The English Origins of American Toleration

Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch, is on the hearts and minds of many people around the world these days as her health deteriorates in her seventieth year on the throne. Although Her Majesty remains head of the Church of England, England is a much more religiously tolerant nation than it used to be. Her predecessors are front and center in Evan Haefeli’s revisionist account Accidental Pluralism: America and the Religious Politics of English Expansion, 1497–1662.

Haefeli’s previous book, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty, likewise proffered a revisionist account of the origins of religious liberty in America. In his prior book, Haefeli insisted that the greatest contribution of the Dutch to American religious diversity was not to promote tolerance, but to keep the mid-Atlantic region out of English hands until the Restoration, giving pluralism a chance to take root in what became New York and New Jersey as well as parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

In Accidental Pluralism Haefeli argues that the religious pluralism that came to characterize colonial America was not a result of the colonists’ embracing pluralism as an ideal or establishing it in some planned or deliberate fashion. Rather, Haefeli contends, the origins of American religious freedom—a “peculiar mix of pluralism, tolerance, and liberty”—can be traced to the religious and political history of England and its empire between the earliest exploratory voyages and the re-institution of the Church of England after the Stuart Restoration.

Haefeli attempts to prove his thesis via a chronological discourse on England’s political history. He divides his book into five parts—Tudor-Stuart Foundations, 1497–ca. 1607; Jacobean Balance, ca. 1607-1625; Caroline Transformation,1625-1638; Civil Wars, 1638-1649; and Commonwealth, 1649-1660—presented in fourteen chapters and a conclusion.

Haefeli opens his analysis with the earliest English voyages in 1497, and notes that in this pre-Reformation period English expansionists were able to rely upon Catholic connections throughout Europe in pursuit of their goals. He concludes the book with the 1662 Act of Uniformity, an English Act of Parliament that regulated the form of worship in the Church of England after the Restoration of the monarchy and established the foundations of the modern Anglican church. The Act required all ordained clergy to follow the Book of Common Prayer, repudiate the Solemn League and Covenant, forswear the taking up of arms against the Crown, and adopt the liturgy of the Church of England.

Throughout the book Haefeli chronicles how the common politics of religious unity embraced, he claims, on both sides of the Atlantic shaped the ecclesiastical contours of the first British Empire. Religious pluralism, according to Haefeli, persisted largely from failure, neglect, or happenstance. America was “an extension . . . not an escape” from the religious conditions in Britain. Haefeli writes, “the Anglo-American colonies [should be understood] not as alternatives or exceptions to the religious dynamics of the English world but merely variants along the broad spectrum within it.”  

There is nothing particularly revisionist about Haefeli’s description of English religious history, especially in his top-down orientation. What is new, however, is how he insists that religious life in each colony was being shaped by circumstances in England at the time the colony was planted, and then subsequently modified by successive periods of English religious politics. The closing paragraph of Accidental Pluralism succinctly captures the essence of Haefeli’s complex argument:

American religious pluralism was not the expression of a distinctive colonial or national destiny. Instead, it was one fragment of the failure of England’s rulers to unite their subjects in one religion. . . . By [the] time of the American Revolution, Americans had forgotten those struggles, but were happy to take credit for the result. The religious pluralism they celebrated as their own was, however, merely an accident or, better, a long series of accidents mostly driven by English people and events. How Anglo-America became more, rather than less, pluralistic after 1662, is a rather different story, but one that once again depends more on England than America.

Haefeli is a skilled synthesizer of the historiography of the colonial period of American history, especially that written by English historians, and readers of Accidental Pluralism will learn a lot from the book. However, Haefeli’s single-minded emphasis on English politics causes him to neglect both non-English European influences and American influences.

The European Origins of Religious Toleration in America

England was not the only European nation in which religious toleration was used for political purposes. As I chronicled in a 2021 article in the European Journal of Legal History, European monarchs during the Early Modern era took advantage of the Reformation’s weakening of the Catholic Church in order to enforce control over the church in their domains. Various princes proclaimed allegiance to certain doctrines not out of devout belief, but for political expediency. Toleration came after the persecution of members of the non-favored sect that had threatened the authority of the sovereign and typically did not last long. Only towards the end of this period did some of the most “liberal” nations in Europe begin to grant limited toleration to differing religious groups.

Moreover, during the Holy Roman Empire—a multi-ethnic conglomeration of territories in Western and Central Europe from 800/962 until 1806 and over which an elective monarchy presided—the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, their religion”) was embraced. It empowered the ruling prince to enforce his chosen brand of Christianity on his subjects. Agreements about religious toleration were part and parcel of the clashes between nobles and monarchs at the time, and they rendered toleration dependent on social status.

Haefeli has written a fine book that fits comfortably within the historiographic fad of the moment—Atlantic History—but that does not mean that alternative approaches to colonial American history are not useful too.

Bohemia served as an example. “In Bohemia,” intellectual historian Herbert Butterfield concluded in an illuminating article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “the concession of toleration to a powerful nobility gave the landlords the very prerogatives that were being denied to the King, i.e. the power to impose their own heterodoxies on their own tenantry.” In the Holy Roman Empire, then, there was “toleration” between the Emperor and his subordinate princes, but a general lack of toleration between princes and their subjects. Haefeli does not say a word about any of this non-English European history, which suggests, at least to me, that he fails to understand that English monarchs were not the first heads of state to thirst for power, and who tried to use religion to help them acquire it and maintain it. But the settlers of English America understood it, which was why, for instance, the Pilgrims who planted Plymouth Colony in 1620 in what is now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tried migrating to the religiously tolerant Netherlands first rather than to, say, Spain, which was in the midst of an Inquisition.

The American Origins of Religious Toleration in America

Haefeli’s discussion of colonial America is likewise distorted by his single-minded emphasis on England. In a forthcoming book, Law and Religion in Colonial America: The Dissenting Colonies, I reject the type of unified history of religious toleration that Haefeli promotes in his book. For me, the colonies were all too different.

Take Maryland, for example. Haefeli insists that George and Cecil Calvert—the first and second Lord Baltimore—were not motivated in the founding of Maryland by religious toleration. Rather, Haefeli maintains, Lord Baltimore demanded that Catholics worship, according to Baltimore’s 1633 Instructions, “as privately as may be” and that they be “silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of Religion” so that “no scandall nor offence” were to “be given any of the Protestants.” In short, Haefeli concludes, religious toleration was contingent on non-conforming groups maintaining their spiritual domain in clandestine ways. Maryland’s proprietors were concerned by any threat to their power and the greatest threat, in their eyes, Haefeli believes, was the chaos that would ensue if one religious group turned on another, forced the proprietors to choose a side, and destabilized their authority.

I think Haefeli is wrong about Maryland. In 1623 George Calvert obtained a royal charter for a colony he called “Avalon” in what is now Newfoundland, Canada. When the newly installed Lord Baltimore traveled to Avalon in 1627, he brought with him two Catholic priests, one of whom remained in the colony through 1629. This marked the first continuous Catholic ministry in English North America. Baltimore secured the right of Catholics to practice their religion unimpeded in the new colony, and he implicitly recognized the principle of religious tolerance for all Christians in Avalon’s charter by omitting any requirement that settlers take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the monarch as the head of the Church of England. Avalon was thus the initial North American jurisdiction to practice at least some degree of religious toleration. The colony failed because Baltimore found the weather too severe, and it had become a financial drain on him. His son and heir Cecil implemented the first Lord Baltimore’s vision with the founding of Maryland in 1632.

The people of Maryland seemed to think that the colony was planted as a haven for religious toleration. To mention one often overlooked example, the year 1718 found the members of Maryland’s lower house engaged in a maneuver that would have made Niccolò Machiavelli proud: they tried to repeal Maryland’s 1704 Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery so that the recusancy laws of England would be in control, which meant that any Maryland Catholic who violated the English laws would be deported to face trial in the courts of England. As a result, fewer Catholics would be living in Maryland.

Peter Attwood, a Jesuit who had come to Maryland six years earlier, insisted that the lower house’s proposal violated Maryland’s “constitution,” as he called it. Father Attwood maintained that, although Maryland’s Catholics were Englishmen, they also were residents of a colony that had been founded to protect their religious freedom in perpetuity. The transparent attempt to “depopulate” Catholics from Maryland should be rebuffed, he continued, which it was.

Admittedly, Father Attwood’s 1718 argument came half a century after Haefeli concludes his story, but Father Attwood was advancing a longstanding belief among the people of Maryland about Maryland’s “animating principle,” to quote Montesquieu. U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson made this point well in his celebrated Lectures on Law (1790-1791): “The doctrine of toleration in matters of religion, reasonable though it certainly is, has not been long known or acknowledged. . . . [B]ut while immortal honours are bestowed on the name and character of Locke; why should an ungracious silence be observed, with regard to the name and character of Calvert?”

The Importance of Methodological Pluralism

My objection to Haefeli’s neglect of the European and American origins of religious toleration in America is not meant to deny the significance of Haefeli’s accomplishment. He has written an excellent book, and other scholars likely will be grappling with it for years to come. That said, I did find off-putting Haefeli’s occasional chest-thumping about how his approach is “original” and “correct” (my words, not his). For example, he avers in the introduction to his book that “Scholarship on early America is hampered by the habit of thinking about religion in small pieces” and that “we lack a bigger account of how those pieces fit together.” And after claiming to have provided that “bigger account,” he proclaims in the conclusion that “Crafting this history has required taking a whole series of national and imperial narratives and weaving them together into a new narrative.”  

Put directly, Haefeli has written a fine book that fits comfortably within the historiographic fad of the moment—Atlantic History—but that does not mean that alternative approaches to colonial American history are not useful too. Personally, I agree with Richard B. Morris and George Lee Haskins—two pioneering scholars in the field of American colonial legal history—that each colony must be examined individually. Despite what many historians seem to think, the writing of history is an art, not a science, and the more colors on the palette the better.