A History of Freedom of Thought/Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

RELIGIOUS TOLERATION

In the third century B.C. the Indian king Asoka, a man of religious zeal but of tolerant spirit, confronted by the struggle between two hostile religions (Brahmanism and Buddhism), decided that both should be equally privileged and honoured in his dominions. His ordinances on the matter are memorable as the earliest existing Edicts of toleration. In Europe, as we saw, the principle of toleration was for the first time definitely expressed in the Roman Imperial Edicts which terminated the persecution of the Christians.

The religious strife of the sixteenth century raised the question in its modern form, and for many generations it was one of the chief problems of statesmen and the subject of endless controversial pamphlets. Toleration means incomplete religious liberty, and there are many degrees of it. It might be granted to certain Christian sects; it might be granted to Christian sects, but these alone; it might be granted to all religions, but not to freethinkers; or to deists, but not to atheists. It might mean the concession of some civil rights, but not of others; it might mean the exclusion of those who are tolerated from public offices or from certain professions. The religious liberty now enjoyed in Western lands has been gained through various stages of toleration.

We owe the modern principle of toleration to the Italian group of Reformers, who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and were the fathers of Unitarianism. The Reformation movement had spread to Italy, but Rome was successful in suppressing it, and many heretics fled to Switzerland. The anti-Trinitarian group were forced by the intolerance of Calvin to flee to Transylvania and Poland where they propagated their doctrines. The Unitarian creed was moulded by Fausto Sozzini, generally known as Socinus, and in the catechism of his sect (1574) persecution is condemned. This repudiation of the use of force in the interest of religion is a consequence of the Socinian doctrines. For, unlike Luther and Calvin, the Socinians conceded such a wide room to individual judgment in the interpretation of Scripture that to impose Socinianism would have been inconsistent with its principles. In other words, there was a strong rationalistic element which was lacking in the Trinitarian creeds.

It was under the influence of the Socinian spirit that Castellion of Savoy sounded the trumpet of toleration in a pamphlet denouncing the burning of Servetus, whereby he earned the malignant hatred of Calvin. He maintained the innocence of error and ridiculed the importance which the Churches laid on obscure questions such as predestination and the Trinity. "To discuss the difference between the Law and the Gospel, gratuitous remission of sins or imputed righteousness, is as if a man were to discuss whether a prince was to come on horseback, or in a chariot, or dressed in white or in red."[1] Religion is a curse if persecution is a necessary part of it.

For a long time the Socinians and those who came under their influence when, driven from Poland, they passed into Germany and Holland, were the only sects which advocated toleration. It was adopted from them by the Anabaptists and by the Arminian section of the Reformed Church of Holland. And in Holland, the founder of the English Congregationalists, who (under the name of Independents) played such an important part in the history of the Civil War and the Commonwealth, learned the principle of liberty of conscience.

Socinus thought that this principle could be realized without abolishing the State Church. He contemplated a close union between the State and the prevailing Church, combined with complete toleration for other sects. It is under this system (which has been called jurisdictional) that religious liberty has been realized in European States. But there is another and simpler method, that of separating Church from State and placing all religions on an equality. This was the solution which the Anabaptists would have preferred. They detested the State; and the doctrine of religious liberty was not precious to them. Their ideal system would have been an Anabaptist theocracy; separation was the second best.

In Europe, public opinion was not ripe for separation, inasmuch as the most powerful religious bodies were alike in regarding toleration as wicked indifference. But it was introduced in a small corner of the new world beyond the Atlantic in the seventeenth century. The Puritans who fled from the intolerance of the English Church and State and founded colonies in New England, were themselves equally intolerant, not only to Anglicans and Catholics, but to Baptists and Quakers. They set up theocratical governments from which all who did not belong to their own sect were excluded. Roger Williams had imbibed from the Dutch Arminians the idea of separation of Church from State. On account of this heresy he was driven from Massachusetts, and he founded Providence to be a refuge for those whom the Puritan colonists persecuted. Here he set up a democratic constitution in which the magistrates had power only in civil matters and could not interfere with religion. Other towns were presently founded in Rhode Island, and a charter of Charles II (1663) confirmed the constitution, which secured to all citizens professing Christianity, of whatever form, the full enjoyment of political rights. Non-Christians were tolerated, but were not admitted to the political rights of Christians. So far, the new State fell short of perfect liberty. But the fact that Jews were soon admitted, notwithstanding, to full citizenship shows how free the atmosphere was. To Roger Williams belongs the glory of having founded the first modern State which was really tolerant and was based on the principle of taking the control of religious matters entirely out of the hands of the civil government.

Toleration was also established in the Roman Catholic colony of Maryland, but in a different way. Through the influence of Lord Baltimore an Act of Toleration was passed in 1649, notable as the first decree, voted by a legal assembly, granting complete freedom to all Christians. No one professing faith in Christ was to be molested in regard to his religion. But the law was heavy on all outside this pale. Any one who blasphemed God or attacked the Trinity or any member of the Trinity was threatened by the penalty of death. The tolerance of Maryland attracted so many Protestant settlers from Virginia that the Protestants became a majority, and as soon as they won political preponderance, they introduced an Act (1654) excluding Papists and Prelatists from toleration. The rule of the Baltimores was restored after 1660, and the old religious freedom was revived, but with the accession of William III the Protestants again came into power and the toleration which the Catholics had instituted in Maryland came to an end.

It will be observed that in both these cases freedom was incomplete; but it was much larger and more fundamental in Rhode Island, where it had been ultimately derived from the doctrine of Socinus.[2] When the colonies became independent of England the Federal Constitution which they set up was absolutely secular, but it was left to each member of the Union to adopt Separation or not (1789). If separation has become the rule in the American States, it may be largely due to the fact that on any other system the governments would have found it difficult to impose mutual tolerance on the sects. It must be added that in Maryland and a few southern States atheists still suffer from some political disabilities.

In England, the experiment of Separation would have been tried under the Commonwealth, if the Independents had had their way. This policy was overruled by Cromwell. The new national Church included Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists, but liberty of worship was granted to all Christian sects, except Roman Catholics and Anglicans. If the parliament had had the power, this toleration would have been a mere name. The Presbyterians regarded toleration as a work of the Devil, and would have persecuted the Independents if they could. But under Cromwell's autocratic rule even the Anglicans lived in peace, and toleration was extended to the Jews. In these days, voices were raised from various quarters advocating toleration on general grounds.[3] The most illustrious advocate was Milton, the poet, who was in favour of the severance of Church from State.

In Milton's Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing (1644), the freedom of the Press is eloquently sustained by arguments which are valid for freedom of thought in general. It is shown that the censorship will conduce "to the discouragement of all learning and the stop of truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made, both in religious and civil wisdom." For knowledge is advanced through the utterance of new opinions, and truth is discovered by free discussion. If the waters of truth "flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition." Books which are authorized by the licensers are apt to be, as Bacon said, "but the language of the times," and do not contribute to progress. The examples of the countries where the censorship is severe do not suggest that it is useful for morals: "look into Italy and Spain, whether those places be one scruple the better, the honester, the wiser, the chaster, since all the inquisitional rigour that hath been executed upon books." Spain indeed could reply, "We are, what is more important, more orthodox." It is interesting to notice that Milton places freedom of thought above civil liberty: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all other liberties."

With the restoration of the Monarchy and the Anglican Church, religious liberty was extinguished by a series of laws against Dissenters. To the Revolution we owe the Act of Toleration (1689) from which the religious freedom which England enjoys at present is derived. It granted freedom of worship to Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers, but only to these; Catholics and Unitarians were expressly excepted and the repressive legislation of Charles II remained in force against them. It was a characteristically English measure, logically inconsistent and absurd, a mixture of tolerance and intolerance, but suitable to the circumstances and the state of public opinion at the time.

In the same year John Locke's famous (first) Letter concerning Toleration appeared in Latin. Three subsequent letters developed and illustrated his thesis. The main argument is based on the principle that the business of civil government is quite distinct from that of religion, that the State is a society constituted only for preserving and promoting the civil interests of its members—civil interests meaning life, liberty, health, and the possession of property. The care of souls is not committed to magistrates more than to other men. For the magistrate can only use outward force; but true religion means the inward persuasion of the mind, and the mind is so made that force cannot compel it to believe. So too it is absurd for a State to make laws to enforce a religion, for laws are useless without penalties, and penalties are impertinent because they cannot convince.

Moreover, even if penalties could change men's beliefs, this would not conduce to the salvation of souls. Would more men be saved if all blindly resigned themselves to the will of their rulers and accepted the religion of their country? For as the princes of the world are divided in religion, one country alone would be in the right, and all the rest of the world would have to follow their princes to destruction; "and that which heightens the absurdity, and very ill suits the notion of a deity, men would owe their eternal happiness or their eternal misery to the places of their nativity." This is a principle on which Locke repeatedly insists. If a State is justified in imposing a creed, it follows that in all the lands, except the one or few in which the true faith prevails, it is the duty of the subjects to embrace a false religion. If Protestantism is promoted in England, Popery by the same rule will be promoted in France. "What is true and good in England will be true and good at Rome too, in China, or Geneva." Toleration is the principle which gives to the true faith the best chance of prevailing.

Locke would concede full liberty to idolaters, by whom he means the Indians of North America, and he makes some scathing remarks on the ecclesiastical zeal which forced these "innocent pagans" to forsake their ancient religion. But his toleration, though it extends beyond the Christian pale, is not complete. He excepts in the first place Roman Catholics, not on account of their theological dogmas but because they "teach that faith is not to be kept with heretics," that "kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms," and because they deliver themselves up to the protection and service of a foreign prince—the Pope. In other words, they are politically dangerous. His other exception is atheists. "Those are not all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. Promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion to challenge the privilege of a Toleration."

Thus Locke is not free from the prejudices of his time. These exceptions contradict his own principle that "it is absurd that things should be enjoined by laws which are not in men's power to perform. And to believe this or that to be true does not depend upon our will." This applies to Roman Catholics as to Protestants, to atheists as to deists. Locke, however, perhaps thought that the speculative opinion of atheism, which was uncommon in his day, does depend on the will. He would have excluded from his State his great contemporary Spinoza.

But in spite of its limitations Locke's Toleration is a work of the highest value, and its argument takes us further than its author went. It asserts unrestrictedly the secular principle, and its logical issue is Disestablishment. A Church is merely "a free and voluntary society." I may notice the remark that if infidels were to be converted by force, it was easier for God to do it "with armies of heavenly legions than for any son of the Church, how potent soever, with all his dragoons." This is a polite way of stating a maxim analogous to that of the Emperor Tiberius (above, p. 41). If false beliefs are an offence to God, it is, really, his affair.

The toleration of Nonconformists was far from pleasing extreme Anglicans, and the influence of this party at the beginning of the eighteenth century menaced the liberty of Dissenters. The situation provoked Defoe, who was a zealous Nonconformist, to write his pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), an ironical attack upon the principle of toleration. It pretends to show that the Dissenters are at heart incorrigible rebels, that a gentle policy is useless, and suggests that all preachers at conventicles should be hanged and all persons found attending such meetings should be banished. This exceedingly amusing but terribly earnest caricature of the sentiments of the High Anglican party at first deceived and alarmed the Dissenters themselves. But the High Churchmen were furious. Defoe was fined, exposed in the pillory three times, and sent to Newgate prison.

But the Tory reaction was only temporary. During the eighteenth century a relatively tolerant spirit prevailed among the Christian sects and new sects were founded. The official Church became less fanatical; many of its leading divines were influenced by rationalistic thought. If it had not been for the opposition of King George III, the Catholics might have been freed from their disabilities before the end of the century. This measure, eloquently advocated by Burke and desired by Pitt, was not carried till 1829, and then under the threat of a revolution in Ireland. In the meantime legal toleration had been extended to the Unitarians in 1813, but they were not relieved from all disabilities till the forties. Jews were not admitted to the full rights of citizenship till 1858.

The achievement of religious liberty in England in the nineteenth century has been mainly the work of Liberals. The Liberal party has been moving towards the ultimate goal of complete secularization and the separation of the Church from the State—the logical results of Locke's theory of civil government. The Disestablishment of the Church in Ireland in 1869 partly realized this ideal, and now more than forty years later the Liberal party is seeking to apply the principle to Wales. It is highly characteristic of English politics and English psychology that the change should be carried out in this piecemeal fashion. In the other countries of the British Empire the system of Separation prevails; there is no connection between the State and any sect; no Church is anything more than a voluntary society. But secularization has advanced under the State Church system. It is enough to mention the Education Act of 1870 and the abolition of religious tests at Universities (1871). Other gains for freedom will be noticed when I come to speak in another chapter of the progress of rationalism.

If we compare the religious situation in France in the seventeenth with that in the eighteenth century, it seems to be sharply contrasted with the development in England. In England there was a great advance towards religious liberty, in France there was a falling away. Until 1676 the French Protestants (Huguenots) were tolerated; for the next hundred years they were outlaws. But the toleration, which their charter (the Edict of Nantes, 1598) secured them, was of a limited kind. They were excluded, for instance, from the army; they were excluded from Paris and other cities and districts. And the liberty which they enjoyed was confined to them; it was not granted to any other sect. The charter was faithfully maintained by the two great Cardinals (Richelieu and Mazarin) who governed France under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, but when the latter assumed the active power in 1661 he began a series of laws against the Protestants which culminated in the revoking of the charter (1676) and the beginning of a Protestant persecution.

The French clergy justified this policy by the notorious text "Compel them to come in," and appealed to St. Augustine. Their arguments evoked a defence of toleration by Bayle, a French Protestant who had taken refuge in Holland. It was entitled a Philosophical Commentary on the text "Compel them to come in" (1686) and in importance stands beside Locke's work which was being composed at the same time. Many of the arguments urged by the two writers are identical. They agreed, and for the same reasons, in excluding Roman Catholics. The most characteristic thing in Bayle's treatise is his sceptical argument that, even if it were a right principle to suppress error by force, no truth is certain enough to justify us in applying the theory. We shall see (next chapter) this eminent scholar's contribution to rationalism.

Though there was an immense exodus of Protestants from France, Louis did not succeed in his design of extirpating heresy from his lands. In the eighteenth century, under Louis XV, the presence of Protestants was tolerated though they were outlaws; their marriages were not recognized as legal, and they were liable at any moment to persecution. About the middle of the century a literary agitation began, conducted mainly by rationalists, but finally supported by enlightened Catholics, to relieve the affliction of the oppressed sect. It resulted at last in an Edict of Toleration (1787), which made the position of the Protestants endurable, though it excluded them from certain careers.

The most energetic and forceful leader in the campaign against intolerance was Voltaire (see next chapter), and his exposure of some glaring cases of unjust persecution did more than general arguments to achieve the object. The most infamous case was that of Jean Calas, a Protestant merchant of Toulouse, whose son committed suicide. A report was set abroad that the young man had decided to join the Catholic Church, and that his father, mother, and brother, filled with Protestant bigotry, killed him, with the help of a friend. They were all put in irons, tried, and condemned, though there were no arguments for their guilt, except the conjecture of bigotry. Jean Calas was broken on the wheel, his son and daughter cast into convents, his wife left to starve. Through the activity of Voltaire, then living near Geneva, the widow was induced to go to Paris, where she was kindly received, and assisted by eminent lawyers; a judicial inquiry was made; the Toulouse sentence was reversed and the King granted pensions to those who had suffered. This scandal could only have happened in the provinces, according to Voltaire: "at Paris," he says, "fanaticism, powerful though it may be, is always controlled by reason."

The case of Sirven, though it did not end tragically, was similar, and the government of Toulouse was again responsible. He was accused of having drowned his daughter in a well to hinder her from becoming a Catholic, and was, with his wife, sentenced to death. Fortunately he and his family had escaped to Switzerland, where they persuaded Voltaire of their innocence. To get the sentence reversed was the work of nine years, and this time it was reversed at Toulouse. When Voltaire visited Paris in 1778 he was acclaimed by crowds as the "defender of Calas and the Sirvens." His disinterested practical activity against persecution was of far more value than the treatise on Toleration which he wrote in connexion with the Calas episode. It is a poor work compared with those of Locke and Bayle. The tolerance which he advocates is of a limited kind; he would confine public offices and dignities to those who belong to the State religion.

But if Voltaire's system of toleration is limited, it is wide compared with the religious establishment advocated by his contemporary, Rousseau. Though of Swiss birth, Rousseau belongs to the literature and history of France; but it was not for nothing that he was brought up in the traditions of Calvinistic Geneva. His ideal State would, in its way, have been little better than any theocracy. He proposed to establish a "civil religion" which was to be a sort of undogmatic Christianity. But certain dogmas, which he considered essential, were to be imposed on all citizens on pain of banishment. Such were the existence of a deity, the future bliss of the good and punishment of the bad, the duty of tolerance towards all those who accepted the fundamental articles of faith. It may be said that a State founded on this basis would be fairly inclusive—that all Christian sects and many deists could find a place in it. But by imposing indispensable beliefs, it denies the principle of toleration. The importance of Rousseau's idea lies in the fact that it inspired one of the experiments in religious policy which were made during the French Revolution

The Revolution established religious liberty in France. Most of the leaders were unorthodox. Their rationalism was naturally of the eighteenth-century type, and in the preamble to the Declaration of Rights (1789) deism was asserted by the words "in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being" (against which only one voice protested). The Declaration laid down that no one was to be vexed on account of his religious opinions provided he did not thereby trouble public order. Catholicism was retained as the "dominant" religion; Protestants (but not Jews) were admitted to public office. Mirabeau, the greatest statesman of the day, protested strongly against the use of words like "tolerance" and "dominant." He said: "The most unlimited liberty of religion is in my eyes a right so sacred that to express it by the word 'toleration' seems to me itself a sort of tyranny, since the authority which tolerates might also not tolerate." The same protest was made in Thomas Paine's Rights of Man which appeared two years later: "Toleration is not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it." Paine was an ardent deist, and he added: "Were a bill brought into any parliament, entitled 'An Act to tolerate or grant liberty to the Almighty to receive the worship of a Jew or a Turk,' or 'to prohibit the Almighty from receiving it,' all men would startle and call it blasphemy. There would be an uproar. The presumption of toleration in religious matters would then present itself unmasked."

The Revolution began well, but the spirit of Mirabeau was not in the ascendant throughout its course. The vicissitudes in religious policy from 1789 to 1801 have a particular interest, because they show that the principle of liberty of conscience was far from possessing the minds of the men who were proud of abolishing the intolerance of the government which they had overthrown. The State Church was reorganized by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), by which French citizens were forbidden to acknowledge the authority of the Pope and the appointment of Bishops was transferred to the Electors of the Departments, so that the commanding influence passed from the Crown to the nation. Doctrine and worship were not touched. Under the democratic Republic which succeeded the fall of the monarchy (1792–5) this Constitution was maintained, but a movement to dechristianize France was inaugurated, and the Commune of Paris ordered the churches of all religions to be closed. The worship of Reason, with rites modelled on the Catholic, was organized in Paris and the provinces. The government, violently anti-Catholic, did not care to use force against the prevalent faith; direct persecution would have weakened the national defence and scandalized Europe. They naïvely hoped that the superstition would disappear by degrees. Robespierre declared against the policy of unchristianizing France, and when he had the power (April, 1795), he established as a State religion the worship of the Supreme Being. "The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the Soul"; the liberty of other cults was maintained. Thus, for a few months, Rousseau's idea was more or less realized. It meant intolerance. Atheism was regarded as a vice, and "all were atheists who did not think like Robespierre."

The democratic was succeeded by the middle-class Republic (1795–9), and the policy of its government was to hinder the preponderance of any one religious group; to hold the balance among all the creeds, but with a certain partiality against the strongest, the Catholic, which threatened, as was thought, to destroy the others or even the Republic. The plan was to favour the growth of new rationalistic cults, and to undermine revealed religion by a secular system of education. Accordingly the Church was separated from the State by the Constitution of 1795, which affirmed the liberty of all worship and withdrew from the Catholic clergy the salaries which the State had hitherto paid. The elementary schools were laicized. The Declaration of Rights, the articles of the Constitution, and republican morality were taught instead of religion. An enthusiast declared that "the religion of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero would soon be the religion of the world."

A new rationalistic religion was introduced under the name of Theophilanthropy. It was the "natural religion" of the philosophers and poets of the century, of Voltaire and the English deists—not the purified Christianity of Rousseau, but anterior and superior to Christianity. Its doctrines, briefly formulated, were: God, immortality, fraternity, humanity; no attacks on other religions, but respect and honour towards all; gatherings in a family, or in a temple, to encourage one another to practise morality. Protected by the government sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, it had a certain success among the cultivated classes.

The idea of the lay State was popularized under this rule, and by the end of the century there was virtually religious peace in France. Under the Consulate (from 1799) the same system continued, but Napoleon ceased to protect Theophilanthropy. In 1801, though there seems to have been little discontent with the existing arrangement, Napoleon decided to upset it and bring the Pope upon the scene. The Catholic religion, as that of the majority, was again taken under the special protection of the State, the salaries of the clergy again paid by the nation, and the Papal authority over the Church again recognized within well-defined limits; while full toleration of other religions was maintained. This was the effect of the Concordat between the French Republic and the Pope. It is the judgment of a high authority that the nation, if it had been consulted, would have pronounced against the change. It may be doubted whether this is true. But Napoleon's policy seems to have been prompted by the calculation that, using the Pope as an instrument, he could control the consciences of men, and more easily carry out his plans of empire.

Apart from its ecclesiastical policies and its experiments in new creeds based on the principles of rationalistic thinkers, the French Revolution itself has an interest, in connexion with our subject, as an example of the coercion of reason by an intolerant faith.

The leaders believed that, by applying certain principles, they could regenerate France and show the world how the lasting happiness of mankind can be secured. They acted in the name of reason, but their principles were articles of faith, which were accepted just as blindly and irrationally as the dogmas of any supernatural creed. One of these dogmas was the false doctrine of Rousseau that man is a being who is naturally good and loves justice and order. Another was the illusion that all men are equal by nature. The puerile conviction prevailed that legislation could completely blot out the past and radically transform the character of a society. "Liberty, equality, and fraternity" was as much a creed as the Creed of the Apostles; it hypnotized men's minds like a revelation from on high; and reason had as little part in its propagation as in the spread of Christianity or of Protestantism. It meant anything but equality, fraternity, or liberty, especially liberty, when it was translated into action by the fanatical apostles of "Reason," who were blind to the facts of human nature and defied the facts of econnomics. Terror, the usual instrument in propagating religions, was never more mercilessly applied. Any one who questioned the doctrines was a heretic and deserved a heretic's fate. And, as in most religious movements, the milder and less unreasonable spirits succumbed to the fanatics. Never was the name of reason more grievously abused than by those who believed they were inaugurating her reign.

Religious liberty, however, among other good things, did emerge from the Revolution, at first in the form of Separation, and then under the Concordat. The Concordat lasted for more than a century, under monarchies and republics, till it was abolished in December, 1905, when the system of Separation was introduced again.

In the German States the history of religious liberty differs in many ways, but it resembles the development in France in so far as toleration in a limited form was at first brought about by war. The Thirty Years' War, which divided Germany in the first half of the seventeenth century, and in which, as in the English Civil War, religion and politics were mixed, was terminated by the Peace of Westphalia (1648). By this act, three religions, the Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Reformed[4] were legally recognized by the Holy Roman Empire, and placed on an equality; all other religions were excluded. But it was left to each of the German States, of which the Empire consisted, to tolerate or not any religion it pleased. That is, every prince could impose on his subjects whichever of the three religions he chose, and refuse to tolerate the others in his territory. But he might also admit one or both of the others, and he might allow the followers of other creeds to reside in his dominion, and practise their religion within the precincts of their own houses. Thus toleration varied, from State to State, according to the policy of each particular prince.

As elsewhere, so in Germany, considerations of political expediency promoted the growth of toleration, especially in Prussia; and as elsewhere, theoretical advocates exercised great influence on public opinion. But the case for toleration was based by its German defenders chiefly on legal, not, as in England and France, on moral and intellectual grounds. They regarded it as a question of law, and discussed it from the point of view of the legal relations between State and Church. It had been considered long ago from this standpoint by an original Italian thinker, Marsilius of Padua (thirteenth century), who had maintained that the Church had no power to employ physical coercion, and that if the lay authority punished heretics, the punishment was inflicted for the violation not of divine ordinances but of the law of the State, which excluded heretics from its territory.

Christian Thomasius may be taken as a leading exponent of the theory that religious liberty logically follows from a right conception of law. He laid down in a series of pamphlets (1693–1697) that the prince, who alone has the power of coercion, has no right to interfere in spiritual matters, while the clergy step beyond their province if they interfere in secular matters or defend their faith by any other means than teaching. But the secular power has no legal right to coerce heretics unless heresy is a crime. And heresy is not a crime, but an error; for it is not a matter of will. Thomasius, moreover, urges the view that the public welfare has nothing to gain from unity of faith, that it makes no difference what faith a man professes so long as he is loyal to the State. His toleration indeed is not complete. He was much influenced by the writings of his contemporary Locke, and he excepts from the benefit of toleration the same classes which Locke excepted.

Besides the influence of the jurists, we may note that the Pietistic movement—a reaction of religious enthusiasm against the formal theology of the Lutheran divines—was animated by a spirit favourable to toleration; and that the cause was promoted by the leading men of letters, especially by Lessing, in the second half of the eighteenth century.

But perhaps the most important fact of all in hastening the realization of religious liberty in Germany was the accession of a rationalist to the throne of Prussia, in the person of Frederick the Great. A few months after his accession (1740) he wrote in the margin of a State paper, in which a question of religious policy occurred, that every one should be allowed to get to heaven in his own way. His view that morality was independent of religion and therefore compatible with all religions, and that thus a man could be a good citizen—the only thing which the State was entitled to demand—whatever faith he might profess, led to the logical consequence of complete religious liberty. Catholics were placed on an equality with Protestants, and the Treaty of Westphalia was violated by the extension of full toleration to all the forbidden sects. Frederick even conceived the idea of introducing Mohammedan settlers into some parts of his realm. Contrast England under George III, France under Louis XV, Italy under the shadow of the Popes. It is an important fact in history, which has hardly been duly emphasized, that full religious liberty was for the first time, in any country in modern Europe, realized under a free-thinking ruler, the friend of the great "blasphemer" Voltaire.

The policy and principles of Frederick were formulated in the Prussian Territorial Code of 1794, by which unrestricted liberty of conscience was guaranteed, and the three chief religions, the Lutheran, the Reformed, and the Catholic, were placed on the same footing and enjoyed the same privileges. The system is "jurisdictional"; only, three Churches here occupy the position which the Anglican Church alone occupies in England. The rest of Germany did not begin to move in the direction pointed out by Prussia until, by one of the last acts of the Holy Roman Empire (1803), the Westphalian settlement had been modified. Before the foundation of the new Empire (1870), freedom was established throughout Germany.

In Austria, the Emperor Joseph II issued an Edict of Toleration in 1781, which may be considered a broad measure for a Catholic State at that time. Joseph was a sincere Catholic, but he was not impervious to the enlightened ideas of his age; he was an admirer of Frederick, and his edict was prompted by a genuinely tolerant spirit, such as had not inspired the English Act of 1689. It extended only to the Lutheran and Reformed sects and the communities of the Greek Church which had entered into union with Rome, and it was of a limited kind. Religious liberty was not established till 1867.

The measure of Joseph applied to the Austrian States in Italy, and helped to prepare that country for the idea of religious freedom. It is notable that in Italy in the eighteenth century toleration found its advocate, not in a rationalist or a philosopher, but in a Catholic ecclesiastic, Tamburini, who (under the name of his friend Trautmansdorf) published a work On Ecclesiastical and Civil Toleration (1783). A sharp line is drawn between the provinces of the Church and the State, persecution and the Inquisition are condemned, coercion of conscience is declared inconsistent with the Christian spirit, and the principle is laid down that the sovran should only exercise coercion where the interests of public safety are concerned. Like Locke, the author thinks that atheism is a legitimate case for such coercion.

The new States which Napoleon set up in Italy exhibited toleration in various degrees, but real liberty was first introduced in Piedmont by Cavour (1848), a measure which prepared the way for the full liberty which was one of the first-fruits of the foundation of the Italian kingdom in 1870. The union of Italy, with all that it meant, is the most signal and dramatic act in the triumph of the ideas of the modern State over the traditional principles of the Christian Church. Rome, which preserved those principles most faithfully, has offered a steadfast, we may say a heroic, resistance to the liberal ideas which swept Europe in the nineteenth century. The guides of her policy grasped thoroughly the danger which liberal thought meant for an institution which, founded in a remote past, claimed to be unchangeable and never out of date. Gregory XVI issued a solemn protest maintaining authority against freedom, the mediæval against the modern ideal, in an Encyclical Letter (1832), which was intended as a rebuke to some young French Catholics (Lamennais and his friends) who had conceived the promising idea of transforming the Church by the Liberal spirit of the day. The Pope denounces "the absurd and erroneous maxim, or rather insanity, that liberty of conscience should be procured and guaranteed to every one. The path to this pernicious error is prepared by that full and unlimited liberty of thought which is spread abroad to the misfortune of Church and State and which certain persons, with excessive impudence, venture to represent as an advantage for religion. Hence comes the corruption of youth, contempt for religion and for the most venerable laws, and a general mental change in the world—in short the most deadly scourge of society; since the experience of history has shown that the States which have shone by their wealth and power and glory have perished just by this evil—immoderate freedom of opinion, licence of conversation, and love of novelties. With this is connected the liberty of publishing any writing of any kind. This is a deadly and execrable liberty for which we cannot feel sufficient horror, though some men dare to acclaim it noisily and enthusiastically." A generation later Pius IX was to astonish the world by a similar manifesto—his Syllabus of Modern Errors (1864). Yet, notwithstanding the fundamental antagonism between the principles of the Church and the drift of modern civilization, the Papacy survives, powerful and respected, in a world where the ideas which it condemned have become the commonplace conditions of life.

The progress of Western nations from the system of unity which prevailed in the fifteenth, to the system of liberty which was the rule in the nineteenth century, was slow and painful, illogical and wavering, generally dictated by political necessities, seldom inspired by deliberate conviction. We have seen how religious liberty has been realized, so far as the law is concerned, under two distinct systems, "Jurisdiction" and "Separation." But legal toleration may coexist with much practical intolerance, and liberty before the law is compatible with serious disabilities of which the law cannot take account. For instance, the expression of unorthodox opinions may exclude a man from obtaining a secular post or hinder his advancement. The question has been asked, which of the two systems is more favourable to the creation of a tolerant social atmosphere? Ruffini (of whose excellent work on Religious Liberty I have made much use in this chapter) decides in favour of Jurisdiction. He points out that while Socinus, a true friend of liberty of thought, contemplated this system, the Anabaptists, whose spirit was intolerant, sought Separation. More important is the observation that in Germany, England, and Italy, where the most powerful Church or Churches are under the control of the State, there is more freedom, more tolerance of opinion, than in many of the American States where Separation prevails. A hundred years ago the Americans showed appalling ingratitude to Thomas Paine, who had done them eminent service in the War of Independence, simply because he published a very unorthodox book. It is notorious that free thought is still a serious hindrance and handicap to an American, even in most of the Universities. This proves that Separation is not an infallible receipt for producing tolerance. But I see no reason to suppose that public opinion in America would be different, if either the Federal Republic or the particular States had adopted Jurisdiction. Given legal liberty under either system, I should say that the tolerance of public opinion depends on social conditions and especially on the degree of culture among the educated classes.

From this sketch it will be seen that toleration was the outcome of new political circumstances and necessities, brought about by the disunion of the Church through the Reformation. But it meant that in those States which granted toleration the opinion of a sufficiently influential group of the governing class was ripe for the change, and this new mental attitude was in a great measure due to the scepticism and rationalism which were diffused by the Renaissance movement, and which subtly and unconsciously had affected the minds of many who were sincerely devoted to rigidly orthodox beliefs; so effective is the force of suggestion. In the next two chapters the advance of reason at the expense of faith will be traced through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.


  1. Translated by Lecky.
  2. Complete toleration was established by Penn in the Quaker Colony of Pennsylvania in 1682.
  3. Especially Chillingworth's Religion of Protestants (1637), and Jeremy Taylor's Liberty of Prophesying (1646).
  4. The Reformed Church consists of the followers of Calvin and Zwingli.