Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


An enlightened toleration is a blessing of the last age — it would seem to have been practised by the Romans, when they did not mistake the primitive Christians for seditious members of society; and was inculcated even by Mahomet, in a passage in the Koran, but scarcely practised by his followers. In modern history it was condemned when religion was turned into a political contest under the aspiring house of Austria — and in Spain — and in France. It required a long time before its nature was comprehended — and to this moment it is far from being clear, either to the tolerators or the tolerated.

It does not appear that the precepts or the practice of Jesus and the apostles inculcate the compelling of any to be Christians;1 yet an expression employed in the nuptial parable of the great supper, when the hospitable lord commanded the servant, finding that he had still room to accommodate more guests, to go out in the highways and hedges, and “compel them to come in, that my house may be filled,” was alleged as an authority by those catholics who called themselves “the converters,” for using religious force, which, still alluding to the hospitable lord, they called “a charitable and salutary violence.” It was this circumstance which produced Bayle’s “Commentaire Philosophique sur ces Paroles de Jesus Christ,” published under the supposititious name of an Englishman, as printed at Canterbury in 1686, but really at Amsterdam. It is curious that Locke published his first letter on “Toleration” in Latin at Gouda, in 1689 — the second in 1690 — and the third in 1692. Bayle opened the mind of Locke, and some time after quotes Locke’s Latin letter with high commendation.2 The caution of both writers in publishing in foreign places, however, indicates the prudence which it was deemed necessary to observe in writing in favour of toleration.

These were the first philosophical attempts; but the earliest advocates for toleration may be found among the religious controversialists of a preceding period; it was probably started among the fugitive sects who had found an asylum in Holland. It was a blessing which they had gone far to find, and the miserable, reduced to humane feelings, are compassionate to one another. With us the sect called “the Independents” had, early in our revolution under Charles the First, pleaded for the doctrine of religious liberty, and long maintained it against the presbyterians. Both proved persecutors when they possessed power. The first of our respectable divines who advocated this cause were Jeremy Taylor, in his “Discourse on the Liberty of Prophesying,” 1647, and Bishop Hall, who had pleaded the cause of moderation in a discourse about the same period.3 Locke had no doubt examined all these writers. The history of opinions is among the most curious of histories; and I suspect that Bayle was well acquainted with the pamphlets of our sectarists, who, in their flight to Holland, conveyed those curiosities of theology, which had cost them their happiness and their estates: I think he indicates this hidden source of his ideas by the extraordinary ascription of his book to an Englishman, and fixing the place of its publication at Canterbury!

Toleration has been a vast engine in the hands of modern politicians. It was established in the United Provinces of Holland, and our numerous non-conformists took refuge in that asylum for disturbed consciences; it attracted a valuable community of French refugees; it conducted a colony of Hebrew fugitives from Portugal; conventicles of Brownists, quakers’ meetings, French churches, and Jewish synagogues, and (had it been required) Mahometan mosques, in Amsterdam, were the precursors of its mart, and its exchange; the moment they could preserve their consciences sacred to themselves, they lived without mutual persecution, and mixed together as good Dutchmen.

The excommunicated part of Europe seemed to be the most enlightened, and it was then considered as a proof of the admirable progress of the human mind, that Locke and Clarke and Newton corresponded with Leibnitz, and others of the learned in France and Italy. Some were astonished that philosophers who differed in their religious opinions should communicate among themselves with so much toleration.4

It is not, however, clear that had any one of these sects at Amsterdam obtained predominance, which was sometimes attempted, they would have granted to others the toleration they participated in common. The infancy of a party is accompanied by a political weakness which disables it from weakening others.

The catholic in this country pleads for toleration; in his own he refuses to grant it. Here, the presbyterian, who had complained of persecution, once fixed in the seat of power, abrogated every kind of independence among others. When the flames consumed Servetus at Geneva, the controversy began, whether the civil magistrate might punish heretics, which Beza, the associate of Calvin, maintained; he triumphed in the small predestinating city of Geneva; but the book he wrote was fatal to the protestants a few leagues distant, among a majority of catholics. Whenever the protestants complained of the persecutions they suffered, the catholics, for authority and sanction, never failed to appeal to the volume of their own Beza.

M. Necker de Saussure has recently observed on “what trivial circumstances the change or the preservation of the established religion in different districts of Europe has depended!” When the Reformation penetrated into Switzerland, the government of the principality of Neufchatel, wishing to allow liberty of conscience to all their subjects, invited each parish to vote “for or against the adoption of the new worship; and in all the parishes, except two, the majority of suffrages declared in favour of the protestant communion.” The inhabitants of the small village of Cressier had also assembled; and forming an even number, there happened to be an equality of votes for and against the change of religion. A shepherd being absent, tending the flocks on the hills, they summoned him to appear and decide this important question: when, having no liking to innovation, he gave his voice in favour of the existing form of worship; and this parish remained catholic, and is so at this day, in the heart of the protestant cantons.

I proceed to some facts which I have arranged for the history of Toleration. In the Memoirs of James the Second, when that monarch published “The Declaration for Liberty of Conscience,” the catholic reasons and liberalises like a modern philosopher: he accuses “the jealousy of our clergy, who had degraded themselves into intriguers; and like mechanics in a trade, who are afraid of nothing so much as interlopers — they had therefore induced indifferent persons to imagine that their earnest contest was not about their faith, but about their temporal possessions. It was incongruous that a church, which does not pretend to be infallible, should constrain persons, under heavy penalties and punishments, to believe as she does: they delighted, he asserted, to hold an iron rod over dissenters and catholics; so sweet was dominion, that the very thought of others participating in their freedom made them deny the very doctrine they preached.” The chief argument the catholic urged on this occasion was “the reasonableness of repealing laws which made men liable to the greatest punishments for that it was not in their power to remedy, for that no man could force himself to believe what he really did not believe.”5

Such was the rational language of the most bigoted of zealots! — The fox can bleat like the lamb. At the very moment James the Second was uttering this mild expostulation, in his own heart he had anathematised the nation; for I have seen some of the king’s private papers, which still exist; they consist of communications, chiefly by the most bigoted priests, with the wildest projects, and most infatuated prophecies and dreams, of restoring the true catholic faith in England! Had the Jesuit-led monarch retained the English throne, the language he now addressed to the nation would have been no longer used; and in that case it would have served his protestant subjects. He asked for toleration, to become intolerant! He devoted himself, not to the hundredth part of the English nation; and yet he was surprised that he was left one morning without an army! When the catholic monarch issued this declaration for “liberty of conscience,” the Jekyll of his day observed, that “it was but scaffolding: they intend to build another house, and when that house (Popery) is built, they will take down the scaffold.”6

When presbytery was our lord, they who had endured the tortures of persecution, and raised such sharp outcries for freedom, of all men were the most intolerant: hardly had they tasted of the Circean cup of dominion, ere they were transformed into the most hideous or the most grotesque monsters of political power. To their eyes toleration was an hydra, and the dethroned bishops had never so vehemently declaimed against what, in ludicrous rage, one of the high-flying presbyterians called “a cursed intolerable toleration!” They advocated the rights of persecution; and “shallow Edwards,” as Milton calls the author of “The Gangræna,” published a treatise against toleration. They who had so long complained of “the licensers,” now sent all the books they condemned to penal fires. Prynne now vindicated the very doctrines under which he himself had so severely suffered; assuming the highest possible power of civil government, even to the infliction of death on its opponents. Prynne lost all feeling for the ears of others!

The idea of toleration was not intelligible for too long a period in the annals of Europe: no parties probably could conceive the idea of toleration in the struggle for predominance. Treaties are not proffered when conquest is the concealed object. Men were immolated! a massacre was a sacrifice! medals were struck to commemorate these holy persecutions!7 The destroying angel, holding in one hand a cross, and in the other a sword, with these words — Vgonottorum Strages, 1572 —“The massacre of the Huguenots”— proves that toleration will not agree with that date.8 Castelnau, a statesman and a humane man, was at a loss how to decide on a point of the utmost importance to France. In 1532 they first began to burn the Lutherans or Calvinists, and to cut out the tongues of all protestants, “that they might no longer protest.” According to Father Paul, fifty thousand persons had perished in the Netherlands, by different tortures, for religion. But a change in the religion of the state, Castelnau considered, would occasion one in the government: he wondered how it happened, that the more they punished with death, it only increased the number of the victims: martyrs produced proselytes. As a statesman, he looked round the great field of human actions in the history of the past; there he discovered that the Romans were more enlightened in their actions than ourselves; that Trajan commanded Pliny the younger not to molest the Christians for their religion, but should their conduct endanger the state, to put down illegal assemblies; that Julian the Apostate expressly forbad the execution of the Christians, who then imagined that they were securing their salvation by martyrdom; but he ordered all their goods to be confiscated — a severe punishment — by which Julian prevented more than he could have done by persecutions. “All this,” he adds, “we read in ecclesiastical history.”9 Such were the sentiments of Castelnau, in 1560. Amidst perplexities of state necessity, and of our common humanity, the notion of toleration had not entered into the views of the statesman. It was also at this time that De Sainctes, a great controversial writer, declared, that had the fires lighted for the destruction of Calvinism not been extinguished, the sect had not spread! About half a century subsequent to this period, Thuanus was, perhaps, the first great mind who appears to have insinuated to the French monarch and his nation, that they might live at peace with heretics; by which avowal he called down on himself the haughty indignation of Rome, and a declaration that the man who spoke in favour of heretics must necessarily be one of the first class. Hear the afflicted historian: “Have men no compassion, after forty years passed full of continual miseries? Have they no fear after the loss of the Netherlands, occasioned by the frantic obstinacy which marked the times? I grieve that such sentiments should have occasioned my book to have been examined with a rigour that amounts to calumny.” Such was the language of Thuanus, in a letter written in 1606;10 which indicates an approximation to toleration, but which term was not probably yet found in any dictionary. We may consider, as so many attempts at toleration, the great national synod of Dort, whose history is amply written by Brandt; and the mitigating protestantism of Laud, to approximate to the ceremonies of the Roman church; but the synod, after holding about two hundred sessions, closed, dividing men into universalists and semi-universalists, supralapsarians and sublapsarians! The reformed themselves produced the remonstrants; and Laud’s ceremonies ended in placing the altar eastward, and in raising the scaffold for the monarchy and the hierarchy. Error is circuitous when it will do what it has not yet learnt. They were pressing for conformity to do that which, a century afterwards, they found could only be done by toleration.

The secret history of toleration among certain parties has been disclosed to us by a curious document, from that religious Machiavel, the fierce ascetic republican John Knox, a calvinistical Pope. “While the posterity of Abraham,” says that mighty and artful reformer, “were few in number, and while they sojourned in different countries, they were merely required to avoid all participation in the idolatrous rites of the heathen; but as soon as they prospered into a kingdom, and had obtained possession of Canaan, they were strictly charged to suppress idolatry, and to destroy all the monuments and incentives. The same duty was now incumbent on the professors of the true religion in Scotland. Formerly, when not more than ten persons in a county were enlightened, it would have been foolishness to have demanded of the nobility the suppression of idolatry. But now, when knowledge had been increased,” &c.11 Such are the men who cry out for toleration during their state of political weakness, but who cancel the bond by which they hold their tenure whenever they “obtain possession of Canaan.” The only commentary on this piece of the secret history of toleration is the acute remark of Swift:—“We are fully convinced that we shall always tolerate them, but not that they will tolerate us.”

The truth is that toleration was allowed by none of the parties! and I will now show the dilemmas into which each party thrust itself.

When the kings of England would forcibly have established episcopacy in Scotland, the presbyters passed an act against the toleration of dissenters from presbyterian doctrines and discipline; and thus, as Guthrie observes, they were committing the same violence on the consciences of their brethren which they opposed in the king. The presbyterians contrived their famous covenant to dispossess the royalists of their livings; and the independents, who assumed the principle of toleration in their very name, shortly after enforced what they called the engagement, to eject the presbyterians! In England, where the dissenters were ejected, their great advocate Calamy complains that the dissenters were only making use of the same arguments which the most eminent reformers had done in their noble defence of the reformation against the papists; while the arguments of the established church against the dissenters were the same which were urged by the papists against the protestant reformation!12 When the presbyterians were our masters, and preached up the doctrine of passive obedience in spiritual matters to the civil power, it was unquestionably passing a self-condemnation on their own recent opposition and detraction of the former episcopacy. Whenever men act from a secret motive entirely contrary to their ostensible one, such monstrous results will happen; and as extremes will join, however opposite they appear in their beginnings, John Knox and Father Petre, in office, would have equally served James the Second as confessor and prime minister!

A fact relating to the famous Justus Lipsius proves the difficulty of forming a clear notion of toleration. This learned man, after having been ruined by the religious wars of the Netherlands, found an honourable retreat in a professor’s chair at Leyden, and without difficulty abjured papacy. He published some political works: and adopted as his great principle, that only one religion should be allowed to a people, and that no clemency should be granted to non-conformists, who, he declares, should be pursued by sword and fire: in this manner a single member would be cut off to preserve the body sound. Ure, seca — are his words. Strange notions these in a protestant republic; and, in fact, in Holland it was approving of all the horrors of their oppressors, the Duke d’Alva and Philip the Second, from which they had hardly recovered.13 It was a principle by which we must inevitably infer, says Bayle, that in Holland no other mode of religious belief but one sect should be permitted; and that those Pagans who had hanged the missionaries of the gospel had done what they ought. Lipsius found himself sadly embarrassed when refuted by Theodore Cornhert,14 the firm advocate of political and religious freedom, and at length Lipsius, that protestant with a catholic heart, was forced to eat his words, like Pistol his onion, declaring that the two objectionable words, ure, seca, were borrowed from medicine, meaning not literally fire and sword, but a strong efficacious remedy, one of those powerful medicines to expel poison. Jean de Serres, a warm Huguenot, carried the principle of toleration so far in his “Inventaire générale de l’Histoire de France,” as to blame Charles Martel for compelling the Frisans, whom he had conquered, to adopt Christianity! “A pardonable zeal,” he observes, “in a warrior; but in fact the minds of men cannot be gained over by arms, nor that religion forced upon them, which must be introduced into the hearts of men by reason.” It is curious to see a protestant, in his zeal for toleration, blaming a king for forcing idolaters to become Christians; and to have found an opportunity to express his opinions in the dark history of the eighth century, is an instance how historians incorporate their passions in their works, and view ancient facts with modern eyes.

The protestant cannot grant toleration to the catholic, unless the catholic ceases to be a papist; and the Arminian church, which opened its wide bosom to receive every denomination of Christians, nevertheless were forced to exclude the papists, for their passive obedience to the supremacy of the Roman pontiff. The catholic has curiously told us, on this word toleration, that Ce mot devient fort en usage à mesure que le nombre des tolérans augmente.15 It was a word which seemed of recent introduction, though the book is modern! The protestants have disputed much how far they might tolerate, or whether they should tolerate at all; “a difficulty,” triumphantly exclaims the catholic, “which they are not likely ever to settle, while they maintain their principles of pretended reformation; the consequences which naturally follow excite horror to the Christian. It is the weak who raise such outcries for toleration; the strong find authority legitimate.”

A religion which admits not of toleration cannot be safely tolerated, if there is any chance of its obtaining a political ascendancy.

When Priscillian and six of his followers were condemned to torture and execution for asserting that the three persons of the Trinity were to be considered as three different acceptions of the same being, Saint Ambrose and Saint Martin asserted the cause of offended humanity, and refused to communicate with the bishops who had called out for the blood of the Priscillianists; but Cardinal Baronius, the annalist of the church, was greatly embarrassed to explain how men of real purity could abstain from applauding the ardent zeal of the persecution: he preferred to give up the saints rather than to allow of toleration — for he acknowledges that the toleration which these saints would have allowed was not exempt from sin.16

In the preceding article, “Political Religionism,” we have shown how to provide against the possible evil of the tolerated becoming the tolerators! Toleration has been suspected of indifference to religion itself; but with sound minds, it is only an indifference to the logomachies of theology — things “not of God, but of man,” that have perished, and that are perishing around us!

1 Bishop Barlow’s “Several Miscellaneous and Weighty Cases of Conscience Resolved,” 1692. His “Case of a Toleration in Matters of Religion,” addressed to Robert Boyle, p. 39. This volume was not intended to have been given to the world, a circumstance which does not make it the less curious.

2 In the article Sancterius. Note F.

3 Recent writers among our sectarists assert that Dr. Owen was the first who wrote in favour of toleration, in 1648! Another claims the honour for John Goodwin, the chaplain of Oliver Cromwell, who published one of his obscure polemical tracts in 1644, among a number of other persons who, at that crisis, did not venture to prefix their names to pleas in favour of toleration, so delicate and so obscure did this subject then appear! In 1651, they translated the liberal treatise of Grotius, De Imperio Summarum Potestatum circa Sacra, under the title of “The Authority of the Highest Powers about Sacred Things.” London, 8vo, 1651. To the honour of Grotius, the first of philosophical reformers, be it recorded, that he displeased both parties!

4 J. P. Rabaut, “sur la Revolution Française,” p. 27.

5 “Life of James the Second, from his own Papers,” ii 114.

6 This was a Baron Wallop. From Dr. H. Sampson’s Manuscript Diary.

7 It is curious to observe that the catholics were afterwards ashamed of these indiscretions; they were unwilling to own that there were any medals which commemorate massacres. Thuanus, in his 53rd book, has minutely described them. The medals, however, have become excessively scarce; but copies inferior to the originals have been sold. They had also pictures on similar subjects, accompanied by insulting inscriptions, which latter they have effaced, sometimes very imperfectly. See Hollis’s “Memoirs,” p. 312-14. This enthusiast advertised in the papers to request travellers to procure them.

8 The Sala Regia of the Vatican has still upon its walls a painting by Vasari of this massacre, among the other important events in the history of the Popes similarly commemorated.

9 “Mémoires de Michel de Castelnau,” liv. i. c. 4.

10 “Life of Thuanus, by the Rev. J. Collinson,” p. 115.

11 Dr. M’Crie’s “Life of John Knox,” ii. 122.

12 I quote from an unpublished letter, written so late as in 1749, addressed to the author of “The Free and Candid Disquisition,” by the Rev. Thomas Allen, rector of Kettering, Northamptonshire. However extravagant his doctrine appears to us, I suspect that it exhibits the concealed sentiments of even some protestant churchmen! This rector of Kettering attributes the growth of schism to the negligence of the clergy, and seems to have persecuted both the archbishops, “to his detriment,” as he tells us, with singular plans of reform borrowed from monastic institutions. He wished to revive the practice inculcated by a canon of the counsel of Laodicea of having prayers ad horam nonam et ad vesperam — prayers twice a day in the churches. But his grand project take in his own words:—

“I let the archbishop know that I had composed an irenicon, wherein I prove the necessity of an ecclesiastical power over consciences in matters of religion, which utterly silences their arguments who plead so hard for toleration. I took my scheme from ‘A Discourse of Ecclesiastical Polity,’ wherein the authority of the civil magistrate over the consciences of subjects in matters of external religion is asserted; the mischiefs and inconveniences of toleration are represented, and all pretences pleaded in behalf of liberty of conscience are fully answered. If this book were reprinted and considered, the king would know his power and the people their duty.”

The rector of Kettering seems not to have known that the author of this “Discourse on Ecclesiastical Polity” was the notorious Parker, immortalised by the satire of Marvell. This political apostate, from a republican and presbyterian, became a furious advocate for arbitrary government in church and state! He easily won the favour of James the Second, who made him Bishop of Oxford! His principles were so violent that Father Petre, the confessor of James, made sure of him! This letter of the rector of Kettering, in adopting the system of such a catholic bishop, confirms my suspicion that toleration is condemned as an evil among some protestants!

13 The cruelties practised by the Protestant against the Catholic party are pictured and described in Arnoudt Van Geluwe’s book, “Over de Ontledinghe van dry verscheyden Niew-Ghereformeerde Martelaers Boecken,” published at Antwerp in 1656.

14 Cornhert was one of the fathers of Dutch literature, and even of their arts. He was the composer of the great national air of William of Orange; he was too a famous engraver, the master of Goltzius. On his death-bed he was still writing against the persecution of heretics.

15 “Dictionnaire de Trevoux,” ad vocem Tolerance. Printed in 1771.

16 Sismondi, “Hist. des Français,” i. 41. The character of the first person who introduced civil persecution into the Christian church has been described by Sulpicius Severus. See Dr. Maclaine’s note in his translation of Mosheim’s “Ecclesiastical History,” vol. i. 428.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53