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How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West.

How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. By Perez Zagorin. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 371. $29.95.)

This immensely readable book attempts to trace the origins of religious toleration in early modern Europe by focusing on a series of influential thinkers who made incremental advances toward full religious liberty. After gliding over the distinctions between toleration and religious freedom, the author begins by crediting Augustine with introducing arguments supporting nonviolent "coercion" as necessary for containing heresy. By the late Middle Ages, however, a hegemonic church developed a "theory of religious persecution" that utilized the Inquisition and other means to enforce theological conformity.

Perez Zagorin holds that the already iconoclastic Reformation provoked the first theory of toleration by Sebastian Castellio, who argued the futility of persecution as magistrates were unable to force conformity of belief. From here, the author moves from the controversies in the Netherlands during the war of independence and from the religious pluralism and consequent controversies stirred up by the English Civil War (Zagorin, a noted scholar of early modern England clearly excels here) to the purely rational justifications for toleration. He ends in the United States, which he sees as being founded on a unique principle of religious freedom.

In his clear privileging of Western culture, Zagorin raises a number of questions concerning both his method and conclusions. This book presents an old-fashioned intellectual history, before Quentin Skinner or the "linguistic turn," a sort of "great man theory" of religious ideas and change, where each person builds on the previous writer in a timeless dialogue that inexorably moves us forward toward a higher consciousness.

Rather than placing the writers within the broader intellectual milieu, Zagorin tends to highlight those writings that seem closest to modern thinking, usually suffusing them then with praise. If any of these heroic pioneers stumbles in expositing full religious freedom, we are told not to expect the writer to be so progressive, considering his historical situation. But there is a frequent slippage on what actually constitutes toleration. Zagorin tends to equate it with religious freedom, and as such, for most of this period it could only go so far. For example, he states that although John Milton "prized freedom very highly, he never saw it as an end in itself; for him, it was inseparable from morality and must be united with virtue to be justifiable" (221). That same rationale, however, could be applied to most of Christian history. John Wyclif decried the papacy's attacks on Christians of good conscience, yet he can hardly be considered tolerant. Are free thinkers, like the Spiritualists or Spinoza, automatically considered tolerant?

A related problem is the way the author takes what his writers say at face value without much critical examination. Castellio strongly disagreed with John Calvin over predestination and may have been interested primarily in defaming the reformer and defending himself. Also, considering the time, there were strong reasons put forth advocating religious uniformity, including fears of antinomianism, but Zagorin does not really entertain these. Similarly, arguments, such as Bayle's, that toleration would bring "peace and the harmonious coexistence of differences," appear somewhat facile and disingenuous (278).

In the end, although this book is an interesting exercise, engagingly written, it must be read with caution and with a critical eye.

Ben Lowe

Florida Atlantic University
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Author:Lowe, Ben
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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