Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The New History of Toleration

Chris Beneke

The latest issue of the William and Mary Quarterly includes a forum on Stuart Schwartz’s groundbreaking
All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (2008), which argues that a surprisingly large proportion of ordinary people within the early modern Spanish and Portuguese empires maintained that salvation was available to a wide range of believers. Drawing on his extensive archival work on both sides of the Atlantic, Schwartz contends that these two Catholic regimes, famous for their religious exclusivity, actually harbored a substantial number of religious relativists. Schwartz’s book is distinctive in another way: its subject, he notes, “is not the history of religious toleration, by which is usually meant state or community policy, but rather of tolerance, by which I mean attitudes or sentiments.” (6)

The WMQ comments are generally positive. Lu Ann Homza does find fault with Schwartz’s heavy reliance on statements drawn from inquisitorial tribunals and suggests that when “Schwartz found over and over again the phrase that ‘each could be saved in his own law,’ we must ask whether Inquisition notaries were fitting defense testimony into rhetorical formulas.” David D. Hall sets Schwarz’s book within the new, non-linear and anti-triumphalist historiography of toleration in early modern Europe, specifically Alexandra Walsham’s Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700 and Benjamin J. Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Hall suggests that Schwartz’s universalist-minded subjects might be evidence of “the persistence of tensions within any strong cultural system.” Marcy Norton expresses her wish that Schwartz had given more weight to the impact of religious and ethnic diversity in prompting tolerant attitudes. And Andrew R. Murphy argues that we need to devote more attention to the “borderland between attitudes and political practices” than Schwartz does in All Can Be Saved.

As engaging as it is for specialists, this WMQ forum might seem a bit esoteric to the un-initiated. Fortunately, Murphy summarizes recent historiographical developments in his conclusion. The new literature on toleration in the early modern (Anglo-American) world, he writes, is characterized by four “corollaries”:

* Intolerance was—theoretically, conceptually, and theologically speaking—as robust as tolerance.

* Elites often had “good,” or at least comprehensible, reasons for persecuting religious dissenters.

* Toleration often resulted from the intentional plans of tolerationist elites but as an unintended consequence of actions growing out of complex motivations (economic, political, strategic).

* Toleration, when it happened, was due as much to exclusionary impulses and intolerance (separatism, anti-Catholicism) as to humanistic and skeptical ideals.

The WMQ forum on All Be Saved falls on the heels of a fascinating September 2008 conference organized by Evan Haefeli, Brendan McConville, and Owen Stanwood on “Anti-popery” in the Protestant Atlantic world from 1530 to 1850, which also offered a generally non-triumphalist and socially grounded take on the extent of early modern toleration across the Atlantic world.

Beneke's essay, "America’s Whiggish Religious Revolution: An Instance in the Progress of History," will appear in the June 2009 issue of Historically Speaking.

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