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Areopagitica and the Limits of Pluralism

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 139-160 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0006

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The parable of the tares among the wheat offers very uncertain support for religious liberty, yet it frequently appears in English toleration tracts of the 1640s. In this parable, a landowner orders his servants to let tares (glossed by Matthew as “the children of the wicked one”) grow until harvest, when they can be separated and burned, and the wheat (“the children of the kingdom”) gathered in. Over the course of Christian history, readers have drawn on this distinction to understand a variety of religious and social divides, including those between unbelieving Israel and early Christians, immoral and virtuous members of the church, and holders of different religious doctrines. This last, doctrinal interpretation became particularly important after the Reformation, but the parable’s implications for religious difference were far from clear. On the one hand, the landowner’s order not to pull up the tares could support condoning unorthodox doctrines, a fact that explains the appeal of this parable for John Milton and other tolerationists during the civil war years and particularly in 1644. On the other hand, however, the separation and burning of the tares could also support punishing heretics, an interpretation that had not been lost on earlier opponents of religious freedom.

The recurrent citation of this ambiguous text epitomizes a broader conflict in early modern religious toleration: writers who defended religious liberty almost invariably restricted it as well. Religious and literary historians have typically struggled to articulate and explain this inconsistency. I will connect this problem, however, with post-secular political theory, which has recently questioned our understanding of freedom and inclusion in liberal societies. Post-secular work on religion in the public sphere gives research on early modern toleration fresh interest and provides new conceptual tools for historical research. In return, however, historicism also offers an important corrective to modern theory. The problems under debate today are not so new as theorists often assume, and the struggles of seventeenth century thinkers with these issues reveal weak points in recent critiques of secularism.

Traditionally historians of early modern religious toleration have focused on British intellectual history and connected freedom of conscience to sweeping accounts of modernization and liberalization, often at the expense of acknowledging the limitations of this tolerance. Revisionist historiography, however, has approached toleration as a matter of social, rather than intellectual, history and has shifted our focus from Britain to all of Europe and her Atlantic colonies. These innovations have revealed a broad range of tolerant practices in ordinary life, and they have shown that toleration was often due more to a “particular concatenation of circumstances” than “an evolutionary process.” Moreover, revisionist historians of English religion have usefully questioned whether seventeenth century calls for toleration really advocated either liberty in the modern sense of the word or pluralism. Blair Worden has noted that Puritans sometimes found “toleration” to be “a dirty word … an expedient concession to wickedness,” and both he and J. C. Davis have emphasized the special meaning of liberty in early modern toleration tracts: liberty of conscience concerned not “a claim to direct or manage ourselves,” but “a claim to be free to submit to the governance of God rather than to any other authority.” As a result, religious liberty in this period should not be confused with a straightforward embrace of equality or multiculturalism: while a measure of error or “tolerable Differences” might be allowed, heresy was still to be condemned, and unity—with Christ, with other believers, with the state—was held as the ultimate religious goal. Even John Coffey, who has tried to renew the connection between civil war–era Puritanism and modern liberalism, has conceded the evidence of many tolerationist pamphlets to his opponents because of these texts’ “very limited” calls for religious freedom.

These historiographical developments have broadened our conception of toleration and helped to ward off anachronism. They have accurately reflected the fact that specific kinds of intolerance—most notably against Catholics, though also at times against other minorities—accompanied early modern pleas for religious toleration in England. And they have already spurred new work by Miltonists, most notably in Sharon Achinstein and Elizabeth Sauer’s important collection Milton and Toleration. Important issues remain unexamined, however, in...

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