Atlantic History Toleration
Evan Haefeli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0176


Toleration, also known as religious tolerance, is a topic in transition. Until recently it was restricted largely to leading individuals and their ideas: John Locke, Pierre Bayle, William Penn, Roger Williams, and so forth. Scholarship on such thinkers remains vital and should also be consulted. However, in the past decade or so there has been a growing appreciation of the social and cultural experience and practice of toleration among common people. This has expanded the range of questions, sources, and interests connected to toleration. It has also contributed to the growing realization among scholars that toleration is no longer as simple and straightforward a topic as was once thought. How to define it, for example, is something of a vexing issue that has not yet produced a consensus. Many scholars seek to resolve at least part of the dilemma by defining tolerance and toleration as separate dimensions of the issue of coexistence. In all of this, the question of tolerance for the early modern period is primarily about religion, though there can be some overlap with ethnicity. Consequently, the histories of various religious groups, particularly Protestant dissenters such as Quakers and Baptists, Catholics in Protestant territories, or Huguenots and Jews anywhere are indispensable to the history of toleration. The Atlantic world plays a crucial (if not always appreciated) role in the history of toleration, if only because it produced the United States and its first constitutional amendment forbidding the establishment of a national church. Nonetheless, there is much more, from the less studied and celebrated histories of other colonies in the Caribbean and South America, to the question of the relationship between tolerance in the colonies and tolerance in Europe. For example, Roger Williams and William Penn played significant roles in both the European toleration debates and the founding of American colonies. Work on religious tolerance has not been a vital part of Atlantic history so far. There is thus a need for more research (not least on the African side of the story). However, the dynamism of the European scholarship offers much of interest and inspiration. Scholarship is beginning to take up the question of toleration in the Atlantic world anew, adapting the new cosmopolitan approaches of the European work to the Atlantic experience.

General Overviews

The history of toleration has gained new life since 2000. What had once seemed a fairly straightforward story about the rise and evolution of an idea (see Zagorin 2003) is now a much more nuanced and socially embedded history. The most significant shift in the recent scholarship has been toward political, social historical, and cultural approaches (see Kaplan 2007), from what had long been treated almost exclusively as the property of intellectual and religious historians. There is no new consensus yet on what the history of toleration is or where it will go, but there are several possibilities (see Collins 2009). Above all, there remains the challenge of integrating the new advances in European scholarship with Atlantic history. How that will then be reflected in scholarship on Europe remains to be seen. There are no particular reference resources or journals devoted solely to religious toleration. Relevant work will be found in volumes dedicated to other topics, such as philosophy and religion.

  • Collins, Jeffrey R. “Redeeming the Enlightenment: New Histories of Religious Toleration.” Journal of Modern History 81.3 (2009): 607–636.

    DOI: 10.1086/599275E-mail Citation »

    Excellent review of recent works on early modern toleration (many in this bibliography). Argues that current debates over the relationship between toleration and the Enlightenment reflect a divide between theoretical and philosophical versus more social and historical approaches.

  • Kaplan, Benjamin J. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Currently the most comprehensive survey of the topic, drawing on the most recent research from across Europe. Emphasizes the long-standing social experience and practice of toleration in contrast to traditional accounts that stress the power of Enlightenment ideas.

  • Zagorin, Perez. How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A useful encapsulation of the traditional Whiggish approach to the history of religious toleration, as a history of ideas that runs from the days of persecution in the Middle Ages and culminates with John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and the Enlightenment.

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