protestant side. But Father Joseph Lecler found a Catholic writer in favor of toleration for almost every Protestant toleration theorist. For example, Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500–1558) developed the thought that "Heretics be not in all Things Heretics" into a defense of toleration. In the France of the religious civil wars of the sixteenth century, Chancellor Michel de l'Hôpital (1505–1573) strove for compromise and toleration between the Calvinists and Catholics, partly on the basis of his own Catholic religious convictions. The great author Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) never renounced Catholicism even as his Essays (1580–1595) contained many reasons for toleration drawn from individualism, skepticism, and a deep sense of the bodily nature of human beings. Such thinkers were sometimes called "politiques" because of their arguments for toleration on practical political grounds.

Jean Bodin (1530–1596) is an intriguing figure, ostensibly Catholic, but he could have been a Judaizer. In several works including Colloquium of the Seven about the Secrets of the Sublime (c. 1588) he argued for nonviolence, neutrality, and mutual agreement not to discuss differences that might lead to fighting.

The Spanish conquest of Latin America led to much abuse of the natives, partly on the ground that they were not good Christians. Writers like the bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566), wrote in their defense. Half-Spanish half-natives like Felipe Guaman Poma (1532–1614) wrote to reconcile the two cultures, to little effect. Garcilaso de la Vega, known as "the Inca" (1539–1616), also spoke up for tolerance from the native side.

By the mid-eighteenth century active persecution of Protestants in France had died down, but in 1762 Jean Calas, a Protestant, was the victim of a judicial murder. The famous writer Voltaire (1694–1778) took up the cause, publishing A Treatise on Toleration (1763), which received European-wide circulation and discredited such persecution in public opinion. It may have been the last major cri de coeur against religious violence, because even contemporary and later Catholic treatments of heresy such as François Adrien Pluquet's Dictionary of Heresies of 1762 and Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier's Methodical Encyclopedia of 1788–1832 took for granted that heresy did not justify violence.

Antitrinitarianism (Socinianism).

Antitrinitarianism or unitarianism—the theory that Jesus and the Holy Spirit did not share God's nature—was a heresy considered as bad as atheism and persecuted all over Europe. But conditions close to anarchy have often been good for toleration. The absence of centralized power in Poland in the later sixteenth century meant that it became a haven for Lelio (1525–1562) and Fausto (1539–1604) Sozzini, founders of the antitrinitarian Socinians, and followers such as Samuel Przypkowski (1592–1670). They developed a battery of reasons why they should not be persecuted, most of them rooted in Scripture. Their much-anathematized writings were published in the Netherlands, which had one of the freest presses of the day. Later, many thinkers such as Isaac Newton (1642–1727) were clandestine sympathizers with antitrinitarianism under another of its variants, Arianism.

The Netherlands out front.

The Dutch published a great deal of toleration theory and practiced toleration to a substantial degree from the later sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. During early decades of the Revolt of the Netherlands (1568–1648) almost anything could be published because of the exhaustion of the political authorities, the myriad of decentralized jurisdictions, and appreciation of the economic value of the book market. William the Silent (1533–1584), leader of the Dutch Revolt, wrote that repression of worship leads to hypocrisy and that no false religion would last.

In the early seventeenth century a theological dispute in the Netherlands between Gomarists and Arminians led to suppression of the Arminians, but also to many writings against that suppression. Simon Episcopius (1583–1643) and Jan Uytenbogaert (1557–1644) wrote that Christian charity and reciprocity requires freedom of conscience, even for Catholics. Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot; 1583–1645) defended a limited tolerance as part of his theory of natural law, which was developed by later natural-law theorists like the German Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694). Pufendorf's Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion (1687) claimed that the genius of the Christian religion was nonviolence, that people's thoughts were not punishable, and that the civil authorities should control religion.

Benedict Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), an excommunicated Jew, wrote one of the most robust defenses of freedom of thought while living in the Netherlands. In his Theological-Political Treatise (1670) he argued for arming the state for security against the mob, and then for reining in the state in matters of religion. Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), a Huguenot refugee in the Netherlands, developed the most sophisticated and most tolerant theory of the century. In Letters on the Comet (1682) he showed how atheists could indeed live in civil peace, and in Philosophical Commentary on the Words "Compel Them to Come In" (1685) he developed a wide-ranging theory of toleration based on the rights of conscience, even erring conscience, that would protect not only Protestant sects, but Catholics and virtually all others as well. In his last writings, he asserted that he would rather live under an atheist king because that king would have one less reason to persecute.

The English Civil War and its aftermath.

The anarchy of the English Civil War was also fertile ground for toleration writings. John Dury (1595–1680), Samuel Hartlib (c. 1600–1662), and Johann Comenius (1592–1670) drew on millenarian hopes to justify reunion and peace among Protestants. Merchant and Leveller William Walwyn (1600–1680) wrote in favor of complete religious toleration on religious grounds. Leveller Richard Overton (fl. 1642–1663) argued for toleration of Jews and Catholics and made free use of humor to take down overserious persecuting pride, a method recommended in Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury's Characteristics (1711). John Milton (1608–1674) made an impassioned case for toleration of divorce in several pamphlets, and then wrote the first major defense of that aspect of toleration known as freedom of the press in Areopagitica (1644). His work was followed up in the first substantial French and German defenses of freedom of the press by Elie Luzac (1749) and Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1787).

Roger Williams (1603?–1683) founded the English colony of Rhode Island as a haven of freedom of religion, and published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) in favor of separation of church and state and freedom of religion on Christian grounds. William Penn (1644–1718) founded the colony of Pennsylvania as a haven for persecuted Quakers and published The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience (1671).

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) wrote Leviathan (1651), one of the most influential theories of absolute power in the history of political philosophy, but he has also been credited with a theory of toleration in the ruler's own self-interest. Trying to control people's thoughts may provoke too much opposition and squanders power that can best be used elsewhere.

The English philosopher John Locke's (1632–1704) first work on toleration opposed it (1667). But after living for some years in the Netherlands, becoming friends with Dutch toleration theorist Philip van Limborch (1633–1712), and reading Pierre Bayle and Adriaan Paets (1631–1686) he developed a theory of toleration, which he published in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). He relied on the Calvinist point that everyone is responsible for his own salvation, skepticism about who really knew the truth, and the political benefits of toleration. Like Milton, however, he was unable to conceive of toleration of Catholics and atheists because of their alleged political unreliability, but later wrote for legal endenization of Muslims and against licensing of the press.

Economic interests, travel writings, and belles lettres.

Beyond religious and philosophical ideas, one source of toleration in theory and practice was economics. The Dutch found that wide toleration paid off in economic growth and provided a demonstration effect for the rest of Europe. Henry Robinson's (c. 1605–c. 1664) pamphlets of the 1640s and Daniel Defoe's (1660–1731) many writings of the beginning of the eighteenth century pointed out the commercial benefits of toleration of merchants and customers of differing religions.

Another source of tolerationist ideas was travel literature, which introduced Europeans to different customs and religions from around the world. This could include actual travel accounts; somewhat fanciful travel literature such as Fernão Mendes Pinto's Travels (1614); and imaginative works like Denis Veiras's History of the Sevarites (1675–1679), Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726).

Other genres of literature could be important, too. Aphra Behn's play Oroonoko (1688) taught English audiences to tolerate Africans, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise (1779) expressed the values of toleration for late-eighteenth-century Germany, and Karl Friedrich Bahrdt's play The Edict of Religion (1787) ridiculed Frederick William II's attempt to legislate religious conformity.

Despite all of the foregoing defenses of toleration, open admission of Socinianism or atheism remained dangerous throughout the early modern period. One recourse for Socinians, atheists, and libertines was the circulation of manuscripts and even clandestine printed works in the large underground literature of the time. Much of this literature, which included many pleas for toleration, has been explored in the French annual La lettre clandestine (1992–).

Toleration of Jews.

Jews and heretics were often subjects of popular and clerical intolerance in medieval and early modern Europe, but writers could counteract some of that sentiment. Millenarians favored toleration of Judaism because they believed that the Jews must voluntarily convert before the restoration of Christ. Histories such as Jacques Basnage's History of the Jews (1707–1716) and Ludvig Holberg's History of the Jews (1742) helped place this much-maligned people in a more favorable light. The Jewish writer Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem (1783) was an eloquent plea for religious tolerance.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Thallophyta to ToxicologyToleration - Conceptual Nuances, Related Concepts, Valence, Toleration In The Ancient World, The Rise Of Christian Persecution