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The Rise of Religious Tolerance in Protestant England in the Mid to Late 17th Century

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The Rise of Religious Tolerance in Protestant England in the Mid to Late 17th Century

There has been much debate dating back to the 17th century over whether or not the English Revolution brought with it increased religious tolerance. Much of the discussion centers on whether or not the Parliamentary Acts passed were solely due to the paranoia surrounding Catholicism or reflective of contemporary ideas about religious freedom and individual liberties. Research has led this writer to believe that while, during this period, ideas about religious freedom and basic human rights were certainly different and not as widespread as they would later become, it was certainly not unheard of and there were individuals espousing many of these ideas already. However, many historians suggest that this was an evolutionary process one in which progress moved directly from point A to point B yet this was also not at all the case. It would seem that, while it was not the intent of British lawmakers, they helped people cultivate ideas about religious freedom that would change the way that religious tolerance was perceived. In order to understand the basis for this argument, it needs to be understood that these ideas were framed by the tensions between Catholics, Protestants, and the English crown. These tensions first emerged during the reign of Henry VIII then escalated while Elizabeth and James were in power only to explode into outright Civil War during Charles’ rule. It wasn’t until this time, also known as the Puritan Revolution, that debate regarding the religious alignment of England led to the emergence of ideas regarding religious plurality.

Since the break with Rome during the reign of Henry VIII in the 1530’s the people of England had an extremely tumultuous relationship with Catholicism. There were, of course those people who wanted to stay the course and reconcile with the Catholic Church that had for so long been inseparable from the English state, however, most people simply decided to conform in order to avoid the wrath of the law. Over time, more and more laws were created in order to dissuade would-be Catholics from practicing their religion and by the late 16th century the majority of the English people were practicing Protestants. At this time, religion was compulsory; everyone belonged to one religious group or another. However, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the focus was on religious uniformity. Elizabeth’s sister, Mary Tudor, who tried to reunite the crown with Rome was known as an extremely brutal and vicious ruler because of her fanatical religious zeal. She was responsible for burning nearly three hundred men and women at the stake for holding views contrary to those of Orthodox Catholicism.

After Mary died and Elizabeth came to power, she focused on re-establishing Protestant control and enacted many laws in order to make this so in the early 1550’s. The most well known of these came to be known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, these laws re-established Protestantism in England after the reign of her strictly Catholic sister Mary. The two laws that comprised the settlement were the Act of Supremacy of 1559 and the Act of Uniformity. The Act of Supremacy was responsible for establishing the Monarch once again as the head of the church, while the Act of Uniformity of 1559 set the order of worship as established in the second Book of Common Prayer of 1552.

While Elizabeth and her supporters were satisfied with the moderate changes created by the aforementioned Acts, a growing group of dissenters who believed that the Church of England should do away with all traces of Catholicism, the Puritans, disagreed with this view. Led at first by the preacher Thomas Cartwright, the Puritans and the Queen found themselves constantly at odds. After the dismissal of Edmund Grindel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1578 for disagreeing with her views, separatist congregations began to emerge in larger numbers in London. The emergence of these radical sects, however, was due to Puritan desire for further reform of the Church of the England and in no way representative of a movement to separate from the Church altogether. Due to increased Puritan writings, however, the Conventicle Act was passed in 1593, this act made the crime for anyone refusing to attend their parish church or participating in a puritan conventicle punishable by exile and if the offender returned, he would be hanged.

The emergence of the many Protestant sects during the reign of Elizabeth I, though rebuffed in the closing years of her reign, would eventually destroy the monarchy of the Stuart King Charles I. King James I was responsible for widening the rift between the monarchy and the Puritans with his persecution of sectarian groups. However, this did not stop the first Armenian Church from being established in London in 1611, nor did it prevent offshoots that emerged in the 1620’s. Near the end of James’ reign he married his son, Charles, to a French Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, and suspended the recusancy laws, sparking Protestant suspicion of a “popish plot”.The appointment of Armenian Thomas Laud as archbishop of Canterbury only served to bolster Protestant fears. Laud attempted to suppress Puritanism yet failed, instead causing a backlash by Protestants, which culminated in the English Civil War.

It was in this era, the 1640’s-1660’s, also known as the Puritan Revolution, that many debates about religious acceptance took place. The landmark achievement of this particular era was that the conversation was no longer about how to appease as many groups as possible inside the Church of England, but rather about allowing other groups to exist outside of the Church of England.Separatists became more common because the Civil War was drawing attention away from them. Due to the increase in Separatist groups, the question of tolerance came to the forefront in 1644.

Historian John Coffey was of the belief that the concept tolerance involved two major elements: disapproval and restraint. These two components were important because religion was such a serious issue and everyone had an opinion about everyone else’s religious affiliation. Equally important was the idea that acceptance of this incorrect stance was necessary. Beyond the simple definition, there were also multiple contexts in which toleration was used. The major context explored here was that of polemical toleration. Polemical toleration involved engaging in argument for the purpose of altering another person’s opinion. In Coffey’s words, “Confronted by an alternative set of beliefs and practices of which they disapproved, early modern believers….felt they had a solemn duty to assail false religion with arguments.”

In 1668 an anonymous writer wrote a letter to a member of Parliament requesting “liberty of conscience” or religious tolerance. Two years later, a writer only identified as J.C. responded harshly to this letter. The first author made a case for religious tolerance by comparing England to the Jewish and Christian nations that had come before it. His argument compared the English state to the Kingdom of Israel as described in the Bible. He claimed that the Kingdom of Israel was home to many people of many different religious faiths, some being “so far from…Mosaical Law, that it was death for them to observe it.” He says that it wasn’t difficult to compare England to Israel, citing that neither had a standing army, both were under a monarchy with sensible rulers (mentioning Solomon and David in particular), and the latter even had God as its establisher. He even mentioned that there were several sects of Jews that whose beliefs differed as much as English Protestants did yet the Jews were able to live peaceably and God never told the magistrates that pluralism was unlawful or that it would be responsible for the fall of the state. As this article was written in 1668, the writer was still very hostile towards Catholicism and he took great care in mentioning his disdain for “popery” several times over the course of the article.

The author of the second pamphlet wrote “The Toleration Intolerable” as a direct response to the previous letter. He opened with a section specifically targeting the author of the previous letter with an attack, speculating that the writer was not a member of the Church of England and commenting on how small his book was to be discussing such a lengthy and important topic. He then spent the remainder of the introduction insulting him for how poorly he argued his point. After insulting the previous author, the author of the second pamphlet, J.C., went on to attempt to deconstruct his rival’s argument. In response to the previously mentioned argument regarding the comparison to the Kingdom of Israel, J.C., states that “Because he makes it not to appear, that they to whom Liberty was so granted (if any was) were men…[so dangerous as our]…Dissenters…the case is not the same…”[ He also argued that because Christ commanded unity from his subjects that accepting multiple religions was, more than anything, “destructive to Christianity”. He believed that the disunity promoted by these many different sects was neither good for people’s individual souls nor for the good of the people at large.

There was much argument over whether tolerance was the correct course of action leading up to and even after the passing of the Act of Toleration of 1689. This act was responsible for creating legal tolerance of dissenting groups in England. The act itself specifically states that it was “an act for exempting their majesties’ Protestant subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the penalties of certain laws”.

Religious tolerance has been the subject of debate by historians for years and as a result there have been popular trends in thought that have emerged. There are those historians who believe that the transition from intolerance to tolerance was a linear process, these are considered Whig historians. There are also those historians who believe that religious tolerance was totally and completely due to the fear of Catholicism reestablishing itself in England, these historians are known as Revisionist historians because this movement began as a reaction to the Whig historians. There are also those historians whose opinions lie somewhere between the two major camps.

John Coffey lays out the basic beliefs and texts that comprise what he refers to as “the Whig history of toleration”. Whig historians primarily saw the benefits of the Act of Toleration; they viewed it as a landmark achievement that was a triumph of liberalism. They saw the Puritan Revolution and the work of Oliver Cromwell as the writers of the blueprint for an act that drastically changed the status quo. While they were in no way blind to the negative aspects that still existed, they associated this triumph with, in the words of S.R. Gardiner, “the beginnings of democracy, of economic individualism and of modern English prose”.Some of the historians and texts that comprised this view were Lord Thomas Macaulay in “History of England”, American historian William Haller in “The Rise of Puritanism”, and W.K. Jordan’s “The Development of Religious Toleration in England, 1558-1660”.

As previously mentioned, the Whig movement sparked a counter reaction by historians known as the Revisionists. As opposed to the Whig optimism regarding religious tolerance, the Revisionists have emphasized the role of religious intolerance during this period. These historians have focused specifically on the tensions and hostilities between the different Protestant sects and the omnipresent hatred of Catholicism as the primary agents of change. The historians that fueled this movement were John Morrill, writer of “The Nature of the English Revolution”, Conrad Russell, writer of “The Causes of the English Civil War” and John Laursen and Cary Nederman, writers of “Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration Before the Enlightenment”.

Alexandra Walsham and John Coffey are two of the best experts on this subject in the world. Walsham wrote “Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England 1500-1700” and Coffey wrote “Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689”. Neither of these books falls precisely into either camp, however, they both have leanings toward the two different schools of thought. Coffey approaches the subject from a self-proclaimed “Post-Revisionist” standpoint, acknowledging the role of anti-Catholic paranoia, yet also admitting that there was societal advancement toward increased tolerance by the late 17th century.

Walsham takes a much different approach, she argues that there is an interdependent relationship between tolerance and intolerance. She argues that there only a very small minority of people who actually believed in religious freedom and that many of the people who worked to initiate this freedom did so only out of fear of creating martyrs and strengthening the cause that they were fighting against. She emphasizes the power of the ideal of the inclusive national church stating that, “Even at the end of the [17th century] only a minority advocated a policy of ecclesiastical disestablishment”. However, it should be noted that there are many periods in which radical change takes place not because the hegemonic power views it as morally necessary, but because it advantageous to the group at that particular time. She believes that the Toleration Act of 1689 did not bring down the position of the Church of England as the nominal religious entity of the state and she is correct, nonetheless, it did create significant changes that space for the different Protestant sects to grow. While it did not, with one fell swoop, change the status quo, it did alter it in a very significant way.

These two historiographical views have defined the landscape of discussion regarding religious toleration in 17th century England. While these two views at first seem to be mutually exclusive, the fact is that there was greater toleration by the end of this period and it resulted from the acknowledgment of the necessity of unity in order for everyone to achieve their respective goals. The people were able to recognize, through this, the need to allow people to engage in worship in ways that had previously been unacceptable within English Law. Though there were a multitude of factors behind this decision, many of which were neither noble nor forward thinking it nonetheless resulted in freedoms that were unprecedented in the English state.

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The Rise of Religious Tolerance in Protestant England in the Mid to Late 17th Century. (2018, October 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-rise-of-religious-tolerance-in-protestant-england-in-the-mid-to-late-17th-century/
“The Rise of Religious Tolerance in Protestant England in the Mid to Late 17th Century.” GradesFixer, 22 Oct. 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-rise-of-religious-tolerance-in-protestant-england-in-the-mid-to-late-17th-century/
The Rise of Religious Tolerance in Protestant England in the Mid to Late 17th Century. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-rise-of-religious-tolerance-in-protestant-england-in-the-mid-to-late-17th-century/> [Accessed 20 Oct. 2020].
The Rise of Religious Tolerance in Protestant England in the Mid to Late 17th Century [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Oct 22 [cited 2020 Oct 20]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-rise-of-religious-tolerance-in-protestant-england-in-the-mid-to-late-17th-century/
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