John Christian Laursen. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 6. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Toleration is a policy or attitude toward something that is not approved and yet is not actively rejected. The word comes from the Latin tolerare (to bear or endure), suggesting a root meaning of putting up with something. There is no single and widely accepted definition of the term, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that every author uses it in his or her own way. Therefore it may be best to understand the many uses of the word in terms of family resemblances.

It should be clear that each of the languages that uses a variant of the Latin term (German, Toleranz; Dutch, tolerantie;French, tolérance; Spanish, tolerancia; Italian, tolleranza; etc.) adds its own slightly different connotations to the word, based on historical experiences. Languages that do not derive the word from Latin have synonyms, each with some overlap and some difference in usage.

Throughout much of the history of the concept, toleration referred largely to a policy or attitude toward different religions. Intolerance could mean burning at the stake of heretics or apostates and forced conversions of adherents to different religions, and tolerance could mean anything short of that. By the late twentieth century, demands for toleration could also refer to other disputed behaviors such as sexual orientations, clothing and dress, drug use, vegetarianism versus meat-eating, and more (although religion was often not far behind these disputes). Ethnic and cultural behaviors and language usage could be the subject of tolerance and intolerance as well. In medicine, toleration refers to an organism’s capacity to absorb or endure something without untoward consequences.

Conceptual Nuances

Most uses of the word understand it as referring to a middle ground on a spectrum between rejection, intolerance, hate, and persecution on one end, and acceptance, approval, love, and respect on the other. They distinguish it from indifference because it only comes into play when something is disliked or disapproved and matters.

Who is doing the tolerating, who or what is being tolerated, and exactly what such toleration entails can vary enormously. Individuals can be said to tolerate their own personal foibles, not to tolerate fools, or to tolerate whole groups. Groups can be said to tolerate individuals within or without, or other groups. States and other political authorities can be said to tolerate individuals, groups, or other states. That which is tolerated can range from the very existence to the appearance, ideas, or activities of the tolerated entity. Toleration can range from providing only limited encouragement, to doing nothing, to applying limited sanctions short of persecution.

Some authors have tried to distinguish “toleration” from “tolerance,” with the former referring to official policies and the latter to a personal attribute, but ordinary language does not seem to distinguish the two. For example, we can say that the behavior of tolerant persons shows that they tolerate others, or that all we are asking for from another person is toleration. We can also say that a government policy reflects tolerance of some activity.

Some authors have thought that toleration is only a second-best, half-way measure, and that we ought to go beyond toleration to embrace and respect others. This is certainly the right thing to do where whatever is being tolerated actually deserves to be embraced. But one can wonder if all human beings really are always doing things that deserve respect. What would the world be like if all people and all of their activities were worthy of embrace? Certainly unlike anything we have seen so far. Then, perhaps, there would be no need for a concept like toleration. But until that moment arrives, this is the term for the response to things that merit neither active persecution nor full acceptance.

Toleration may look weak and thin from the perspective of a possible acceptance and embrace, but it can look very good from the perspective of someone who is undergoing persecution. Many a victim of intolerance would just like to be left alone, and that is one of the modes of toleration. One of the paradoxes of toleration is that if one is tolerant of everything, then one is also tolerant of the intolerant. This may mean complicity with persecution, or at least failure to prevent it.

Related Concepts

A large vocabulary of related concepts has been used to define and promote toleration. If, as mentioned above, religion created many of the disputes that lead to persecution, it also produced many concepts that can lead toward toleration. Irenicism (the seeking of peace), the pursuit of concord, comprehension, latitudinarianism, and basic agreement on fundamentals have been policies of many theologians and churchmen. Where these policies recognize that we may never approve of everything the other thinks or does, they promote toleration. Where they imply that someday we will all agree, they go beyond it.

Other terms that have both religious and secular meanings are relevant. Mercy and charity may inspire one to tolerate. Patience is close to the root meaning of the Latin word, helping one endure what one disapproves. Humility, modesty, and skepticism about one’s own knowledge of what is right may incline one to tolerate others even when one disagrees with them. Indulgence can mean allowing something that one could prevent. Compromise may mean conceding some points in order to gain others, tolerating the loss of the conceded points.

High-minded philosophical principles can lead toward toleration. Belief in the autonomy and independence of other people can justify leaving them alone even when one does not like what they are doing. Principles of impartiality and neutrality may make a state stay out of religious or other quarrels. Of course, not just any principle will do: most persecution is justified by principle as well.

Toleration has not always been the result of principle. It can come about for purely practical reasons because of exhaustion, impotence, or impasse. It can be the result of politique calculation that hostility does not pay. Swiss physician and theologian Thomas Erastus (1524-1583) gave his name to Erastianism, a term for state supremacy and policies that enforce toleration in order to maintain political stability and prevent religious fighting. Gag orders and decrees prohibiting further debate have often been used to silence contending parties in the hopes of reaching a modicum of mutual toleration.

Liberty of conscience and freedom of religion are policies that sometimes overlap with toleration and sometimes go beyond it. Liberty of conscience usually means that everyone may think what they like, and no one will inquire into what they think. But this is compatible with suppressing public expression of what one thinks. On the one hand, this may be better than regimes in which “thought police” are constantly monitoring people’s ideas; on the other, it is not as free as forms of toleration that permit expression. Freedom of religion often means that one can choose among two or more established religions, but it sometimes also implies that one must choose one of the available religions. It may not tolerate rejection of all religion.


In modern times and in liberal ideology, toleration has a positive valence, associated with open-mindedness and egalitarianism. It can be a valued character trait or a beneficial attribute of a group or state.

But toleration has also been considered a negative trait or attribute. It can be associated with laziness, carelessness, and slacking. While many moderns do not consider it lazy or careless to tolerate other religions, we can capture some of the force that this charge once had if we consider that doing nothing about cruelty or murder could be characterized as tolerating it. Then the tolerators would be tolerating something they should not, perhaps out of cowardice or carelessness.

Another negative valence of toleration can be found in the Marxist tradition, where tolerating something can be considered part of an oppressive regime. “Repressive tolerance” can include tolerating evil and oppressive people or activities. It can also mean tolerating a protesting group and thus depriving it of the importance it would have if it were taken seriously. In effect, this theory holds that in conditions of class inequality, both tolerance and intolerance are repressive.

Other modern groups have considered toleration condescending and ultimately affirmative of conditions of injustice. For example, T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) wrote that in the conditions of modern secularism “The Christian does not want to be tolerated” (Cranston, p. 101); rather, she wants to be respected. Similarly, spokespeople for ethnic groups, women, gays, and others have objected that simply being in a position of having to be tolerated is already unfair, reflecting power inequalities.

Perhaps because of its middle-way position, toleration is rarely likely to be stable over a long period. Rather, persons or states can become more or less tolerant or more or less tolerated as time goes by and opinions or conditions change. Since intolerance is often a response to a perceived threat, when the perception of threat increases or decreases, toleration may become less or more of an option. Individuals or groups that were once persecuted out of fear but are now perceived as harmless can become tolerated and eventually embraced. Vice versa, if people who were once considered innocuous become perceived as more of a threat, intolerance of them may increase.

Toleration in the Ancient World

Cyrus the Great of Persia (r. c. 558-529 B.C.E.) is a key figure at the foundation of two traditions of toleration. He is praised in the Hebrew Bible for allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem after Babylonian captivity. And Xenophon (c. 431-c. 352 B.C.E.) lauded him in The Education of Cyrus (after 394 B.C.E.) for his policy of religious toleration, placing him in the Greek tradition. Scholars have speculated that his toleration of Medes, Hyrcanians, and other religious and ethnic groups was largely an imperial political strategy. He needed to draw on the manpower of conquered kingdoms and knew it would be easier to defeat kings whose peoples believed they could thrive under his rule.

Aspects of Buddhist religious thought, which originated in India, also justified peacefulness and toleration. Ashoka (r. c. 273-232 B.C.E.), the last emperor of the Mauryan dynasty in India, renounced war and promoted Buddhism while remaining tolerant of other religions.

Throughout much of history, the ancient Chinese were tolerant of a variety of religions ranging from Confucianism to Buddhism and Taoism to animism. Manichaeans and Jews thrived at times. Scholars have speculated that it was precisely because they were tolerated and not persecuted that Jews in ancient China seem to have shed their identity and blended into the rest of the population.

The Koran contains passages about living in peace with peoples of other religions, especially “peoples of the book” (Jews and Christians). Therefore, Islamic cultures such as medieval Spain tolerated flourishing Christian and Jewish communities in what was known as convivencia, or living together in peace. The Ottoman Empire developed regimes of toleration of those religions that included the “millet” system, in which each religion had its own legal system and paid its own tax rate, even though only Muslims could hold higher offices.

The ancient Romans were generally tolerant of the existence of many cults because of polytheism, which implied that every hearth, city, and people could have its own gods. When they became an imperial power, they tolerated any religion that would also show signs of respect for Roman deities. They conceived of the Jewish War not as wars against that religion but against a rebellious subject people. Christians were persecuted for their refusal to take part in the imperial cult and for their disrespect for Roman rule, not merely for their religion.

The Rise of Christian Persecution

Throughout world history, local practices of toleration have been interspersed with pogroms and persecution. Sometimes practices of toleration have come before ideas about it, and sometimes ideas have come before practices. Wherever toleration is practiced as a norm, there is not much need to think or write about it. By far the most elaborate discussion of the issue took place in the Christian West in the period from 1500 to 1800, precisely because a great deal of persecution was going on. To fully understand it, we must go back to the origins of Christian persecution.

The situation in the Roman Empire changed when the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337) legalized Christianity in 313 and promoted it as the public religion. Now it was implicated in state power and had to decide whether to tolerate or persecute others. In the following millennium there were wars against Muslims and persecution of pagans and Jews, as well as contentions within Christianity. With respect to the latter, one could justify intolerance if the people one disagreed with could be labeled as heretics or blasphemers.

The word heresy originally meant “choice,” as in a choice of beliefs or sects, with no negative connotations. But various passages in the New Testament used it to mean sinful divisiveness. Early church fathers such as St. Irenaeus (c. 120 to 140-c. 200 to 203), Tertullian (c. 155 or 160-after 220), and Eusebius of Caesaria (c. 260-c. 339) refuted the chief early heresies. In 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to settle church doctrine and then issued an edict banning heresies. In 385 a Spanish bishop, Priscillian (c. 340-385), became the first person to be executed for heresy.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the most influential theorist of persecution. After belonging to the Manichaean heresy in his youth, he joined the Catholic Church in 387 and eventually became a bishop. Facing Manichaean, Pelagian, and Donatist heresies, at first he advocated peaceful methods but by about 400 he began to endorse coercion. He interpreted the parable of the tares (Matt. 13:24-30) and the parable of the feast (Luke 14:21-23) to justify coercion of heretics. The latter was a particularly long stretch, because the parable merely has a rich man prepare a banquet and send his servant out into the streets to find people and “compel them to come in.” Later, both Catholics and Protestants justified forced conversions on the basis of this invitation to a feast.

Further developments in the justification of persecution include the definitions of heresy in Gratian of Bologna’s (d. before 1159) Decretum (c. 1140) and many further decrees. The persecution of heretics became the object of armed warfare in the bloody Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). In 1233 Pope Gregory IX (ruled 1227-1241) assigned the persecution of heresy to the Dominican order, establishing the Inquisition.

Medieval voices for tolerance

However, not everyone went along with the violent treatment of religious difference. The Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian of Peter Abelard (1079-?1144) demonstrated that the pursuit of knowledge could not be detached from the inclusion of diverse standpoints. John of Salisbury (c. 1115-1180) and Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280-c. 1343) combined defenses of personal liberty with functionalist accounts of the organic unity of the political community to maintain that the health of the body politic requires freedom of thought, speech, and even action. John Wycliffe (1330-1384) developed a theory of toleration that derived from his theology of grace and his political theory of the king’s responsibility to protect the welfare of both the graced and the ungraced.

Medieval times also included voices for toleration from the disempowered. Menachem Ha-Me’iri (1249-1316) developed a uniquely Jewish theory of toleration to justify cooperation with gentiles. Christine de Pisan (1364-1430) stressed the interdependence of the various parts of the body politic to justify tolerant treatment of differences of gender, class, and nationality.

In the late medieval or early Renaissance period, Nicholas of Cusa’s The Peace of the Faith (1453) recognized that mankind was inherently and inescapably diverse in language, culture, and politics. If there will always be different customs and rites, toleration is justified because persecution is futile. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and others from this period also developed toleration for non-Christians from their interests in the Jewish Kabbalah and pagan philosophy.

Early Modern Period

The Protestant Reformation created the most serious challenge to toleration in early modern Europe. Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), and Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) were the three most influential leaders of this movement, which permanently divided Christian Europe. Each demanded toleration for their own movement, but could be intolerant of other religions. Early Catholic responses included violent repression of the Protestants, but Humanists like Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) called for a more irenic response of continuing dialogue and peaceful admonition.

Early Protestants soon justified being left alone based on their interpretations of the Bible. Spiritualists like Hans Denck (c. 1495-1527) and Sebastian Franck (c. 1499-c. 1542) and mystics like Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) felt that God is within every man, and religious individualism is God’s purpose. Persecuted Anabaptists from Balthasar Hubmaier (1485-1528) and David Joris (c. 1501-1556) to Thomas Helwys (c. 1550-c. 1616) and Leonard Busher (dates unknown) argued that religious persecution is against the spirit of Jesus Christ and that judgment about matters of faith should be left to God. Menno Simons (1496-1561), founder of the Mennonites, argued for Christian pacifism, and Italian Protestants like Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564) and Celio Secondo Curione (1503-1569) defended their right to religious toleration on such grounds as faith is a gift from God, it is tyranny to punish an error of the soul, and God’s church has room for great variety.

At first the Protestants could claim the high moral ground because they did not use violence like their Catholic opponents. Then, in 1553, Michael Servetus (1511-1553) was burned for antitrinitarian heresy in Calvin’s Geneva. This provoked Sébastien Castellio (1515-1563) to write some of the first sustained defenses of toleration. De haereticis (1554; Concerning heretics) collected the irenic opinions of several writers and essays by the author under false names. “Heretic” is just the word we use to describe those with whom we disagree, he asserts. The suffering of persecution is actually the sign of a true Christian, and persecution of people who are acting in accord with their consciences promotes hypocrisy and is harmful to everybody. In later works Castellio drew on the ancient skeptics for their rejection of pretended certainty and argued for the separation of church and state. Other writers including Jacobus Acontius (1492-1566) and Mino Celsi (d. c. 1575) followed up on Castellio’s thinking. Among these, Dutchman Dirck Coornhert (1522-1590) insisted that civil unity was more important than religious unity; he was one of the first to argue in favor of tolerating atheists.

Throughout the early modern period, the ideal of the primitive church as voluntary and nonviolent appealed to many people. It could be carried to the point where Pietist Gottfried Arnold’s Impartial History of Churches and Heretics(1699-1700) redescribed most alleged heretics as pious, and most of the orthodox as the real heretics.

Catholic toleration

In the Anglophone world there has long been a tendency to claim that most theories of toleration came from the Protestant side. But Father Joseph Lecler found a Catholic writer in favor of toleration for almost every Protestant toleration theorist. For example, Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500-1558) developed the thought that “Heretics be not in all Things Heretics” into a defense of toleration. In the France of the religious civil wars of the sixteenth century, Chancellor Michel de l’Hôpital (1505-1573) strove for compromise and toleration between the Calvinists and Catholics, partly on the basis of his own Catholic religious convictions. The great author Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) never renounced Catholicism even as his Essays (1580-1595) contained many reasons for toleration drawn from individualism, skepticism, and a deep sense of the bodily nature of human beings. Such thinkers were sometimes called “politiques” because of their arguments for toleration on practical political grounds.

Jean Bodin (1530-1596) is an intriguing figure, ostensibly Catholic, but he could have been a Judaizer. In several works including Colloquium of the Seven about the Secrets of the Sublime (c. 1588) he argued for nonviolence, neutrality, and mutual agreement not to discuss differences that might lead to fighting.

The Spanish conquest of Latin America led to much abuse of the natives, partly on the ground that they were not good Christians. Writers like the bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), wrote in their defense. Half-Spanish half-natives like Felipe Guaman Poma (1532-1614) wrote to reconcile the two cultures, to little effect. Garcilaso de la Vega, known as “the Inca” (1539-1616), also spoke up for tolerance from the native side.

By the mid-eighteenth century active persecution of Protestants in France had died down, but in 1762 Jean Calas, a Protestant, was the victim of a judicial murder. The famous writer Voltaire (1694-1778) took up the cause, publishing A Treatise on Toleration (1763), which received European-wide circulation and discredited such persecution in public opinion. It may have been the last major cri de coeur against religious violence, because even contemporary and later Catholic treatments of heresy such as François Adrien Pluquet’s Dictionary of Heresies of 1762 and Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier’s Methodical Encyclopedia of 1788-1832 took for granted that heresy did not justify violence.

Antitrinitarianism (Socinianism)

Antitrinitarianism or unitarianism—the theory that Jesus and the Holy Spirit did not share God’s nature—was a heresy considered as bad as atheism and persecuted all over Europe. But conditions close to anarchy have often been good for toleration. The absence of centralized power in Poland in the later sixteenth century meant that it became a haven for Lelio (1525-1562) and Fausto (1539-1604) Sozzini, founders of the antitrinitarian Socinians, and followers such as Samuel Przypkowski (1592-1670). They developed a battery of reasons why they should not be persecuted, most of them rooted in Scripture. Their much-anathematized writings were published in the Netherlands, which had one of the freest presses of the day. Later, many thinkers such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were clandestine sympathizers with antitrinitarianism under another of its variants, Arianism.

The Netherlands out front

The Dutch published a great deal of toleration theory and practiced toleration to a substantial degree from the later sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. During early decades of the Revolt of the Netherlands (1568-1648) almost anything could be published because of the exhaustion of the political authorities, the myriad of decentralized jurisdictions, and appreciation of the economic value of the book market. William the Silent (1533-1584), leader of the Dutch Revolt, wrote that repression of worship leads to hypocrisy and that no false religion would last.

In the early seventeenth century a theological dispute in the Netherlands between Gomarists and Arminians led to suppression of the Arminians, but also to many writings against that suppression. Simon Episcopius (1583-1643) and Jan Uytenbogaert (1557-1644) wrote that Christian charity and reciprocity requires freedom of conscience, even for Catholics. Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot; 1583-1645) defended a limited tolerance as part of his theory of natural law, which was developed by later natural-law theorists like the German Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694). Pufendorf’s Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion (1687) claimed that the genius of the Christian religion was nonviolence, that people’s thoughts were not punishable, and that the civil authorities should control religion.

Benedict Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), an excommunicated Jew, wrote one of the most robust defenses of freedom of thought while living in the Netherlands. In his Theological-Political Treatise (1670) he argued for arming the state for security against the mob, and then for reining in the state in matters of religion. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a Huguenot refugee in the Netherlands, developed the most sophisticated and most tolerant theory of the century. In Letters on the Comet (1682) he showed how atheists could indeed live in civil peace, and in Philosophical Commentary on the Words “Compel Them to Come In” (1685) he developed a wide-ranging theory of toleration based on the rights of conscience, even erring conscience, that would protect not only Protestant sects, but Catholics and virtually all others as well. In his last writings, he asserted that he would rather live under an atheist king because that king would have one less reason to persecute.

The English Civil War and its aftermath

The anarchy of the English Civil War was also fertile ground for toleration writings. John Dury (1595-1680), Samuel Hartlib (c. 1600-1662), and Johann Comenius (1592-1670) drew on millenarian hopes to justify reunion and peace among Protestants. Merchant and Leveller William Walwyn (1600-1680) wrote in favor of complete religious toleration on religious grounds. Leveller Richard Overton (fl. 1642-1663) argued for toleration of Jews and Catholics and made free use of humor to take down overserious persecuting pride, a method recommended in Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics (1711). John Milton (1608-1674) made an impassioned case for toleration of divorce in several pamphlets, and then wrote the first major defense of that aspect of toleration known as freedom of the press inAreopagitica (1644). His work was followed up in the first substantial French and German defenses of freedom of the press by Elie Luzac (1749) and Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1787).

Roger Williams (1603?-1683) founded the English colony of Rhode Island as a haven of freedom of religion, and published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) in favor of separation of church and state and freedom of religion on Christian grounds. William Penn (1644-1718) founded the colony of Pennsylvania as a haven for persecuted Quakers and published The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience (1671).

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote Leviathan (1651), one of the most influential theories of absolute power in the history of political philosophy, but he has also been credited with a theory of toleration in the ruler’s own self-interest. Trying to control people’s thoughts may provoke too much opposition and squanders power that can best be used elsewhere.

The English philosopher John Locke’s (1632-1704) first work on toleration opposed it (1667). But after living for some years in the Netherlands, becoming friends with Dutch toleration theorist Philip van Limborch (1633-1712), and reading Pierre Bayle and Adriaan Paets (1631-1686) he developed a theory of toleration, which he published in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). He relied on the Calvinist point that everyone is responsible for his own salvation, skepticism about who really knew the truth, and the political benefits of toleration. Like Milton, however, he was unable to conceive of toleration of Catholics and atheists because of their alleged political unreliability, but later wrote for legal endenization of Muslims and against licensing of the press.

Economic interests, travel writings, and belles lettres

Beyond religious and philosophical ideas, one source of toleration in theory and practice was economics. The Dutch found that wide toleration paid off in economic growth and provided a demonstration effect for the rest of Europe. Henry Robinson’s (c. 1605-c. 1664) pamphlets of the 1640s and Daniel Defoe’s (1660-1731) many writings of the beginning of the eighteenth century pointed out the commercial benefits of toleration of merchants and customers of differing religions.

Another source of tolerationist ideas was travel literature, which introduced Europeans to different customs and religions from around the world. This could include actual travel accounts; somewhat fanciful travel literature such as Fernão Mendes Pinto’s Travels (1614); and imaginative works like Denis Veiras’s History of the Sevarites (1675-1679), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

Other genres of literature could be important, too. Aphra Behn’s play Oroonoko (1688) taught English audiences to tolerate Africans, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779) expressed the values of toleration for late-eighteenth-century Germany, and Karl Friedrich Bahrdt’s play The Edict of Religion (1787) ridiculed Frederick William II’s attempt to legislate religious conformity.

Despite all of the foregoing defenses of toleration, open admission of Socinianism or atheism remained dangerous throughout the early modern period. One recourse for Socinians, atheists, and libertines was the circulation of manuscripts and even clandestine printed works in the large underground literature of the time. Much of this literature, which included many pleas for toleration, has been explored in the French annual La lettre clandestine (1992-).

Toleration of Jews

Jews and heretics were often subjects of popular and clerical intolerance in medieval and early modern Europe, but writers could counteract some of that sentiment. Millenarians favored toleration of Judaism because they believed that the Jews must voluntarily convert before the restoration of Christ. Histories such as Jacques Basnage’s History of the Jews (1707-1716) and Ludvig Holberg’s History of the Jews (1742) helped place this much-maligned people in a more favorable light. The Jewish writer Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem (1783) was an eloquent plea for religious tolerance.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

It seems safe to say that although toleration of differing religions remains a political issue even into the twenty-first century, there have been few or no substantial novelties concerning the idea of toleration since the eighteenth century. Wilhelm von Humboldt’s The Limits of State Action of 1852, his follower John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty of 1859, and twentieth-century pleas for tolerance have largely debated, restated, and updated the theoretical ideas already in place from earlier times.

Legal Acts and Declarations

In addition to political pamphlets and philosophical arguments, from the sixteenth century on toleration can be tracked by study of the legal provisions that were decreed to grant it. One form of toleration was settled by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which ended some of the wars between Lutherans and Catholics. Under the formula cuius regio eius religio (the ruler determines the religion) it held that each prince could decide which of the two religions would be established in his territories and permitted adherents to the other religion to emigrate. Although not much, this was an entering wedge for wider forms of toleration. The principle was reaffirmed, this time including Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism, in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

The Revolt of the Netherlands against Spain after 1560 eventually gave the once-persecuted victorious Protestants the dilemma of deciding how to deal with the large number of Catholics in their territories. Pacts of tolerance were published as early as the 1570s, and in some localities Catholics were forbidden to proselytize or engage in public processions but were allowed to worship in private homes.

In 1568 the Diet of Torda in Transylvania consolidated religious enactments of the previous decades into a decree that “no one should be abused by anyone for his religion” and further similar provisions. In the following decades Anabaptists, Unitarians, Jews, and Orthodox Christians were protected by various laws and patents. In 1573 the king of Poland was forced to accede to the Confederation of Warsaw, which granted Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and even antitrinitarians some protection from persecution, leading to a golden age for Socinians there that lasted for several decades until Catholicism regained the ascendancy.

After decades of civil war between Calvinist Huguenots and Catholics in France, Henry IV enacted the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed Protestant rights to worship in their churches and even to certain fortified cities. Several other edicts of the sixteenth century attempted to settle continuing religious rivalry, but Louis XIV ended efforts to make coexistence possible by his Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. As many as a hundred thousand Calvinists fled France.

Taking advantage of the outflow of these talented and hardworking Huguenots, Frederick William I, the Calvinist great elector of Lutheran Brandenburg, issued the Decree of Potsdam in 1685, announcing that he would provide refuge to them and respect their religion. Many came and settled in Berlin, helping the city prosper.

The Toleration Act of 1689 demonstrates what the word could mean in England in that period. It suspended penal laws against Protestants who refused to conform to the Church of England. It did not lift penalties against antitrinitarians and Catholics, who were only given equal rights in 1813 and 1829, respectively. It maintained privileges such as exclusive qualification for political office for members of the Church of England. Nevertheless, this could be considered toleration because it allowed some dissenting sects that had not previously been permitted to worship in public to do so. Its perhaps unintended consequence was to keep alive the idea that other sects could eventually be tolerated, too.

Many who emigrated to the English colonies in North America did so in pursuit of religious freedom. Maryland’s Act Concerning Religion of 1649 was the first to spell out religious freedom. As mentioned above, Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island in order to institute religious liberty. By the later eighteenth century, the ideal of religious toleration was often institutionalized by declarations of rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, several other state declarations, and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (1791) provided for religious freedom. In France, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” of the National Assembly in 1789 provided that “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law” (Article 10). The United States and France served as models for such ideals and declarations in many countries throughout the next century.

Twentieth-century declarations

In the twentieth century, the United Nations internationalized the tradition of declarations of rights to toleration. In 1948 the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Article 18).

In 1996 the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a “Declaration of Principles of Tolerance.” Ignoring the ordinary usage of tolerance as referring to the middle of the spectrum between persecution and warm embrace, UNESCO redefined it by fiat as “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures” (Article 1.1). This was surely well-intended as an effort to move people who are unjustifiably opposed to diversity toward more open-mindedness. But if warm embrace becomes the exclusive meaning of toleration, we will surely need another term for our attitude or policy toward the things we may justifiably not respect, accept, or appreciate, but also do not persecute.