When Tolerance Was No Ideal

Jonathan Koch
Friday, July 1st 2022
Jul/Aug 2022

Tolerance, that oft-touted virtue of the Enlightenment, has of late been under duress. Not only have the rhetoric and practice of intolerance suffused our political discourse and society, but the quality, the character, and the very constitution of tolerance have been questioned, and not just by those who oppose it. As those entrenched against the liberal project invoke bad-faith arguments for free speech and their own right to be tolerated in order to justify vitriolic and sometimes violent expression of their racial, sexual, religious, and political opinions, those sympathetic to tolerance have been confronted by its shortcomings and its costs.

At the center of tolerance lies a conceptual problem: tolerance excludes even as it claims to include, accept, and approve of others; it presumes—even requires—a citizenry that is first and foremost tolerant, and only secondarily wedded to beliefs and convictions, communities, and identities that might need to be tolerated. For many, such a metaphysical division is impossible—indeed, unthinkable. By valorizing the freedom to choose, tolerance assumes its own elevation above belief and embodiment, yet this very assumption undermines its claim to neutrality: If all are called to exercise freedom of choice, and the good life is defined primarily by such elevation, what then of those who do not (or cannot) see or experience the world in such terms?

A secularization story is implicit in the assertions of tolerance. Since dogmatic belief is on the decline and will soon die out, so the story goes, the claims of dissenting minorities need not be taken seriously. So defined, tolerance is an ideology: it is an intellectual system in which the tolerant see themselves as free agents operating in a world governed by rules that are easily apprehended, though in reality those rules are deeply informed by their own position in the world.

If tolerance is not the neutral good, not the unquestioned virtue it was once thought to be, then what course should we take in our efforts to live together across deep differences? Should we seek to reform or refashion tolerance so that it might be better equipped for our age? Or should we abandon it altogether, as a passive instrument wielded by those in power to reinforce their power, insufficient to address the material disparities of our world? In response to these questions, some have proposed models based on constitutional rights; others have advanced a politics premised on a shared experience of trauma and alienation; some have called for new forms of dialogue; and others have asserted that dialogue will never be sufficient to address the injustices that divide us.

The pitch and volume of diagnoses and solutions seem to have increased in recent years. As we try to listen through the noise and consider the best way forward, I would like to suggest that we would be well served to look again at the history of toleration in the Anglophone world, and more specifically to toleration’s earliest development as a concept in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before it became an ideal or an ideology. In taking up the example of Reformation England, I do not mean that the toleration of that world should itself be our model; rather that by studying its premises and its mechanisms, and especially the emotions and behaviors associated with its modes of forbearance, we will become better equipped to construct, evaluate, revise, and implement our own solutions to the challenge of life in plurality.


Toleration in Early Modern England

As several generations of historians have shown, early modern England was a world shaped not by a singular Reformation that irrevocably divided Catholic and Protestant, but by a series of reformations, whose effects rippled across the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century. The result was an uneven confessional landscape, proliferating with new sects and devotional practices, none of which conformed to a single theology, but also none of which was entirely discontinuous from existing forms of spirituality. Instead of sorting the women and men of early modern England into simple categories like Catholic and Protestant, Puritan and Anglican, we must recognize that these labels have been applied in retrospect; that Puritan identities and concepts of the church varied widely; that Catholic forms of spirituality persisted across the entire era; that not all Roman Catholics were recusants—some outwardly conformed to England’s church; and that what we might call the main stream of theology within the Church of England shifted gradually over the seventeenth century, as it was inflected by Calvinist, Arminian, and Presbyterian theologies and eventually by the more radical doctrines of Platonism, Socinianism, and Deism.

Religious toleration was no virtue in early modern England; it was a limited and contingent set of grudging, even condescending behaviors, less secular than theological, less indifferent than ambivalent, less radical than pragmatic. For early moderns, toleration was a loser’s creed, a dirty word, an asymmetrical practice of forbearance performed across imbalances of power, not despite but in the face—against the full force—of fundamental difference and disagreement. There was no guarantee that forbearing practices would translate from setting to setting, from one excluded group to another; to tolerate was to invoke authority, to define the terms of engagement, to declare who, when, where, and why to forbear.

These qualities distinguish early modern “toleration” from the modern concept of “tolerance.” The former term was much more common than the latter in the early modern world; not until 1765 does the Oxford English Dictionary record a use of “tolerance” to represent a program of religious accommodation. “Toleration,” on the other hand, emerges from its Latin sense—the action of bearing or enduring (tolerare)—which implies a difference between the “bearer” and the “borne with,” a bounded setting as well as a distinct telos, purpose, or end on behalf of which such endurance occurs. Tolerance as an ideal, as a right or liberty based on moral or ethical principles, emerged unevenly toward the end of the Enlightenment; only later did political thinkers return to moments like the English civil wars (1642–51) and the Glorious Revolution (1688–89) and to such texts as John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) and John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) to discover what they took to be the origins of tolerationist thought.

But toleration as an emotion, experience, concept, and practice of forbearance existed before and among these texts and events. The discourse of toleration in early modern England comprised diverse theological and political languages, but it was the experience of forbearance that was shared—that was “taken together” (co-capere)—as a concept, long before toleration became an idea or an ideology. The groups of people that joined together to “bear with” one another were at times very large: the broadest settings of toleration in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England were the church and the state—spheres so desperately held to be congruent that they were continually redefined by those in power, expanded, and contracted to keep them tightly aligned. But groups of forbearers could also be much smaller: a parish, a neighborhood, a theatrical audience, a dinner party, a couple linked in interconfessional marriage, even an individual who harbored multiple convictions and doubts.

In all these settings, acts of tolerating, of enduring difference, and forbearing from violence were possible only because they were undertaken on behalf of a community, real or imagined, and in pursuit of a goal, stated or unstated. At the highest level, communities of believers drew doctrines of forbearance from Scripture—understanding, for instance, Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares as allowing nonbelievers to coexist with believers until Judgment Day; or taking Paul’s teaching on protecting the tender consciences of fellow believers as requiring a surrender of personal liberty, a forbearing in adiaphora (things indifferent to salvation). But these doctrines require incredible finesse to put into practice, and early moderns struggled to implement them at large scale, in part because of tricky problems of ontology and authority. For who decides which beliefs are orthodox and which are heretical? Or whether a behavior is essential to salvation or indifferent? And what of those women and men whose spiritual beliefs were premised on different political constructs, like the Roman Catholics, whose loyalties were said to be with the pope first and the English monarch second?

To study how early moderns strove—and often failed—to implement a theology of forbearance in their lives as members of the English church and state gives context and precedent to similar problems we face in reconciling private convictions with public and especially political life in our own world. In the early modern toleration discourse, we can find analogues to modern debates over whether to follow government mandates in religious spaces, over terms like “evangelical” that unevenly yoke political and religious identity, over social justice as it relates to social reform, over the interpretation of national histories and key documents. Like those living in early modern England, when we choose to tolerate others, we do so in pursuit of some telos or goal and on behalf of a particular community. Unlike the early moderns, however, we often leave unstated—perhaps even uninterrogated—the goals implicit in our acts of tolerating and the communities implicated in our refusals to tolerate.

Framing our practices of tolerance over against early modern toleration may help us to craft better large-scale models for living together in plurality. I would like to suggest, however, that we can learn something further by extending our attention to the local level and by asking not only what it meant but what it felt like for early moderns to bear with one another—to forbear as they spoke or cited the words of another, as they engaged and inhabited other styles of written expression, as they drew close in physical proximity to one another, and as they learned when to disengage or move apart in order to prevent violence.


Imagining Forbearance in Early Modern England

To find evidence of such micro-movements, we might turn from the realm of theology and policy, from the canonical texts of early modern toleration to imaginative texts: to poetry, satire, and drama that staged and voiced the divergent styles of seventeenth-century spirituality. Here we will find plays, like Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614) and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), that staged acts of ventriloquy in which speaking the words of an opponent produces a momentary experience of forbearance, a temporary surrender of one’s own voice and the unintended amplification of another’s. Here we will find satires of the dinner table like Andrew Marvell’s Flecknoe, an English Priest at Rome (1646) or Lord Rochester’s Timon (1674), where guests of different political and religious persuasions are figured coming together through conflict, and where acts of writing bring the satirist into proximity with the satirized—for to write an effective satire is to know, to be intimate with the person and manner of the ridiculed. Here we will find as well epic poems like John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) and Paradise Lost (1667) and Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder (1679)—poems that test the experiences and emotions of forbearing by putting them to practice in the close quarters of marital union, especially union between spouses with varying degrees of spiritual incompatibility.

Milton himself lived in such a marriage—he was a staunch parliamentarian and was married to a royalist, Mary Powell—and for many writers in early modern England, toleration was a lived as well as an imagined reality. This was especially true in the decades following the restoration of the monarch, as political parties emerged and as religious conformity became a precondition for civil rights through a new set of Test Acts. In these years, we can trace the prevarications of writers like the poet laureate John Dryden, whose Religio Laici stages the increasingly public tolerationist debate in aesthetic terms. But we can also see movements between and among personal convictions and business practices in the lives of the printers and booksellers who were publishing key texts within that debate—print professionals like Awnsham Churchill who published John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), and whose output in the decade prior to that tract is a confounding mixture of Whig and Tory books.

By paying attention to imaginative texts and to the lives of their authors and their readers, we gain a deeper understanding of how toleration was practiced at a time when it was just emerging as a defined and definable idea. These early modern texts and authors do not share a common language, argument, or style for toleration, but they do share an affective register, a conceptual and emotional vocabulary of forbearing. Drawing readers outside of their own convictions, a play or a poem or a novel can bring us into other spiritual, political, or cultural positions—that is, after all, the very premise of fiction.


Forbearing with One Another

By studying and aggregating the movements of authors, readers, and viewers, both in the early modern world and in our own, we might begin to glimpse how everyday emotions and experiences of forbearing translate to concepts and ideas that can, in turn, help us as we seek to live with one another. By listening for the missing voices of toleration throughout history, we can better understand the challenges we face in constructing new models of tolerating. Our problem is, in part, a problem of aesthetics: how to define what seems more an absence than a presence, how to live in what seems to be a void at the center of noisy controversy. The solution, then, might be a matter of cultivating the imagination. To conjure images of intolerance, of persecution, and violence is quite easy—the aesthetic vocabulary is rich, developed, and close to hand. To conjure images of tolerance, of forbearing and enduring, however, is much more difficult. But this aesthetic labor, as it was in early modern England, may be the first step toward a life in plurality in a world convulsed by difference.

Jonathan Koch is Assistant Professor of English Literature at Pepperdine University, and currently working on With a Forbearing Spirit: The Poetics of Religious Toleration in Revolutionary England.


For Further Reading

• Bejan, Teresa M. Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

• Coffey, John. Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, 1558–1689. New York: Longman, 2000.

• Forst, Rainer. Toleration in Conflict: Past and Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

• Gregory, Brad S. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.

• Inazu, John D. Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

• Kaplan, Benjamin J. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

• Murphy, Andrew R. Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

• Ryan, Alan. The Making of Modern Liberalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

• Sowerby, Scott. Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

• Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

• Walsham, Alexandra. Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500–1700. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.

Friday, July 1st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church