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Book Review


Zagorin, Perez. The Coming of Religious Toleration to the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). 371 pp., $19.95.

     In 1553, Michael Servetus was burned alive for the crime of heresy on the orders of John Calvin and Geneva city officials. Servetus' religious ideas scared both Protestants and Catholics and, according to Perez Zagorin, it was his trial and execution that epitomized how truly intolerant the Christian West had become by the sixteenth century, "probably the most intolerant period in Christian history." (2) In this light, it is significant that Calvin, one of the foremost leaders of Protestantism, was willing to inflict the death penalty for heresy in a case that did not have any political implications and, in turn, "provoked the first major controversy in Western history over the question of religious toleration and the killing of heretics." (96) The case of Servetus is the fulcrum upon which Perez Zagorin's The Coming of Religious Toleration to the West rests.

            A sweeping book, stretching chronologically from the rise of Christianity during the Roman Empire to decrees of the United Nations and the Second Vatican Council of the twentieth century, this book explores the great minds and writings which helped formally establish the idea, if not the actual practice, of religious toleration in Europe and America. The work's central question is best encapsulated when Zagorin asks, "If Christian Europe and the Western world were so intolerant in religion for so many hundreds of years . . . how did it happen that their leaders and members came eventually to change their opinion and to endorse the principle of religious toleration?" (3)

            To answer his central question, Zagorin details the development of Christianity and its connection to the state in battling heresy, established during the later Roman Empire, when Christianity became the official state religion, and the early Middle Ages, by which time Christianity had a near-monolithic hold on Europe. Over time, state officials would come to battle heresy through execution so that by the "first half of the thirteenth century the death penalty was being established as the common remedy for heresy, with the concurrence of the church." (40) The dawn of the Reformation brought no increase in religious toleration; Christian humanists such as Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, though wanting to correct the abuses of the church, wanted the church to vigilantly protect against heresy. Even after Martin Luther's formal break from the church, there is no evidence to suggest that Protestant leaders were any more tolerant religiously than the Catholic Church from which they had separated. Zagorin maintains it is in this context that we must examine Servetus' execution and give credit to Sebastian Castellio, based on his defense of religious toleration in response to that execution, as "the first great advocate and defender of tolerance and pluralistic freedom for differing religious beliefs." (97) Zagorin delves into this material in the first four chapters of his book. In the remaining four chapters, he focuses on specific authors and contexts in which theories and ideas of religious toleration developed from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries. To attempt so much in a single book is unique and so Zagorin claims, though he does give nods to several earlier works, notably W.K. Jordan's The Development of Religious Toleration in England, Joseph Lecler's Toleration and the Reformation, and Henry Kamen's The Rise of Toleration.

Of the book's second half, one chapter is devoted to the toleration controversy in the Netherlands, in which Zagorin emphasizes the writings of Dirck Volckertszoon Coomhert, the Armenian Hugo Grotius, and the excommunicated Jew Benedict Spinoza. Another chapter is devoted to the theories of religious toleration that arose in the midst of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth. In this chapter, Zagorin examines the work of the American colonist Roger Williams, the Independents John Goodwin and John Milton, and William Walwyn and the Levellers. Yet a third chapter is devoted to the theories of religious toleration expounded by John Locke and Pierre Bayle. Zagorin claims that Locke and Bayle were watershed theorists of religious toleration. Before them, all theorists advocating such toleration were still religious men and interested in the preservation of religion. After them, with the ensuing worldliness and secularization of the Enlightenment, religious toleration became an extension of freedom of conscience, which many people advocated as a natural law and general human right. Zagorin contends documents such as the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and, more recently, the United Nations' "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration of Religious Freedom," have best expressed this extension of religious toleration to freedom of conscience.

            Yet this book is more than just an analysis of the major works of leading intellectuals of religious toleration. Before every textual analysis, Zagorin gives significant details of the author's life and career and the social context which inspired him to write and in which he wrote. Zagorin does so because, as he notes, "in a certain sense ideas rule the world, and the attitudes and actions of human beings are greatly affected by reasons and justifications. In the absence of convincing reasons showing why toleration is right and desirable, the institutional accommodation and the change in individual and social values needed to establish it could hardly occur." (12-13)

            Unfortunately, this book falls short on at least two major fronts. First, what Zagorin has essentially done is to present the "official" history of the coming of the idea of religious toleration to the West as shown through state documents and the writings of intellectual elites. But what about the general mass of people in the West who would not have been familiar with the works Zagorin details? How did religious toleration come to these men and women? Did religious toleration come to them at all? It is important to understand the rationale behind religious toleration (and, by extension, freedom of conscience), but this is as far as Zagorin goes. Based on the sources of this book, he cannot make any statements about how embraced religious toleration is in the West. So, while he writes that "the advance of religious toleration has constituted one of the main lines of change and progress within Western society in the past two centuries," Zagorin must also admit that this is not "identical on the psychological and social plane with the elimination of prejudice and hateful attitudes towards other religions on the part of individuals, miscellaneous groups, and political organizations and parties." (300) Zagorin's book is commendable in depicting major early modern theorists of religious toleration, but, at least in a country in where there seem to be daily headlines in newspapers and on television about the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, the placement of the Ten Commandments in schools and courthouses, and hate crimes against Muslims, it is uncertain that religious toleration has been truly achieved on a personal level.

            The second shortcoming of the book for world historians is that Zagorin does not adequately address religious toleration in a broader, non-western context. For instance, Zagorin does not develop why the idea of religious toleration has been a European achievement. Though he gives some (very passing) lip service to the fact that some Jewish and Islamic authors also wrote about religious toleration, his focus is clearly on the West, as the title indicates. Indeed, Zagorin seems to go to lengths to present not only a Western-centric view of religious toleration, but a Western-exceptionalist view. It might be that in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001 (this book was first published in 2003), that he wanted to stress that intolerance was more entrenched in Christian history than it ever was in Muslim history. Zagorin begins the book by declaring, "Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant. This statement may come as a shock, but it is nevertheless true." (1)

            Despite its shortcomings, this book would be of great benefit to juniors, seniors, and graduate students in college courses, to say nothing of scholars interested in the great minds and works of Western history. In a classroom setting, teachers and students could use this work in various ways, including depicting how the secularization and worldliness of the Enlightenment may have either re-diverted or replaced age-old religious values, detailing possible European influences on the founding theories of American government and politics, and providing the general social context of early modern European religious developments. As such, this book could be utilized in junior and senior level classes or graduate seminars on Western religion, the Reformation, colonial America, and early modern European intellectual history. More importantly, this book could serve as one of several texts for a world history class, the intent of which would be to deal with the plurality of religious beliefs held in different parts of the world.


Christopher Chatlos Strangeman
Southern Illinois University Carbondale


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