J.P.SOMMERVILLE

TOLERATION

367 - 9 (3)

 

 

Religion and the law

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In Shakespeare's day, English  law required that everyone attend church on Sundays and Holy Days. Those who failed to attend ("recusants") were subject to fines of £20 per month, were excluded from certain offices and could lose their lands.

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Attendance at religious services other than those approved by the Church of England could also result in heavy penalties, including imprisonment.

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During the Civil War, there was wide de facto toleration and Oliver Cromwell's regime tolerated almost all Protestants. However, Roman Catholics continued to suffer disabilities (such as paying double taxes).
 


John Cosin (1594-1672)

The Anglican authorities, who quashed Puritan opposition in the 1630's and imposed restrictions on Dissenters after 1660, were themselves the object of sanctions during the rule of Parliament and Oliver Cromwell.
Archbishop William Laud was executed in 1645 and Bishop John Cosin spent the period 1644 to 1660 in exile on the Continent.


 

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Anti-Trinitarians, Ranters, Quakers and others who held extremely heterodox views were also penalized by local magistrates. Oliver Cromwell insisted that all ministers who received state support (that is to say, who held livings in the national church, and were maintained by tithes) should accept certain fundamental doctrines, and he set up "Triers" to investigate candidates for such jobs.

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In the Declaration of Breda (April 1660), Charles II offered a degree of religious toleration.

"And because the passion and uncharitableness of the times have produced several opinions in religion, by which men are engaged in parties and animosities against each other (which, when they shall hereafter unite in a freedom of conversation, will be composed or better understood), we do declare a liberty to tender consciences, and that no man shall be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matter of religion, which do not disturb the peace of the kingdom…"

(Declaration of Breda)


 

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The Anglican fervor of Charles II's Parliaments and the inability of the Presbyterians and Bishops to work out a compromise at the Savoy Conference (1661) led instead to an exclusively Anglican settlement. Protestant Dissenters suffered various restrictions on their worship and civil rights until the Glorious Revolution,

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The Toleration Act of May 1689 granted a limited toleration to Presbyterians, Independents Baptists, and Quakers; - they could worship freely but were excluded from public office. (Catholics and Unitarians were still liable to prosecution).

 


Great Tew

Proponents of toleration

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In 1615 an anonymous Baptist tract argued that all loyal subjects - even Catholics - should be allowed freedom of worship. Their position was very unusual but seventy-five years later it was widely accepted.

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In the years before the Civil War, to the few puritan sectaries asking for a toleration of (most) religious beliefs, were added some Anglicans unhappy with Archbishop Laud's oppressive policies. These thinkers often met at the home in Great Tew of Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland and so became known as the Tew Circle.

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After the Restoration some of the Latitudinarians influenced by Tew Circle ideas became important in the Church of England - these included Jeremy Taylor.

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Puritan radicals such as William Walwyn, Gerard Winstanley and John Milton also advocated religious toleration.
 

John Milton's Areopagitica was one of the earliest and most influential pleas for freedom of the press. John Milton's own heterodox ideas on divorce and the Trinity  inclined him in favor of toleration.


 

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Another important advocate of toleration was Roger Williams (1603?-83). A graduate of Cambridge University, Williams emigrated to Massachusetts and became a minister at Boston.
 

Williams was banished from Boston for denying that the magistrates had any power over religious beliefs and founded a rival settlement at Providence, Rhode Island in 1636. Williams returned to England in 1644, where he continued to advocate religious liberty in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644). Williams lived for periods in both England and America and died at Rhode Island in 1683.

 

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Another Cambridge graduate, John Goodwin (1594?-1665) established an Independent congregation in London and wrote tirelessly against the Presbyterians' attempts to impose religious uniformity on England. His tract Right and Might well met (1649) was written in support of the army's coup against Parliament, but he later withdrew his support from Oliver Cromwell in protest at the institution of the Triers.

 

"The word uniformity is become as odious to diverse who plead for liberty and toleration, as the word conformity was in the prelates’ times".

(George Gillespie, A Treatise of Miscellany Questions 1649)


 

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Jeremy Taylor (1613-67) was another graduate of Cambridge University. Unlike Williams and Goodwin, he supported episcopal rule and was patronized by Archbishop Laud. During the Civil War and Interregnum, he lost his living and lived on the charity of various Royalist gentlemen. At the Restoration he was appointed to an Irish bishopric.
Taylor's important work on toleration was the Liberty of prophesying (1647), but he also wrote a number of very popular devotional works such as The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650), and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651).

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Many of the arguments in favor of religious toleration developed by Goodwin, Taylor and others were repeated by John Locke. John Selden and Thomas Hobbes afforded the government generous powers to control the expression of beliefs liable to cause social conflict, but advocated intellectual freedom in general and were keen to curb the powers of clerical authorities to impose religious beliefs.

 

Reason and religion


Edward Stillingfleet (1635-99)
A leading latitudinarian

 

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The English Civil War convinced many people of the troubles caused by religious enthusiasm. During the Restoration period,  increasing numbers of the wealthy and educated stressed the reasonable elements of Christianity and downplayed inspiration. Deists saw God as the creator of order whose will was embodied in the laws of nature and reason.
 

"…true understanding the nature and reasonableness of the Christian religion … fills our minds with a true sense of God and goodness, and so arms us against superstition; and withal acquaints us, that the conduct of the Spirit of God is in the use of the greatest reason and prudence, and so prevents the follies of enthusiasm"

(Stillingfleet, Discourse concerning  idolatry)


 

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Latitudinarians also distanced themselves from spiritual revelation and argued that ethical conduct was more important to the true Christian than the fine points of doctrine.

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Thomas Hobbes was the most extreme example of skepticism about revelation and insistence that nothing unreasonable should be believed.

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Hobbes was seen as an atheist, but John Locke was certainly a sincere Christian. Yet in his Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) he so stressed the compatibility of Scripture with reason that he was accused of Socinianism. In his Letter concerning toleration (1689) Locke proposed the toleration of virtually all religious beliefs that weren't seditious or dangerous.

 

"‘These two, faith and repentance; i.e. believing Jesus to be the Messiah, and a good life; are the indispensable conditions of the New Covenant to be performed by all those who would obtain eternal life."

(Locke, Reasonableness)

 

 

Arguments for toleration


Poussin, Adoration of the Golden Calf

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Those who supported the imposition of uniformity argued that Divine Providence would punish any nation that permitted idolatry, blasphemy and heresy in its midst. During the seventeenth century, the advocates of toleration countered that religious freedom promoted peace and prosperity. The Dutch Republic - the most tolerant country in Europe - was also the most prosperous; intolerant Spain entered a long economic decline after deporting its Jewish and Muslim minorities. The Edict of Nantes (1598) granting religious toleration brought peace to France; its Revocation (1685) lost the nation its industrious, skilled Huguenot community.

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Increasingly, the role of government was perceived as wholly secular and civil allegiance as separate from religious opinion. The magistrate's role was to maintain civil peace so that people could pursue their temporal welfare. Religious truth would best emerge from a free open market in ideas.

 


Pietro da Cortona, Stoning of St. Stephen

The magistrate's duty to support the true religion and suppress false ones had often been based on appeals to Old Testament Israel, where the blasphemy and idolatry were punished with death. Believers in toleration countered by drawing a hard line between the Old Testament and the New. In the Old Testament, Judicial Law required such penalties, but the Gospel way was persuasion and conversion.


 

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Another argument used to support toleration was that compulsion only led to hypocrisy and deceit. (There was even the risk that heretics who endured cruel punishment would be admired and imitated).
Souls could not be saved by forcing people to dissemble their true beliefs. Increasingly, the proponents of toleration stressed the individual conscience - any acts of worship or professions of belief made against conscience (even good ones) would be sinful simply because the people believed themselves to be acting badly.

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In any case, persecution might be used against the truly godly if the magistrate were wicked or misled. It was safer to avoid establishing a precedent that might be used in the wrong way.

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The Tew Circle idea that only a few Christian doctrines were fundamental gradually spread widely, and allowed people to see minor differences of opinion about worship and dogma as unimportant enough to be tolerated.

 

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