How toleration developed in modern Europe and America

Courageous individuals defied the terrors of the Inquisition and denounced religious wars

Desiderius Erasmus
champion of
toleration and peace

After the Catholic Church gained a religious monopoly throughout Western Europe, it sought to eliminate competition – namely heresy, as independent views were called. Much heresy was probably a protest against Church corruption which included consorting with prostitutes, selling phony religious relics and forgiving sins for a fee, but many heretics simply disagreed with dogmas such as a priest’s ability to turn wine and bread into the blood and flesh of Christ (“transubstantiation”). Accordingly, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition to destroy heresy.

Individuals accused of heresy were summoned before an Inquisition tribunal and given a chance to confess their heretical ideas, embrace Catholic orthodoxy and denounce their friends. By 1452, Pope Innocent IV ruled that it was okay to torture the accused into making confessions. Oxford University scholar Cecil Roth cited this 18th century account of Spanish Inquisition torture: “The prisoner’s hands are bound behind him, and by means of a rope fastened to them and running through a pulley, he is raised up to the ceiling, where having hung for some time with weights tyed to his feet, he is let down almost to the ground with such sudden jerks as disjoint his arms and legs, whereby he is put to the most exquisite pain, and is forced to cry out in a terrible manner. If the prisoner’s strength holds out…they have recourse to the next torture, viz.: WATER. The prisoner is now laid upon his back in a wooden trough which has a barr running through ye midst of it upon which his back lies, and upon occasion his back bone is hereby broke and puts him to incredible pain. The torture of water is sometimes performed by forcing the prisoner to swallow a quantity of water and then pressing his body by screwing ye sides of ye trough closer…The next torture, viz: that of FIRE, is thus performed, the prisoner being placed on the ground his feet are held towards a fire and rubbed with unctious and combustible matter, by which means, the heat penetrating into those parts, HE SUFFERS PAINS WORSE THAN DEATH ITSELF.”

When a tribunal ruled that an individual stubbornly remained a heretic, he or she was turned over to the government which seized the individual’s property (sharing proceeds with the Inquisition), voided any debts (thereby injuring creditors) and left spouses and children destitute. They were unlikely to get charity since it was dangerous to have any association with a heretic. During the early years of the Inquisition, the general practice was to imprison heretics, but as the perceived threat of heresy became more serious, heretics were increasingly burned. Theologian Thomas Aquinas himself called heresy “a sin which merits not only excommunication but death.” Although the Church claimed it had nothing to do with burnings, it excommunicated and thereby imperiled government officials who refused to order burnings. The Spanish Inquisition alone was responsible for some 125,000 deaths.

Why all this violence? It wasn’t just that Church officials were intolerant and hated competition. The prevailing view was that enforcing a single religion on everybody would help keep a society and government together. Letting individuals choose their religion, officials feared, would bring about chaos.

Despite the Inquisition, there were a number of efforts to express independent religious views. The French merchant Pierre Valdes, in the 1170s, rejected a number of Catholic doctrines and embraced pacifism, but when his success recruiting others (known as Waldenses) became apparent, the Church cracked down and virtually wiped them out. The Englishman John Wycliffe (1330-1394) provoked the wrath of the Pope for challenging key Church dogmas, but he died from a stroke before authorities could do anything about him. Jan Hus (c.1370-1415), who was born in Bohemia, spoke out for reforming the Catholic Church and was burned at the stake. Hus inspired the Czech writer Petr Chelcicky (c.1380-1460) who critiqued intolerance, war and the links between church and state; Chelcicky escaped persecution because Bohemian soldiers were strong enough to prevent others from interfering in their affairs.

The most successful early advocate for religious toleration was the Dutch-born monk Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469-1536). His Dulce bellum inexpertis (1515) was perhaps the first book in European history making a case for peace, and the theme of peace runs throughout his writings. He attacked "the vengeful furies whenever they let loose their snakes and assail the hearts of men with lust for war.”

Erasmus was among the earliest writers to take advantage of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. Erasmus translated ancient Greek writings and the Bible into Latin. The first edition of Erasmus’ Adagia (1500) collected 818 Greek and Latin sayings, and the book went through many editions, eventually including some 3,000 sayings. His Handbook of the Christian Prince (1503/1504) asserted that people save their souls not by performing religious rituals but by cultivating faith and doing good deeds; the book was translated into English, Czech, German, French, Italian, Polish, Portugese and Spanish, and was a prelude to the Reformation. Erasmus’ best-known work was The Praise of Folly (1511) which critiqued abuses of both church and state. Erasmus wrote a satiric dialogue Julius exclusus e coelis (1513/1514) about Julius II who, seldom seen out of armor, was known as the “warrier pope.” Forms of Familiar Conversation (1514) generally referred to as Colloquies, provided a spirited critique of the clergy, which Lord Acton described as "the most popular book of his age." Erasmus countered Niccolo Machiavelli, the Florentine who had suggested that princes could resort to whatever brutal methods would help retain their power, by writing The Education of a Christian Prince (1516); Erasmus urged a policy of toleration and peace. His Complaint of Peace (1517) was probably his most passionate protest against war. In Discussion of Free Will (1524), Erasmus made a case that individuals have free will, for which Martin Luther denounced him. Luther approved the slaughter of some 100,000 German peasants, but Erasmus protested this, and he went on to warn against the intolerance of the Inquisition. Altogether, some 750,000 copies of Erasmus’ books were sold during his lifetime, and he broke the monopoly which clergymen long had on learning.

The themes of toleration and peace run through his writings. For instance: "Since the Christian Church was founded on blood, strengthened by blood and increased in blood, they continue to manage its affairs by the sword as if Christ has perished and can no longer protect his own people in his own way. War is something so monstrous that it befits wild beasts rather than men, so crazy that the poets even imagine that it is let loose by Furies, so deadly that it sweeps like a plague through the world, so unjust that it is generally best carried on by the worst type of bandit, so impious that it is quite alien to Christ; and yet they leave everything to devote themselves to war…"

Historian Will Durant described Erasmus as "short, thin, pale, weak in voice and constitution. He impressed by his sensitive hands, his long, sharp nose, his blue-gray eyes flashing with wit, and his speech -- the conversation of the richest and quickest mind of that brilliant age. The greatest artists among his northern contemporaries were eager to paint his portrait, and he consented to sit for them because such portraits were welcomed as gifts by his friends."

"Erasmus," noted William Manchester, "died a martyr to everything he despised in life: fear, malice, excess, ignorance, barbarism." The Spanish Inquisition excommunicated him as a heretic, and, Manchester continued, "everything Erasmus had ever published was consigned to the Index Expurgatorius, which meant that any Catholic who read the prose which had once delighted a pontiff would be placing his soul in jeopardy." In 1546, the Council of Trent condemned Erasmus' edition of the New Testament. Pope Paul IV called Erasmus "the leader of all heretics" and urged people to burn his writings.

Erasmus inspired Sebastian Castellio, a professor of Greek in Basel, Switzerland who produced a translation of the Bible with a preface making a case for religious toleration. He was formerly a follower of Protestant theologian John Calvin who ruthlessly enforced his orthodoxy. Shocked when, in 1553, Calvin ordered the burning of Michael Servetus who had written a book challenging the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost), Castellio countered with a blistering critique, Concerning Heretics (1554).

Castellio noted “that we regard those as heretics with whom we disagree,” and “if you are orthodox in one city or region, you must be held for a heretic in the next.” He believed punishment should be for bad conduct, not belief some consider erroneous. “Take a good Papist,” he explained, “one who fears God and does not swear, commit adultery, bear false witness, or do to another what he would not have done to him. I say that such a man should by no means be called impious and killed. He worships idols. Well? He does so in error and not with malice, just as we all worship.”

Castellio, however, didn’t extend toleration to atheists. “These in my judgment are to be treated as impious. If they deny God, if they blaspheme, if they openly revile the sacred teaching of Christianity, if they detest the holy lives of godly men, I leave such offenders to be punished by the magistrate, not on account of religion – they have none – but on account of irreligion.”

Servetus' critique of the Holy Trinity impressed the Italian Leo Sozzini, and he too embraced anti-trinitarian views. He went to Poland which was a safer place for people with independent views. A small movement blossomed, and Leo’s nephew Fausto assumed leadership. He became known as Faustus Socinus.

According to historian J.P. Bury, “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 judgement in the interpretation of Scripture that to impose Socinianism would have been inconsistent with its principles.”

Unfortunately, the regime changed in Poland. “For a long time,” Bury explained, “the Socinians [also called Unitarians] 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 adapted from them by the Anabaptists and by the Arminian section of the Reformed Church of Holland.”

In any case, Socinus never challenged the idea of a government-supported church. He thought a policy of complete toleration could coexist with it. But the overwhelming tendency was for government-supported churchmen to suppress dissenters.

Decade after decade, people were slaughtered in the name of religion. In 1567, Spain’s King Philip II dispatched the Duke of Alva with 20,000 soldiers to suppress Protestants in the Low Countries. He set up a “Council of Blood" which ordered mass executions. In France, the government of King Charles IV authorized the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in which some 36,000 French Protestants were killed. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was the last and worst European religious war.

Worst hit was Germany. “Magdeburg was besieged ten times, Leipzig five,” wrote historians Robert R. Palmer and Joel Colton in their History of the Modern World. “In one woolen town of Bohemia, with a population of 6,000 before the wars, the citizens fled and disappeared, the houses collapsed, and eight years after the peace only 850 persons were found there. On the site of another small town Swedish cavalry found nothing but wolves. The peasants, murdered, put to flight, or tortured by soldiers to reveal their few valuables, ceased to give attention to farming; agriculture was ruined, so that starvation followed, and with it came pestilence.” All this slaughter exhausted much of the passion for religious intolerance, and increasing numbers of people were willing to live and let live.

In England, however, the Church of England still tried to enforce religious orthodoxy. Many dissenters were imprisoned and worse. Historian M.A. Gibb described what happened to Puritan William Prynne for criticizing the Church of England: “he was brought before the Star Chamber in 1634, deprived of his academic degrees, expelled from Lincoln’s Inn [prestigious lawyers' society], fined, put in the pillory, his ears savagely hacked off, and afterwards sentenced to life imprisonment in the Tower.”

The principal critics of the Church of England were those, like Prynne, who wanted Parliament to enforce a Presbyterian orthodoxy on everyone. They were almost as intolerant as the Church of England.

But there were valiant voices for toleration: namely, the so-called “Levellers” whom historian Leonard W. Levy called “the first group in modern history to battle for libertarianism and democracy, opposed to all coercion of conscience.” In the 1640s, John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Richard Overton, Thomas Prince, John Wildman, William Larner and others wrote pamphlets advocating toleration, for which they were imprisoned. The pamphlets make for difficult reading, preoccupied as many are with specific grievances and legal cases, but there are pioneering ideas and memorable lines like this one by Overton: “To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice.”

Suppressing religious liberty, the Levellers realized, promotes conflict, not order. If individuals could worship freely, then religion wouldn’t be a source of hatred and violence. The Levellers understood, as perhaps no one had before, that society will do just fine without government telling people what their religion must be.

The Levellers also quickly discovered that religious liberty is linked to every other liberty. There cannot be religious liberty without secure private property, because secure private property means an individual can hold whatever peaceful worship services he or she might wish on their property, and nobody else should interfere. Similarly, there couldn’t be religious liberty unless there were freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of movement, and so on. So led by a desire to achieve religious liberty, the Levellers began explaining and defending other fundamental liberties, and in the process they developed the first comprehensive agenda for liberty.

In 1649, the Levellers were suppressed by the Presbyterian military genius Oliver Cromwell who ruled England until his death in 1658. By then, English people had grown weary of his bleak “Protectorate” and supported a return of the Stuart heir who became King Charles II in 1660. He restored the religious monopoly of the Church of England, and it was again dangerous to advocate religious liberty.

Incredibly, the ideas of the Levellers seem to have been forgotten within a few decades. Physician and philosopher John Locke whose Letter Concerning Toleration was published in 1689, didn’t seem to draw much from them. Locke urged toleration of all except atheists. He wrote, “The Magistrate ought not to forbid the Preaching or Professing of any Speculative Opinions in any Church, because they have no manner of relation to the Civil Rights of the Subjects. If a Roman Catholick believe that to be really the Body of Christ, which another man calls Bread, he does no injury thereby to his Neighbour. If a Jew do not believe the New Testament to be the Word of God, he does not thereby alter any thing in mens Civil Rights. If a Heathen doubt of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as a pernicious Citizen. The Power of the Magistrate, and the Estates of the People, may be equally secure, whether any man believe these things or no…the business of Laws is not to provide for the Truth of Opinions, but for the Safety and Security of the Commonwealth, and of every particular mans Goods and Person. And so it ought to be. For Truth certainly would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for her self. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive much Assistance from the Power of Great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. She is not taught by Laws, nor has she any need of Force to procure her entrance into the minds of men.”

The same year that Locke’s Letter was published, Parliament passed the Toleration Act. It permitted most dissenting Protestants (like Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists) to worship without penalty. They could choose their own preachers and teachers. However, the Toleration Act continued to exclude dissenters from holding public office, and it didn’t apply to Unitarians (too outrageous, for rejecting the doctrine of Holy Trinity) or Catholics (potentially dangerous since they were loyal to the Pope, a foreign power). As an act of Parliament, the Toleration Act conceivably could be repealed by majority vote at a later time, so it didn’t have the impact later achieved by the U.S. Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Ironically, one of the most tolerant places contributed little to the idea of toleration. This was Holland, a cauldron of capitalism which thrived by attracting outcasts. Commerce between Holland and the Iberian Peninsula made it possible for large numbers of Sephardic Jews to escape Spanish as well as Portugese persecution during the 16th century. These Jews found sanctuary in Holland. So, too, did Ashkenazi Jews who fled the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Commercial Holland was among the few places where Jews could practice their religion openly. They could choose any occupation. The first modern stock market evolved in Amsterdam, thanks largely to Jewish brokers. Jane Gerber, a scholar of Jewish history, observed that Amsterdam's "great wealth was based on three factors: her fleet, her thriving trade, and a policy of tolerance that attracted some of the most enterprising and ambitious souls in the Continent."

More than half the biggest depositors at the exchange bank of Amsterdam came from people who had fled Catholic persecution in the Flemish provinces. Printing presses were widely censored except in Holland. The Dutch published works which were banned elsewhere, including Galileo's Dialogue on the New Sciences and Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. Holland was the only place in Europe where the press was free. "The market," declared historian Fernand Braudel, "spells liberation, openness, access to another world, coming up for air."

The greatest breakthroughs for religious toleration occurred in America where English religious dissenters found sanctuary. King Charles I, in 1632, issued a grant to Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, for a proprietary colony in what would become Maryland. It was named after England’s Queen Henrietta Maria. The first settlers arrived two years later.

Although Maryland was founded mainly as a sanctuary for Catholics persecuted in England, it embraced a remarkable degree of religious toleration. Both Protestants and Catholics worshipped in the same chapel at St. Mary’s City, the capital. On April 21, 1649, the free men there voted for An Act Concerning Religion. It provided that “no person or persons whatsoever within this province…professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be in any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion, nor in the free exercise thereof…” But this was during the English Civil War; Parliament deposed and beheaded the king, and the royalist Catholic governor Thomas Greene offended Parliament. In 1654, the Maryland Toleration Act was repealed, and a new law declared that “none who professed and exercised the popish religion could be protected in this province.”

Roger Williams (1603-1688) emerged as the greatest pioneer for religious liberty. He had sought religious liberty in Massachusetts but was expelled in 1635, accused of holding “dangerous opinions.” He and 13 associates began building a settlement along Narragansett Bay, on land he purchased from the Indians. Providence was incorporated August 20, 1638. Williams’ policy of religious toleration attracted all kinds of people, including riotous Samuel Gorton, mystical Ann Hutchinson and the Quakers.

Williams established Rhode Island on the principle of a separation of church and state. Williams insisted it isn't anybody's business to interfere with an individual's peaceful personal life which includes religion, and there shouldn't be any government-enforced churches. Massachusetts and Connecticut coveted Rhode Island territory, and Williams repeatedly went to London where he defended Rhode Island against their claims. While in London, he wrote pamphlets advocating religious toleration, the best known being The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution (1644). One of his critics, Thomas Edwards, attacked it as the "grand design of the devil.”

The Englishman William Penn (1644-1718) succeeded on an even larger scale. After converting to Quakerism, he began to create the first Quaker literature, he asserted the right to freedom of conscience, for which he was imprisoned six times, and he established the American colony of Pennsylvania, the first large society which offered equal rights to people of different races and religions.

While Penn was still in England, he repeatedly challenged laws restricting religious liberty. He questioned the Catholic/Anglican doctrine of the Trinity, and the Anglican bishop had him imprisoned in the Tower of London. Ordered to recant, Penn declared from his cold isolation cell: "My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot; for I owe my conscience to no mortal man." By the time he was released seven months later, he had written pamphlets defining the principal elements of Quakerism. His best-known work from this period: No Cross, No Crown (1669) which presented a pioneering historical case for religious toleration.

To curb the potential power of Catholics, notably the Stuarts, Parliament passed the Conventicle Act which aimed to suppress religious dissent as sedition. But the law was applied mainly against Quakers, perhaps because few were politically connected. Thousands were imprisoned for their beliefs. The government seized their properties.

Penn challenged the Conventicle Act by holding a meeting on August 14, 1670. The Lord Mayor of London arrested him and his fellow Quakers. At the historic trial, Penn insisted that since the government refused to present a formal indictment -- officials were concerned the Conventicle Act might be overturned -- the jury could never reach a guilty verdict. He appealed to England's common law heritage: "if these ancient and fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, and which are not limited to particular persuasions in matters of religion, must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who then can say that he has a right to the coat on his back? Certainly our liberties are to be openly invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer -- as their trophies but our forfeits for conscience's sake."

The jury acquitted all defendants, but the Lord Mayor of London refused to accept this verdict. He hit the jury members with fines and ordered them held in Newgate prison. Still, they affirmed their verdict. After the jury had been imprisoned for about two months, the Court of Common Pleas issued a writ of habeas corpus to set them free. Then they sued the Lord Mayor of London for false arrest. The Lord Chief Justice of England, together with his 11 associates, ruled unanimously that juries must not be coerced or punished for their verdicts. It was a key precedent protecting the right to trial by jury.

After Parliament refused to support religious toleration, Penn went to the King and asked for a charter enabling him to establish an American colony. Perhaps the idea seemed like an easy way to get rid of troublesome Quakers. On March 4, 1681, Charles II signed a charter for territory west of the Delaware River and north of Maryland, approximately the present size of Pennsylvania, where about a thousand Germans, Dutch and Indians lived without any particular government. The King proposed the name "Pennsilvania" which meant "Forests of Penn" -- honoring Penn's late father, the Admiral. Penn would be proprietor owning all the land, accountable directly to the King. According to traditional accounts, Penn agreed to cancel the debt of 16,000 pounds which the government owed the Admiral for back pay, but there aren't any documents about such a deal. At the beginning of each year, Penn had to give the King two beaver skins and a fifth of any gold and silver mined within the territory.

Penn sailed to America and arrived November 8, 1682. With assembled Friends, he founded Philadelphia -- he chose the name which means "city of brotherly love" in Greek. He approved the site between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. He envisioned a 10,000-acre city, but his more sober-minded Friends thought that was overly optimistic. They accepted a 1,200-acre plan. Penn named major streets including Broad, Chestnut, Pine and Spruce.

Penn was most concerned about developing a legal basis for a free society. In his First Frame of Government, which Penn and initial land purchasers had adopted on April 25, 1682, he anticipated the Declaration of Independence: "Men being born with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political view of another, without his consent."

Penn provided that there would be a governor -- initially, himself -- whose powers were limited. He would work with a Council (72 members) which proposed legislation and a General Assembly (up to 500 members) which either approved or defeated it. Each year, about a third of members would be elected for three-year terms. As governor, Penn would retain a veto over proposed legislation.

His First Frame of Government provided for secure private property, virtually unlimited free enterprise, a free press, trial by jury and, of course, religious toleration. Whereas the English penal code specified the death penalty for some 200 offenses, Penn reserved it for just two -- murder and treason. As a Quaker, Penn encouraged women to get an education and speak out like men. He insisted on low taxes and actually suspended all taxes for a year. He called Pennsylvania his "Holy Experiment."

Penn's First Frame of Government was the first constitution to provide for peaceful change through amendments. A proposed amendment required the consent of the governor and 85% of the elected representatives. Benevolent though Penn was, people in Pennsylvania were disgruntled about his executive power as proprietor and governor. People pressed to make the limitations more specific and to provide stronger assurances about the prerogatives of the legislature. The constitution was amended several times. The version adopted on October 28, 1701 endured for three-quarters of a century and then became the basis for Pennsylvania's state constitution, adopted in 1776.

Penn's fortunes collapsed after James II had a son which meant a Catholic succession. The English rebelled and welcomed the Dutch King William of Orange as William III who overthrew the Stuarts without having to fire a shot. Suddenly, Penn's Stuart connections were a terrible liability. He was arrested for treason. The government seized his estates. Though he was cleared by November 1690, he was marked as a traitor again. He became a fugitive for four years, hiding amidst London's squalid slums. His friend John Locke helped restore his good name. He died following two strokes, on July 30, 1718.

With an atmosphere of liberty, Philadelphia emerged as an intellectual center. Between 1740 and 1776, Philadelphia presses issued an estimated 11,000 works including pamphlets, almanacs and books. In 1776, there were seven newspapers reflecting a wide range of opinions. No wonder Penn's "city of brotherly love" became the most sacred site for American liberty, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and delegates drafted the Constitution. The First Congress soon amended the Constitution to protect religious liberty and help assure a separation between church and state.

While religious liberty was developing in America, the wittiest critic of intolerance was publishing his most famous works. The Frenchman Francois Marie Arouet (1694-1778) turned out satirical verses, plays and books. He had been born during the reign of King Louis XIV who renewed a policy of religious intolerance of Protestants. In 1717, Arouet was imprisoned 11 months for writing satirical verses criticizing the government, and that year he adopted the pen name “Voltaire.” He twice became an exile to avoid being imprisoned for other criticisms of the government and the Catholic Church, and in 1759 he bought “Ferney,” an estate near Geneva, Switzerland.

Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary (1764) aimed some of his best-known barbs at religious intolerance. His entry “Religion” tells how he was transported by an angel to see the victims of religious intolerance. “’These,’ said the angel, ‘are the twenty-three thousand Jews who danced before the calf, together with the twenty-four thousand who were slain while ravishing Midianitish women; the number of the slaughtered for similar offenses or mistakes amounts to nearly three hundred thousand.

"’At the following avenues are the bones of Christians, butchered by one another on account of metaphysical disputes. They are divided into several piles of four centuries each; it was necessary to separate them; for had they all been together, they would have reached the sky….

“’Here,’ the angel continued, ‘are the twelve millions of Americans slain in their own country for not having been baptized….’

“’Since thou art willing to instruct me,’ said I to the genius, ‘tell me if there be any other people than the Christians and the Jews, whom zeal and religion, unhappily turned into fanaticism, have prompted to so many horrible cruelties?’ “Yes,’ said he; ‘the Mahometans have been stained by the same inhuman acts, but rarely; and when their victims have cried out ‘amman!’ (mercy!) and have offered them tribute, they have pardoned them….’”

“When once a religion is established in a state, the tribunals are all employed in perverting the continuance or renewal of most of the things that were done in that religion before it was publicly received. The founders used to assemble in private, in spite of magistrates; but now no assemblies are permitted but public ones under the eyes of the law, and all concealed associations are forbidden. The maxim formerly was that ‘it is better to obey God than man’; the opposite maxim is now adopted, that ‘to follow the laws of the state is to obey God.’”

In his tribute, English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote: “Of all the intellectual weapons that have ever been wielded by man, the most terrible was the mockery of Voltaire. Bigots and tyrants who had never been moved by the wailings and cursings of millions, turned pale at his name."

The most famous literary work about toleration came from 19th century England, long after persecution and religious wars were over. The author, John Stuart Mill, was a philosopher and economist. His little book On Liberty (1859) made a case that human beings have limited knowledge, and one never knows where truth might come from. Therefore, individuals must be tolerated even though they might be eccentric and disagreeable.

As Mill expressed his key principle: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forebear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.”

Mill went so far as to say that “the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.”

Reflecting on the history of intolerance, Mill observed that truth is a fragile gift: “The dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever, it may be thrown back for centuries. To speak only of religious opinions: the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down. Arnold of Brescia was put down. Fra Dolcino was put down, Savonarola was put down. The Albigeois were put down. The Vaudois were put down. The Lollards were put down. The Hussites were put down. Even after the era of Luther, wherever persecution was persisted in, Protestantism was rooted out, and, most likely, would have been so in England had Queen Mary lived, or Queen Elizabeth died. Persecution has always succeeded, save where the heretics were too strong a party to be effectually persecuted.”

Since Mill’s time, there have continued to be serious episodes of intolerance in the West, but the idea of toleration first took hold there. As America had shown, toleration is best protected with a separation of political powers, a written constitution and a bill of rights which includes a separation of church and state.


R. Bainton ed., Concerning Heretics by Castellio (New York: Octagon, 1979).

H.N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (Nottingham, England: Spokesman University Press, 1976).

Peter Brock, Freedom from Violence, Sectarian Nonresistance from the Middle Ages to the Great War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

Peter Brock, Quaker Peace Testimony, 1660 to 1914 (York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1990).

Peter Brock, Studies in Peace History (York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1991).

J.B. Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1952).

Wilbur K. Jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England, from the Beginning of the English Reformation to 1660 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932-1940), 4 vols.

Henry Charles Lea, The Inquisition of the Middle Ages (New York: Macmillan, 1961). Abridged by Margaret Nicholson.

Leonard W. Levy, Blasphemy, Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salmon Rushdie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983).

James McConica, Erasmus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Alfred Noyes, Voltaire (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936).

Persecution and Liberty, Essays in Honor of George Lincoln Burr (New York: Century, 1931).

"Agenda for Liberty," “A Tolerant Mind,” “An Open Society,” “Brotherly Love” and “A Search for Truth” in Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty (New York: Free Press, 2000).

Information about purchasing The Triumph of Liberty.

Cecil Roth, The Spanish Inquisition (New York: Norton, 1996).

Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1975), I.

Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (London: Penguin, 1984).

Stefan Zweig, Right to Heresy, Castellio Against Calvin (New York: Viking Press, 1936).

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During desperate years, merchant Robert Morris came through with money and munitions so that George Washington could win

Ancient Roman contributions to private property rights
The Romans replaced tribal property with private property and worked out the details about how ownership should be proven and transferred.

How toleration developed in modern Europe and America
Courageous individuals defied the terrors of the Inquisition and denounced religious wars.

The story of Magna Carta
King John's wars and taxes stirred England's barons to protect their interests by rebelling against him, and they set an enormously important precedent for liberty which benefited everyone.

The best of H.L. Mencken, witty American defender of liberty
This prolific newspaperman and literary critic still entertains and enlightens us today.

How private enterprise created modern Japan
The government's railroads, shipping, silk-reeling and other ventures all lost money. Private entrepreneurs achieved wonders.

Runaway slaves!
Far from being contented and docile, American slaves dreamed of liberty, and thousands rebelled or ran away. Inspiring resistance to oppression.

The strange battle for the U.S. Bill of Rights
Those who initially wanted it ended up voting against it, and those who never wanted it made it happen

Why has liberty thrived in the West?
This is where enough people stuck out their necks for liberty.

"Honor is a harder master than the law"
At 58 and in ailing health, Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) was plunged $94,000 in debt by business failures. True to his word, he repaid everybody.

Liberty as a woman
Throughout history, liberty has been depicted as a woman on coins, in engravings, paintings, statues and more. Here are illustrations from ancient Rome, France and America.

Private initiative spurred vital discoveries throughout history
Language, geography, science and other essentials of civilization were diffused around the globe by private initiative.Political liberty impossible without economic liberty
The life and times of F.A. Hayek. The New Yorker called the twentieth century "the Hayek century."

Political liberty impossible without economic liberty
The life and times of F.A. Hayek. The New Yorker called the twentieth century "the Hayek century."

Thomas Jefferson in perspective
How can friends of liberty still defend him after the relentless attacks of historians and biographers during the last quarter century?

How markets nurtured our civilization
Many people seem to imagine that markets and commerce are only about money, yet they made civilization possible. They brought people into contact with new ideas and things. Civilization has flourished where commerce has flourished.

Most dramatic orator in the American antislavery movement
Although Wendell Phillips isn't as well known today as William Lloyd Garrison, the pioneering journalist for abolishing slavery, or Frederick Douglass who provided the most compelling testimony, Phillips was more effective than anyone else stirring crowds against slavery.

Socialism's greatest enemy
How this great Austrian economist recognized the fatal flaws of a government-run economy 7 decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union made it obvious to all that he was right.

They created the first modern agenda for liberty
Dubbed the "Levellers" by their adversaries, these mid-17th century English rebels championed private property, religious toleration, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free trade, a rule of law, a separation of powers, a written constitution, and they opposed military conscription.

William S. Gilbert's wicked wit for liberty
Most quotable lines by the dramatist whose comic operas, created with composer Arthur Sullivan, are still going strong after more than a century (reportedly performed more than the work of any other songwriting team except the Beatles). Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken enjoyed Gilbert's barbs at bureaucrats and politicians.

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