Review – How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West by Perez Zagorin

Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press: 2003, xvi+371 pp, hardcover.

“Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant” (1). These provocative words open Perez Zagorin’s incisive book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. As the title suggests, the book is concerned primarily with the idea rather than the practice of religious toleration. It is an intellectual history focusing on the documentary heritage. The successive chapters trace the appearance of new arguments for, bases of, or concepts of religious toleration in European and North American writings. Its thesis is that religious toleration was not simply the result of religious skepticism or political expediency, but was developed and advocated by sincerely religious people acting in the best interests of their religion: “In advocating a policy of peace and tolerance toward religious differences, their supreme concern was the welfare of religion itself. They acted from the primary conviction that persecution was contrary to the mind of Christ and a terrible evil which did great harm to Christianity” (289).

The first chapter address the historiographical background, the difficulties the historian faces when attempting to treat this topic. Zagorin is sensitive to definitional ambiguities and situates the book’s subject alongside similar ideas, such as religious freedom and freedom of conscience. It examines some explanations given for these phenomena and offers instead its own thesis of religiously motivated religious freedom.

The next two chapters address the historical background, the context out of which the concept of religious toleration emerged.  Chapter two discusses the rationales given for persecution in the Christian West. This Christian theory of persecution forms the intellectual background against which the figures in this book offer their alternatives. Saint Augustine receives the most attention, since the most brutal repressions of the Middle Ages justified themselves largely by appealing to him even when they extended his basic premises. The third chapter addresses the societal changes caused by the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation both fractured Western Christianity and forced a reconsideration of the relationship between the political and religious spheres. Followers of multiple Christian traditions co-existing within the same political units acutely raised the question of how authorities ought to treat their religiously divided subjects.

The rest of the book is organized chronologically, following the thread of religious toleration from through various authors toward the present. The body of the book deals with the 16th and 17th centuries. Several chapters treat individuals, and even those that claim to treat a time period or group (Arminians, Levellers) in fact single out a representative spokesperson who most effectively embodied a new idea or argument. The figures who receive the most extensive treatment are Sebastian Castellio, Dirck Coornhert, Baruch Spinoza, Roger Williams, John Milton, John Locke, and Pierre Bayle. A somewhat haphazard conclusion covers the gap between the 17th century and the present. Zagorin notes that religious toleration took a secularizing turn during the Enlightenment. I would have preferred a conclusion that reinforced the narrative rather than attempted to extend it.

In all, this book is quite well written. Zagorin’s success stems from limiting his scope and doing an excellent job covering the most important figures. Extensive endnotes offer plenty of opportunity for those seeking more detail or a bibliography of more comprehensive treatments. This work will likely stretch the boundaries of those who read it: historians and philosophers may encounter more explicitly theological reasoning than they normally do, whereas students of Christianity will be forced to consider the considerable influence of unorthodox Christians upon their own religious heritage, as well as the sometimes disappointing stands of the more orthodox.

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Published in: on August 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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