Crosspost: The New History of Toleration

The following is from our newest contributing editor Chris Beneke's post on the Historical Society blog. (I thought this would be of some interest to readers of Religion in American History.) Beneke is associate professor of history and director of the Valente Center for Arts and Sciences at Bentley University. In the American Historical Review Peter S. Field called Beneke's book, Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (Oxford, 2006), a "wide-ranging, ambitious survey... well written and engaging." Reviewing it in Church History, Frank Lambert described it as an "engaging, thoroughly researched and documented book, [in which] Beneke explains why colonial Americans avoided the religious wars that plagued European states in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." We blogged previously about Beyond Toleration here, and also noted and blogged about his important edited volume, Religious Tolerance and Religious Intolerance in Early America, forthcoming 2010 from U. Pennsylvania Press.

A warm welcome for Chris Beneke, and we look forward to future contributions here.

The New History of Toleration
Chris Beneke

The latest issue of the William and Mary Quarterly includes a forum on Stuart Schwartz’s groundbreaking
All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (2008), which argues that a surprisingly large proportion of ordinary people within the early modern Spanish and Portuguese empires maintained that salvation was available to a wide range of believers. Drawing on his extensive archival work on both sides of the Atlantic, Schwartz contends that these two Catholic regimes, famous for their religious exclusivity, actually harbored a substantial number of religious relativists. Schwartz’s book is distinctive in another way: its subject, he notes, “is not the history of religious toleration, by which is usually meant state or community policy, but rather of tolerance, by which I mean attitudes or sentiments.” (6)

The WMQ comments are generally positive. Lu Ann Homza does find fault with Schwartz’s heavy reliance on statements drawn from inquisitorial tribunals and suggests that when “Schwartz found over and over again the phrase that ‘each could be saved in his own law,’ we must ask whether Inquisition notaries were fitting defense testimony into rhetorical formulas.” David D. Hall sets Schwarz’s book within the new, non-linear and anti-triumphalist historiography of toleration in early modern Europe, specifically Alexandra Walsham’s Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700 and Benjamin J. Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Hall suggests that Schwartz’s universalist-minded subjects might be evidence of “the persistence of tensions within any strong cultural system.” Marcy Norton expresses her wish that Schwartz had given more weight to the impact of religious and ethnic diversity in prompting tolerant attitudes. And Andrew R. Murphy argues that we need to devote more attention to the “borderland between attitudes and political practices” than Schwartz does in All Can Be Saved.

As engaging as it is for specialists, this WMQ forum might seem a bit esoteric to the un-initiated. Fortunately, Murphy summarizes recent historiographical developments in his conclusion. The new literature on toleration in the early modern (Anglo-American) world, he writes, is characterized by four “corollaries”:

* Intolerance was—theoretically, conceptually, and theologically speaking—as robust as tolerance.

* Elites often had “good,” or at least comprehensible, reasons for persecuting religious dissenters.

* Toleration often resulted from the intentional plans of tolerationist elites but as an unintended consequence of actions growing out of complex motivations (economic, political, strategic).

* Toleration, when it happened, was due as much to exclusionary impulses and intolerance (separatism, anti-Catholicism) as to humanistic and skeptical ideals.

The WMQ forum on All Be Saved falls on the heels of a fascinating September 2008 conference organized by Evan Haefeli, Brendan McConville, and Owen Stanwood on “Anti-popery” in the Protestant Atlantic world from 1530 to 1850, which also offered a generally non-triumphalist and socially grounded take on the extent of early modern toleration across the Atlantic world.

Beneke's essay, "America’s Whiggish Religious Revolution: An Instance in the Progress of History," will appear in the June 2009 issue of Historically Speaking.


Paul Harvey said…
Chris, and Randall: Thanks for this. Hadn't heard anything about any of this, look forward to exploring further.

Chris -- you're welcome to post here anytime!
Chris Beneke said…
Thanks for the opportunity, Paul.
Luke Harlow said…
Fascinating. Thanks for drawing our attention to it.
Paul Harvey said…
Jeremy Bangs from the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum wants to add this comment (blogger was blocking him from logging in for some reason):

"Almost entirely overlooked by all recent studies of the 17th-century European discussion of toleration is the large international and trans-denominational effort to halt Calvinist persecution of Mennonites in Switzerland, and, when they had fled to the Palatinate, Roman Catholic persecution of them there. This charitable action forms a major part of the background to John Locke's first Letter on Toleration. Among the people involved: Galenus Abrahamsz. de Haan, Jan Amos Comenius, John Dury, William Penn, King William III, Philip van Limborch (Locke's friend). The circumstances and efforts are described and supported by over 200 letters urging inter-Protestant toleration or an end to Catholic persecution of Mennonites, in my book: Letters on Toleration - Dutch Aid to Persecuted Swiss and Palatine Mennonites, 1615-1699 (Picton Press, 2004)."

Jeremy Bangs