The Emergence of Toleration

David J. B. Trim July/August 2011

Editors' note: This is the fourth in a series of five articles on the history of Christian persecution up to the end of the seventeenth century. The first, second, and third articles can be found here and here and here.

The millennium-old Christian consensus that religious diversity was an evil that ought to be crushed by the combined power of church and state, and that in each Christian polity there ought to be "one king, one law, one faith," became increasingly untenable in the face of the Reformation reality of entrenched minorities in several nations. The number of people potentially subject to the violence of persecution greatly increased; this meant both that it could no longer be ignored and that it seemed increasingly unlikely that persecution really could solve the "problem" of diversity.

Strategies for Coexistence
From the late 1550s it seemed to many statesmen that new solutions to the "problem" of religious diversity were urgently needed, for in many nations it had become increasingly plain that diversity could not be overcome by violence. Those who began to argue for toleration did so partly because they recognized that resolving doctrinal disputes by violence was hardly Christlike, and partly because they foresaw that the end result of large-scale violent responses to religious heterodoxy might be political partition as well as religious division.

In England a Catholic queen, Mary I, had succeeded a Protestant king, Edward VI, in 1553, and then executed at least 287 people in 46 months from February 1555 to Mary's death in November 1558. Her successor, Protestant Elizabeth I, made the Church of England Protestant once more, but was sensitive to the deep confessional divisions within her realm, with her subjects not split only between Catholic and Protestant but also between varieties of Protestant confessions. Her response was to require all her subjects to worship in her way, in her church, but to concede effective liberty of conscience and private worship.1

In France, divided between a Roman Catholic majority and a considerable Calvinist minority, the first of eight wars of religion broke out in 1562, which were to last with short periods of peace until 1598. Beginning in January 1562 the crown issued a series of nine edicts of pacification, one before the wars began (and which partly prompted the first war) and eight treaties concluding hostilities. Each of these edicts granted a greater or lesser degree of concessions to the Huguenots (as members of the Reformed minority were known). These never amounted to more than what one eminent historian of the Huguenots calls "licensed coexistence," rather than full-blown toleration.2 Yet several edicts, including the first, only angered zealous Catholics; thus, conceding freedom of belief and limited freedom to worship led to war. Eventually, however, the ninth pacification, the celebrated Edict of Nantes issued by Henry IV in 1598, was universally (if grudgingly) accepted. France had embarked on a nine- decades-long "adventure in religious pluralism." 3 Full religious freedom did not exist, but Huguenots had complete liberty of conscience, and, even more vitally, they had, if only in certain towns and cities, liberty to practice their faith fully.

In the Low Countries, ruled by the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty, despite intense persecutory efforts by the Inquisition in the 1550s and early 1560s, by the middle of the 1560s there probably was no overall religious majority; Catholics and Calvinists were the largest groups, but there were also sizable Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Jewish communities. A Calvinist insurgency in 1566 gave rise in the 1570s to a more broadly based Dutch Revolt and the Eighty Years' War against Spain, which only concluded in 1648. It was a war fought about more than religion, but religious hostilities ensured there could be no compromise on political issues. The northern provinces of the Netherlands eventually achieved independence as the Dutch Republic, partly because the members of the various rival religious communities cooperated against Hapsburg rule. The result was that virtually from its inception the Dutch Republic had a regime of limited toleration. Liberty of conscience was almost universally conceded; while the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) Church had a privileged status and while freedom to believe was not matched by freedom to worship, nevertheless the Netherlands was unusually tolerant by the standards of early-modern Europe.

As we shall see, however, in France and the Netherlands, even those who opposed persecution and advocated toleration most strongly often retained traditional attitudes. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed the beginnings of a paradigm shift in Christian attitudes to religious diversity and persecution, one that would eventually lead to a rejection of the Christian persecutory impulse. Yet that impulse retained some of its potency. First, there were many parts of Europe—both Protestant and Catholic—where persecution continued, because there was still an underlying presumption that unity, not diversity, was the ideal. Second, even where the use of force to achieve it was forsworn, and different methods embraced, there was still almost no concept that a plurality of religious opinions and practices could be a good thing—that multiformity might even be a way of honoring a God whose creation is characterized by diversity and variety, rather than uniformity.

France: Seeking "Concord"
Even before the outbreak of the wars of religion, the Chancellor of France, Michel de L'Hospital, became convinced that the persecutory paradigm was no longer relevant in France. While L'Hospital was a devout Roman Catholic and disapproved of heresy, he also disapproved of opposing it by violence. In a series of government memoranda, legal pleas and official speeches he argued for "concord" and peaceful coexistence.

Because belief is internal and mental, disagreements about beliefs must be resolved by intellectual arguments, not by force: "It is stupid," L'Hospital wrote, "to think that this division of minds can be settled by the power of the sword and with gleaming armour." 4 But in addition, disagreements about religious beliefs require specifically religious, rather than secular, responses. In an address to France's supreme court in June 1561, L'Hospital argued that because heresy was a spiritual fault, it inevitably required "divine and spiritual remedies" rather than "human remedies." 5 Furthermore, not only was force, by its nature, innately incapable of resolving disagreements about religious beliefs, it also was entirely inappropriate for followers of Christ, who "loved peace, and orders us to abstain from armed violence." Christ "did not compel and terrorise anybody through threats [or] with a sword." 6

L'Hospital repeatedly emphasized that followers of Christ ought not embrace violent solutions to disputes with fellow believers. In December 1560, in an official memorandum, he condemned "those who take up arms for the cause of God, because the cause of God does not want to be defended by arms."7 In the autumn of 1561 he urged the royal council not to use force against the Huguenots, as it would be "repugnant . . . to the name of Christians we bear."8 In early 1562, as the first of eight confessional civil wars were about to break out, he lamented the fact that some "believed the diversity of Religion" could be ended by force, and that "some had opposed [it] by the fire or by the sword," when these "are not the weapons which God would have one use in such things."9 The right "weapons" for a struggle between different systems of belief were "charity, prayers, persuasions, [and] the Word of God."10

Because force was bound to fail, L'Hospital stressed the need for reconciliation. He made one of his most significant speeches in September 1561, at the Colloquy of Poissy, at which the leading theologians of the rival confessions in France tried (unsuccessfully and possibly insincerely) to resolve their differences and agree on a common formula of faith. He stressed to the assembled Catholic and Calvinist delegates that force had failed to resolve the problem of religious diversity, and called on the former not to think of the latter "as enemies," for "those of the so-called new religion" were "Christians just like themselves"; good Catholics "must not close the door to them . . . but receive them in warm spirit, without harshness and stubbornness."11

There were, however, two reasons for this Christlike forbearance: one was to ensure national reconciliation, so that the French people were not fatally weakened; the other was because L'Hospital believed that this, rather than force, was the best way to end religious division. He did not envisage a nation divided into two confessions, each accepting the other; instead he expected that if believers repudiated violence, then the differences between them would be resolved. He distinguished "between eternal laws and temporary remedies" and regarded edicts of toleration as the latter: provisional measures to deal with a problem of religious diversity, not a permanent feature of the religious landscape. As the diversity disappeared, so would toleration—but through peaceful dialogue, persuasion and conversion, rather than persecution or war.12

It was common for even adamant opponents of persecution, such as Michel de L'Hospital, to be at the same time opponents of pluralism. While they argued for toleration on grounds that were principled and ethical, they did not argue for toleration as a principle. Instead, they espoused what one historian has termed "political toleration": a temporary measure, conceded because of weakness, rather than granted from a position of strength because of principle.13  L'Hospital and others still believed in a Catholic nation of France: "concord" meant a reunited Christian church, not recognition of separate Catholic and Reformed churches.

Catherine de Medicis views the aftermath of the
St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.

France: "Suffering" Heretics
By the end of 1576 L'Hospital's worst nightmares had come true. Force had utterly failed to reunite the people of France in concord. Not even five civil wars in 15 years and the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (August 24-25, 1572), which produced mortality on the scale of the attack on New York in September 2001, had done the trick. While no one knew that three more wars, taking up 15 of the next 22 years, were still to be waged, it was clear that the guerres de religion were far from over. Consequently, even arch-Catholics were starting to come around to L'Hospital's way of thinking.

At a meeting of the Estates-General of France in 1577, each of the three Estates (the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners) resolved in favor of uniformity of religion. But the Duke de Montpensier, one of the favorite counselors of King Henry III and known for his Catholic zeal, shocked the deputies with a speech arguing for limited toleration. He made it that "the Roman Catholic religion" was the faith in which he would "live and die," but then declared that, in light of "the evils which the recent wars have brought us, and how much this division is leading to the ruin . . . of this poor kingdom," he felt "constrained to advise . . . the toleration and sufferance of those of the new opinion." Trying to sweeten what was, both to himself and to his listeners, a bitter pill, he optimistically observed that toleration would surely only need to be in place for "a short time," because after the crown and its subjects had been "reunited and reconciled," "God [would] bless us with only one religion, the Roman Catholic faith held and followed by all previous kings." 14 It was a grudging and very limited concession, yet a remarkable one, made as it was by a close counselor of a king who, before succeeding to the throne, had been deeply complicit in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.

Montpensier was not alone in his willingness to suffer the Huguenots to live. One group of nobles at the Estates-General argued that though it was "highly desirable for all the people . . . to live in one Roman Catholic and apostolic religion," and though it was of course "true that when people have only one religion, a king is better obeyed and served," it was also the case that civil war was one of the "greatest afflictions" that a people or king had to endure. Therefore, though they "by no means [approved] of the so-called reformed religion," they pleaded with the king to reject further persecution and religious war; for "violence," they ominously and presciently warned, "eventually leads to self-destruction."15

These examples expose the extent to which the emerging willingness to "suffer" (the choice of word is striking) confessional minorities was not an ethical and principled but rather a practical, prudential decision. There was still no concept that religious pluralism could characterize a polity—only a lack of enthusiasm for persecution as a way of ending religious diversity. It is also striking that, despite the expression of these sentiments, the Estates-General in 1577 actually pushed Henry III into repealing the royal edict of 1576 that had ended the fifth war of religion by granting the Huguenots liberty of public worship as well as of conscience. It is a telling fact that this edict—which granted the most generous terms of any edict before 1598 —excited such a strong Catholic reaction that France was plunged in the short term into another civil war, and in the long term to another two decades of religious violence. Civil war provoked limited sufferance of heterodoxy; wider toleration provoked more civil war—because so many people were convinced that persecution was the right response to falsehood and false religion.

Even after the toleration granted by the Edict of Nantes was accepted, it was still regarded as a short-term measure. Royal counselors and Catholic bishops alike assumed (as had L'Hospital) that gradually Protestants would all convert to Catholicism, ending the need for toleration. One regional administrator spoke for many when he called the edict "a shadow" on French law, "extracted from our kings by the necessity of the times."16 Eighty-seven years later the Huguenot minority was still in existence, to the frustration of the Catholic elites. Henry IV's grandson, Louis XIV, revoked the edict, ending legal diversity and reinstituting persecution. But toleration had always been contingent. L'Hospital's concept of "concord" and Montpensier's notion of "sufferance" were both preferable to persecution and religious war, but neither were true safeguards against a return to violence, because they could not envisage diversity as a normal state of affairs.

William of Orange

The Netherlands
Meanwhile, in 1566, William of Orange and other leading Dutch nobles had staged a conference in Brussels, in an effort to find a peaceful solution to the violence already beginning to shake the Netherlands. One of the scholars they invited was the French humanist François Baudouin, one of Europe's preeminent jurists, but also a historian and theological controversialist. He had published influential histories of Constantine, the ruler under whom (as we saw in the first article in this series) the church was first reconciled with the state, and of the Donatists, one of the first politically significant Christian heretical groups. Baudouin had been a convert to Reformed Protestantism and a leading figure at the Colloquy of Poissy, but in 1563 he reconverted to Roman Catholicism. He maintained, however, his hostility to persecution. Because of his legal expertise, Baudouin was more than just an academic theorist.

At the Brussels conference, Baudouin presented a treatise which was later adopted by the assembled nobles and submitted to the then-ruler of the Low Countries, Philip II, king of Spain and lord of the Netherlands. Drawing on his expertise in ancient history, Baudouin cited the example of the emperors of ancient Rome, whose most rigorous persecutory efforts produced the opposite effect of their intention. The Roman experience showed, he argued, that "in the persuasion of the heart, corporal violence prevails no more than the vapor or wind that blows, to hinder the heat of the fire." 17 But having asserted the inutility of persecution, he also argued against it on principle; he avowed that the way to change people's religious "opinions is to persuade them, that their faith and belief is not conformable to the word of God." And he provided a remarkable answer to those who assumed that, if the argument of the Word proved fruitless, then the argument of the sword ought to follow, to realize the goal of conversion:

"To effect the which, there is no other means, than to give them free audience, to the end, that they may propound their reasons and motives with all liberty, and that they be confuted of error and heresy by the word of God: if they remain obstinate, yet when this disputation and instruction shall be done in the eye of the world, those that are weak shall by this means be persuaded, not to follow their errors." 18

Thus, he concluded, "prelates and bishops" ought to trust more in the rightness of their cause; if they did, he affirmed, "there is not in the world a better means to prevent the multiplying of sects, than to confer together publicly, that all the world may know, that the others do falsely brag, that they have the word of God on their side." 19

The treatise was dismissed out of hand by the ultra-Catholic Philip II. Baudouin returned to France, but the irenic concepts he had expounded were embraced in the Netherlands by William of Orange. The harsh intolerance of the Spanish regime, which in the late 1560s and early 1570s executed an average of three people per week for heresy,20 evoked similar intolerance from Dutch Calvinists. In the northern provinces Reformed pastors and politicians encouraged persecution even of Catholics fighting for the political liberties of the Netherlands! It was William who took a lead in trying to moderate the persecutory impulses of zealous Calvinists; even after his death in 1584 the Dutch Republic maintained religious policies that were comparatively—and increasingly—generous and tolerant.

Yet even in Europe's most tolerant state, the persecutory impulse periodically continued to mold policy. In the 1620s the government closed Lutheran churches in Rotterdam and Leiden.21 As late as 1657, English Quakers in Amsterdam, refugees from repression in England, suffered such persecution that their leader wrote bitterly: "Oh, how appears the devouring wolf under the sheep's clothing!" The "congregation which persecutes," he concluded, is "not the congregation of Christ but the synagogue of Satan." 22

Thus, while Baudouin's argument that the best thing for religion is free and open exchange and debate is immensely attractive today, his clarion call to generosity of spirit toward those whose religious views differ from his own is easier to hear today than it was in his own day. It was not only the absolutist Roman Catholic monarch Philip II who was unimpressed by the call to rely on the Word, not the sword. As we have seen, French Catholics and Dutch Calvinists shared his contempt; and a seventeenth-century English Puritan, reading a version of Baudouin's discourse at least 50 years later, was also dubious. In the margin, next to a statement that only the "word of God must determine of controversies," he wrote: "But who shall execute it?" 23 And when Baudouin went one step further and asserted that while it might in theory be desirable that there be "one law, one faith, and one king," in practice "it is not possible to attain unto it," 24 the reader skeptically queries in the margin whether "Christ [is] a desirer of discord." 25 There were still many people in Christendom who believed Christians had a right and a duty to impose correct doctrine by force and to preserve unity.

The examples we have considered indicate how hard it was to shake off the presumption that God wanted church and state, prince and people, nobles and commoners, all to share the same unity of faith—and the associated presumption that persecution was the right way to achieve that unity. Nevertheless, by the year 1600 a shift away from those presumptions was well under way—arguably a paradigm shift, or the origins of one. Statesmen as well as theologians, members of majorities as well of minorities, and those in power as well as those on the margins—all had begun to concede the necessity of some degree of toleration, even if temporary and restricted. There was still hostility to such attitudes, but a consensus on the necessity of toleration was starting to emerge. Nevertheless, as many scholars have pointed out, religious toleration is not the same thing as religious freedom.

David J. B. Trim is a historian with a long experience teaching at universities in the U.S. and the U.K. He currently writes from Silver Spring, Maryland, where he is director of the Office of Archives and Statistics for the World Headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

1 For a concise overview see David. J. B. Trim, "Reformation and Counter-Reformation," Liberty, May/June 2009, pp. 22-29, and "Reformation Achieved," Liberty, July/Aug. 2009), pp. 22-29.
2 N. M. Sutherland, "Persecution and Toleration in Reformation Europe," Persecution and Toleration, in Studies in Church History (1984), vol. 21, pp. 158, 159.
3 Keith Cameron et al, ed., The Adventure of Religious Pluralism in Early Modern France (New York: Peter Lang, 2000).
4 Quoted in Loris Petris, "Faith and Religious Policy in Michel de L'Hospital's Civic Evangelism," in Cameron, et al, p.137.
5 Quoted in Seong-Hak Kim, Michel de L'Hôpital: The Vision of a Reformist Chancellor During the French Religious Wars, Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies (Kirksville, Mo: Sixteenth-Century Journal Publishers, 1997), vol. 36, p. 68.
6 Quoted in Petris, p.137.
7 Quoted in Loris Petris, "Causas belli præcidere eloquio pietate. L'éloquence de Michel de L'Hospital Dans Ses Discours de 1560 à 1562," in Thierry Wanegffelen, ed., De Michel de L'Hospital à l'édit de Nantes: Politique et Religion Face aux Églises (Clermont­-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise–Pascal, 2002), p. 273 (translation mine).
8 Quoted in Kim, pp. 75, 76.
9 Quoted in Petris, "L'éloquence de Michel de L'Hospital," p. 273, note 72 (translation mine).
10 Petris, "Faith and Religious Policy," pp. 138, 139.
11 Quoted in Kim, p. 72.
12 Mario Turchetti, "Middle Parties in France During the Wars of Religion," in Philip Benedict et al.,eds., Reformation, Revolt and Civil War in France and the Netherlands 1555–1585 (Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 1999), pp. 171, 172; Petris, "Faith and Religious Policy."
13 Mario Turchetti, "Religious Concord and Political Tolerance in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France," Sixteenth Century Journal 22 (1991): 15-25.
14 Quoted in Mack P. Holt, The Duke of Anjou and the Politique Struggle During the Wars of Religion (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1986), pp. 84, 85.
15 Ibid., p. 85.
16 Quoted in French in Richard Bonney, Political Change in France Under Richelieu and Mazarin, 1624-1661 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 384 (translation mine).
17 The text appears in English translation in Edward Grimeston, A Generall Historie of the Netherlands (London: 1609), pp. 356-367. In the quotations that follow, spelling and punctuation have been modernized.
18 Grimeston, p. 357.
19 Ibid., p. 358.
20 William Monter, "Heresy Executions in Reformation Europe, 1520-1565," in Ole Peter Grell and Bob Scribner, eds., Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 59, 60.
21 Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477-1806 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 476.
22 Quoted in J. van den Berg, "Quaker and Chiliast: The 'Contrary Thoughts' of William Ames and Petrus Serrarius," in R. Buick Knox, ed., Reformation Conformity and Dissent: Essays in Honour of Geoffrey Nuttall (London: Epworth Press, 1977), p. 183.
23 Folger Shakespeare Library copy of Grimeston, p. 359; this belonged to the Greville family, notable in the seventeenth century for their Puritanism: cf. John Gouws, "Greville, Fulke, first Baron Brooke (1554-1628)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), vol. 23, pp. 786-990.
24 Ibid., pp. 365, 366.
25 Ibid., p. 366.

Article Author: David J. B. Trim