In the Name of Heaven: 3,000 Years of Religious Persecution

Melissa Reid March/April 2010

I am in the right, and you are in the wrong. When you are the stronger, you ought to tolerate me; for it is your duty to tolerate truth. But when I am the stronger, I shall persecute you; for it is my duty to persecute error.

—Thomas Babington Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, 1870

 With the unfortunately apt Macaulay quote above, scholar Mary Jane Engh sets the tone for her overview of the history of religious persecution. Her short book spans 3,000 years and six continents, and thus, as she acknowledges in the introduction, the survey is superficial and incomplete. That said, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to a third-century Persian prophet named Mani, Engh highlights both familiar and lesser known examples of periods of religious persecution, and more than adequately provides us with sufficient evidence to support some important (and troubling) conclusions:

First, man is nothing if not consistent. Like Solomon opined, there really is nothing new under the sun, and religious persecution appears to be one of our oldest and most cherished inclinations. As Engh guides us through the centuries and across the globe, she makes a good case that no era, location, or faith group has been immune. It seems that everywhere and at every time—granted at varying levels of severity—someone was being persecuted for their convictions. They were alternately taxed (see first-century Judeans), imprisoned, treated as second-class citizens (the Jews during really any period of earth’s history), outlawed or banished (see Christians and Buddhists at varying times during eighteenth-century Asia), tortured and/or killed (Cathers, Waldensians, and Huguenots during the Reformation). Civilizations have varied in determining who are the most despised: idolaters, pagans, or heretics; and so all have been persecuted.

Second, religious persecution and forced conversion are often just part of an occupying nation’s benevolent attempts to “modernize” and “civilize” what it sees as an inferior people. Whether arriving as an invading army or wanderlust explorers, men have always been eager to introduce their superior languages, weapons, diseases, and gods. Sometimes, as in the case of eighteenth and nineteenth century Africa and Hawaii, the new religions were welcomed by most people and reshaped and integrated into creeds and practices that corresponded with the original belief system. More frequent, as in the case of sixteenth-century explorers to North and South America, conversion was coerced by forced labor, slavery, or penalty of death. Horrified by the worship practices of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans, European settlers “destroyed temples, smashed images, and imprisoned priests—whatever it took to free the people from the devil’s clutches” (page 182). Of that time period social commentator Bartolomé de las Casas observed that, in the Caribbean islands where he landed, Christopher Columbus succeeded in “making the name of Christian synonymous with terror” (page 181).

Third, what goes around comes around. This goes back to the Macaulay quote. From the Catholics to the Protestants to the Puritans and back to the Catholics again, persecution breeds persecution, and hatred breeds hatred. States Engh in her conclusion: “Again and again, victims of persecution have sought religious freedom for themselves—but not for others. Given the power, they are likely to persecute their former persecutors or dissidents from their own ranks” (page 253). Not only does man have a short memory, depending on the political or financial motivators, he can be quick to change his sincerely held beliefs. (See fifth-century Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Franks.)

Finally, when we aren’t busy persecuting each other, we happily persecute ourselves. Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325 is a perfect example of this puzzling behavior. This first general church council (which was enacted after church leaders complained that there were too many halfhearted and insincere Christians joining the church) defined basic Christian doctrines and declared all who did not agree with them as heretics. Islam has been split into two very discordant factions—Sunnis and Shiites—since shortly after the time of Muhammad.

When seventeenth-century Ethiopian emperor Susenyos became a devout Catholic, he summarily “forbade circumcision and Sabbath observance [both common practices of Ethiopian Christians at the time].” He then “instituted a program to reordain all priests, reconsecrate all churches, and rebaptize all Christians” (page 156).

Engh’s historical review ends with the year 1900, as “the twentieth century, sadly, is too rich in persecution; it cannot be compressed into one or two chapters” (page 8). In the book’s conclusion the author seems to signal that there is indeed a way to break the cycle of religious persecution: do away with religion altogether, or at least those faiths that generate the most enthusiastic believers. Engh has harsh words for the exclusiveness of monotheistic belief systems such as Christianity and Islam, although she does grudgingly acknowledge that “exclusiveness does not always [reviewer’s emphasis] turn believers into persecutors” (page 252).

According to the author, our depressing history of persecution is not hopeless, as “the last 250 years have seen real changes in human societies. . . . During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, European thinkers offered a new idea—that the fabric of human civilization could be stronger and more beautiful if the religious threads woven into it were replaced by threads of rational thought. Science, in a broad sense, could take the place of religion as a support for morality and a basis for human dealings with the cosmos” (pages 253, 254). In other words, if we just prohibited all religious belief, religious persecution would end? To me that rings too eerily reminiscent of one of the most famous quotes in the history of persecution: Asked by a crusader how to tell heretics in Béziers, France, from good Catholics, the papal legate replied, “Kill them all! God will know his own.” Surely we can do better than this!

Reviewed by Melissa Reid, Liberty magazine associate editor for marketing.

Article Author: Melissa Reid

Melissa Reid is the associate editor of Liberty.