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Response to Review no. 192

I am much indebted to Dr Keith Lindley for his sympathetic and searching review of Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England. When surveying a broad theme like this across more than a century, one is acutely conscious of how difficult it is to capture the richness and complexity of the subject. The book is far from definitive, but I am delighted that Dr Lindley thinks it will provide a useful introduction and re-ignite discussion of the subject.

Dr Lindley concurs with me on the importance of the 1640s toleration debate, but he is disappointed that there is not more on the Levellers. Given their central role in the toleration controversy and their remarkable efforts to construct something like a non-confessional politics, I can only sympathise with his complaint. The Levellers were certainly not ignored in the book, but with only a single chapter devoted to tolerationists, it was difficult to discuss particular movements or individuals in any depth. No doubt other reviewers will lament similar omissions elsewhere. As for listing the Levellers and Diggers with Baptists and Independents, my intention was not to suggest that the Levellers and Diggers were religious sects, but to underline their origins in a radical Protestant milieu. As Dr Lindley himself has shown, the Levellers drew much of their early support from the sectarian congregations of London.

More tellingly, perhaps, Dr Lindley feels that the book could say more about ‘the social dimension’, and he observes that I concentrate most on the political and intellectual aspects of the theme. At various points in the book, I do draw on the work of social historians like Christopher Marsh to explore the tolerance and intolerance of local communities, but I admit that this important theme needs to be treated in greater depth. Fortunately, Alexandra Walsham is preparing a book on persecution and toleration that should redress the balance here, and offer a fuller discussion of the lived experience of Catholic and Protestant dissenters in the English localities. Dr Lindley himself reminds us that contemporaries were fearful of the social consequences of toleration and religious pluralism. I was surprised to discover that I had not mentioned the significance of the Munster debacle of 1535, since it did provide plentiful ammunition for the critics of radical Protestantism throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For Dissenters the journey to respectability was a very long haul, one that only reached its destination in the Victorian era. But during the early modern period there was a gradual recognition that religiously pluralistic societies could work. If this owed much to the Dutch example, it was also the fruit of the resilience of Dissenters and their co-existence alongside Anglicans in local communities. Indeed, one of my key contentions is that the eventual demise of enforced uniformity owed more to the stubborn social reality of pluralism than to the intellectual ideal of toleration (pp. 212-213). The social dimension is a vital aspect of the story.

However, despite his call for more social history, the central issue raised by Dr Lindley’s review concerns the history of ideas, specifically the limits of tolerationist thought. Firstly, Dr Lindley reminds us of the early modern Christian belief in a God of judgement. Roger Williams was not a modern secular liberal but a firm believer in the reality of divine wrath. This hardly a surprising observation (’17th-century Calvinist in belief-in-hell shock’!), but it is a worthwhile one. As I noted in the book, the grand theme of divine tolerance and intolerance lay behind much contemporary discourse about toleration (pp. 13-14). Tolerationists warned persecutors that God would judge them for oppression, that God himself was longsuffering and tolerant towards the ungodly, and that God alone could punish heresy and unbelief. Yet to fasten on Williams’ belief in hell risks obscuring the iconoclastic way in which he demolished traditional Reformed ideas of the Christian magistrate. Contemporaries were not struck by his conventional belief that God would judge the ungodly, but by his thoroughly unconventional belief that the magistrate should tolerate all peaceful religions. Moreover, Williams’ attitudes towards unbelievers were considerably more nuanced than one isolated quotation suggests – the unsaved were not to be treated as worthless tares, but as fellow creatures. Since the godly themselves were corrupt recipients of God’s utterly unmerited grace, Williams urged them to be ‘patient and gentle toward the Jews.the Turks.anti-Christians.pagans’. His harshest words were reserved for the persecutors, ‘ravenous and greedy wolves’, soul rapists who destroyed precious lives. People of other faiths could be ‘peaceable and quiet subjects, loving and helpful neighbours, fair and just dealers, true and loyal to the civil government’. As his close relationships with American Indians demonstrate, belief in hell did not necessarily translate into harsh treatment of other faiths. Thus the interaction between ideas of divine in/tolerance and human in/tolerance is one that requires further study. How closely is ‘the rise of toleration’ (Henry Kamen) correlated with ‘the decline of hell’ (D. P. Walker)? And did tolerationism itself foster the emergence of theologies which softened doctrines of divine wrath? Such questions serve to underline the centrality of theology to a story that has often been given a thoroughly secular spin.

Secondly, Dr Lindley observes that many tolerationists refused to extend toleration to atheism, blasphemy, idolatry or adultery, a point I also make in the book (pp. 53-56). During the 1640s and 1650s, however, a number of radical tolerationists did condemn the prosecution of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘idolatry’ – they were well aware that Presbyterians rested their case for heresy prosecution on Old Testament laws against blasphemers and idolaters. William Walwyn was even prepared to defend toleration for atheists. Nevertheless, Protestant tolerationists were not premature advocates of the permissive society and most found it hard to see how atheists (who were God-denying rather than God-fearing) could be good citizens. Jonathan Israel has recently argued that there was a gulf between the moderate Enlightenment Protestantism of Locke and the radical Enlightenment freethought of Spinoza. Whereas Locke presented a theological argument for freedom of practice for all peaceful religions (not for atheism), Spinoza made a philosophical case for a much wider freedom of thought and expression (J. Israel, ‘Spinoza, Locke and the Enlightenment battle for toleration’, in O.P. Grell and R. Porter, eds., Toleration in Enlightenment Europe, Cambridge, 2000, Ch. 5). Israel’s argument is compelling, and it is a firm reminder of the limits of Protestant tolerationism. But it is worth noting that Spinoza himself entrusted the magistrate with considerable authority over religion. Spinoza favoured a lavishly endowed state religion which would teach Spinozist doctrine, and to which all members of the ruling elite would belong. He also maintained that dissenting churches should be strictly regulated to ensure that their congregations did not grow too large. By contrast, radical Protestant tolerationists like Williams and Locke condemned such heavy-handed state regulation of dissenting religions and even envisaged a separation of church and state. Indeed, as far as the theory of church and state is concerned, most modern liberal democracies would seem to have followed Locke’s line rather than Spinoza’s. If we need to be alert to the traditional assumptions of radical Protestant tolerationists, we also need to recognise the ways in which they mapped out certain key features of modern polities, by defining the church as a voluntary society, restricting the state to a ‘merely civil’ role, and defending the viability of a pluralistic society against the ideal of religious uniformity.

Thirdly, Dr Lindley correctly emphasises how hard it was for English Protestants to contemplate toleration for Catholicism. Catholics were commonly excluded from toleration for two quite different reasons – for their alleged idolatry and their political disloyalty. Lindley helpfully corrects my reading of Sir Henry Vane, and shows that Vane (unlike Williams) drew back from supporting a formal toleration of Catholicism on political grounds. Yet Vane firmly rejected the theological case for persecution, and maintained that the magistrate could not punish idolatry or force Catholics to attend Protestant worship. In this, he was closer to John Locke than to Milton, for Locke was clear that the Catholic doctrine of the mass was strictly irrelevant in the eyes of the magistrate. What makes Milton rather puzzling is that throughout his career he consistently rejected a formal toleration for Catholics on the grounds of their idolatry, a position in sharp contrast to that of his friends, Vane and Williams. Yet even here, as Milton called for all idolatry to be swept away, he also condemned the use of penal fines and corporal punishment against Catholics as incompatible with the clemency of the Gospel. Intolerance of popery was not to degenerate into popish cruelty! Protestant attitudes to Catholicism were therefore more complex than we sometimes assume, and we need more studies like Anthony Milton’s ‘A qualified intolerance: the limits and ambiguities of early Stuart anti-Catholicism’, in A. F. Marotti, ed., Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism in Early Modern English Texts (London, 1999). It would also be most illuminating to have a full-scale comparative study of French Huguenots and English Catholics, comparing the fluctuations in their fortunes and the variety of contemporary responses to them.

Dr Lindley’s perceptive review highlights the challenge of striking the right balance between recognising the radicalism of early modern tolerationists and acknowledging their traditionalism. W. K. Jordan practically forgot that English tolerationists were seventeenth-century Protestants and celebrated them as if they were modern secular liberals with an ‘almost anarchistic’ belief in personal freedom. Revisionist historians, by contrast, sometimes place such stress on the limits of tolerationism that one is left wondering why anyone at the time found tolerationist ideas objectionable. My own book is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, it contends that seventeenth-century England witnessed two profound religious changes: the monopoly of the national church was broken as England became a more pluralistic society, and the consensus in favour of religious uniformity backed by coercion began to crumble. On the other hand, the book has more to say about persecution than toleration, and it finishes on a rather downbeat note emphasising the persistence of intolerance. I suspect that my analysis doesn’t always strike the right balance between continuity and change, but I am persuaded that our studies of the subject need to do justice to both.