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  • How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West
  • Sarah Covington
Perez Zagorin . How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003. xviii + 372 pp. index. illus. $29.95. ISBN: 0–691–09270–2.

As descendants of the Enlightenment tradition, historians have long been interested in the development of toleration, one of modernity's most cherished [End Page 276] principles. The exploration of such an idea, however, is fraught with some difficulty, primarily when the "rise of toleration" is treated whiggishly, rendering premodern patterns of thought negatively, as "intolerant." Recent investigations have nevertheless taken up the idea of toleration's development, following the seminal efforts of W.K. Jordan and Joseph Lecler in the early to mid-twentieth century; what may distinguish today's historians of the subject from those of the past has been the exploration of persecution and intolerance by such (controversial) historians as R.I. Moore. If the past constituted a persecuting or religiously uniform society, then some explanation must account for the appearance of an undeniable pluralism and toleration; why such relative broad-mindedness emerged thus constitutes the chief subject of investigation for the new historians of toleration, albeit with mixed results.

In How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Perez Zagorin offers a comprehensive survey of the idea, locating the origins of toleration's development not in the age of reason but earlier, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While acknowledging the role of intellectual developments such as skepticism and political factors such as simple exhaustion resulting from religious wars, Zagorin argues that toleration in the west "was itself very largely inspired by religious values and was fundamentally religious in character" (289). What impelled these Christian thinkers from Sebastian Castellio through John Locke was a desire to create "an underlying theoretical rationale [of toleration] that was both philosophical and religious — one that reflected a complex mixture of scriptural, theological, ecclesiological, epistemological, ethical, political, and pragmatic arguments" that in turn were absorbed by "political and intellectual elites" (13).

Theories of toleration were themselves a response to medieval Christian formulations of intolerance, which are examined by Zagorin in an early chapter. Prior to the sixteenth century, "[r]eligious intolerance and persecution . . . were seen not as evils but as necessary and salutary for the preservation of religious truth," and even more, for preventing the encroachment of an increasingly defined heresy (16). Augustine, who did not believe in executing heretics, further propounded the view that religious coercion was occasionally necessary "provided the ends were good" (32), and by the late Middle Ages the idea was embedded in decrees and coun-cils — most notably, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, conducted under the sponsorship of Innocent III.

While humanists such as Erasmus (though not Thomas More) held a more "conciliatory and irenic" conception of religion, "they can hardly be said to have contributed anything to the formation of a doctrine or theory of religious toleration" (48–49). Protestants themselves can hardly be said to have been more accepting, just as the seemingly tolerant Peace of Augsberg proved to be an ultimately temporary and unsatisfying expedient to problems that would continue through the next century. Only the radical reformers, including Spiritualists such as Sebastian Franck, embraced a more humane and universal, if still untheoretical, perspective "that transcended all distinctions of belief among Christians" (86).

In a later chapter, Zagorin enters more novel terrain by exploring and upholding the importance of Sebastian Castellio (who has received more extensive [End Page 277] treatment in recent years by Hans Guggisberg). Motivated by anger over the execution of Michael Servetus in Calvin's Geneva, Castellio was prompted in a series of tracts to undermine the Christian theory of intolerance that led to such judicial extremities. The result was a skeptical critique of the concept of heresy itself, which in his hands became relativized and thereby removed as a justification of persecution. As for the issue of Servetus and Calvin, "To kill a man," he famously wrote, "is not to defend a doctrine, it is to kill a man" (119).

Castellio's writings were of central importance to subsequent theorists of toleration...


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