London, Longman, 2000, ISBN: 582304644X; 224pp.
University of Ulster at Coleraine
Date accessed: 27 September, 2023
Two anti-Trinitarians shared the distinction in 1612 of being the last persons to be burned for heresy in England. The execution of Oliver Plunkett in 1681 was the last martyrdom of a Catholic on English soil. A Scottish student hanged for blasphemy in 1697 was the last person in the British Isles to be executed for his religious views. The careful noting of these milestones by John Coffey inevitably imparts a Whiggish tinge to his admirable and stimulating study of religious persecution and toleration in England from the accession of Elizabeth I to the passage of the Toleration Act of 1689. Indeed in terms of interest in the subject, if not necessarily in analysis and understanding, our debt to the Whig history of toleration has proved to be an enduring one. Dr Coffey's book, the first overview of the subject to be published in over fifty years, derives from his earlier study of a staunch defender of religious persecution, Samuel Rutherford (a Scottish Covenanter), and it certainly has more to say about persecution than toleration. The first three chapters are historiographical, conceptual and analytical in approach; the next four traced the themes in a chronological framework; and the final chapter, bucking the trend of most recent research, celebrates 1689 and 'the rise of toleration'.
The weaknesses of the Whig analysis are well rehearsed and familiar: a teleological, and sometimes anachronistic, account of the emergence from a dark and hostile pre-Protestant past of modern liberal democracy and a corresponding rise of religious toleration. A crucial watershed in this progressive process, it was argued, was the mid-seventeenth century 'Puritan Revolution' which permanently transformed England by laying the basis for a liberal, multi-faith society. This is history enthused with national pride; the peculiar nature of its Protestant history was seen as enabling England not only to steal a lead over the rest of Europe, but also to export its liberal and tolerationist principles to the New World. The story is told by those historical giants, S. R. Gardiner, William Haller, A. S. P. Woodhouse and W. K. Jordan, who have had a formative influence on a whole generation of historians. However, in the last thirty years or so 'revisionist' historians (broadly defined) exploring the same territory have launched a frontal assault on this Whig analysis. The past, it is argued, should be understood in its own terms when peoples' ideas, values and perspectives could be radically different from our own. For much of the early modern period in England it was religious intolerance rather than tolerance that was most noticeable, as instanced by the political impact of anti-popery and the bitter divisions among Protestants. The case put for religious toleration during the Puritan Revolution should not be exaggerated. Cromwell and others traditionally portrayed as pro-tolerationist in the 1640s and 1650s had in fact much more modest aims; they were seeking to secure liberty for godly Protestants and toleration was to be withheld from the ungodly and followers of false religions. They were certainly not striving to create a liberal society in which divergent religious opinions were openly tolerated. After the Restoration, a reinvigorated intolerance was the order of the day as firstly Dissenters and later Catholics experienced severe persecution. Those still prepared to argue the case for toleration did so in qualified terms; John Locke, a much cited example, explicitly excluded Catholics and atheists from toleration. When legal toleration was finally achieved in the 1689 act it was never the intention to establish religious equality even when restricted to Protestants. The great Whig milestone was in fact a fortuitous compromise and a fudge rather than the final triumph of a tolerationist ideal. England is also to be stripped of its title to European leadership; at the start of the seventeenth century, Protestant England, in common with most other Protestant countries, was still intent on enforcing religious uniformity, thus lagging behind the Catholics lands of Poland and France where a remarkable degree of toleration had been established. Furthermore, the generally accepted narrative of a chronological progression from a backward persecuting past to a modern tolerationist future has been shown to ignore earlier tolerationist efforts and other continuities, leaving those who seek to trace the rise of a tolerationist ideal with the problem of where to place the Taliban and other religious fundamentalists in our own world.
Dr Coffey offers a persuasive post-revisionist approach to the central concerns of his book. Recognising in one important respect the strength of the revisionist argument, he places an emphasis on the power of intolerance in early modern England and devotes more space to discussing and explaining persecution than tolerance. At the very outset, he bravely nails his colours to the mast declaring that it is his intention to argue that there is considerable truth in the Whiggish claim that seventeenth century England witnessed a dramatic transformation from religious persecution and enforced uniformity to toleration and religious pluralism. He finds himself in broad agreement with Haller and Woodhouse in arguing that the 1640s were the key decade and that the initial impetus behind tolerationist ideas came from radical puritanism. The 'Puritan Revolution' is alive and well. Tolerationists emerged during those years to provide a principled opposition to religious persecution, even of heretics and schismatics, and to make the case for the peaceful co-existence within one society of a plurality of churches and religions. In the longer term, the stubborn survival of Dissenting churches (and of Papists) punctured the monopoly of the national church and an earlier consensus in favour of using coercion to support religious uniformity crumbled. The 1689 toleration act was indeed an important landmark in the struggle to achieve religious toleration.
The book begins with a definition of the broad concept of toleration itself. 'Those who tolerate', Coffey argues, 'disapprove of an opinion, act, or lifestyle, and yet choose to exercise restraint towards it' (p. 10). When applying such a definition in the early modern period it soon becomes clear that toleration could take many different forms and exist at different levels, as Bob Scribner has shown and as Coffey himself is only too aware. The two forms that lie at the heart of this study are civil and ecclesiastical toleration that are to be clearly distinguished. The policy of the state towards religious dissent, and especially the role of the civil magistrate, provides the focus for the debate about civil toleration and the preoccupation of pamphlets and other primary sources with this subject helps to ensure its heavy emphasis by Coffey. At one end of the scale, civil tolerance might grant Dissenters relief from persecution but deny them full equality as citizens (as under the 1689 act) while, at the other, it might bestow freedom of worship and full rights as citizens or even separate church and state entirely. The degree of diversity tolerated within a particular church (whether a radical sect or the Anglican establishment) is the focus of ecclesiastical toleration. Coffey correctly stresses this distinction and is critical of those historians who have blurred the two. Thus sectarian Protestants could make a heart-felt plea for civil tolerance while countenancing ecclesiastical intolerance within their own churches. A third form of toleration distinguished by Coffey, following Scribner and others, is toleration in its social context; the practical tolerance of religious dissidents by neighbours, relatives or friends. This could of course swiftly turn sour when there were anti-popish panics or upsurges of political protest against Dissent. Yet the chief interests of the book, largely due to the kinds of source materials Coffey restricts himself to, are decidedly more theological, philosophical and political than social.
To fully understand the theory behind Protestant toleration we must first explain how its opposite, persecution, was justified. Coffey gives us a familiar but clearly expressed account of the Protestant theory of persecution from the model established by Old Testament Israel, the accounts of the first centuries of the Christian church, St Augustine's justification of the use of coercion by the magistrate, the persecution of heresy down the centuries and the sanctioning and encouraging of persecution by the great Protestant reformers, with some initial reluctance on Luther's part. Protestantism's reputation as a liberating and modernising creed has to face the fact that its founding fathers believed in persecuting, even to death, anti-Trinitarians, Anabaptists and Jews and found some of each other's religious beliefs absolutely intolerable. Toleration was to be condemned for encouraging erroneous, soul-destroying beliefs, leading to schism and inviting the wrath of an angry God. The many evils flowing from toleration and religious pluralism could all be demonstrated from recent history; Europe's wars of religion, Popish plots and rebellions and the association of religious dissent with sedition. Even the persecuted believed in persecution as both Catholics and Dissenters demonstrated when they were in charge. However, it is remarkable that a study of persecution and toleration in the early modern period fails to mention the Anabaptist take-over of Münster in 1534-5, and its legacy, and the contribution made by the social dimension generally to a climate of persecution does not receive the full attention that it merits. Toleration was widely condemned as subversive of society and morality. That great advocate of persecution, Thomas Edwards, spent a good part of Gangraena spelling out the dire consequences of toleration; if ever conceded men would never again enjoy peace in their families or 'ever after have command of wives, children and servants' and conventional morality would also be undermined. These were powerful arguments in a patriarchal society. At the 1648 Whitehall debates, where the role of the magistrate in religious matters was at issue, the Independent divine, Philip Nye, recalled trying to convince a convicted bigamist of the error of his ways only to be met with the man's response that he was being persecuted for his conscience.
Coffey is right to insist on the importance of the debates of the 1640s in establishing a Protestant case for toleration. Prior to then, there was very little public debate in England about the subject, the General Baptist Leonard Busher being a notable exception. It was Baptists and other radical puritans who were to be at the forefront of the call for toleration in the 1640s when for the first time (and this deserves emphasis) it could be freely and openly debated. Roger Williams is traditionally seen as opening the debate in 1644 when his call for toleration went as far as embracing heretics, blasphemers, Catholics, Muslims and pagans. Coffey correctly reminds us of the importance of the theological arguments for toleration which some modern scholars, usually those from a history of ideas tradition, tend to bypass in favour of philosophical arguments. The New Testament teachings of Jesus, and especially the calls to love your neighbour and to do unto others as you would be done by, and the replacing of the old dispensation by the new with the coming of Messiah, provided the biblical and theological foundation for toleration. The parable of the wheat and the tares (the believers and non-believers) was a key text; both should be allowed to grow peacefully together until judgement day for any attempt to uproot the tares risk pulling up wheat as well. The need was to restore primitive Christianity and to experience the freedom that had been lost in the fourth century when worldly concerns came to preoccupy the church. Importance was also attached to drawing a clear distinction between the Old and the New Testaments; the duty incumbent on the magistrate under the old dispensation to punish idolatry and enforce the Ten Commandments (and the First Table in particular) was now gone with the coming of Jesus and Israel could no longer provide a model for justifying magisterial coercion in religious matters. Secular arguments supporting coercion were now turned on their head; rather than war, chaos and famine, toleration would bring political stability in place of the wars of religion caused by intolerance and tolerating societies were indeed viable and peaceful, and economically prosperous, as the often cited example of the Netherlands proved. For instance, the Independent divine Hugh Peter at the Whitehall debates quoted the example of the Netherlands as both a tolerant and a flourishing society.
However, the goals envisaged by some of those endorsing toleration could be very restrictive and some beliefs were plainly intolerable. Support for toleration could be based on a negative position; freedom of conscience was necessary now in order that eventually truth might manifest itself. Toleration thus became an expedient rather than a positive statement of belief in the virtues of religious diversity. Before Roger Williams is confirmed in his place in the liberal pantheon it needs t o recognised that the welfare and fortunes of the godly elect, the 'wheat' or true believers in the parable of the tares, were his primary concern. The 'tares' or non-believers had a terrible fate awaiting them for 'when the world is ripe in sin, in the sins of Antichristianism ... then those holy and mighty officers and executioners, the angels, with their sharp and cutting sickles of eternal vengeance, shall down with them, and bundle them up for the everlasting burnings'. There might be toleration in this world but certainly not in the next and ultimately Williams's God is a wrathful deity. Yet this important aspect of Williams, a prime example of a very different kind of mentality from that current in most modern debate about toleration, is missing from the discussion in Colley's book. It suggests a history of ideas bias in which historical context is insufficiently appreciated.
Atheism, blasphemy, idolatry and adultery were all to be condemned and excluded from toleration, even by most tolerationists, because they were regarded as contrary to natural reason and public order. Catholics posed a particularly difficult problem because they could be excluded from toleration both as idolaters and as disloyal citizens owing allegiance to a hostile foreign prince. Williams was remarkable in the toleration he was prepared to concede to Catholics who should be 'suffered to breathe and walk upon the decks, in the air of civil liberty and conversation in the ship of commonwealth' yet this was to be 'upon good assurance given of civil obedience to the civil state'. Cromwell, Milton and Locke were among those not prepared to grant Catholics toleration upon one or both of the grounds for exclusion. Coffey also cites Sir Henry Vane, junior, as arguing 'at length' that freedom should be extended to Catholics (p. 140) in his anonymous 1652 work Zeal Examined. However, while denying the magistrate the power to restrain or punish idolaters, Vane makes it clear that 'by excusing idolaters, I do not intend a necessary toleration of Papists, much less of priests and Jesuits, for though they may not come within the magistrate's cognizance by their worshipping of images or the host in the sacrament, yet they may as they maintain the jurisdiction of a foreign power over their consciences, if that foreign power [i.e. the Pope] do maintain principles that are inconsistent with all magistrates and people that are not of his religion'. Vane is prepared to concede that 'in regard there is not many of them in this nation, and those that are have already suffered much', that there might be 'more tenderness' used when dealing with lay Catholics but, establishing no rules in this case, he leaves it 'to the prudence of the magistrate'. Apparently in the debate over whether to extend toleration to Catholics Vane was closer in opinion to his friend Milton than Coffey and other writers have suggested.
Disappointingly, given the centrality of religious toleration to the movement, the Levellers and their distinctive contributions to the debate are given a relatively low profile in this book. It is to the Levellers that we are indebted for the notion of constructing a constitution that gave the state no religious role, even if circumstances and events later obliged them to accept modifications to that basic principle. They were also great popularisers of the idea of religious toleration and figures like William Walwyn and Richard Overton (as Coffey acknowledges) had radical and highly persuasive contributions to make. In this context, Coffey's references to the Levellers and Diggers as though they were religious sects (pp. 211, 144) are distinctly odd.
Coffey describes the ferocity of the persecution of Protestant by Protestant after the Restoration as unparalleled in seventeenth century Europe. Backed up by parliamentary legislation, there were clerical ejections on a large scale, prisons crammed full of religious dissidents, religious tests placed on the holding of public office and a theoretically restored Anglican monopoly of political and social life. On a pragmatic level, the tolerationist lessons of the 1640s and 1650s had sunk very shallow roots. Yet, as at other stages in the religious history of England, there was often a gap between the letter of the law and its implementation and there was an influential Anglican minority who sought to avoid schism and were prepared to concede a degree of ecclesiastical toleration. There was much later a championing of toleration from some unexpected quarters including James II whom Coffey is prepared to speculate may have been sincere. William III, the Protestant hero of Orange mythology, we are reminded tried to extend legal toleration of religious worship to Catholics. Although excluded from benefit of the 1689 toleration act, Catholics were able to benefit from the simple fact that, in practical terms, church attendance could no longer be made compulsory and they were able to establish discreet places of worship. In the early eighteenth century, practical toleration of most religious dissident was well advanced even if principled tolerationists were still a very small minority.
To end on a justifiably positive note, this will prove to be a most useful text for undergraduate teaching with its admirable clarity, its extensive coverage of primary and secondary material and its construction of extremely useful tables. The placing of the debate in a wider European and New World perspective is also very valuable. Coffey is to be congratulated for re-igniting discussion of toleration at a time when examples of intolerance in our own world are only too self-evident.
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.