The Birth of Religious Toleration

The Birth of Religious Toleration

In the period following the Protestant Reformation, private worship sites helped pave the way for religious toleration.

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2m 45sec


“Diplomacy and Domestic Devotion: Embassy
Chapels and the Toleration of Religious Dissent in Early Modern
Europe” by Benjamin J. Kaplan, in
of Early Modern History
(2002: No. 4), Univ. of
Minnesota, 614 Social Sciences, 267-19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, Minn. 55455;
and “Fictions of Privacy: House Chapels and the Spatial Accommodation
of Religious Dissent in Early Modern Europe” by
"text40">Benjamin J. Kaplan, in American
Historical Review
(Oct. 2002), 400 A St.,
S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003.

In the aftermath of the Reformation, the religious
division in European states caused a special problem for diplomats: Where
was a Protestant ambassador to worship in a Catholic capital such as Paris,
Vienna, Brussels, or Madrid? And where was a Catholic diplomat to worship
in a Protestant capital such as London, Stockholm, Copen­hagen, or The
Hague? To deal with the diplomatic issue, and, more broadly, to keep
domestic religious divisions from tearing countries apart, European states
hit upon a distinction that allowed the furtive practice of religious

The distinction they made, explains Kaplan, a
historian at University Col­lege, London, was between
class="text43">public worship, in accordance
with a community’s official faith, and
private class="text46"> worship. Beginning in the 17th century, ambassadors
were allowed increasingly to establish chapels inside their residences
where they could practice their forbidden faith in private—as long as
they did not visibly flout the sacral community of the host nation.

Parallel practices evolved outside the rarefied realm
of high diplomacy with
the gradual acceptance of what the Dutch called
schuilkerk, or
clandestine church. Most
schuilkerken class="text46"> were created inside homes, though some were inside
warehouses or barns. But they shared a key characteristic, as did the
embassy chapels: None looked like a place of worship from the street. In
Amsterdam, Catholics maintained 20 such churches in 1700, while the
Mennonites had six and other groups four. The Dutch "text43">schuilkerken, Kaplan points out, had
thousands of counterparts elsewhere in Europe, with various names,
including house churches, prayer houses, meeting houses, mass houses, house
chapels, oratories, and assembly places.

The embassy chapels stirred a new issue: Could native
religious dissidents attend services in an embassy? “For an entire
century,” writes Kaplan, “from the 1560s through the 1650s,
this issue provoked clashes in London, some of them violent, between
authorities and citizens, on the one hand, and the personnel of the
Spanish, French, and Venetian embassies on the other.” The 1583
“Throckmorton plot”—which involved the Spanish ambassador
and an Englishman who aimed to restore Catholicism in England—seemed
to confirm English suspicions about the foreign embassies of Catholic

But despite frequent tensions and occasional violence,
Kaplan says, most embassy chapels in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries
effectively served “significant congregations that included native
dissidents.” And out of that practice developed the modern legal
doctrine of extraterritoriality: the pretense that an ambassador and his
embassy were on the soil of his homeland. Thus, embassy chapels did not
violate the religious laws of a host country, and native dissidents who
attended chapel services did not violate local laws. It was all part of a
larger fiction, says Kaplan, “that enabled Europeans to accommodate
dissent without confronting it directly, to tolerate knowingly what they
could not bring themselves to accept fully . . . to go on living as if
civic and sacral community were still one and the same.”

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