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Principles and Practices of Religious Toleration



In his Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke writes: "Why are assemblies less sufferable in a church than in a theatre or market?" Another way of asking John Locke’s question is: why must everyone worship in the state church? Well over a century had passed since King Henry VIII had legislated a change in the state religion from Catholic to Protestant. Londoners had witnessed many cycles of persecution, with those in power dictating the religious orthodoxy of the day. King Charles II offered some limited rights for religious nonconformists in 1672. That Declaration of Indulgence was quickly withdrawn, but it opened a way for nonconformists to worship more publicly. John Locke began to argue for a separation of civil and religious authorities.




Locke. A letter concerning toleration. London, 1689
 

Charles II. His Majesties declaration to all his loving subjects. London, 1672
 

A list of the conventicles. London, 1683
 


Baxter. A Breviate of the Life of Margaret. London, 1681
 

Stow. A survey of the cities of London and Westminster. London, 1720
 


John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration famously argued that a church was a voluntary society and that the state had no business coercing anyone’s beliefs. Locke puzzled over the foundations of good government and the proper treatment of religious differences within society. When he followed the earl of Shaftesbury into exile in Holland, he composed his argument, writing the letter in Latin, the language of international scholarship. It was printed in English after he returned for the reign of William and Mary. Despite his call for religious freedoms, Locke was still a product of his time: he excluded Catholics and atheists from toleration.

 

Before taking up the throne in 1660, Charles II wrote from abroad of his intention to respect the “liberty of the tender consciences” of his subjects. In fact, a blistering series of punishments against religious nonconformists ensued. Charles returned to the theme of conscience with a Declaration in 1672. Writing that the “sad Experience of Twelve Years” had taught the failure of enforced belief, he proposed the suspension of penal laws against nonconformity and the licensing of church meeting places for Protestant sectarians.

 

Parliament forced King Charles to withdraw his Declaration of Indulgence the year after he issued it. Nonconformist congregations risked renewed surveillance. Those ministers who were arrested were typically tried for seditious libel. This list of meeting houses and locations was compiled during the constitutional crisis near the end of Charles’s reign. It is meant as an expose of religious dissenters for prosecution. The range of meeting places is wide, from guild halls to coffee shops and inns, alleys and markets. Without legal protection, the nonconformist congregations nevertheless permeated the cityscape.

 

Margaret Baxter once accompanied her husband, Richard, to prison for his nonconformity. Margaret Baxter’s experiments with church building were even more unconventional. As described in this memoir, written by her husband after her death, Margaret rented upstairs rooms at the St. James Market for Baxter to preach in. When the building was found to be unsound, she decided to build a meeting house. She was one of the first to build new places for Protestant nonconformist worship in seventeenth century London. A parish map of St. James in Piccadilly shows where Richard Baxter preached in the parish market. Where others saw a newly fashionable neighborhood, in the mode of Covent Garden, Baxter saw only people living “like Americans [i.e.Amerindians], [who] have heard no Sermon of many years.” Baxter refused any religious identity other than “mere Christian,” but that did not save him from religious persecution.



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