A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
THE TOLERATION CONTROVERSY

§ 1. INTRODUCTORY

THERE seems still to exist an impression, in some quarters, that only a few isolated thinkers in the sixteenth century conceived of legal religious toleration as a thing desirable. That impression is very far from the truth. If, in the sixteenth century, governments and ecclesiastical organizations generally rejected the view that toleration of religious opinion was desirable if not actually obligatory, that was certainly not because such views were not openly maintained. Never has the case for universal religious toleration been more fully presented than it was by Castellion from a religious point of view, and by Acontius from a point of view not specifically religious. Castellion and Acontius were far from being isolated.

It was absolutely impossible in the sixteenth century that the question of how governments should, or had best, deal with religious contumacy, or with 'heresy', should not be widely debated and from many different points of view. It was a question which, however put, directly and acutely affected the lives of multitudes of men and women all over Western Europe. Every government had to make up its mind at least as to practical action; and that in face of all manner of difficulties and complications. To the question as a practical one put in general terms, every possible answer, as has already been stated,1 was given. It was maintained that under some circumstances it was expedient, under others inexpedient, to 'persecute', and that the ruler had a right to judge and to act at his discretion. It was also maintained that he had no choice about the matter. It was asserted that he was bound to endeavour to stamp out false religion by force, if force were necessary; it was maintained, on the contrary, that he was bound, morally, to allow people to preach and worship as they pleased, so long as they did not break the peace or incite to breach of it. Often, especially in the second half of the century, the question was put as one of mere expediency, with the assumption that the political sovereign was under no obligation to

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1
See Chap. II, p. 224.

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