Posts Tagged ‘Religious Toleration’

Pamphlet by Robert Owen on Self-Governing Communes

March 4, 2017


Robert Owen’s pamphlet on reforming Britain into federation of autonomous socialist communities: front cover


Rear cover listing other works written by Owen.

Looking through my bookshelves yesterday, I managed to find an old copy of a pamphlet by Robert Owen that I’d read when I was at college. It’s a facsimile edition of the Utopian Socialist’s Outline of the Rational System of Society, published by his Home Colonization Society at their headquarters in Pall Mall in London in 1841. The modern edition was republished by a small, private press on Guernsey.

Inside the front cover is a short piece by the Home Colonization Society’s secretary, A.C. Cuddon, giving a brief overview of its aims and activities. It states

Whatever may be said or written on the improvement of all classes of society, it is now evident to those who reflect, that that which is necessary to this end is a SOUND, GOOD, PRACTICAL EDUCATION, AND PERMANENT BENEFICIAL EMPLOYMENT to all who require them; in fact, that any other measures are mere palliatives, and can produce only temporary benefits, at an extravagant waste of time, capital and labour.

It will also be obvious to those who have thoroughly investigated the subject, that a sound education and permanent beneficial employment cannot be given under the present competitive arrangements of society; and that the best mode of securing these benefits to the population will be by the establishment of SELF-SUPPORTING HOME COLONIES, on account of their complete efficiency for the purpose, and their great economy over the present system.

A Society has therefore been formed to promote the establishment of these colonies; having for its object-
1stly. To submit the plans of the Colonies in all their details to the most scientific and experienced men in every department of life.
2ndly. To make these plans extensively known to the public, and to demonstrate their efficiency for the purposes designed.
3rdly. To demonstrate that these Colonies, in consequence of their very superior economical arrangements, will afford a secure and profitable investment for capital.
4thly To arrange the preliminaries for Joint-Stock Companies to carry the same gradually into extensive execution.
5thly. To publish the most useful and authentic works explanatory of the principles on which the system of Home Colonisation is based, in order to convey to the public correct information on this most important subject.

The expenses attendant on the above will be met by Subscriptions of £5 each and upwards; which shall, at the option of the subscriber, be placed to his or her credit in behalf of one or more shares, which the subscriber may choose to take in the first Joint-Stock Company established, and by donations.

A Subscription of Donation to the above amount will constitute a member of the Society.

The Society have published a statement of their views and the measures they propose, in a work entitled “A Development of the Principles and Plans on which to establish Self-supporting Home Colonies; as a secure and profitable investment for capital, and effectual means permanently to remove the causes of ignorance, poverty, and crime, and most materially to benefit all classes of society, by giving a right application to the now greatly misdirected powers of the human faculties, and of physical and moral science.”

This Society is not confined to any particular class, sect or party, but invites the cooperation of all who will unite in practical measures for the relief and amelioration of humanity. And the proposed Colonies will contain arrangements for the accommodation of every religion; the only religious requisition being, the practice and charity and kindness to all.

The pamphlet consists of several short sections, in which Owen lists the basic facts or principles on which his communities will be built, which mostly consisted of his views of human nature and psychological needs and influences of human society. The sections are entitled:

The Five Fundamental Facts on Which the Rational System of Society is Founded;

The Fundamental Laws of Human Nature, Or First Principles of the Science of Man;

The Conditions Requisite for Human Happiness;

The Principles and Practice of the Rational Religion; and

The Elements of the Science of Society, Or Of the Social State of Man.

He then gives on pages 10 to 14 of the pamphlet his proposed constitution for these colonies. He writes

A rational Government will attend solely to the Happiness of the governed.
It will ascertain what human nature is;-what are the laws of its organisation and of its existence, from birth to death;-what is necessary for the happiness of a being so formed and matured;-and what are the best means by which to attain those requisites, and to secure them permanently for all the governed.

It will devise and execute the arrangements by which the condition essential to human happiness shall be fully and permanently obtained for all the governed; and its laws will be few, easily understood by all the governed, and perfectly in unison with the laws of human nature.

Liberty of Mind or Conscience

1. Every one shall have equal and full liberty to express the dictates of his conscience on religious, and all other, subjects.
II. No one shall have any other power than fair argument to control the opinions or belief of another.
III. No praise or blame, no merit or demerit, no reward or punishment, shall be awarded for any opinions or belief.
IV. But all, of every religion, shall have equal right to express their opinions respecting the Incomprehensible Power which moves the atom and controls the universe, and to worship that Power under any form, or in any manner agreeable to their consciences,-not interfering with the equal rights of others.

Providing For and Educating the Population

I. Every one shall be equally provided, through life, with the best of every thing for human nature, by public arrangements; which arrangements shall give the best known direction to the industry and talents of every individual.
II. All shall be educated, from infancy to maturity, in the best manner known at the time.
III. All shall pass through the same general routine of education, domestic teaching, and employment.
IV. All children, from their birth, shall be under the especial care of the community in which they are born; but their parents shall have free access to them at all times.
V. All children shall be trained and educated together, as children of the same family; and shall be taught a knowledge of the laws of their nature.
VI. Every individual shall be encouraged to express his feelings and convictions only; or, in other words, to speak the truth solely upon all occasions.
VII. Both sexes shall have equal education, rights, privileges, and personal liberty; their marriages will arise from the general sympathies of their nature, uninfluenced by artificial distinctions.

General Arrangements for the Population

VIII. Under the Rational System of Society,-after the children shall have been trained to acquire new habits and new feelings, derived from the laws of human nature,-there shall be no useless private property.
IX. As soon as the members of these communities shall have been educated from infancy in a knowledge of the laws of their nature, trained to act in obedience to them, and surrounded by circumstances all in unison with them, there shall be no individual punishment or reward.
X. Society shall not be composed, as at present, of single families, but of communities or associations of men, women, and children, in the usual proportions, from three hundred to two thousand, as local circumstances may determine.
XI. As these new communities increase in number, unions of them shall be formed for local and general purposes, in tens, hundreds, thousands, &c., according to the less or more extended objects and interests which shall require their consideration and direction.
XII. Each of these communities shall possess around it land sufficient for the support, for ever, of all its members, even when it shall contain the maximum in number.
XIII. These communities shall be so arranged as to give to all the members of each of them, as nearly as possible, the same advantages; and to afford the most easy communication with each other.

Government of the Population and Duties of the Council.

XIV. Each community shall be governed in its home department by a general council, composed of all its members between the ages of thirty and forty; and each department shall be under the immediate direction of a committee, formed of members of the general council, chose by the latter, in the order to be determined upon; and in its external or foreign department, by all its members from forty to sixty years of age.
XV. After all the members of the community shall have been rendered capable of taking their full share of the duties in the general council of government, there shall be no selection or election of any individuals to office.
XVI. All the members at thirty years of age, who shall have been trained from infancy in the communities, shall be officially called upon to undertake their full share of the duties of management in the home department; and at forty they shall be excused from officially performing them: at forty they will be officially called upon to undertake the duties of the external or foreign department; and at sixty they will be excused from officially attending to them.
XVII. The duties of the general council of
home department shall be, to govern all the circumstances within the boundaries of its community,-to organise the various departments of production, distribution, and formation of character,-to remove all those circumstances which are the least favourable to happiness,-and to replace them with the best that can be devised among themselves, or of which they can obtain a knowledge from other communities. The duties of the general council of the external or foreign department will be, to receive visitors or delegates from other associations or communities,-to communicate with other similar associations,-to visit them and arrange with them the best means of forming roads, and conveying surplus produce to each other,-to travel, to give and receive information of inventions, discoveries, and improvements, and of every other kind that can be useful;-and also to regulate and assist in the establishment of new associations, composed of the surplus population of the community from among themselves, and to send to delegates to the circle of communities to which their community shall be attached.
XVIII. The general councils, home and foreign, shall have full power of government
in all things under their direction, as long as they shall act in unison with the laws of human nature, which shall be their sole guidance upon all occasions.
XIX. All individuals trained, educated, and placed, in conformity to the laws of their nature, must of necessity, at all times, think and act rationally, except they become physically, intellectually or morally diseased; in which case the council shall remove them into the hospital form bodily, mental, or moral invalids, where they shall remain until they shall be recovered by the mildest treatment that can effect their cure.
XX. The council, whenever it shall be necessary, shall call to its aid the practical abilities and advice of any of the members not in the council.

Adjustment of Differences

XXI. If the general councils should ever attempt to contravene the laws of human nature,-which is scarcely possible,-the elders of the community who have passed the councils shall call a general meeting of all the members of the community between sixteen and thirty years of age, who have been trained from infancy within it. This meeting shall calmly and patiently investigate the conduct of the general councils; and if a majority shall determine that they have acted, or attempted to act, in opposition to these laws, the general government shall devolve upon the members of the community who have passed the councils are above sixty years of age, united with those who have not entered the council and are between thirty and sixteen years of age. It is scarcely possible to conceive that this clause will ever be required; and, if required, it can only be of temporary application.
XXII. All other differences of every description,-if indeed it be possible for any to exist in these communities,-shall be immediately determined and amicably adjusted between the parties, by the decision of a majority of the three senior members of the council: except when the difference shall ex9ist between members of the councils,-when it shall be, in like manner, decided by the three members who have last passed the councils.

This is followed by a conclusion and a section of concluding remarks, in which Owen looks forward to as many as 2000 individuals being supported per mile of average quality soil, without any further discoveries and much less labour and capital than needed under the present system.

The pamphlet shows Owen’s basis in 18th century philosophy and its concern for establishing the basic principles of human nature, including morality, as well as Owen’s Deist belief. Owen states in his section on religion that God, whatever the individual religions wanted to call Him, exists, but that the precise nature of the Almighty has not been discovered. Which seems to suggest that he believed that someday science would also solve the mysteries of theology as well as the natural world.

His communities themselves are very much like the federation of small, independent communes advocated by Thomas Spence and his followers in the late 18th and early 19th century, and in France by Comte and then Fourier, who recommended reforming the country into a similar system of autonomous phalansteries. It seems to me that these ideas owe much to Rousseau and his ideas of democracy, based on his experience of the Swiss cantons, which were similarly bound together in a federation. They also seem to go back even further to the ancient Greek city states, and the constitutions suggested for them by Plato and Aristotle.

Although Owen went to America to try to found colonies there, his system proved massively impractical and all of them collapsed, as did similar plans by other Utopian Socialists. His schemes offer no rewards for excellence, or punishments for incompetence or laziness, defects which have led to the collapse of many similar experiments in communal life since then. Also, few would really want to embrace a system in which the community has almost absolute power of their children. According to William Blum, this was used as a scare in Venezuela a few years ago to prevent people voting for Hugo Chavez, and his right-wing and far right opponents told people that if they elected him, their children would become the property of the state.

The section where he recommends sending moral invalids, as well as those physically or mentally sick, to the community hospital is also sinister. It recalls the way twentieth century totalitarian governments, like Soviet Russia or Mao’s China, used psychiatry to persecute and incarcerate political dissidents, or sent them to ‘re-education’ camps. Even so, I think its very clear that ‘moral invalid’ certainly describes large numbers of the Tory, Lib Dem and Blairite sections of the Labour party. Particularly Damian Green, his mistress Theresa May, and Jeremy Hunt, and their forerunners in the last government.

Nevertheless, Owen was a major pioneer in the formation of Socialism, and in challenging the injustice, exploitation and poverty of traditional capitalist society, and so still remains important in that sense.

Apart from this pamphlet, Penguin Classics published a collected edition of his works, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this blog.


Trump and the Republicans’ Attack on Transgender Rights

February 25, 2017

On Thursday Mike also posted a short piece about another minority that is now under by Donald Trump – transgender people. After trying to ban people from seven majority Muslim countries, Trump has decided to revoke Barack Obama’s legislation about the use of toilets by transgender students. Obama ruled that students should be allowed to use the bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity, rather than biological sex. This has been too much for Trump and the Republicans. In his article commenting on Trump’s repeal of the ruling, he makes the point that transgender people don’t pose any threat to the people of the US, as far as he could see. But Trump’s discrimination against them does make him a threat to the transgender community.

Milo Yiannopolis, one of the Alt-Right Breitbart squadristi, turned up on the Bill Maher Show on American TV. Yiannopolis is a strange, contradictory figure – a half-Jewish, self-hating gay with a Black boyfriend, who is bitterly anti-feminist and also very racist. Yiannopolis tried to claim that the ruling was quite correct, because there was a dangerous of transvestites entering female toilets to abuse women and girls. He claimed that there was a far greater rate of sex offences amongst transgendered people than amongst ordinary, straight individuals.

Where did he get this statistics? Where do you think! He made it up. And while Maher apparently did little but fawn over Yiannopolis, according to some viewers, one of the guests, Larry Wilmore, solidly refuted Yinnopolis comments again and again. See this video below.

For some reason, the Republicans have had a bee in their collective bonnets about transgender people for some time now. In fairness, not all of this concern is fear-mongering based on prejudice. Right-wing critics of the current medical attitudes towards those, who have problems with their gender identity, have pointed to a paper by a doctor, which has questioned whether many of those undergoing gender realignment surgery really want to be women. According to the paper, those undergoing the transition have a higher rate of suicide than those who remain in their biological gender. Now, there have been instances where people, who have made the transition, have regretted it and taken their own lives. There was a case in the British papers a few years ago about a transwoman, who drowned herself in a river. She left a note stating that she now wished she could return to being a man.

Such cases are tragic, and should be a cause of legitimate concern. But I don’t think this is really what’s driving the issue.

This is really all about cultural decline and the politics of masculinity. The Right has a very traditional attitude towards gender roles. I’ve blogged before about the various right-wing politicians in America, like the highly obnoxious Anne Coulter, who don’t even believe women should vote. The idea that gender roles, and gender identity itself, can be fluid and subject to change is bitterly rejected. Hence this attack on the toilet rights of transgender students.

One of those, who has weighed into this debate is the anti-feminist philosopher, Camille Paglia. Paglia had been a feminist, I gather, before she did a complete reversal some time in the 1990s, and decided that feminism was damaging men and having a generally destructive effect on society as a whole. I think she still considers herself some kind of feminist, but, as Mel Smith’s blokeish character on his and Griff Rhys Jones’ spoof of the BBC talk show, After Dark, she seems to be ‘the kind of feminist, who is not a feminist at all’.

There’s a video on YouTube of her arguing in an interview that transgenderism is responsible for the fall of all civilisations, from ancient Rome to the European empires of the 19th century. This can be seen in the way Greek art moved from depicting muscular hunks to a more androgynous style of masculine figure.

I don’t know enough of Greek art to refute this, but I know enough history to say that it’s twaddle. Despite the comments by Roman moralists, like Tacitus, about the decadence of late Roman society, what actually brought the Empire down were a mixture of severe economic, political and military problems that have precious little to do with gender identity. If at all. The late Roman empire was beset by galloping inflation, massively disproportionate taxation falling on the poor as the senatorial elite sought to evade the tax burden, depopulation caused by plague as well as economic decline, and, of course, the barbarian invasions.

In the east, the late Roman and Persian Empires were overrun by the Muslim Arabs basically because they had fought each other to exhaustion, and simply no longer possessed the military power to fight off the invading Arabs. In the case of Egypt and some of the other eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs offered religious tolerance to Christian denominations persecuted by the official Greek church. The politics of gender identity simply weren’t involved.

As for the European empires, these fell, retreated or transformed themselves due to the rise of nationalist movements in their colonies and the decline of the metropolitan centres. Much of this was hastened by the Second World War. Britain and France emerged exhausted from the conflict, and global power passed to America and the Soviet Union. Again, gender politics weren’t involved.

Paglia, however, draws on the literature of late Victorian writers, including the French Decadents, for her views. These did see the decline of gender identity and roles as a sign of cultural and racial decline. The French Decadents, who saw madness and genius as inextricably linked, celebrated androgyny, while at the same time holding very strong misogynist views. They felt that, like ancient Rome, the fall of the new French empire was also inevitable, and were going to enjoy being Decadent as much as possible during it.

Paglia’s fears about the social damage created by the decline in traditional notions of gender and sexuality are also really a symptom of more general fears of American social and imperial decline. Martin Pugh in his book on the rise of British Fascism between the First and Second World Wars, comments on the role played in its rise by the moral panic created by Pemberton Billing about homosexuality. Billing was a right-wing Tory MP, who believed that the British war effort during World War I was being undermined by gays working for the Germans. He claimed to have a black book with the names of 50,000 ‘devotees of Sodom and Lesbia’. He was sued for libel by at least one of the people he smeared, but the trail collapsed when he accused the judge of being gay.

Pugh also points out that this period also saw the rise in fears about lesbianism for the first time. He states very clearly that the reason why the British government had not legislated against female homosexuality in the 19th century was because they simply didn’t see it as a threat. It was not because that they, or Queen Victoria, depending on the version of the myth you’ve heard, didn’t think it exist, or because Victoria herself didn’t think it was physically possible for two women to have sex. She and they knew it happened, but weren’t bothered about it. It wasn’t considered to be a threat to society like male homosexuality.

This all changed after the First World War. Pugh makes the point that it was widely believed that the War had killed the flower of British manhood – all the really intelligent, brave and capable men. The guys, who were left, were the second raters. As a result, British society was in crisis, a crisis which only aggressively masculine parties like the NSDAP in Germany and the Fascists in Italy could hope to correct.

And something similar has also occurred in America. It’s been argued that the rapid expansion of Communism after the War was a profound shock to America, not just to the self-confidence of capitalism, but also to notions of American masculinity. This can be seen in depictions of Jesus. For a period after WW2 the traditional depictions of Christ with rather soft features disappeared in favour of more ruggedly masculine representations of the Saviour.

America is a very masculine society, and the link between capitalism and masculinity is very strong in the parties and ideologies of the Right, the Republicans and Libertarians. The Left, and its egalitarianism, is seen as anti-masculine and unpatriotic. It is not accident that Richard Spencer in one of his wretched speeches tried to appeal to American women by saying that his movement offered them ‘pregnancy and strong government’. With the involvement of the gun lobby, we are very much back in the realm of Mussolini’s Fascist slogan ‘Fighting is to man what motherhood is to woman.’ The American Right also strongly opposes women entering the workplace, feeling that they should stay at home instead to raise children to counteract White demographic decline.

This is the real ideological background to Trump and the Republicans’ attack on transgender people. The actual number of transgender people, as a percentage of the population, is probably very small. They’re not really a threat to anyone. Instead, this all about the politics of gender as part of the wider issue of racial decay and American imperial decline.

Roger Williams’ Arguments against Religious Persecution

November 22, 2016

This weekend I put up a piece about the arguments for religious toleration advanced by William Penn, the great Quaker apologist and founder of Pennsylvania. Penn believed passionately in religious toleration, and was himself, along with one of his fellow Quakers, imprisoned and tried for his religious beliefs. His trial, and the way it violated the natural liberties of the English people, were the subject of one of the three pamphlets he wrote attacking religious persecution.

One of the other great champions of religious freedom in the 17th century was Roger Williams. Williams was an English Puritan, who fled persecution in England to make his home in the new colony of Massachusetts in 1630, where he intended to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity. However, his own refusal to become part of the church establishment resulted in his conflict with the authorities there, and he was expelled three years later. He went on to become one of the founders of another colony, Rhode Island. He returned to Blighty in 1643, seeking to acquire a royal charter for the new settlement. Back in England, he became heavily involved in the debate over religious toleration, writing his classic work on it, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. Parliament responded by having it burnt by the public hangman in August the following year. Williams left England, but returned to the country of his birth in 1652, leaving once more two years later. During this later sojourn in England, he wrote a sequel to his book, The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody. David Wootton in his comments on Williams and his works states

Williams has long been regarded as one of the first exponents of what were to become central principles of the American constitution: the sovereignty of the people and the separation of church and state.

David Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986) 215.

Wootton’s book contains extracts from The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, including the following passage, where Williams lays out the main themes of his argument.

Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed, in a Conference betweene Truth and Peace


First: That the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of protestants and papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Secondly: Pregnant scriptures and arguments are throughout the work proposed against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Thirdly: Satisfactory answers are given to scriptures and objections produced by Mr Calvin, Beza, Mr Cotton, and the ministers of the New England churches and others former and later, tending to prove the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Fourthly: The doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.

Fifthly: All civil states, with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual, or Christian, state and worship.

Sixthly: It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s spirit, the word of God.

Seventhly: The state of the land of Israel, the kings and people thereof, in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any6 kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.

Eighthly: God requires not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced on any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

Ninthly: In holding an enforced uniformity of religion in a civil state, we must necessarily disclaim our desires and hopes of the Jews’ conversion to Christ.

Tenthly: An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.

Eleventhly: The permission of other consciences and worships than a state professes only can, according to God, procure a firm and lasting peace; good assurance being taken, according to the wisdom of the civil state, for uniformity of civil obedience from all sorts.

Twelfthly: Lastly, true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile.

I realise some Jews and Muslims may object to the tone of his comments about them, that they are somehow a threat to the Christian community and Christians should endeavour to convert them. Nevertheless, the points Williams is trying to make are good ones: provided that everyone in a community obeys the same laws, it doesn’t matter what their religious opinions are. In the case of the Jews, the underlying point can be stated more generally: no non-Christian will want to convert to that religion, if it offers them and their people nothing but persecution and hate.

It also needs to be pointed out, that Williams was writing at a time when the Turkish Empire did represent a militant threat against the states of Christian Europe, which Williams would have been acutely aware of. It can’t be argued against his demands for religious freedom and pluralism, that he was living in a more peaceful time.

I’ve put this up because this is one of the founding documents of the great American tradition of religious freedom and tolerance, from one of the Puritan divines who also was one of the great pioneers of American democracy. This is now threatened by Trump and his proposed registry for Muslims. As I pointed out yesterday, this violates the argument for freedom of conscience argued on Christian theological and scriptural grounds by William Penn, just as it violates Williams own arguments on the same grounds for religious toleration.

Trump’s claim to be protecting Americans through this registry not only violates due process, as George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr Sulu, made clear, it also violates the essential theological principles on which America as a tolerant, democratic, Christian nation was founded. If the religious Right are supporting his motion for this registry, then they are showing a complete ignorance and contempt for one of the cornerstones of American and British Christianity and liberal democracy.

Richard Baxter and the Puritan Celebration of Science

May 3, 2013

Amongst some atheists, the Puritans have a reputation as the cruel opponents of science. Much of this appears to come from the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view of Puritan responsibility for the horrors of the Salem witch-hunts. A previous generation of historians of science, such as the sociologist Robert K. Merton, believed that the Scientific Revolution was partly caused by the Puritans. This view has since been rejected. The interest in science and desire to promote and expand scientific knowledge was not unique to the Puritans, but also included other Protestants, such as mainstream Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, as is shown in the numerous scientific academies that existed in Roman Catholic countries, such as France and Italy. Nevertheless, many Puritan ministed strongly supported and took an intense delight in the new science, which they saw as leading to a knowledge of God. Richard Baxter was one of these Puritan ministers. Amongst his other achievements, he was the leading advocate of religious toleration during the British Civil War. Its inclusion into the American Constitution was due to his influence, rather than that of later Deism. He also strongly supported and promoted science. In his Christian Directory, written in 1664-5, he wrote:

‘The very exercise of love to God and man, and of a heavenly mind and holy life, hath a sensible pleasure in itself, and delighteth the man who is so employed … What delight had the inventors of the sea-chart and magnetic attraction, of printing, and of guns, in their inventions! What pleasure had Galileo in his telescopes, in finding out the inequalities and shady part of the moon, the Medicean planets…’

Modern American science owes much of its existence to the Dissenting Academies set up in England by the Puritans during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Puritan academy in Northampton, for example, taught mechanics, hydrostatics, physics, anatomy, and astronomy. The founder of one of the earliest of these academies was Charles Morton. Morton later emigrated to America, where he became vice-president of Harvard. He then introduced to that great, august American institution the system of science that he had established in England.

Far from being uniform opponents of religious liberty and scientific investigation, it was the Puritan ministers and educationalists Richard Baxter and Charles Morton who founded the American tradition of religious liberty and science respectively.

Source: C.A. Russell, Science and Religious Belief.

Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – the Sixteenth Century: Part 4

August 13, 2008

View of John Knox that Princes and the People themselves have a Right and Duty to Depose an Unjust Monarch Preventing the Establishment of True Religion

In his view of the relationship between the king and his subjects, Calvin allowed that unjust rulers could be deposed by the inferior magistrates, but stressed the subject’s duty to obey established authority, even when it was corrupt. John Knox, however, believed that the aristocracy and the estates also had their authority granted by God, and so had the right and duty to defend the innocent, punish criminals and establish proper religion. If the monarch refused to allow religion to be reformed, and the true faith to be established, then it was the duty of the aristocracy and the estates to depose them. If the aristocracy and estates refused to do this, then it was the duty of the people themselves to reform the church, a view he addressed directly to the people themselves in his Letter to the Commonalty. This view, that the people themselves had the right and duty to rebel against their social superiors when they were unjust and prevented the proper establishment of true religion, was immensely radical in an age when government and politics was viewed as the exclusive activity of princes and aristocrats, to whom the masses of ordinary people should be loyal and obey, but who were otherwise excluded from government and their political participation was viewed with suspicion and distrust.

View of Goodman that Kings Owed their Power to the People, and so can Depose Unjust Monarchs

Knox was not alone in his views, however. The English Calvinist, Christopher Goodman, stated in his book, How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects; wherein they may lawfully by God’s word be disobeyed and resisted, published in Geneva in 1558 that kings owed their power and their authority to their acceptance as kings by their people, and that ordinarily they should be respected. Like Knox, he also believed that the aristocracy was ordained by God to defend their nation’s true religion, laws and prosperity and to act to limit and restrain the king’s power. Kings were also God’s subjects, and like everyone else they were obliged to work to the best of their ability in their vocation. If they abused their position, they could be deposed and punished. This was not just the duty of the aristocracy, but also of ordinary people, who are required to reform the church if the king and aristocracy refuse to do so.

View of Ponet that God Established Government for Human Welfare, but Form of the Government Left to Humanity to Decide

Another Protestant exile from the reign of Mary Tudor in England, John Ponet, also believed in and expounded the right of the subjects themselves to overthrow an oppressive monarch. Ponet had been bishop of Rochester and Winchester during the Reign of Edward VI before he sought refuge in Strasbourg after Mary’s accession, publishing his treatise on government, A Shorte Treatise of Politicke Power in 1556. Unlike Mariana and Buchanan, for example, who believed that government arose out of humanity’s natural inclination for company and co-operation, or the need for protection from aggression when in the primeval phase of human existence, Ponet believed that humanity was too corrupt to govern itself through reason. He attributed the belief that it was possible to the ancient pagans, and considered that history demonstrated that they had been wrong. Ponet believed that human actions should be guided by divine law, which is the law of nature. However, humans did not obey law unless coerced, and so God had created political power for humanity’s benefit, granting humanity the power to legislate for itself and enforce such legislation with appropriate punishment, including execution. God did not, however, specify which form of government humans were to adopt. That was left to humanity itself. God did not grant authority to only one individual, but to the community, as a co-operative association based on the reciprocal need of each individual for every other. It was the community that maintained justice and general welfare.

View that Best Form of Government Mixed Government of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy, and that Power of Monarch Limited by Constitution and God’s Law

Ponet did not believe that any people could sensibly give unlimited power to a prince, and so considered the best form of government to be a mixed constitution where sovereignty was shared between the prince and a parliamentary assembly. England, France and Germany were all ruled by this form of government. Even those monarchs who ruled without a parliamentary assembly were subject to constitutional limits to their authority. They were bound by God’s law, and so could only legislate on relatively unimportant matters. Furthermore, Ponet urged that people should not automatically accept legislation that was merely human in origin. Laws must be considered and obeyed on their own merits, and not because of the authority of the people who had passed them. While people owed kings their love and loyalty, their first loyalty was to God, then their country and only afterwards to the monarch. He regarded princes as merely members of the commonwealth, which could exist without them. He stated that princes were liable unjustly to seize their subject’s property as their own, alter the coinage and raise taxes, political conduct that Ponet declared to be mere brigandage. They did not hold of themselves their kingdom, but simply had it in stewardship. Under the law of nature, people had the right to depose and execute oppressive rulers and tyrants, and so the community had the ability to withdraw the authority it had granted to the prince. While this should be done by the community as a whole, private assassination was justified in some circumstances.

Demands for Religious Toleration for Roman Catholics and Protestants by Edwin Sandys in England

Apart from the ability of the subject or citizen to take part in the process of making political decision, one of the great pillars of modern democracy is freedom of conscience. While both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Sixteenth century generally wished to suppress each others’ religions through force, there was also a profound desire amongst many Christians for unity and toleration in Christendom. Edwin Sandys, a son of the Archbishop of York and pupil of Richard Hooker, in his A Relation of the State of Religion, criticised the intolerance of both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants were Christians, and shared the same fundamental beliefs and doctrines that were the essence of Christianity. The doctrinal points that divided them could never be decided for certain. Thus, he felt, that Roman Catholics and Protestants should respect each other, and that the unity of Christendom could be restored through the establishment of a European church based on the Christian doctrines held by both Roman Catholic and Protestant. This was to be done either by a general council, which would impose its authority on the Pope and other participants in the controversy, or by the princes, though he did not feel that they could be trusted to put this into action. In order to put an end to religious disunity and conflict, Sandys wished to prohibit the claims to superiority by the various sects and faiths in Christendom. Instead of persecuting the various Christian sects, governments should instead force them to respect each other. He did not, however, believe that anti-Christian opinions should be tolerated, and so did not advocate modern concepts of secular democracy.

Demands for Toleration of Roman Catholics and Protestants in France by Politiques

The Politiques in France had expressed similar views rather earlier. They were mostly Roman Catholics, but also some Protestants, who regarded with horror the devastation, caused by the Wars of Religion, and felt that the only way to save France from further carnage and destruction was through negotiation and peace with the Huguenots. A 1574 pamphlet described the suffering inflicted on all classes in France by the War, and called for the Huguenots to join a states-general to bring about peace and save France from further destruction. Other pamphlets noted the moral damage the wars had caused, and the way they had discredited Christianity as a whole. The Huguenot writer La Noue declared that the wars had created a million libertines and Epicureans, while other writers stated that religious persecution had not suppressed heresy, but created only atheists. They argued strongly that the only way for states to survive and prosper was by tolerating two religions, and that the state should be above any specific religion. They also strongly argued that the existence of two religions in a country did not necessarily produce civil conflict or disunity, a point of view shared by Henry of Navarre himself. The Politiques were extremely sceptical about the claims of the Churches to possess the sole religious truth, but believed strongly that Roman Catholics and Protestants shared the same, basic, fundamental points of Christian doctrine. Thus the toleration of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism did not threaten the Christian nature of civil society, which was based on the fundamental Christian principles held in common by both Roman Catholic and Protestant. In 1590 the pamphlet Le Pacifique attempted to demonstrate the agreement between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on fundamental doctrinal points in the form of a dialogue between a Roman Catholic and Protestant, who discover that the share the same basic Christian beliefs.

Demands for Religious Toleration by Sebastien Castillion

Similar views on toleration were held and strongly argued by the humanist Sebastien Castellion and Giacomo Contio, or Acontius. In his De Haereticis an sint persequandi of 1542-5, possibly written with a little assistance from Lelio Sozini, who held Unitarian views, and Martin Borrhee, and his Contra libellum Calvini, written in response to Calvin’s participation in the execution of Michael Servetus for heresy in Geneva, De Arte Dubitandi, the Four Dialogues of 1578, and the Conseil a la France desolee of 1562, Castellion argued for religious toleration. In the De Haereticis he attempted to support his arguments by quotations from some of the early Church Fathers and contemporary theologians and religious authorities such as Luther, Erasmus and Calvin himself. He considered that because there were points of doctrine that could not be decided for certain, all that could be required of people is that they attempt to understand the Word of God and follow it according to their conscience. Castellion felt that Christianity consisted in the knowledge that Christ was the Son of God and that his teachings were divine. He did not believe that religion lay in either ceremonies or beliefs that people could not understand, and firmly stated that Scripture did not support the persecution of those of different religious opinions. One defended religion not by killing for it, but by suffering death. He did, however, believe that the government had the right to punish those who denied the resurrection, the immortality of the soul and the authority of the government, though they should not be executed.

Demands for Complete Freedom of Conscience by Acontius

Acontius was a military engineer who had been employed by Pescara in Milan and Queen Elizabeth in England. In his Strategematum Satanae of 1565 he argued that most people formed their beliefs without the guidance of either reason or God, simply accepting tradition or the opinions of the mass of people around them. They are intolerant of others, partly because they cannot bear to accept that their beliefs may be wrong. He argued that religious controversy and wars were Satan’s way of causing trouble and destruction on Earth. He believed that there were a few basic beliefs necessary for salvation, but that most of Christian doctrine was simply speculation without any real value. He argued that only those doctrines that affected human conduct on Earth had any value. Magistrates had no power to punish heresy, not just because they had no power themselves to do so, but also because there was so much difference in opinion between the Churches on what was heretical that they too had little authority to make such decisions. He believed that there should be absolute freedom of religion, and that people came to the truth through doubt and free inquiry and discussion. For Acontius, those who undoubtedly possessed extremely heretical doctrines should be punished merely with excommunication, which should be a source of regret rather than anger and hatred.

Contribution of Christian Humanists to Education and their Stress on Tolerance and Dialogue rather than Conflict

Another fundamental pillar of democracy is the belief in the value of education, and that a just society and good government must be based on informed, educated opinion. In this area too the Christian humanists of the 16th century made a profound contribution. Erasmus believed that humans could be assisted to become good as they possessed free will, though this free will itself had to be aided in its turn by God’s grace. The human will could be directed towards goodness through religious devotion and learning. For Erasmus, if princes were educated according to humanist principles, the result would be a good society where princes ruled justly and, following Christ, established peace instead of war. As a result, he and other humanists, such as John Colet in England, established schools and academies. Their influence on the aristocracy was profound. Although their political ideas of a just society was Utopian, their idea of an educated aristocracy informed by humanist culture nearly became reality, so that after the mid-sixteenth century even minor members of the nobility had libraries showing a wide variety of interests. 26 Moreover, Erasmus and his followers, although entirely orthodox Roman Catholics, stressed the importance of dialogue, toleration and the importance of settling matters peacefully, rather than resorting to force. Their stress on God’s love for humanity, rather than His judgement of their actions, influenced Reginald Pole, Contarini, Castellion and the Socinians, and his advocacy of a tolerant Christianity was immensely popular in Spain, especially amongst the Conversos, whose ancestors had converted to Christianity from Judaism to avoid expulsion and persecution. 27


Both View that Power of the Monarch Absolute and that Royal Power Limited by the Constitution and Sovereignty of the People existed in Sixteenth Century

Thus, although much of the political theory of the sixteenth century stressed the absolute power of the monarch and the duty of their subjects to obey them, there were also other political views, held and defended by both Roman Catholics and Protestants across Europe, that stressed instead the constitutional limits on monarchical power, the importance and role in government of representative assemblies and right and even duty of subjects to resist and depose unjust rulers. Political theorists, theologians and philosophers in England, Scotland, France, Geneva and Switzerland considered that governments had been established for the benefit of their peoples, not the rulers’, that societies and governments were based on contracts and covenants between their members, rulers and the Almighty, and that monarchs owed their power not to any personal virtue, but because the community delegated it to them. The power of the monarch was limited by the law of God and natural law. Princes and parliaments acted as constitutional checks to monarchs to prevent oppression, and who were also representatives of the community and so had a duty to protect their ancient rights. If kings exceeded the bounds of their authority or failed to establish true religion, they could be overthrown by the aristocracy and other leading governmental officials and institutions, or even by private citizens. These views were based on medieval political theory, contemporary interpretation of Scripture and the necessity amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants wishing to defend their religion and defeat and destroy their opponents of finding theoretical support for their resistance to persecution, oppression or the authorities’ failure to maintain the true faith.

Sixteenth Century also Period of Demonds for Religious Toleration, and Improvements in Education

Alongside these demands for political freedom were criticisms of both Roman Catholics and Protestants for their intolerance, and demands for an end to religious persecution and freedom of conscience amongst a very few individual political theorists. Furthermore, the Christian humanist belief that the human will could be formed and directed towards goodness through education led to the foundation of schools and libraries, and an attitude of tolerance and dialogue rather than violent coercion.

Influence of Demands for Constitutional Limits to Monarchy and Participation in Government of People and Representative Assemblies and Religious Toleration Limited in 16th Century, but had strong Influence in 17th Century England

The impact of these ideas was limited, however. Although princes in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere granted toleration to various Christian denominations and sects, this did not necessarily prevent them from acquiring increasing power over their tenants’ lives and properties, so that during the 16th century serfdom increased. In western Europe, in France, Germany and Spain political power became increasingly centralised in the monarch and representative institutions, such as the estates, declined in importance, eventually to produce the absolutist monarchies of the 18th century. Nevertheless, these doctrines continued to have an effect. The Vindiciae, although largely abandoned by the Huguenots shortly after its publication, influenced contemporary Dutch political ideas and considerably influenced English political theories in the 17th century. 28 Castellion’s demands for religious toleration influenced the radical theologian, Dirck Volckentzoon Coornhert. In turn, he influenced Arminius, who otherwise strongly opposed and argued against his theology. Arminius’ religious views strongly influenced British theology and political theories in the 17th century, during the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. In England although it was not noticed at the time, claims such as Thomas Smith’s that it was parliament that really represented every individual in the country pointed towards the Civil War in the next century. 29 Thus, while Europe generally became more authoritarian following the sixteenth century, nevertheless the political theories stressing the constitutional limits on monarchical governments and the role of representative assemblies influenced the Netherlands and Britain, creating the ideas for greater religious and political freedom that were to appear in the 17th century and which found practical expression in the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms and the development of modern, political theories like John Locke’s.


  1. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, pp. 104-5.
  2. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, pp. 105-6.
  3. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 331.
  4. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 268.