Did the Reformation movement promote religious tolerance?

Essay 2011 8 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Middle Ages, Early Modern Age


The 16th century European Reformation was undoubtedly one of the most significant upheavals to occur in the history of western civilization. Nevertheless, it is certainly legitimate to ask as to what extent it actually achieved one its foremost objectives, namely the promotion of more forbearing and lenient attitudes towards the religious views and beliefs of individual figures as well as to the tenets of other confessions not commensurate with established orthodox doctrine.[1] Accordingly, the paper at hand endeavors to examine both the immediate as well as the long-term religious and social implications that the Reformation movement entailed for western cultures so as to provide a sound and conclusive answer to the question as in how far it ultimately contributed to the promotion of religious tolerance in early Modern Europe.

„In order to bring peace to the Holy Roman Empire [], let neither his Imperial Majesty nor the Electors, Princes, etc., do any violence or harm to any estate of the empire on the account of the Augsburg Confession, but let them enjoy their religious belief, liturgy and ceremonies as well as their estates and other rights and privileges in peace.“[2] This excerpt from Article 15 of the 1555 Peace Treaty of Augsburg clearly refers to a measure of religious freedom which less than a century earlier would still largely have seemed an all but impossible eventuality, ostensibly on account of the relentless denunciation and persecution of dissenting religious perceptions not in accordance with Catholic doctrine.[3] Yet less than forty years after Martin Luther had first publicly voiced his grievances with regard to various aspects of the Catholic Church's theological teachings and practices, the movement which had effectively been launched by his vocal opposition to some of these received beliefs and which, as a result, thereupon had gained momentum in other parts of Europe as well, indeed appeared of having attained a degree of religious tolerance previously unseen in western cultures. However, actual religious tolerance was nevertheless still far from being a firmly enshrined feature of contemporary reality: the years leading up to the Peace of Augsburg had seen a level of religious intolerance which glaringly ran counter to any avowals of early reformers to the contrary; and for many more decades thereafter Europe would continue to witness prolonged altercations between opposing religious factions involving such blatant dimensions of unbridled brutality and intolerance that already the very idea of the Reformation having furthered religious tolerance must invariably remain nothing short of a flagrant misinterpretation of society at the time.[4]

Such a negative and rather unfavorable perception must, in a first instance, already apply to a variety of reformed denominations themselves. That the Reformation movement would precipitate fierce opposition on the part of the Catholic Church certainly doesn't come as a surprise; more astounding, however, is the fact that religious intolerance was actually not only a chief characteristic of Church politics in their dealings with nonconformist groups and individuals, but rather that almost from the very beginning it essentially also was a distinctive and often all but symptomatic feature of certain protestant communities as well.[5] One of the perhaps most striking examples of this development is provided by the severe handling of dissenting members within congregations established by Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, notably when in 1542 the municipal council of Zurich ordered to either banish or execute all adherents of the Anabaptist faith.[6]

In a similar vein, many Calvinist communities occasionally disposed as well of what they perceived as heretics by reverting to equally despicable measures[7] , thereby effectively only further attesting to the notion that many of the early Reformation movements which had initially originated from an inherent desire to practice their beliefs according to their own views and traditions ultimately often failed as well as to observe this very same ideal when it came to treating different-minded people for their part. Even such an at first devout critic of heretical persecution on purely religious grounds as Martin Luther eventually came to assume a far less liberal take in these matters, especially when after having witnessed with his own eyes the grave and chaotic social upheavals caused as a result of the Peasants War he all but condoned the corporal punishment of such allegedly radical religious groups as the Anabaptists[8] .

Accordingly, it was the manifest lack of religious tolerance perpetuated by some prominent reformers which, ironically, often only in the first place gave rise to critical demands by various scholars and intellectuals for a more forbearing attitude towards diverging religious perceptions.[9] Influential Spanish writer Castellio for instance harshly condemned the execution of Swiss dissident Michael Severus at the instigation of Calvin for not abiding by established orthodoxy, leading him to argue in his work On Heretics, whether they are to be persecuted that neither Calvin nor any other man could presume to claim for himself absolute truth and infallible authority with regard to religious matters. Thus, Castellio reasoned, no person could possibly justify the execution of different-minded persons solely because they shared diverging opinions on questions of theological doctrine, if only „because these points are not cleared up in Scripture.“[10] Consequently, Castellio further maintained that religion ultimately [] resides in the heart, and not in the body.The Church can no more be built by persecution and violence than a wall can be built by cannon blasts. Therefore to kill a man is not to defend a doctrine but simply too kill a man.“[11] Following from these views, the physical punishment of heretics was basically construed as an altogether unwarranted and insensible action, essentially because the salvation of a person's soul was to be left a matter of personal liberty and conscience, and not of imposed coercion.[12]


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation. Europe’s House divided. 1490-1700 (London, 2003), p. 678.

[2] LWL-Institut für westfälische Regionalgeschichte, Peace of Augsburg, http://www.lwl.org/westfaelische-geschichte/portal/Internet/finde/langDatensatz.php?urlID=739&url_tabelle=tab_quelle [accessed 26 November 2008].

[3] R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Oxford, 1987).

[4] Andrew Pettegree (ed.), The Early Reformation in Europe (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 2-3, pp. 20-21.

[5] MacCulloch, Reformation, pp. xxi-xii.

[6] G..R. Potter, Zwingli (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 183-186.

[7] MacCulloch, Reformation, pp. 244-247.

[8] A.C. Grayling, Towards the Light. The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights (London, 2007), pp. 37-39.

[9] Ibid, p. 49.

[10] Castellio, On Heretics, whether they are to be persecuted, q uoted in R.H. Bainton, The Travail of Religious Liberty (Westminster, 1951 ), p. 111.

[11] Ibid, p. 116.

[12] Grayling, Towards the Light, pp. 53-57.


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Title: Did the Reformation movement promote religious tolerance?