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Legal Acts And Declarations

In addition to political pamphlets and philosophical arguments, from the sixteenth century on toleration can be tracked by study of the legal provisions that were decreed to grant it. One form of toleration was settled by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which ended some of the wars between Lutherans and Catholics. Under the formula cuius regio eius religio (the ruler determines the religion) it held that each prince could decide which of the two religions would be established in his territories and permitted adherents to the other religion to emigrate. Although not much, this was an entering wedge for wider forms of toleration. The principle was reaffirmed, this time including Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism, in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

The Revolt of the Netherlands against Spain after 1560 eventually gave the once-persecuted victorious Protestants the dilemma of deciding how to deal with the large number of Catholics in their territories. Pacts of tolerance were published as early as the 1570s, and in some localities Catholics were forbidden to proselytize or engage in public processions but were allowed to worship in private homes.

In 1568 the Diet of Torda in Transylvania consolidated religious enactments of the previous decades into a decree that "no one should be abused by anyone for his religion" and further similar provisions. In the following decades Anabaptists, Unitarians, Jews, and Orthodox Christians were protected by various laws and patents. In 1573 the king of Poland was forced to accede to the Confederation of Warsaw, which granted Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and even antitrinitarians some protection from persecution, leading to a golden age for Socinians there that lasted for several decades until Catholicism regained the ascendancy.

After decades of civil war between Calvinist Huguenots and Catholics in France, Henry IV enacted the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed Protestant rights to worship in their churches and even to certain fortified cities. Several other edicts of the sixteenth century attempted to settle continuing religious rivalry, but Louis XIV ended efforts to make coexistence possible by his Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. As many as a hundred thousand Calvinists fled France.

Taking advantage of the outflow of these talented and hardworking Huguenots, Frederick William I, the Calvinist great elector of Lutheran Brandenburg, issued the Decree of Potsdam in 1685, announcing that he would provide refuge to them and respect their religion. Many came and settled in Berlin, helping the city prosper.

The Toleration Act of 1689 demonstrates what the word could mean in England in that period. It suspended penal laws against Protestants who refused to conform to the Church of England. It did not lift penalties against antitrinitarians and Catholics, who were only given equal rights in 1813 and 1829, respectively. It maintained privileges such as exclusive qualification for political office for members of the Church of England. Nevertheless, this could be considered toleration because it allowed some dissenting sects that had not previously been permitted to worship in public to do so. Its perhaps unintended consequence was to keep alive the idea that other sects could eventually be tolerated, too.

Many who emigrated to the English colonies in North America did so in pursuit of religious freedom. Maryland's Act Concerning Religion of 1649 was the first to spell out religious freedom. As mentioned above, Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island in order to institute religious liberty. By the later eighteenth century, the ideal of religious toleration was often institutionalized by declarations of rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, several other state declarations, and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (1791) provided for religious freedom. In France, the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" of the National Assembly in 1789 provided that "No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law" (Article 10). The United States and France served as models for such ideals and declarations in many countries throughout the next century.

Twentieth-century declarations.

In the twentieth century, the United Nations internationalized the tradition of declarations of rights to toleration. In 1948 the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance" (Article 18).

In 1996 the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a "Declaration of Principles of Tolerance." Ignoring the ordinary usage of tolerance as referring to the middle of the spectrum between persecution and warm embrace, UNESCO redefined it by fiat as "respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures" (Article 1.1). This was surely well-intended as an effort to move people who are unjustifiably opposed to diversity toward more open-mindedness. But if warm embrace becomes the exclusive meaning of toleration, we will surely need another term for our attitude or policy toward the things we may justifiably not respect, accept, or appreciate, but also do not persecute.



Bahrdt, Karl Friedrich. The Edict of Religion: A Comedy; and The Story and Diary of My Imprisonment. 1789. Translated and edited by John Christian Laursen and Johan van der Zande. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2000.

Bayle, Pierre. Pierre Bayle's Philosophical Commentary: A Modern Translation and Critical Interpretation. 1685. Translated by Amie G. Tannenbaum. New York: Lang, 1987.

Castellion, Sébastien. Concerning Heretics. 1554. Translated by Roland H. Bainton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935.

Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration, in Focus. 1689. Edited by John Horton and Susan Mendus. London: Routledge, 1991.

Luzac, Elie. Essay on Freedom of Expression. 1749. In Early French and German Defenses of Freedom of the Press, edited by John Christian Laursen and Johan van der Zande. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Milton, John. Areopagitica. 1643. In Areopagitica and Other Political Writings by John Milton, edited by John Alvis. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999.

Penn, William. The Great Case for Liberty of Conscience. 1670. In The Political Writings of William Penn, edited by Andrew R. Murphy. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Pufendorf, Samuel. Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion in Reference to Civil Society. 1687. Edited by Simone Zurbuchen. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Robinson, Henry. Liberty of Conscience. 1644. San Francisco: California State Library, 1940.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. Theological-Political Treatise. 1670. Translated by Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001.

Williams, Roger. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. London: n.p., 1644.


Berkvens-Stevelinck, Christiane, Jonathan Israel, and G. H. M. Posthumus Meyjes, eds. The Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Cranston, Maurice. "John Locke and the Case for Toleration." In On Toleration, edited by Susan Mendus and David Edwards. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Eijnatten, Joris van. Liberty and Concord in the United Provinces: Religious Toleration and the Public in the Eighteenth-Century Netherlands. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Guggisberg, Hans R. Sebastian Castellio, 1515–1563: Humanist and Defender of Religious Toleration in a Confessional Age. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1997.

Jordan, W. K. The Development of Religious Toleration in England. 4 vols. London: Allen and Unwin, 1932.

Laursen, John Christian, ed. Histories of Heresy in Early Modern Europe: For, against, and beyond Persecution and Toleration. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

——, ed. Religious Toleration: "The Variety of Rites" from Cyrus to Defoe. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Laursen, John Christian, and Cary J. Nederman, eds. Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Lecler, Joseph. Toleration and the Reformation. 2 vols. London: Longmans, 1960.

Levine, Alan. Sensual Philosophy: Toleration, Skepticism, and Montaigne's Politics of the Self. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2001.

Murphy, Andrew R. Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Nederman, Cary J. Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100–c. 1550. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Nederman, Cary J., and John Christian Laursen, eds. Difference and Dissent: Theories of Toleration in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

John Christian Laursen

Additional topics

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