Religious Tolerance

In the years when the protestant reformation was proceeding, while some countries as a whole adopted the reformation and others were the scene of a bloody conflict over the issue, there were a number of countries which adopted a policy of religious toleration - Bohemia and Moravia, which ever since the Hussite movement in the 15th century were accustomed to the coexistence of two confessions, Poland, Hungary and Transylvania were such cases. Then the Council of Trent adopted an uncompromising, confrontational course. In Poland, and later in the Bohemian lands, temporarily in Hungary, the Counterreformation was implemented. Transylvania only escaped this calamity. When the Dutch Republic, in a protracted, intense struggle, established herself as an independent state, she adopted religious toleration as a fundamental policy, a policy that made her stand out in contemporary Europe where the states adopted state confessions and pressurized religious minorities, even using physical force, to either convert or emigrate.
Religious Tolerance, in Transylvania that meant the three official confessions - Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism had equal status, yet the majority confession, Orthodox Christianity, was merely tolerated. In the Netherlands, Calvinism was state confession. Catholicism was regarded the confession of the enemy, and the areas inhabited by Catholics were denied self-administration, placed under military administration for centuries. Other denominations - Lutherans, Anabaptists, even Jews, coming to the Netherlands as religious refugees, were permitted to settle. The case of the English Puritans who settled in Holland in 1609-1620 before emigrating - from Holland - to America shows, that such religious refugees in the Netherlands often felt merely tolerated, not really part of the country's population. The politically motivated persecution of the Arminians in 1618/1619 shows that there were exceptions to the policy the Dutch Republic otherwise stuck to for centuries to come.

In Transylvania and the Dutch Republic, religious toleration was a policy practised out of the conviction that the deviation from such a policy would be detrimental to the country. In Hungary, religious tolerance was repeatedly agreed upon by rebellious Hungarians and the Habsburg Dynasty, keen on acquiring recognition of their claim to the Hungarian throne, in case of the frequent Hungarian rebellions, the Habsburg side disregarded her pledge to religious toleration and had the Counterreformation implemented.
In all these cases, the policy, however, lacked theoretical foundation. The first to provide such was John Locke, who spent the years between 1683 and 1689 in the Dutch Republic and had sufficient opportunity to study how such a policy affected the country. In 1689, returned to England, anonymously he published the Epistola de Tolerantia (Letter on Tolerance). The French Enlightenment philosophers, notably Voltaire (Traite de Tolerance, 1763) later took up the topic, at a time when the state churches - in France the Catholic Church - had lost much of her power.

The economic philosophy of Mercantilism promoted the immigration of craftsmen with know-how; such immigrants not necessarily were of the confession which was state confession in the country they immigrated into. A successful Mercantilist policy thus made religious tolerance - at least for the immigrants - a beneficial concession.
King Christian V. of (Lutheran) Denmark granted religious toleration to Catholics in 1671, to Jews in 1684 and to Calvinists in 1685 - interestingly, even before Locke's anonymous letter was published. The country had suffered devastating wars in 1643-1645 and in 1656-1660.
France may be regarded an example, where Mercantilist policy failed to cause a policy of religious toleration - Louis XIV. in 1685 cancelled the Edict of Nantes, sent the army into areas with a protestant population (Dragonnades) and caused a mass exodus of Huguenots and Waldensians. Only in 1787 did King Louis XVI grant civil status to French protestants.
Frederick the Great, King in Prussia 1740-1786, said that in his country everybody can live happily according to his own confession, a concession which came easily to a Calvinist King of a Lutheran country. Furthermore, Prussia was sparsely populated, had suffered greatly during the 30 Years' War and would again do so during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763).
In Russia, religious toleration was introduced in 1773, by Catherine the Great.
In Austria, Joseph II. introduced religious toleration in 1781; as late as 1777, under his mother, Maria Theresia, had protestants from Austria proper been forcefully resettled to Transylvania. Under Joseph II., protestants were permitted to build their own churches, but these were not to have churchbells and towers, and the door was not to face the road.
In Sweden (King Gustavus III.), in 1781 a law granted Freedom of Religion for foreigners settling in Sweden, and their descendants. In 1782 a regulation for Jews was enacted. Swedes, until early in the 20th century, had to be members of the Lutheran state church.

DOCUMENTS Commented Excerpts from Locke's Letter on Tolerance, from Intellectual Heritage Program
Voltaire, Traite sur la Tolerance (1763), from Athena, in French
Excerpts of Voltaire, A Treaty on Tolerance, posted at Hanover

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 14th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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