It is difficult to appropriately appreciate all the blessings we enjoy that previous generations assiduously fought for. Particularly in the West, we are immersed in a way of life that our ancestors would have died for—and many of them did. Our religious freedom is one of these modern privileges that previous generations would have envied. Reviewing religious persecution in the past can help Christians appreciate the freedoms they have now.
The Roman Empire
Although Rome had a Hellenistic culture that broadly accepted and encouraged various religious groups, emperors looked unkindly and intolerantly upon sects that pledged allegiance to something above the emperor or Rome. So from the rule of Nero (AD 54–68) to Diocletian (284–305), persecution of Christians occurred through edicts that revoked Christians’ legal rights and religious freedoms, ordered them not to assemble for worship, and forced them to participate in Roman religious practices, including sacrifices to Roman gods. As abhorrent as these edicts were, Christians suffered worse persecution in the religion’s early history. During this time, there was also torture, imprisonment, execution of Christians, confiscation of Christian property and monies, and destruction of scriptures and places of worship across the empire. Persecution of these sorts lasted until the rule of Constantine (306–337).
In 311, Roman Emperor Galerius issued the Edict of Serdica (also known as the Edict of Toleration), which effectively ended the Diocletian persecution and legalized Christianity in the eastern area of the Roman Empire. Two years later, Constantine famously issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity throughout the entire empire. Decades later, Rome made Christianity the official state religion in 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica.
The Holy Roman Empire: A Millennium of Religious Homogeneity
In his Annals of the Empire, Voltaire remarks, “This body which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Still, Christians can learn from why the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was not holy, particularly regarding its treatment of those who disagreed with the church.
From the fall of Rome to the sixteenth century, Christianity—Roman Catholic Christianity and only Roman Catholic Christianity, to be precise—was largely the only religion practiced in Europe. Certainly there were exceptions. Paganism persisted; Muslims occupied the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth century until around the end of the fifteenth century; Christians also practiced other varieties of Christianity, such as in Russia and Greece. But religion in Europe at this time was almost ubiquitously Roman Catholic Christianity. During the reign of the HRE, religious bigotry, suppression, and persecution were common. To be sure, this was an age of religious homogeneity and hegemony.
In the chapter “A Christian Society” in his book Liberty in the Things of God, Robert Wilken outlines this time in history. He explains that in the fourth and fifth centuries:
Jews were called feral, nefarious, impious, and perverse. Derogatory language was soon matched by laws designed to hinder the growth of the Jewish religion… Emperor Theodosius II forbad the Jewish patriarch Gamaliel VI from building new synagogues and ordered him to destroy synagogues in thinly populated places. Some synagogues were burned and turned into churches.
Wilken also discusses Charlemagne’s conquering of the Saxons in the eighth century, after which the HRE coerced conversions to Christianity, forced baptisms, and compelled Christianization of the Saxons. The eleventh to fifteenth centuries were characterized not only by Christian persecution of Jews at times, but also by the Crusades, during which the Ottoman Empire greatly expanded its borders in the name of Allah.
Reformation, the Colonial Period, and Founding
A pivotal moment in the history of the HRE—and in the history of the world and of religious liberty—occurred on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door, communicating 95 alterations to Catholic practice and doctrine that Luther and many others desired for the church to make. Luther’s ideas and impact on religious freedom cannot be understated. In the cover description of Metaxas’ recent biography Martin Luther, he describes the reformer as “a humble man who, by bringing hard truths to the highest seats of power, caused an explosion the sound of which is still ringing in our ears. Luther’s monumental faith and courage gave birth to the ideals of liberty, equality, and individualism.” Luther not only altered the doctrine and practices of the Catholic Church, but he also established a crucial pillar of Western ideals—freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is the stance that every person has the fundamental right to think and believe what they are convicted of to be true. So no government or any other institution or individual can coerce anyone into believing something other than what their conscience reveals to them to be true. Luther revealed to the West the right to think and believe whatever they wished, without coercion.
Religious persecution and suppression in England and much of Europe still raged despite the bounds that Luther’s reformation made, causing a Puritan exodus to the new world in the seventeenth century. Though Puritans came to America to flee religious persecution, their society was homogeneous. They often expelled people from their settlements who believed differently than they did, and they believed in government-enforced religion. One hundred and fifty years or so after the Puritans arrived in America, the founders expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus protecting religious rights and religious expression, as well as reinforcing religious tolerance in America.
Religious Liberty Today
Though the world of the twenty-first century certainly isn’t a pluralistic utopia of tolerance, we do enjoy liberties and a capacity of religious freedom and tolerance that others throughout history could only dream of and for which many of them fought tirelessly. In America, religious liberty has been on trial at the Supreme Court fairly consistently over the past 150 years, but religious freedom is still alive and well. Europe is experiencing the most religiously diverse and tolerant time in its history. Rarely before in the history of the West could Jews, Christians, Pagans, Muslims, and people of other religions cohabitate a city or even a country, but thanks to Martin Luther’s advancements for the freedom of conscience and the American founders’ active defense of religious liberty, the West is currently experiencing a time of unprecedented and unparalleled religious freedom in its history.