Alexandra Walsham’s 2006 book, Charitable Hatred, explores the history of toleration within England between 1500-1700, from the time of Henry VIII’s abandonment of Roman Catholicism and William III’s Glorious Revolution.
Her central theme is that, over those 200 years, the social perception of toleration changed. Whereas we now see toleration as a virtue, this only became the common view by the end of that period. In fact, those 200 years were an evolution towards viewing toleration as a virtue, rather than as a horrible vice. Governments originally saw toleration as weak and irresponsible. That is because toleration only applies to something that is wrong – we accept something that is right, we tolerate something that is wrong. And society felt that if something was wrong, it should not be tolerated at all. If it was being tolerated, that was usually because society was unable to stop it – it was like a disease that couldn’t be cured. Thus, toleration was never implicit endorsement. In fact to tolerate somebody was itself intolerant, a statement that you thought they were evil and dangerous. Walsham points to Goethe’s remark from 1791 that “to tolerate is to insult”.
The first real move towards what we might call civil rights today was religious toleration – long before other civil rights debate, such as gender or race. The first minority that society had to decide to tolerate was religious minorities, “nonconformists”, like the Quakers and Baptists.
Walsham discusses the issues surrounding toleration from several angles. Chapter 3 examines various governmental reasons for intolerance. In particular, governments felt that a lack of uniformity would lead to the destabilising of the nation, and ultimately anarchy. Thus not accepting Anglicanism was not only heresy or schism, but treason, an attempt to hurt England. No wonder toleration seemed so unattractive!
In Chapter 4, Walsham shows how religious minorities responded to intolerance. Some were martyred, to be ever immortalised, for example, in popular Puritan literature. Walsham points out that martyrdom was itself a form of “passive resistance” – but still resistance. Others, however, chose to resist more forcefully via rebellion. Others escaped into exile. And some simply hid quietly in their own communities, staying out of trouble – this option led to many ethical questions, especially around issues of lying and compromise.
One of Walsham’s most useful insights is that our historical sources highlight extreme reactions. There are plenty of “hints” in the available literature that people from different religious convictions – Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, or nonconformists like the Baptists or Independents – lived happily and quietly together for extended periods of time. The problem is the word “quietly”: nobody wrote about living peaceably day-to-day, they only wrote when things went wrong. Then, at that point, the sources are copious – they may be government records by the persecutors, or martyrologies by the persecuted. But the sheer volume of what we might call “crisis” sources gives us a disproportionate picture of the wider reality.
Many of these themes remain with us today. How governments should respond to the idiosyncrasies of religious minorities seems to be building as a fresh debate. How those religious minorities live in an intolerant society is no less relevant in our society, either. Finally, the recognition that our own sources today – especially the news – are just as driven by isolated crises, and not by peaceful day-to-day living together, is a valuable reminder. Those wrestling with such issues will find Walsham’s book immensely useful for reflection.
Matthew Gray- Tabor Adelaide Lecturer