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The Slow Dawn of Toleration

For a thousand or so years there was but one Church in western Europe. Then the Reformation split Europe into rival faiths. The northern, or Teutonic, peoples mostly became Protestant; the southern, or Latin, peoples remained loyal to the Pope, as also did Celtic Ireland.

So passionately did the Reformation stir the deepest feelings of men that almost every country became involved in "wars of religion."

The Catholic Philip II of Spain, with his vast lands in Europe and America, was by far the strongest monarch of his age. Like his father, Charles V, his aim was to keep Europe under the Pope -- and under a Spanish "Caesar." The Sea Beggars of Holland and the Sea Dogs of England foiled his attacks on those two small peoples.

And while they were struggling for their liberty, Philip was also interfering in the religious wars of France. In those wars 400 towns and villages were destroyed. The most ghastly incident of the period was the massacre of Protestants on St. Bartholomew's Day, 1572, of which the Spanish envoy wrote from Paris: "Not a child has been spared. Blessed be God!"

After a long struggle with Philip II, the Protestant leader, Henry of Navarre, turned Catholic to win Paris, saying that it was "worth a mass!" Then all the French accepted him as king (Henry IV). A little later he granted liberty of worship to the Protestants (Edict of Nantes, 1598). Thus he became the first king in Europe to adopt the principle of Toleration.

Meantime the last and most terrible of the wars of religion was going on in Luther's country. It is known as the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). It began by some Protestants throwing three Catholics out of a window!

Nearly all Europe took part in it. No less than 30,000 villages and hamlets were destroyed! Not till the nineteenth century did Germany fully recover.

Its horrors caused one thinking man, Hugo Grotius -- who had had to escape from Holland in a trunk! -- to write the first work on International Law. In this work he reasoned that the Rule of Law ought to take the place of the Rule of Force between nation and nation -- just as Law had at last taken the place of Force between individuals.

It was not till the end of the Thirty Years' War (1648) that Spain recognized the new republic of Holland.

The year following (1649) another Protestant republic was for a time set up in England. Charles I died for the Divine Right of Kings, and the rule of Bishops; Cromwell and Milton pleaded for Liberty of Conscience and Toleration. Thus Great Britain's greatest and last Civil War was a war of ideals; it was also the most humane of all wars. The struggle finally ended with the so-called "Glorious Revolution" (1688), followed by an Act of Toleration.

But England, alone of the great states of Europe, adapted to modern needs the mediaeval idea of parliament and the limiting of the king's power by law. In Europe, however, other absolute monarchs followed Philip II.

However, as Carlyle puts it, "The Writ of Summons has been served (by the Reformation); Heaven's messenger could not stay away for ever; no, he returned duly, with accounts run up, at compound interest, to the actual hour of 1792; and then, at last, there had to be a 'Protestantism,' and we know of what kind that was!" Here he refers, of course, to the "protests" of the French Revolutionists -- a protestantism which had nothing to do with Churches and creeds.

The Reformation was followed in due course by revolution in Holland (1572), England (1649), America (1776), France (1789). "England, America, and France: have been the most powerful agents in political progress, but they were preceded by the Dutch. It was the Dutch who began the struggle, and who evolved Revolution from Reformation. They handed on the torch when the turn of England came. There the Sects were reared which made England free. For the charge of human freedom was transferred from the Churches to the Sects, from the men in authority to the men in opposition" -- to the Quakers and others who became Nonconformists.

"These sects claimed that the individual has the right to think and worship as he pleases -- the claim for Liberty of Conscience and Toleration in place of Persecution and Force. Slowly, in the seventeenth century, the new idea of Toleration dawned, and it was being practised in an American colony by William Penn, the Quaker, 'the greatest historic figure of his age.'

"The progress of Toleration is the history of Liberty which is the marrow of all modern History."