Christianity and Religious Freedom in the Early Modern Period (1454 – 1750)

AuthorDavid Little

Though gradual and subject to numerous influences, the undoing of the idea of papal authority in Western Christianity marked the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Early Modern period. At this point, West and East completely parted company, and the West, under the impact of the Protestant Reformation, pursued a radically distinctive path with portentous implications for the development of religious freedom.

Renaissance humanism, a force to contend with in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was an important part of the background. Its emphasis on both new and ancient languages, as well as the recovery of classical and early Christian sources, produced a serious challenge to the Roman Catholic concept of Christendom and introduced a spirit of fresh inquiry and independent thought. At the same time, humanists were not reformers. Some were indifferent to social affairs, while others favored existing patterns of status or supported the growing trend toward political absolutism.

The Protestant reformers, especially Anabaptists and Calvinists, would make a significant contribution to the growth of religious freedom. Free church Anabaptists, like the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites, opposed all coercion in matters of religion, implying a radical separation of church and state. They were mercilessly persecuted but their views had influence, particularly in seventeenth century Holland and England. Neither Luther nor Calvin went nearly as far as the Anabaptists. The two reformers believed that uniform religion helped secure civic order, and therefore they supported severe limits on the freedom of conscience. Still, Luther’s was a message of spiritual liberation: Ordinary people should throw off old beliefs and take up new ones. Once familiar religious beliefs were successfully challenged, it was not difficult for others to emerge.

That was even truer of Calvin. Legally educated, he embraced and enlarged upon Conciliarist themes, particularly constitutional reform of church and state, with a special place for natural rights, including the freedom of conscience. Christian liberty was not just the right to believe without interference, as with Luther, but also the right so to organize. Christians must be permitted to restructure churches and in some cases states in accord with the separation of powers, the importance of popular participation, and the independence of church from state control.

As it spread throughout northern Europe, Great Britain, and colonial New England, Calvinism modeled exquisitely the ambivalence toward religious freedom characteristic of Christianity from its origins. All Calvinists, in different degrees, shared Calvin’s enthusiasm for constitutional government, but they divided sharply over the extent of rights of conscience. In seventeenth century Colonial New England, Roger Williams, invoking one side of Calvin’s legacy, helped create a radically new civil order in Rhode Island, based on the natural right of all to freedom of conscience, and the disestablishment of “national religion” in any form. However, he was ardently opposed by a majority of fellow colonists who, equally convinced of their Calvinist pedigree, favored stringent limitations on religious belief and practice.

In the latter seventeenth century, John Locke influentially, if more narrowly, elaborated on Williams’ arguments that “liberty of conscience is everyone’s natural right.” This new spirit of religious freedom, gaining strength and here and there codified for the first time, had earlier been encouraged by international agreements like the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which brought an end to thirty years of “religious wars.” The results did not guarantee equal freedom of conscience in a modern sense, for dissenting individuals and religious communities within each country were still subject to heavy restrictions by the state. Still, these agreements assured that newly emerging nation-states, having each adopted an official faith—Catholic, Lutheran, or later Calvinist—would be under great pressure to tolerate the others both internationally and domestically.

Sixteenth century Catholics like Francisco di Vittoria, Francisco Suarez, and Bartholomew de las Casas also made an important contribution to emerging concepts of religious freedom. Basing their views on the universal protection of political, territorial, and religious freedom dictated, as they saw it, by the natural law, they condemned the European invasions of Central and Latin America, and the coercive policies of European monarchs, for violating these basic freedoms of the native populations. The many sermons, debates, and other writings of these men reverberated through later centuries’ debates on religious freedom and are very much part of the conversation today.

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