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March/April 2011

Discover more articles from this issue.

The Right Thing

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Red Sunday in Washington

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The Medieval Not Quite Reformed

Part Two In a Series

The Fate of the Co-joined Twins

Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and...

The Rest of the Story

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The Awakening

As the United States entered the 2012 campaign season, the question of religion, and the role of religion in politics and in public life, was as prevalent...

Magazine Archive »

Published in the March/April 2011 Magazine
by David J. B. Trim

Part Two in a Series. Click here for Part One, "The Christian Persecutory Impulse."

In the first article we saw that Christian persecution neither originated with Emperor Constantine I in the early fourth century nor was inflicted on the church as part of efforts to extend imperial power. While persecution eventually was indeed imposed by imperial fiat, the laws against paganism and heresy passed by Emperor Theodosius I in the late fourth century reflected not only his own attitudes but also those of many Christians. Persecution arose within the church as well as in the halls of imperial power. There seems to be implicit within Christianity as practiced over the past 2,000 years (even if not as taught by Christ) a persecutory impulse.

It is easy just to condemn the persecutory mind-set and oppressive behavior, since they seem so hateful; yet it is essential to make the effort to understand why people persecuted in the first place, for otherwise we might ourselves be drawn into the same modes of thought or behavior that today we condemn. Intolerance and violence still lurk in the souls of many people (including Christians), even in pluralist Western societies. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, willingness to oppress religious dissidence is not even hidden below the surface—it is open and unapologetic.

The events of the Reformation and the 200 years that followed it still shape, to a very great extent, religious attitudes and practices in Western society. There are lessons to be learned as we confront our own intolerant instincts and seek to promote religious freedom more widely.

Protestantism and Liberty
The roots of today's modern tolerant, pluralistic Western society have long been seen as lying in the Protestant Reformation. In recent years, however, historians have exposed as a myth "the liberal tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" according to which the Protestant Reformers were "battling for individual liberty and public tolerance" and "the advent of Protestantism" was the vital step in creating "the tolerant society."1 Using archives previously unknown or overlooked, historians have painted a seemingly more accurate picture of the history of the Reformation, revealing that, institutionally and collectively, Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism matched the intolerance of Catholicism, and that Protestants were often as ready to persecute as were Catholics.

Now, to be sure, eventually one result of the Reformation was to be the emergence first of religious toleration and then of the broader concept of religious freedom. But initially Protestants were no more willing than Catholics to tolerate religious multiformity. Of course most Protestants were so recently themselves Catholics and carried with them many of the same ongoing assumptions about how religion was to be advanced and protected.

In this article we will consider the issue of why Christendom was so committed to uniformity and so willing to persecute at the time of the Reform­ation—and hence continued to be for many decades. What were the origins of Christian intolerance?

The Medieval Background
In Christendom in the sixteenth century, at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation, as in the medieval century that preceded it, attitudes toward religious diversity derived from the greatest Christian thinker of the church's first millennium, Augustine of Hippo and were uniformly hostile.

In the fifth century the new persecutory reality that had emerged in the late fourth century was endorsed and given theoretical underpinning by the extraordinary North African philosopher-theologian Augustine. He originally believed (so he later recalled) "that no one can be compelled to the unity of Christ" so that Christians ought to "work only with the word, fight with disputations, and conquer by reasoning."2 If they did otherwise, the end result would not be genuine conversion and a relationship with Jesus, but only hypocritical outward conformity.

But Augustine gradually changed his mind. "Hypocritical adherence," he decided, at least allowed for "instruction by the church"; and while "instruction is to be preferred to punishment," and the walk of faith is better "when love leads," nevertheless, he argued, "many have to be brought in first by fear."

Augustine of Hippo

Paul, Augustine ingeniously argued, had been forcibly converted by Christ, who imposed blindness to compel Saul to "see" the error of his ways. The bottom line was that Christianity is true—in consequence, pagan persecution of Christians had always been unjust; but "there is," he averred, in a hugely influential passage, "a just persecution, that of love, which summons from error to the truth, in order to redeem its enemies from corruption." Accordingly, he concluded: "Why should not the church compel her lost sons to return?"3 He applied this to pagans as well as to heretics and the heterodox, since all humans are lost sheep of the great shepherd.

Now, one can find in Augustine's writings what appear to be arguments for toleration, but it is essential to recognize that Augustine only regarded tolerance as acceptable when, due to political weakness, the church was obliged to accept accommodation with its enemies, rather than confronting them. Toleration to Augustine was contingent, temporary, and prudential, rather than principled and permanent. Because "every city or house divided against itself shall not stand,"4 only a united church could fulfill its divinely ordained purpose. Accordingly, in Augustine's thought, and in Christian thinking for 1,000 years thereafter, intolerance in defense of the unity of the church is a virtue.

This is allied to Augustine's belief, already quoted, that intolerance is also potentially salvific: it could "redeem" sinners from their "corruption." The church's purpose is to bring as many souls as possible into the heavenly kingdom. It is therefore justified in sometimes acting ruthlessly in order to save the souls of sinners, which it loves, from the fruit of their sins, which it hates and which will otherwise damn them for eternity. As Augustine urged, the church and believers must act "cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum" — "with love for mankind and hatred of their failings."5

In Augustine's thinking, then, in spite of its violence, persecution, if redemptive, is an act of love.

Why Persecution?
Persecution is often presumed to be the fruit of bigotry and prejudice. The actual reasons for persecution are typically more complex. Persecution can, of course, be the fruit of simple intolerance, cruelty, or sadism. Yet, as with Augustine, it can also be a product of seeming Christian charity and love.

Although execution was the ultimate sanction, it was only inflicted on a heretic who refused to accept correction. There were a whole range of punishments short of execution, ranging from public confession of error and penance through fines and imprisonment. Thus, a peasant who unthinkingly and out of ignorance expressed sympathy for an unorthodox view of the Trinity, for example, or who, while drunk, sang scandalous songs about a saint, would not be burned, but told to do penance. The persecutor was also a pastor! People guilty of heresy, sacrilege, or blasphemy would have their errors pointed out to them and the reasons why their beliefs were wrong carefully explained to them. Church officials were often willing to spend long hours in debates with religious dissidents, trying to win them over. If, however, having been shown the errors of their beliefs and practices, they persisted in them stubbornly and willfully ("contumaciously" in the jargon of the time), refusing to retract (or "recant") them—then, but only then, the church would hand them over to the secular authorities, which generally meant the death penalty (inasmuch as the church had no power to take life).

Of course, even though the death penalty was only rarely imposed immediately or casually, by its nature it was unlikely to help a heretic to repent of his or her errors. Yet even though execution might not save the soul of the subject, it could still be imposed from the best of intentions, for it was not only the soul of the heretic that was at stake.

Heresy was generally seen as insidious and infectious—it was constantly characterized in sermons, commentaries, and polemic as pollution; as a highly contagious disease such as leprosy; as a cancer; as gangrene. It could not be localized; whatever it touched it infected and then destroyed. Thus, one could not, in a spirit of generosity and out of horror of violence, allow heretics to live on the assumption that they would only damn themselves. They would inevitably infect others with their soul-killing dogma. Christian charity, then, demanded that the heretic must die, lest the infection they represented spread, and lest they taint or contaminate their entire community.

Just as cutting out a cancer or amputating a gangrenous limb was painful for the area of the body involved but saved the body as a whole, so the Christian must steadfastly, unwaveringly cut the tumor and blight of heresy out of the body of Christ, hurting the individual heretic so that the community as a whole might be saved. Thus, even execution could be an act of love, to correct and to save souls—for while heretics were presumably damned, slaying them could save the souls of all those around them.

Finally, persecution was also held to be a necessary response to false religion, as enjoined by the Word of God. In the Old Testament, Israelite king after king is condemned for not wiping out idolatrous worship; the end result was Israel's eventual destruction. The implications were plain: to permit false religion to flourish would simply provoke God to punish both heretics or pagans and those who tolerated their presence. Violent acts by the faithful only preempted the even more violent wrath of God and would be rewarded by divine blessings.

So fervent was the fear and hatred of heresy in Christendom that not infrequently, when heretics had been identified but not yet been given a chance to recant, mobs gathered to seize and burn them, lest the ecclesiastical authorities go easy on them. However, as we have seen, only contumacious heretics were to be executed, and the church regarded such mob justice as repugnant; on occasions, clergymen braved angry crowds, attempting to save convicted heretics from death.6

Political and Social Unity
There was a final reason that persecution was widely accepted either as the lesser of two evils or as a positive. Medieval and sixteenth-century statesmen and philosophers, as well as churchmen, universally assumed that religious division would inevitably end in social and political collapse. This was not a theological position (though it probably originated in part from reading literally the metaphorical words of Jesus: "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation"7), but it was a standard presumption. The prevalent attitude in Christendom both toward the relationship of church to state and toward religious uniformity was a French reformulation of Ephesians 4:5 that dated back at least to the ninth century and was proverbial by the sixteenth century: un roi, une loi, une foi —one king, one law, one faith.8

When the fate of the nation was at stake, violence was a reasonable response—this was the origin of the concept of just war. If religious diversity endangered the nation, then violence, in the form of persecution or of religious war, was, again, justified. For the social, political, and ecclesiastical elites, even if the pastoral issue could have been avoided, heterodoxy could not be allowed to flourish, for a polarized society would collapse.

Huldrych Zwingli

The Rerformers and Persecution
The leading Protestant Reformers all endorsed the persecutory paradigm and shared the presumptions that underpinned it. While obviously not agreeing with Catholics that they, themselves, were heretics, they still condemned as heretical those doctrines that were, in Martin Luther's words, "contrary to the faith as it is clearly founded on the Scriptures and professed by all Christendom."9 They also still accepted that heresy should be persecuted out of existence for the common good.

Huldrych Zwingli attacked the Anabaptists "as seditious and treasonous, as murderers and poisoners," and, at his request, in 1526 Zurich made Anabaptism punishable by death. About the same time Luther roundly declared that anyone who asserted that "Christ is not God" should be "stoned."10 Philip Melanchthon rejected an Anabaptist appeal for toleration in 1536 on the grounds that "the civil magistracy . . . is bound to punish corporally blasphemy, false teaching, heresies, and their partisans."11 The punishment he envisaged had been made clear in an earlier statement that all those who "proclaim tenets that are frankly blasphemous, even if they are not rebels, should be done to death by the civil authority."12 Melanchthon's observation that it did not matter if heretics claimed they were "not rebels" (i.e., asserting that they were loyal subjects of the prince in everything save religion) betrays the presumption that religious heterodoxy would inevitably destroy the state in any case.

Heinrich Bullinger affirmed in 1546 that just as Christians had always regarded heresy as a vice, so Reformed Protestants still look upon it "with horror," and would continue to punish it as it had always been punished: "with fire." As for John Calvin, in treatises published in the late 1540s and early 1550s he wrote that heretics "infect souls with the poison of depraved dogma." He explicitly justified using "the most extreme" measures to ensure "that the deadly poison may not fester." It was better "that the whole Body of Jesus Christ [i.e., the church] be lacerated than that . . . one rotten member . . . remain undisturbed," for otherwise the gangrene of heresy would spread and destroy the whole body.13 Heretics, as "murderers of souls," deserved the punishment meted out to murderers: death. He warned against feelings of mercy, since Christian charity dictated that heretics could be neither tolerated, nor pardoned once apprehended, lest they continue "to murder souls . . . with their false doctrine."14

The Persecutory Consensus
Thus, persecution was almost omnipresent in the first half century of the Reformation. The Anabaptists or so-called Radical Reformers (a modern, not contemporary, term), who were persecuted by all Protestants, as well as Catholics, are sometimes held up as models of tolerance and renunciation of violence. They were not a cohesive movement and were sufficiently diverse to make generalization difficult. Yet it is notable that one of the major Radical groups, the Swiss Brethren (whose beliefs were summarized in the seven articles of the Schleitheim Confession [1527]), espoused harsh and intolerant treatment of those who diverged from the common line, including expulsion from the community.15 Indeed, Calvin attacked their readiness to excommunicate "even on account of involuntary sins"16—if Calvinists were harsher on those condemned as heterodox, they were perhaps less quick to condemn.

Furthermore, at Münster in 1534 and Amsterdam in 1535, where German and Dutch Anabaptists believed that the eschatological scenario foretold in the book of Revelation was coming to pass, their previous pacifistic attitude gave way to extreme intolerance and violence. Normal standards did not apply during the apocalyptic time frame, when the wicked were to be destroyed. The attempted Anabaptist coup in Amsterdam failed, but that in Münster succeeded; the results included enforced polygamy, a reign of terror, and widespread bloodshed, even before the city's Catholic bishop eventually regained control and there was a slaughtering of the survivors.

Thus, while the Anabaptist sects were not as persecutory as the Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches, they still rejected heterodoxy. And there is reason to believe that Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, and others were tolerant only because they believed the apocalypse had not yet begun, or because they never obtained the political power to enforce their will on dissidents, instead remaining a persecuted minority.

Then and Now
The medieval and early-modern paradigm of persecution and violence for religious reasons probably seems repellent to us today—it is easy to assume that acts of brutality were hypocritically hidden under a cloak of piety and charity and more difficult to identify with the noble motivations that could generate ignoble actions. We would also probably like to think that, as products of a more enlightened age, we are in no danger of falling into oppressive behaviors. But there is a good deal of recent evidence that the gap between enlightened and benighted, liberal and bigoted, civilized and barbaric, is not as great as we might hope.
Recent opinion polls show a majority of self-identified Christians in the United States condone the torture of Muslim prisoners. They do so presumably on the grounds that prisoners are suspected terrorists, not because they are Muslims per se, but it is hard to think that allegiance to Islam is not a factor in this astonishing endorsement of cruelty, not least when torture of prisoners in the past has been "religion-specific."17 In addition, many churchgoing Americans still support using the power of the state to impose Christian morality on wider society. Finally, within the past 12 months, many otherwise tolerant Americans have argued for state prohibitions on the use of private property for Islamic worship, simply because they find it offensive.

Thus, there are indications that the Christian persecutory impulse is still potent today, even in American society, with its extraordinary commitment to liberty. There is a tension in the United States deriving from its dual nature: a society that is significantly Christian in character; but a polity with a wall of separation between church and state that prevents the Christian character of society being officially expressed. That tension can be expressed in highly intolerant attitudes. The temptation to persecute or limit religious liberty for a greater good is persistent.

It may well be that that what an eminent historian of the Reformation called "the virus of intolerance and persecution" is "always present and [can] become virulent when the conditions [are] right."18 Understanding why past generations of Christians persecuted, and that they did so from the best as well as worst of impulses, might not inoculate us against the virus, but it might at least enhance our ability to resist it.

David J. B. Trim is a historian, having held professorships in England, as well as membership in the Cromwell Society. He is now an archivist in Silver Spring, Maryland.

1 Ole Peter Grell and Bob Scribner, eds., Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 11–13.
2 Quoted in Hermann Doerries, Constantine and Religious Liberty, trans. Roland H. Bainton (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 57.
3 Extracts from Augustine quoted in Doerries (italics supplied), pp. 58, 59.
4 Matt. 12:25.
5Augustine, Epistolæ, ccxi, in Opera Omnia (Paris: Gaume, 1836), Vol. II, col. 1191.
6 Eleventh- and twelfth-century examples, see R. I. Moore, "Popular Violence and Popular Heresy in Western Europe,
c 1000–1179," in W. J. Sheils ed., Persecution and Toleration, Studies in Church History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), Vol. 21, pp. 45-47; for sixteenth-century examples (of popular violence out of fear the authorities would not act, but not of clergymen trying to save heretics) see Natalie Zemon Davis, "The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-century France," Past and Present 59 (May 1973): 51-91.
7 Matt. 12:25.
8 Probably the basis for the Nazi formula Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer ("One nation, one people, one leader").
9 Quoted in John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance and Arguments for Religious Tolerance in Early Modern and "Early Enlightenment" Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 253.
10 Quoted in Marshall, p. 247.
11 Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, "The Parable of the Tares as the Proof Text for Religious Liberty to the End of the Sixteenth Century," Church History 1 (June 1932): 77.
12 Quoted in Marshall, p. 253.
13 Quoted in Marshall, p. 245.
14 John Calvin, Contre la secte phantastique et furieuse des libertins ([Geneva]: 1547), p. 6.
15 The text of the Schleitheim Confession is available at, e.g., Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online ( See esp. articles II and IV.
16 Bainton, p. 78.
17 Lawrence Swaim, "Torture and Religious Liberty," Liberty, May/June 2008. See Mary Zeiss Stange, "What Are We Enhancing?" Liberty, November/December 2009, and Lincoln E. Steed, "Gods and Generals, " same issue.
18 Bob Scribner, "Preconditions of Tolerance and Intolerance in Sixteenth-Century Germany", in Grell and Scribner, p. 47.

Author: David J. B. Trim

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