Civics: The Origin of Religious Tolerance: Voltaire

Wendy McElroy:

In the next paragraph of Letter Five, Voltaire pursued a theme that contributed heavily to the danger of publishing his work in France. He examined the intellectual and institutional foundation of England’s religious tolerance. He rejected a political explanation. Referring to the established Church of England, he acknowledged that politics strongly favored prejudice rather than tolerance. He wrote, “No one can hold office in England or in Ireland unless he is a faithful Anglican.” Such political exclusion hardly promoted religious good will. Nor did the religious preaching of the dominant church lead the nation toward toleration. According to Voltaire, the Anglican clergy worked “up in their flocks as much holy zeal against nonconformists as possible.” Yet, in recent decades, the “fury of the sects” “went no further than sometimes breaking the windows of heretical chapels.”

What, then, accounted for the extreme religious toleration in the streets of London as compared to those of Paris?

In Letter Six, On The Presbyterians Voltaire ascribed the “peace” in which “they lived happily together” to a mechanism that was a pure expression of the free market—the London stock exchange. In the most famous passage from Philosophical Letters, Voltaire observed, “Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.”

Legally and historically, England was not a bastion of religious toleration: laws against nonconformists and atheists were still in force. Yet in England, and not in France, there was an air of toleration on the street level which existed quite apart from what the law said. Moreover, even though both countries had aristocracies, England was not burdened with the unyielding class structure that crippled social and economic mobility in France. As Voltaire wrote in Letter Nine, On the Government, “You hear no talk in this country [England] of high, middle, and low justice, nor of the right of hunting over the property of a citizen who himself has not the liberty of firing a shot in his own field.”