religious toleration

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A principle accepted without question by most people in the 21st cent., came about more by a process of exhaustion than by the triumph of reasoned argument. Few people in the 16th cent. doubted that state and church had not only the right but the duty to put down religious dissent. They assumed that religious truth was God‐given and absolute; that a country divided in religion would be fatally weakened; that nonconformists were potential traitors; that the exercise of private judgement would, in the end, undermine all authority and produce a shattered and anarchic society, in which everything was permissible.

The Reformation brought about toleration neither by design nor directly, but as a by‐product. None of the great reformers—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli—were tolerant of their opponents. In defence of his own position, Luther was first obliged to challenge papal authority, then to expound the right of the secular ruler to declare the religious policy of his state. That formula was accepted in the Augsburg peace of 1555—cuius regio, eius religio (the ruler shall decide religion). Only catholicism or Lutheranism were permitted choices and there was no provision for toleration. But in practice political considerations sometimes made rulers embrace toleration. Countries like Prussia, which were chronically short of labour, might find it imprudent to drive out subjects and might welcome refugees from less tolerant states.

In England there had been little need for a hunt after heretics until the late 14th cent., when Wyclif's teaching combined with social unrest to produce lollardy. The authorities responded with the act of 1401 De heretico comburendo—on the burning of heretics. The seed‐time for toleration in England was after the Civil War, when sects multiplied and the victorious parliamentary army demanded from the presbyterians toleration for baptists, congregationalists, and independents.

The Restoration in 1660 saw a lurch backwards, with Parliament passing severe legislation against catholics and dissenters. But, again, the exigencies of politics called for tactical behaviour and Charles II and James II both issued Declarations of Indulgence. In the crisis of 1688, when the dissenters held the balance between the Anglicans and the king, they supported the revolution, and reaped the reward from William III in 1689 in the Toleration Act, which at least permitted freedom of worship. It was far from complete. Toleration did not apply to catholics, who faced a battery of penal laws, nor to anti‐trinitarians. In Scotland, episcopalians were persecuted as crypto‐Jacobites. Even protestant dissenters did not have full civil rights and could neither sit in Parliament nor on corporations unless their consciences were flexible. But the narrow basis was gradually broadened, with concessions to the quakers over oath‐taking and to the Scottish episcopalians over lay patronage. Underpinning the shift in policy was the start of a change in attitude. In his Letter on Toleration, published in 1689, Locke caught a new mood of calm reason: persecution created, not converts, but hypocrites, ‘for no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another’.

There remained the problem of civil equality. No catholic and few dissenters could be MPs. Though full emancipation for catholics was held up in 1801 by the refusal of George III to sanction it, it was granted in 1829. Dissenters were allowed into Parliament in 1828 and more concessions on tithes and on marriages followed. In 1858 Jews were allowed into Parliament. At length, in 1886, after the Bradlaugh case, even atheists were admitted to Westminster. From the beginning of the Reformation, it had taken a mere 350 years.


Subjects: British History.

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