In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Toleration in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Colonial Theorists
  • Africa

Atlantic History Toleration in the Atlantic World
Evan Haefeli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • 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. However, a growing appreciation of the social and cultural experience and practice of toleration among common people has taken place since the 1990s. This interest 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 coexistence, one involving state power, the other individual attitudes. In the early modern period, the question of tolerance was more about religion than ethnic difference. Consequently, the historical experience of minority religious groups, particularly Protestant dissenters such as Quakers and Baptists, Catholics in Protestant territories, Huguenots, and Jews, 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. While a need exists for more research on the Atlantic dimensions of toleration (not least on the African side of the story), Atlantic world researchers are beginning to approach the issue in fresh ways more appropriate for the diverse 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 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. No new consensus has yet emerged on what the history of toleration is or where it will go, but there are several possibilities (see Collins 2009). Above all, the challenge remains 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. No particular reference resources or journals are 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: 10.1086/599275

    Excellent review of recent works on early modern toleration (many in this article). 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.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674039308

    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.

    A useful encapsulation of the traditional Whiggish approach to the history of religious toleration: a history of ideas justifying tolerance for Jews and Dissident Protestants from the days of persecution in the Middle Ages to the culmination of modern liberal attitudes in John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and the Enlightenment.

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