A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
THE QUESTION OF TOLERATION

§ 1. THE STATE OF THE CASE

NO controversy developed in England during the sixteenth century as to the rightfulness or expediency of general religious toleration. From time to time suggestions were made that it was unreasonable or unjust to punish people for their religious opinions, that nothing is gained by doing so and that trouble would be saved by not doing so. Such suggestions passed almost unnoticed. It is only towards the end of the century that we can see that the question is beginning to be regarded as a practical one and discern signs of the coming controversy.

This fact is at first sight a little surprising in view of the acuteness of controversy on the subject on the Continent and in view of the development of Nonconformity and the difficulty, under Elizabeth, of establishing any sort of order in the religious life of the community. But Continental controversy had little or no effect in England. Anthony Brown, Lord Montague, speaking in Parliament in 1563, declared that

'naturally no man can or ought to be constrained to take for certain that that he holdeth to be uncertain: for this repugneth to the natural liberty of man's understanding: for understanding may be persuaded but not forced. . . . When there be many opinions of the one side and of the other,' he added, 'it is reason that the thing be doubtful, till all opinions come to one.'1

This sounds like an echo of Castellion; but Castellion's writings seem to have been hardly known in England until published in Holland early in the next century. The influence of Bodin is traceable after 1580; but conditions in France differed so greatly from those of England that the argument from expediency that there seemed overwhelmingly strong, had little weight here.

If the Arminian controversy, in its early stages, aroused little interest in England, that was partly because England had developed already its own kind of Arminianism. Under Henry VIII the doctrine of the royal supremacy had been an instrument of nationalization,

____________________
1
Speech in Strype: Annals, App., p. 443.

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