Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 1: Religious Tolerance

This workshop explores different faces of religious tolerance. Religious tolerance includes the notion that the practice of different religions should be permitted and that different religious beliefs should be accepted and understood to be valid. Throughout Western history, religious tolerance has been a question both in the civic realm as societies have worked out whether to allow diversity of belief and practice, and within faith traditions themselves, as religions have had to work out just how much diversity of belief would be tolerated within their tradition. This handout primarily addresses the civic realm, examining moments in history when governments and rulers wrestled with the questions of religious tolerance or liberty, at times creating an environment where Unitarianism and Universalism were able to take root.

The earliest recorded edicts of tolerance in Western history are those by Galerius (311 CE) and the Edict of Milan (313 CE) by Constantine Augustus and Licinius Augustus. Created during a time of fast-changing religious allegiances and alliances, these statements were intended to grant certain rights of assembly and practice to Christians and non-Christians alike. However, the motivation behind the statements was perhaps less a generous offer for all humans to enjoy religious liberty than an attempt to curry favor with all possible gods, as seen in this, from the Edict of Milan:

... so that we might grant to the Christian and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule ...

In fact, these edicts did little to encourage an environment open to the varieties of Christian theology that were emerging at the time. They offered no real protection to the earliest of our Unitarian and Universalist spiritual ancestors, including Origen and Arius during whose lifetimes religious persecution and intolerance thrived.

In Europe, the notion of religious toleration as a policy of the government would not even begin to develop until many hundreds of years later, with the opening salvos of the Reformation and the subsequent blossoming of a variety of Christian beliefs. For hundreds of years, religious beliefs were established for the people by the state, generally by a monarch. At best, declarations of tolerance permitted religious practices of Christian sects other than the state religion, and protected believers of other faiths from persecution. But these acts could be—and were—easily reversed and undone by the decrees of successors, as we have seen in the story of Queen Isabella and King John.

The execution of Michael Servetus in 1553 (see Workshop 5, God's Gonna Trouble the Water — Martyrs and Sacrifice) in Geneva on the charges of blasphemy and heresy raised deep questions about tolerance. John Calvin had ordered the execution, and theologian Philip Melanchthon, a key figure in Luther's Reformation, supported the action. He wrote to Calvin:

To you also the Church owes gratitude in the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity ... I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man.

But Sebastian Castellio, one of the first Reformed Christian proponents of freedom of conscience and freedom of thought, joined Laelius Socinus and Celio Secondo Curione in writing words of protest:

It is unchristian to use arms against those who have been expelled from the Church, and to deny them rights common to all mankind... When Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings.

For the rest of the sixteenth century, and throughout the seventeenth century, the commitment to religious tolerance waxed and waned in both mainland Europe and the British Isles, depending on the rulers in power, as well as internal conflicts or revolutions, in each country. Two significant moments for our spiritual ancestors were:

  • the establishment of the Warsaw Confederation (1573) which granted religious toleration in the lands of modern Poland and Lithuania, at the time a religiously and ethnically diverse society which included Socinians, our religious forebears
  • the 1689 English Act of Toleration, which granted toleration to Protestant dissenters in Britain (although Unitarians were not given full freedom under even this law until 1813).

The first European immigrants to the North American continent brought mixed religious experiences and motivations. Yes, they wanted to be free to practice their own faith, yet not all planned to extend religious freedom to others whose beliefs differed from their own. In the words of Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard:

As the decades brought more and more settlers to these shores, our Christian ancestors did not create widely tolerant communities. The Puritans of Boston envisioned a society, a biblical commonwealth, decisively shaped by their own form of Christianity. They were concerned primarily with religious freedom for themselves and did not regard it as a foundation for common life with people who differed from them.

This was particularly true in Massachusetts. In the seventeenth century, before Unitarianism and Universalism had emerged in the colonies as theological movements, Massachusetts' leadersbanished Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and many others for their dissenting beliefs. Later, the effects of intolerance were felt by our progenitors, with the persecution of Universalists beginning in the late eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, the Unitarian controversy pitted theological liberals against those with more orthodox views within the Standing Order churches themselves.

Religious tolerance and liberty showed themselves in the American colonies sporadically and provincially. Roger Williams and William Penn, who respectively founded Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, were notable for their early embrace of freedom of conscience and worship for all. On Long Island, the Flushing Remonstrance overrode a ruling by Governor Peter Stuyvesant banning Quakers. Maryland's Toleration Act of 1649 extended rights to both Catholics and Protestants. However, it was during the effort to disestablish the Church of England in Virginia that leaders formulated the approach to religion which found its way into the United States Constitution as articulated in the Bill of Rights. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed in 1786, and became a model for the First Amendment, passed in 1791, which simply states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof... "

Even the explicit declaration of tolerance found in the Bill of Rights had a loophole: Until the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868, individual states could have an official state religion. Massachusetts was the last to completely disestablish church-state commitments, in 1833. The Dedham Controversy (see Workshop 9) and the Independent Church of Christ, Gloucester (see Workshop 4), both from within our own religious history, were notable steps on the road to disestablishment.

Not surprisingly, the First Amendment is viewed by some contemporary thinkers as a groundbreaking and revolutionary act, while others see in it pure pragmatism. Diana Eck writes:

... the sturdy principles of free exercise of religion and the nonestablishment of religion have stood the test of time. America's rich religious pluralism today is a direct result of our commitment to religious freedom. Our secular humanist traditions also are a product of the freedom of conscience built into the Constitution. Freedom of religion is also freedom from religion of any sort.

But Ronald L. Johnstone, an historian who specializes in early American religion, sees a slightly different picture:

In significant part, this change from state churches to religious toleration and pluralism occurred because no single religious group could claim anything near the majority of supporters throughout the thirteen states necessary to establish it as the officially sanctioned religion of the new nation... every religious group, whether dissenting or firmly established, now found itself occupying a minority status in the context of all thirteen states, and so each was quite naturally concerned with keeping government from interfering with what it wanted to do and teach religiously.

Regardless of the motivation of the creators of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is incontrovertible that without the basic principle of civic religious tolerance, neither Unitarianism nor Universalism would have taken root in this new country's soil.