Evan Haefeli on the History of Toleration

Evan Haefeli, an early American historian at Columbia, has written a very helpful essay on the history of toleration. Haefeli argues that religious toleration is hard to define because it has meant different things in different eras and places. Haefeli’s attempt to historicize the concept of toleration is a refreshing response to those who might argue that there is some kind of universal definition of the term. I think this would be a very useful piece to teach historical thinking skills in a colonial America course.

I am assuming that this essay comes from Haefeli’s forthcoming and long-awaited New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Here is a taste: 

There is, of course, a history of toleration out there. Anyone can immediately conjure up certain associations and images when that phrase is invoked. However, exactly what comes to mind would, I am certain, vary significantly depending on the mind in question. Is it the struggle of Jews for recognition in Pieter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam? Of Catholics in Ireland? Of Mennonites in Switzerland? Remonstrants in the Dutch Republic? Greek Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire? Episcopalians in Scotland? Muslims in English Tangiers? Hindus in Portuguese Goa? Or Dutch Protestants in Japan? And so on. Is it really our job to champion one narrative over the other?

Rather than evaluate the relations (some more fraught than others) between different religious groups along a presumed universal scale of tolerance, we should focus on the specifics of the situation at hand. Once we can appreciate how the “rise” of tolerance in a particular place, such as Ireland, would affect the relationship between the various groups involved (in this case, a demographic majority of Roman Catholics versus smaller populations of various Protestants, including Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and the Church of Ireland—but not, before the nineteenth century, Jews, Muslims, or other non-Christians), then we can embark on a fuller discussion of what it is we are talking about when we talk about religious freedom (as Saba Mahmood suggests with regard to the Middle East).

The challenge for today’s world, in which global awareness and implications are unavoidable in a way they were not in the sixteenth century, is to come up with a method to approach the history of toleration that can capture its perpetual, ongoing, and, I would say, never-ending nature. However widespread and powerful religious unity and conformity was in medieval Europe, one can still find exceptions—bits of diversity that kept questions of toleration alive long before the appearance of Protestants. And if one goes back further, to the late Antique period, then one returns to a world of religious diversity in which the Roman Catholic Church was but one of many contenders (indeed for the fervently Christian Roger Williams everything went downhill once the emperor Constantine converted and fused his church with his empire). Toleration in some form or another has been around for a long time. It will not go away, though it will change. We need to move away from models of rise and fall, progress and decline, and towards a way to capture the perpetual motion machine that tolerance really is. Only then will the ideas of long-gone Protestants retain relevance in a world where it is now Catholics who are taking the lead as advocates of religious freedom.

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