From Toleration to Religious Freedom

Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

by Mariëtta van der Tol (Volume editor) John Adenitire (Volume editor) Carys Brown (Volume editor) E. S. Kempson (Volume editor)
Edited Collection X, 306 Pages


This volume examines the knotty relationship between toleration and religious freedom. Spanning from the early modern period to the present day, it explores how discourses on toleration impact on current debates about religious freedom, and challenges assumptions about the associations between religious ideas and the law. Bringing together scholarship from the fields of history, law, political science, philosophy, and theology, it throws into sharp relief the disciplinary presuppositions that have—sometimes misleadingly—shaped our understandings of toleration and religious freedom.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editiors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • A Dedication to Richard Bonney (1947–2017)
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • How Religious Freedom Became a Natural Right: The Case of Post-Reformation England (John Coffey)
  • Tolerable and Intolerable Local Practices of Religion during the English Interregnum (Fiona McCall)
  • The Political Arithmetic of Transmutation: Heterodoxy and Political Economy in Sir William Petty (1623–1687) (Shannon Stimson)
  • Where Liberalism Begins and Toleration Ends: Locke on Atheism and Rawls on the ‘Unreasonable’ (Alex Tebble)
  • Mutual Toleration in the English Churches: Legal Devices to Enforce Perceived Orthodoxy in Denominational Space (Augur Pearce)
  • From Toleration to Religious Freedom to Toleration Again? A Historical Reflection on the Swiss Case (Sixteenth to Twenty-First Centuries) (Sarah Scholl)
  • Toleration and Religious Otherness in the Early Enlightenment and Contemporary Europe (Kaisa Iso-Herttua)
  • Different yet Similar: Croatian Experiences of the Integration of Its Islamic Community into Society (Mirela Krešić)
  • Lutheran Legacies and the Politics of Migration: Reformation Resources for a Contemporary Conundrum (Hans Leaman)
  • Toleration and Religious Freedom: From Cross-Disciplinary to Cross-Faith and Worldview (E. S. Kempson)
  • Notes on Editors
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series index

←vi | vii→

A Dedication to Richard Bonney (1947–2017)

Richard Bonney, the original founder of this series, had a rich and distinguished academic career: working initially at the University of Reading, then at the University of Leicester, where he was Head of the Department of History. There were two distinct phases to his scholarly life. From the 1970s to the 1990s, he established himself as a leading historian of early modern France, specialising in state formation and state finances in the era of Richelieu and Mazarin. He published landmark monographs and a major textbook, The European Dynastic States, 1494–1660 (1991); he was a founder of the Society for the Study of French History and edited its journal, French History; and he established the ‘European State Finance Database Project’. In the second half of his career, from the late 1990s to the 2010s, Richard re-invented himself. He took Anglican orders as a non-stipendiary priest, becoming the ‘Reverend Professor’, and established the Centre for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism at the University of Leicester. He was a proud citizen of the City of Leicester, one of Europe’s most ethnically and religious diverse cities, and the first Asian-majority city in the West. The Centre fostered interfaith dialogues, and hosted distinguished speakers, including Hans Kung and Desmond Tutu. Richard also founded an Institute for the Study of Indo-Pakistan Relations, and on 9/11, the day of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, he was at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a subsequent lecture, he predicted the belligerent overreaction of the United States. Amidst the heat of those years, he sought to shed some light, writing a deeply researched study of Jihad: From the Qu’ran to Bin Laden (2004), and a more popular book on False Prophets: The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and the Global War on Terror (2008). In the midst of his many commitments, he established the Peter Lang series, Studies in the History of Political and Religious Pluralism, editing or co-editing ←vii | viii→four of the volumes himself, including collections on The Development of Pluralism in Modern Britain and France (2007), and Persecution and Pluralism: Calvinists and Religious Minorities in Early Modern Europe, 1550–1700 (2007). The revival of this series under a new title and under the editorship of David Manning is a welcome development. It continues Richard’s vision for historical scholarship on religious pluralism, a subject that remains as urgent, challenging, and important as it was in the years after 9/11.

John Coffey

University of Leicester

←viii | ix→


This volume emerged from a conference on Toleration and Religious Freedom in the Early Modern and Contemporary Worlds, convened at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge, in March 2019. The editors would like to express their gratitude to all those who participated in the conference. The cross-disciplinary conversations that took place over the two days were highly stimulating; the enthusiasm of participants has been vital in bringing this volume together. Cooperation with Peter Lang has been pleasant, and the volume has benefited greatly from ongoing conversations with the series editor Dr David Manning, as well as the helpful comments of the two anonymous reviewers. The editors would also like to thank their sponsors, especially CRASSH, Professor Simon Goldhill, for his encouragement to set up the conference as an ongoing conversation, and Oliver Wright for providing tireless administrative support. We would further like to thank the Morrell Centre for Toleration at the University of York, the Centre for Public Law and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, both at Cambridge, for financial support of this conference.

←x | 1→


The issues of toleration and religious freedom are never far from the contemporary political agenda. Across Europe, debates surrounding freedom of movement have become entangled with issues of religious and cultural difference as well as the visibility of religion in public space. In the United States and in Europe, immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and abortion are but a handful of the issues in which the limits of tolerance and religious freedom are tested. Depending on their political affiliation, inhabitants of the ‘Western world’ might be forgiven for thinking that they are facing a crisis of tolerance, intolerance, or both. These are complex issues, but they are not new ones. For at least the past 500 years, the West has dealt with the problem of how to rule over and live with religiously fragmented societies. The responses may have been varied, but they have been fundamental to shaping our current approaches to toleration and religious freedom. If we want to understand the benefits of, and problems with, our contemporary agendas, then the past must surely be borne in mind.

This volume examines the knotty relationship between toleration and religious freedom, past and present. Drawing upon multiple disciplines and working from the early modern period to the present day, it discusses how discourses relating to toleration impact on current debates about religious freedom, and challenges assumptions about the associations between religious ideas and the law. By bringing together scholars from the fields of history, law, political science, philosophy, and theology, it throws into sharp relief the disciplinary presuppositions that have – sometimes misleadingly – shaped our understandings of toleration and religious freedom. By questioning conceptual genealogies and highlighting definitional inconsistencies across disciplines, this volume encourages scholars both to recognise the value of their perspectives to those in other fields, and to acknowledge the limitations of their own disciplinary boundaries and conventions.

←1 | 2→

Cross-disciplinary collaboration between historians, political scientists, lawyers, theologians, and others has the potential to deepen our understanding of how tolerance works, or does not work. Yet incautious comparison between past and present can be a stumbling block to the same. In contemporary politics, the concepts of ‘toleration’ and ‘religious freedom’ go hand-in-hand, but this has not always been the case; the persistent assumption that early modern toleration inevitably led to religious freedom has now been substantially challenged. As recent historical research has recognised, early modern toleration was often begrudging and limited, and principled religious freedom was only rarely on the agenda. The emergence of the idea of religious freedom was far from a straightforward narrative of the eventual triumph of religious freedom over state intolerance and ingrained prejudice.

The complex relationship between toleration and religious freedom is thus as pertinent as ever, but both historical and contemporary approaches to the subject demand deep contextualisation and a suitable theoretical framework. It is from this necessity that the current collection of chapters emerges. By bringing a unique cross-disciplinary perspective to the relationship between early modern and contemporary ideas about toleration and religious freedom, the chapters in this volume raise important questions about not only how we have understood religious conflict in the past, but also how we might approach it in the present.

1. Toleration, Religious Freedom, and Conscience: Definitions and Contexts

What do we mean when we talk about ‘toleration’ and ‘religious freedom’? While some Western liberal societies might be described as ‘tolerant’ because they adhere (at least in theory) to the principle of religious freedom, the terms in fact have widely divergent meanings. This is made particularly apparent by consideration of the relationship between the politics of diversity in the past and in the present. Historical perspectives shine a light on the assumptions that underpin present-day understandings of ←2 | 3→these concepts; they also highlight some of the potential problems with their practical application. Yet it is only by working in tandem with the approaches of other disciplines that the historical contextualisation of ‘toleration’ and ‘religious freedom’ can help to untangle present-day uses of the terms. As both this introduction and the chapters in this volume demonstrate, the meanings of ‘toleration’ and ‘religious freedom’ are informed as much by their applications in contemporary law and politics as they are by their historical context. A cogent discussion of how these ideas shape nations, neighbourhoods, and individual lives demands a joint endeavour across disciplines.

Such an approach is not without its challenges. One key difficulty with comparing early modern and contemporary contexts is that the terms ‘toleration’ and ‘persecution’ had very different connotations in early modern minds from how they are understood today. Within the Christian world, most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants and Catholics adhered to the Augustinian principle that coercion of an erroneous conscience was an act of mercy for the individual, and essential for the temporal and spiritual welfare of the community. This is not to ignore the fact that by the end of the seventeenth century the effectiveness of coercing consciences to cure error was being brought into question. Thinkers such as John Locke and Samuel Pufendorf emphasised reason and morality over doctrine as the basis of stable, peaceful society.1 However, these ideas were far from mainstream, and even Locke and Pufendorf placed firm limits on the extent of toleration.2 The notion of positive liberty in religious matters was in no way current.

←3 | 4→

In fact, the belief in the necessity of persecution of religious dissidence remained surprisingly persistent across early modern Europe. During Europe’s Reformations, previously uncompromising confessional states were faced with the religious dissent of substantial minorities of their populations. While the initial response of many regimes was outright persecution, this ultimately proved ineffective in wiping out religious difference, and in many cases renewed the zeal of minority groups. Gradually, early modern societies at both local and state level began to operate in ways that were based upon a begrudging and reluctant tolerance of religious difference. However, even evidence of everyday accommodations and an apparent increase in state acceptance of religious diversity across Europe in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is insufficient to suggest that impulses to persecute had disappeared. Conflict, persecution, and immense suffering for many religious minorities continued during this period, even in relatively peaceful communities.3 Arguments for liberty and toleration were frequently developed by religious dissenters, but were simultaneously undermined by suspicions that such groups would show little commitment to tolerance if they themselves gained power.4 Early modern approaches to toleration were therefore far from representative of a wholesale commitment to the principle of religious freedom. Toleration was, in most cases, a pragmatic compromise designed to limit the instability caused by continuing religious strife.

An indicative example of this is England’s so-called Toleration Act of 1689. This legislation allowed, for the first time in the country’s history, Protestant Dissenters from the Established Church to worship in their own meeting houses, provided they were registered. In its validation of worship outside of the Established Church, it represented a tacit acceptance that England had become a multi-denominational society. However, ←4 | 5→at its passage, it was a pragmatic piece of legislation, largely a product of the need to find a political settlement in the wake of England’s revolution of 1688–9.5 Not only was the Act limited in scope – it did not allow Protestant Dissenters to hold public office, and it excluded Roman Catholics altogether – but it was also ambiguous in implication and silent on a number of key issues, such as education. The result was that this ‘toleration’ continued to be contested for decades afterwards, with many supporters of the Established Church continuing to find social means of excluding Dissenters where the law no longer provided.6 Protestant Dissenters were, to a limited extent, tolerated; but England remained to a large degree a confessional state that begrudgingly accepted some difference in matters of faith among a limited group of people. Religious freedom was not on the agenda.

The difference between this early ‘toleration’ and current ideas of religious freedom is even more apparent if we assess the 1689 Act against standards of international human rights law. Rather than a manifestation of religious freedom, the Toleration Act, under any authoritative understanding of the contemporary components of freedom of religion, would be considered to violate the right to religious freedom. It is, for instance, well established under contemporary national and supranational human rights law that religious freedom entails the freedom to hold and manifest a religious belief without discrimination by state authorities.7 The Toleration Act would fall foul of this requirement when it allowed Protestant Dissenters to worship according to their beliefs, but denied the same liberty to Roman Catholics. It would also fall foul of the well-established prohibition of ←5 | 6→requiring adherence to a particular religious belief as a condition of access to public office.8 While it could be regarded as delivering a measure of toleration, this legislation was evidently not a promotion of religious freedom.

England’s Toleration Act of 1689 is but one of numerous limited, ambiguous, or impermanent pieces of ‘toleration’ legislation across early modern Europe.9 It is, however, of particular relevance to this volume, because its misplacement in an Anglo-centric genealogy of modern-day ideological acceptance of religious diversity has been critical to the tacit conflation of the concepts of toleration and religious freedom in both historical scholarship and political thought.10 Early twentieth-century scholarship on this subject was frequently underpinned by a narrative of progress from the bloody religious conflicts of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries towards ‘Enlightened’ toleration in the eighteenth-century.11 Such accounts have subsequently been challenged in the discipline of history by scholars of medieval and eighteenth-century Europe, who respectively highlighted elements of toleration in late medieval society and the continuation of persecution in the eighteenth century.12 Nevertheless, recent work by scholars ←6 | 7→of political thought has observed that understandings of current concepts of liberty still frequently suffer by a ‘misleading placement’ of concepts of positive liberty in the early modern period.13 The result is an ongoing tension between contemporary and historical perspectives on toleration and religious freedom. This disciplinary mismatch inhibits a full understanding of the ideological basis and potential pitfalls of how these concepts are applied today.

This problem has been exacerbated by the fact that, in some instances, historians have themselves been guilty of conflating terms – such as ‘liberty of conscience’ and ‘religious liberty’ – that in contemporary legal discourse, as explained below, are understood to have separate meanings. While historians’ uses of such terms are appropriate for the early modern context, such conflation extends further the possibility of confusion in any exploration of the relationship between toleration in the past, and religious freedom in the present. For this reason, it is important for historians (and indeed political theorists) to be aware of the contemporary legal distinctions between toleration, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience. Many constitutional documents and international human rights treaties recognise freedom of religion, but this is not always paired with the legal recognition of freedom of conscience.14 It may be thought that the way the law expresses ←7 | 8→toleration towards the diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs in a national and supra-national context is by granting a right to freedom of conscience and religion. This conceptualisation is, however, a mistake. In legal and philosophical thought, toleration, freedom of conscience, and religious freedom are not synonymous nor aspects of the same concept. Rather, they relate and may conflict in a number of complex ways. There thus exists a discrepancy between the quotidian application of supposed rights and their precise legal formulation. The nature of such discrepancy is as useful for historians to understand as it is for contemporary political theorists, because it underpinned the ‘ecumenism of everyday relations’ and ‘tolerance of practical rationality’ that structured religious coexistence in early modern Europe.15

Law, politics, and history thus provide a range of responses to the same concepts. There is both conflict and common ground between them. In many ways, contemporary legal analysis accords with the conclusions of historians – that toleration and religious freedom are not the same thing. The concept of toleration sits very uneasily with a central commitment of contemporary discourse on freedom of religion: that of state neutrality towards the truth or reasonableness of religious beliefs. Legal and political theorists generally agree that toleration entails putting up with beliefs and/or practices that one may disapprove of. Yossi Nehushtan accordingly says: ‘People make adverse judgements about others. These judgements may provide reasons to harm or offend the other. Yet the tolerant person has reasons – any type of reasons – not to act in certain ways that may harm or offend another.’16 It is then a prerequisite of toleration that one first holds an adverse judgement about certain beliefs or practices before refraining ←8 | 9→from imposing a disadvantage (e. g. causing harm) to the person holding those beliefs or engaging in those practices.

The above is the form of toleration observable across early modern Europe – a begrudging allowance of beliefs otherwise considered fundamentally undesirable – but it does not fit twenty-first-century principles of religious freedom. Today, if toleration were to be considered synonymous with religious freedom, it would suggest that in order to tolerate a particular religious belief, the law necessarily ought to formulate an adverse judgement towards those beliefs. Yet this conflicts with a cardinal prohibition of religious freedom: it is not for the state to engage in theological disputes of what, if any, religious beliefs are valid, true, or reasonable. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly asserted that ‘the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality is incompatible with any power on the State’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs or the ways in which those beliefs are expressed’.17 The same stance has been taken by law courts in the UK, the USA, and Canada.18 Such judgements underline the impossibility of a legal attitude of toleration towards the plurality of religious beliefs that exist in liberal democracies.19 It follows that, in contemporary discourse as in historical scholarship, the concepts of toleration and religious freedom are foes rather than natural bedfellows.

More problematic, however, for any historical comparison of the legal aspects of toleration and religious freedom are differences in historical and present understandings of conscience. The propensity of historians to treat the term ‘freedom of conscience’ as if it were pertinent solely to matters of religion is problematic for any comparison with contemporary life. This tendency is entirely understandable in that it reflects the historical context: medieval concepts of conscience held that it represented the ‘vestigial ←9 | 10→presence of God’, and therefore allowed humans some rudimentary moral capacity; sixteenth- and seventeenth-century interpretations of conscience contested this approach in a variety of ways but maintained the association of conscience with the spiritual realm.20 For early modern thinkers, conscience was fundamentally associated with God. In that sense, liberty in religious matters and liberty of conscience were inseparable, and it makes sense for historians to treat them as such.

This is not, however, the case in contemporary legal analysis. While in some cases the concepts of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience converge, in others they differ and even conflict. In many jurisdictions, religious freedom, rather than being interchangeable with freedom of conscience, is part of it. Accordingly, in analysing the legal meaning of freedom of conscience and religion in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Supreme Court held:


X, 306
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 306 pp., 6 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Mariëtta van der Tol (Volume editor) John Adenitire (Volume editor) Carys Brown (Volume editor) E. S. Kempson (Volume editor)

Mariëtta van der Tol is Alfred Landecker Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford. Carys Brown is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. John Adenitire is a Strategic Lecturer in Law at Queen Mary, University of London. E. S. Kempson is a Lecturer and Tutor in Theology at St. Mellitus College, London.


Title: From Toleration to Religious Freedom