Toleration

The question of the toleration of Christianity by Roman authorities did not become serious so long as the early church was regarded merely as a movement within Judaism. Christians were accorded the same peculiar status which Rome had granted the Jews. The fall of Jerusalem (a.d. 70), however, soon made it evident that the Church was distinct from Judaism, and Christianity soon became a religio illicita. For the next 240 years the church was subject to a series of persecutions, the last of which took place under Diocletian.*

The failure of persecution as a policy, and the precarious position in which Constantine* found himself, brought a drastic change in policy, and in 313 the emperor issued the Edict of Toleration which went beyond that which had been issued in 311 by Galerius.* Christianity thereby became a religio licitor, and Christians were not only free to profess their faith, but were also freed from the legal disabilities imposed on them by previous emperors. Theodosius (I)* the Great went even further in the policy of toleration when he issued the Edict of 380, making Christianity the official religion of the empire.

With the coming of the Reformation, the problem of toleration entered a new phase in which Protestants now were seeking toleration from Roman Catholic regimes, and in some cases, such as England and Germany, free-church groups were seeking toleration from those Protestant churches which had become established as the state church. Such toleration was not achieved in Germany until the 1648 Peace of Westphalia,* when Calvinism gained a recognition which it had not received in the 1555 Peace of Augsburg.* In England, dissenters from the Anglican Church received a new status with the passage of the 1689 Act of Toleration* which, however, did not cover Roman Catholics and Unitarians. The latter were granted toleration under George III, and a similar act passed in 1828 granted emancipation to Roman Catholics if they would change their attitude to the temporal supremacy of the papacy.

In colonial America, religious toleration came gradually, beginning in such colonies as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island before 1776, and coming to Virginia immediately after the War of Independence. The First Amendment to the Constitution proved to be an effective foundation for complete religious toleration. “Toleration” is generally construed as the right to worship, often distinct from “freedom of religion,” in which all religions have an equal base of civic rights. True religious liberty exacts no penalty of dissenters from an established church.

J.H. Overton, The Church in England, vol. II (1897); N. Paulus, Protestantismus und Toleranz im 16 Jahrhundert (1911); W.K. Jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England (4 vols., 1932- 40); A.P. Stokes and L. Pfeffer, Church and State in Our United States (rev. ed., 1962).