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The (Religious) Origins of Toleration
Thomas Albert Howard

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Andrew Sullivan published an essay in the New York Times Magazine entitled “This is a Religious War.” Accompanied by pictures of Crusaders in Jerusalem and the Spanish Inquisition, the essay reminded readers that the principle of religious toleration was a fragile achievement in the West and that the terrorist attacks posed a direct threat to this principle. An early supporter of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sullivan nonetheless opined that the deepest challenge facing the West was not necessarily on the battlefield but in the realm of ideas, in our ability to sustain the ideal of toleration in a dawning age of religiously inspired violence. Meeting this challenge meant developing a deeper historical understanding of toleration itself: “We cite [religious toleration] as a platitude today without absorbing or even realizing its radical nature in human history—and the deep human predicament it was designed to solve” (2001, 53).


To grasp how historically radical this modern platitude is, one might compare Thomas Aquinas’s indictment of heretics in the Middle Ages to the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae) of 1965. Heretics, Aquinas wrote,

…deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death. For it is a much more serious matter to corrupt faith through which comes the soul’s life, than to forge money through which temporal life is supported. Hence if forgers of money ... [are] put to death by secular princes, with much more justice can heretics immediately upon conviction, be not only excommunicated but also put to death.

Over a half a millennium latter, the Catholic Church arrived at a contrary position, arguing that “the very dignity of the human person,” as known through Scripture and reason, mandated that in religious matters “all men are to be immune from coercion” and “no one is [to be] forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”  (On the Catholic Church’s shifting attitude on religious freedom see Noonan 2005, 145–158).

A similar about-face can be found on the Protestant side. Here one might contrast John Calvin’s infamous approval of the execution in Geneva of Michael Servetus (accused of denying the Trinity) to the near universal acceptance of religious toleration in the Protestant world today. Luther, too, often preached harsh judgment, at various points directed against Turks, Jews, and Anabaptists. But today, while Lutherans might still disagree with Mennonites on many issues, the latter don’t suspect the former will marshal the National Guard to hunt them down.

Times have changed. Why? 

In the past decade, a spate of books have sought to answer this question and others relevant to the complex nexus of issues pertaining to modernity and religion in our post-9/11, post-secular world. Mark Lilla’s much-hyped, but disappointing, The Stillborn God is one example; Charles Taylor’s magisterial A Secular Age another. One book, however, that has not received the enduring attention it ought is Perez Zagorin’s How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton University Press 2005). I discovered this first-hand when I employed it recently for classroom use. An impressive achievement, if one subject to some criticism, the book is certain to inform, rankle, and stretch the historical and moral imagination of readers of various religious and political persuasions.

Integral to Zagorin’s argument is a (largely compelling) effort to dispel three common misunderstandings about the origins of religious toleration. First, despite the novelty of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, Zagorin wants to make clear that religious toleration does not represent a distinctly American achievement. “The founders’ thoughts on the subject were largely derivative,” he contends, and we must cast our gaze earlier, to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to find the origins of their ideas on the topic. Second, the genesis of the idea of religious freedom does not represent a secular feat of the Enlightenment, a common assumption in much modern scholarship. To be sure, eighteenth-­century philosophes championed toleration, but they too drew extensively from past ideas. Finally, religious toleration should not be equated with political expediency, a resigned live-and-let-live mentality that developed out of sheer exhaustion from the post-Reformation wars of religion. Advocates of this view often point to the pragmatic conversion of Henry of Navarre (“Paris is worth a Mass”) and the Edict of Nantes (1598), which granted limited rights for the Protestant minority in France. While this legal arrangement and others (in Poland, Holland, England, and Prussia) allowed for various degrees of peaceful coexistence between religious belligerents, coexistence per se does not add up to a morally principled argument for religious toleration so much as a general societal ideal. Yet the latter constitutes Zagorin’s focus, even if he admits that intellectual defenses of toleration and ad hoc legal arrangements for coexistence often arose from the same social conditions—the wars of religion that raged in Europe from roughly the time of Luther until the Peace of Westphalia (1648).

In contrast to these views, Zagorin advances the argument that religious toleration as an ideal, as “something inherently good and valuable,” first arose largely (if not exclusively) among Protestant thinkers of disputed orthodoxy in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, many of whom were faced with the need to defend themselves or others against persecution. Guided by this thesis, Zagorin leads the reader on a broad history of ideas focusing on seminal theorists of toleration in the early modern era. Beginning with two irenic Catholics, Erasmus and Thomas More, Zagorin moves on to discuss, inter alia, the Protestant humanist Sebastian Castellio; the Dutchmen, Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, Hugo Grotius, and Simon Episcopus; the Jewish thinker Benedict Spinoza (the only non-Christian figure extensively treated by Zagorin); and the Englishmen, John Goodwin, John Milton, William Walwyn, and, finally, John Locke, whose famous Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) marks a milestone in the development of the idea of toleration, and one widely invoked by figures of the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions.

While many of these figures have received extensive treatment by specialized scholars, Zagorin’s achievement lies in bringing various voices together to demonstrate that a more-or-less coherent discourse on toleration had emerged by the seventeenth century. It was the sustained intellectual efforts of these religious thinkers—not political expediency, not novel legal arrangements, and not the gift of Enlightenment secularism—that gave birth to the now pervasive ideal of religious toleration in the West. Collectively, these thinkers established a “theoretical rationale that was both philosophical and religious” without which the gradual acceptance of policies of toleration by political elites and society at large would have been unthinkable.

Two aspects of Zagorin’s treatment deserve particular praise. The first is his insistence that the ideal of religious toleration owes its genesis to distinctly theological concerns occasioned by the question of how people with contrary, deep-seated faith commitments might get along. For all of the thinkers under discussion, Zagorin pays close attention to their use of Scripture, their appeal to natural law and the ethical model of Christ’s life, as well as their treatment of church fathers and subsequent theological authorities. “It is only stating the obvious,” he concludes, “to say that in advocating a policy of peace and tolerance toward religious differences, their supreme concern was the welfare of religion itself. They acted from the primary conviction that persecution was contrary to the mind of Christ and a terrible evil which did great harm to Christianity.” In light of the evidence Zagorin marshals, this conclusion is well taken and important to underscore, for today it is often forgotten, particularly in Europe, where religious toleration is viewed almost universally as a thoroughgoing secular achievement, a radical break from the past. In taking a contrary position, Zagorin comes closer to the neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain’s contention that Christianity remains the “hidden stimulation” animating modern democratic impulses and practices (Maritain 1986, 31). Zagorin in fact provides an historical narrative that would lend credence to the claims of Maritain and like-minded thinkers.

Second, Zagorin admirably highlights the intellectual significance of Sebastian Castellio, whom he calls the book’s “hero,” “the first great advocate and defender of religious toleration and pluralistic freedom for differing religious beliefs.” While Protestant seminarians today are routinely made familiar with Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, Castellio usually does not make the syllabus. This is regrettable, for he is a figure that contemporary Christians should reckon with even as they might wonder about some of his latitudinarian positions. Writing in opposition to Calvin’s policies in Geneva, particularly the execution of Servetus, Castellio developed a remarkable body of work, upending the theological rationales for persecuting heretics. “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine,” Castellio famously wrote, “it is to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine, they killed a man.” The blunt eloquence of this statement served as a powerful ­indictment of the early-modern persecution mentality generally and pointed forward to a doctrine of religious freedom (On Castellio, see Guggisberg 2003).

If Zagorin’s book pleases on many counts, it also gives rise to several thorny questions—some of a historical nature, but others that whisk one, willy-nilly, beyond history into the realms of philosophy, theology, and political thought. Let me, in conclusion, raise four questions that my students and I have engaged. All of these remain relevant, I believe, to thinking Christians today living out their faith in pluralistic settings.

(1) Might one champion religious toleration and its emergence without engaging in the good-guys-versus-bad-guys history to which Zagorin sometimes succumbs? Indeed, despite the book’s merits, Zagorin too readily implies only scorn for figures such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and others who advocated or condoned religious persecution. While one would do well to dispense with their lines of reasoning on this matter, one should do so only after sympathetically engaging the broader context of their thought and considering the possibility of countervailing theological sentiments therein—sentiments which, if developed, might in fact support the idea of religious freedom. Zagorin does this only in a limited fashion. In the case of the aforementioned Maritain, by contrast, the thought of Aquinas on Creation and the human person proved essential for allowing him to champion modern democracy and religious freedom (Hittinger 1994, 149­­–172). For Zagorin, however, Aquinas comes across as an oversimplified strawman, a stumbling block en route to modernity.

(2) What is the relevance of the Western, intra-Christian discourse on religious toleration to regions of the world—the Middle East, Indonesia, and the Kashmir region of Pakistan/India immediately come to mind—today wracked by conflict among different religions? Can Christian theological arguments for toleration be effectively transmitted across religious divides or must indigenous modes of thought be developed? Perhaps a combination of the two? Most pressingly, what is the intellectual relevance of the “Western example” in the early modern period to the “Islamic world” today? This question is raised at the very end of the book, but not explored.

(3) Can one embrace a robust understanding of toleration and a robust understanding of religious truth simultaneously or is there always going to be a degree of tension between the two? Put differently, does toleration require or lead to a measure of skepticism or perspectivalism with respect to dogma? Castellio seems to imply this when, contra Calvin, he writes: “I can discover no more than this, that we regard those as heretics with whom we disagree .... [I]f you are orthodox in one city or region, you are held for a heretic in the next.” Is the price of religious toleration a permanent veering in the direction of theological relativism—something that can be worked against with deliberate effort perhaps but never fully contravened? From another angle: Is it cognitively possible for a twenty-first-century Christian to speak of “heresy” without sensing that it must be done with tongue-in-cheek or else that it will be understood as such?

 (4) Finally, is there a potential dark side to the modern idea of toleration, one that Zagorin does not explore? Here we stumble upon one of the principal limitations of a history-of-ideas approach to this topic, for ideas do not live in some pure ether above the messy world of human ambition, contingency, and institutional configurations. If one takes these dimensions of reality more fully into consideration, one recognizes that power—primarily political power, what Hobbes called the Leviathan—must implement policies of toleration if they are to be realized on a large scale. Historically in the West, this implementation has paralleled the growth of the state’s coercive power and the contractual rights of individuals, but it has regularly been enacted at the expense of corporative bodies—churches, families, religious organizations—which often insist on maintaining thicker, exclusionary conceptions of religious truth and normative ideas of moral obligation. Could the knot of modern history be cut in such a way that toleration must side with state power and individualism against corporative identities, with their abiding ­normative concerns—the very concerns, ironically, that provided the moral framework for the articulation of religious freedom in the first place? Has this knot already been cut?

That these are all “live,” complex questions suggests that we need more serious reflection on this book’s topic and its meaning for our lives. Many recent books have attempted to do this. Zagorin’s remains better than most at offering a provocative beginning point, even if we might want to tweak and take his inquiries in different directions.




Thomas Albert Howard is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Jerusalem & Athens Forum at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.




Guggisberg, Hans Rudolf. Sebastian Castellio, 1515–1563: Humanist and Defender of Religious Toleration. Bruce Gordon, trans. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.

Hittinger, John P. “Jacques Maritain’s and Yves R. Simon’s Use of Thomas Aquinas in their Defense of Liberal Democracy.” In Thomas Aquinas and His Legacy, David M. Gallagher, ed., 149–172. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1994.

Maritain, Jacques. Christianity and Democracy. Donald Arthur Gallagher, trans.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986.

Noonan, John. The Church that Can and Cannot Change. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Sullivan, Andrew. “This is a Religious War,” New York Times Magazine (7 October 2001): 53.

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