Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Religion

Material for Parts I, II, & III comes from the translation by Joseph McCabe of selected essays by Voltaire entitled: "A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays."


Untruth has imposed on men too long; it is time to pick out the few truths that we can trace amid the clouds of legends which brood over Roman history after Tacitus and Suetonius, and have almost always enveloped the annals of other nations.

How can we believe, for instance, that the Romans, whose laws exhibit to us a people of grave and severe character, exposed to prostitution Christian virgins and young women of rank? It is a gross misunderstanding of the austere dignity of the makers of our laws, who punished so rigorously the frailties of their vestal virgins. The "Sincere Acts" of Ruinart describe these indignities; but are we to put the "Acts" of Ruinart on a level with the Acts of the Apostles? These "Sincere Acts" say, according to the Bollandists, that there were in the town of Ancyra seven Christian virgins, each about seventy years old; that the governor Theodectes condemned them to be handed over to the young men of the town; and that he changed the sentence, as was proper, and compelled them to assist, naked, in the mysteries of Diana--at which none ever assisted without a veil. St. Theodotus--who, to tell the truth, kept a public-house, but was not less zealous on that account--prayed ardently to God to take these holy maidens out of life, lest they should succumb to temptation. God heard him. The governor then had them thrown into a lake, with stones round their necks, and they at once appeared to Theodotus and begged him to see that their bodies were not eaten by fishes.

The holy publican and his companions went during the night to the shore of the lake, which was guarded by soldiers. A heavenly torch went before them, and when they came to the spot where the guards were, a heavenly cavalier, armed from top to toe, chased the guards, lance in hand. St. Theodotus drew from the lake the bodies of the virgins. He was brought before the governor and the celestial cavalier did not prevent the soldiers from cutting off his head. We repeat that we venerate the real martyrs, but it is not easy to believe this story of the Bollandists and Ruinart.

Shall we tell the story of the young St. Romanus? He was cast into the flames, says Eusebius, and certain Jews who were present insulted Jesus Christ for allowing his followers to be burned, whereas God had withdrawn Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. Hardly had the Jews spoken when Romanus emerged in triumph from the flames. The emperor ordered that he should be pardoned, saying to the judge that he did not want to fall foul of God. Curious words for Diocletian! The judge, in spite of the emperor's pardon, ordered the tongue of Romanus to be cut out; and, although he had executioners, he had this operation performed by a physician. The young Romanus, who had stuttered from birth, spoke volubly as soon as his tongue was cut out. The physician, to show that the operation had been properly performed, took a man who was passing and cutoff just as much of his tongue as he had done in the case of Romanus, and the man died. "Anatomy teaches us," says the author, learnedly, "that a man cannot live without a tongue." If Eusebius really wrote this nonsense, and the passage is not an interpolation, it is difficult to take his history seriously.

Then there is the martyrdom of St. Felicitas and her seven children, sent to death, it is said, by the wise and pious Antoninus. In this case it seems probable that some writer with more zeal than truthfulness has imitated the story of the Maccabees. The narrative begins: "St. Felicitas was a Roman, and lived in the reign of Antoninus." From these words it is clear that the author was not a contemporary of St. Felicitas. He says that the praetor sat to judge them in the Campus Martius. The forgery is exposed by this statement. The Campus Martius, which had once been used for the elections, then served for reviews of the troops and for military games. Again, it is said that after the trial, the emperor entrusted the execution of the sentence to various judges; which is quite opposed to all procedure at that time or in our own.

Then there is a St. Hippolytus, who is supposed to have been dragged by horses, like Hippolytus the Son of Theseus. This punishment was quite unknown to the Romans, and it is merely the similarity of name that has led to the invention of the legend.

You will observe in these accounts of the martyrs, which were composed entirely by the Christians themselves, that crowds of Christians always go freely to the prison of the condemned, follow him to the scaffold, receive his blood, bury his body, and work miracles with his relics. If it were the religion alone that was persecuted, would not the authorities have arrested these declared Christians who assisted their condemned brethren, and who were accused of performing magic with the martyred bodies? Would they not have been treated as we treated the Waldensians, the Albigenses, the Hussites,and the various sects of Protestants? We slew them and burned them in crowds, without distinction of age or sex. Is there, in any reliable account of the ancient persecutions, any single feature that approaches our massacre of St. Bartholomew or the Irish massacres? Is there a single one with any resemblance to the annual festival that is still held at Toulouse--a cruel and damnable festival, in which a whole people thanks God and congratulates itself that it slew four thousand of its fellow-citizens two hundred years ago?

I say it with a shudder, but it is true; it is we Christians who have been the persecutors, the executioners, the assassins. And who were our victims? Our brothers. It is we who have destroyed a hundred towns, the crucifix or Bible in our hands, and have incessantly shed blood and lit flames from the reign of Constantine to the fury of the cannibals of the Cevenes.

We still occasionally send to the gibbet a few poor folk of Poitou, Vivarais, Valence, or Montauban. Since 1745 [a period of seven years] we have hanged eight of those men who are known as "preachers" or "ministers of the gospel," whose only crime was to have prayed God for the king in their native dialect and given a drop of wine and a morsel of leavened bread to a few silly peasants. These things are not done at Paris, where pleasure is the only thing of consequence, and people are ignorant of what is done in the provinces and abroad. These trials are over in an hour; they are shorter than the trial of a deserter. If the king were aware of them, he would put an end to them.

Catholic priests are not treated thus in any Protestant country. There are more than a hundred Catholic priests in England and Ireland; they are known, and were untouched during the late war.

Shall we always be the last to embrace the wholesome ideas of other nations? They have amended their ways; when shall we amend ours? It took us sixty years to admit what Newton had demonstrated; we are hardly beginning to save the lives of our children by inoculation; and it is only recently that we have begun to act on sound principles of agriculture. When shall we begin to act on sound principles of humanity? How can we have the audacity to reproach the pagans with making martyrs when we have been guilty of the same cruelty in the same circumstances?

Suppose we grant that the Romans put to death numbers of Christians on purely religious grounds. In that case the Romans were very much to blame. Why should we be similarly unjust? Would we become persecutors at the very time when we reproach them with persecuting?

If any man were so wanting in good faith, or so fanatical, as to say to me: "Why do you come to expose our blunders and faults? Why do you destroy our false miracles and false legends? They nourish the piety of many people; there are such things as necessary errors; do not tear out of the body an incurable ulcer if it would entail the destruction of the body." I should reply to this man: All these false miracles by which you shake the trust that should be given to real ones, all these absurd legends which you add to the truths of the gospels, extinguish religion in the hearts of men. Too many people who long for instruction,and have not the time to instruct themselves, say: "The heads of my religion have deceived me, therefore there is no religion. It is better to cast oneself into the arms of nature than into those of error; I would rather depend on the law of nature than on the inventions of men." Some are so unfortunate as to go even farther. They see that imposture put a curb on them, and they will not have even the curb of truth. They lean to atheism. They become depraved, because others have been false and cruel.

These, assuredly, are the consequences of all the pious frauds and all the superstitions. The reasoning of men is, as a rule, only half-reasoning. It is a very poor argument to say: "Voragine, the author of the Golden Legend, and the Jesuit Ribadeneira, compiler of the Flowers of the Saints, wrote sheer nonsense; therefore there is no God. The Catholics have murdered a certain number of Huguenots, and have murdered a certain number of Catholics; therefore there is no God." I should conclude, on the contrary: therefore there is a God who, after this transitory life, in which we have known him so little, and committed so many crimes in his name, will vouchsafe to console us for our misfortunes. For, considering the wars of religion, the forty papal schisms (nearly all of which were bloody), the impostures which have nearly all been pernicious, the irreconcilable hatreds lit by differences of opinion, and all the evils that false zeal has brought upon them, men have long suffered hell in this world.


Do I propose, then, that every citizen shall be free to follow his own reason, and believe whatever this enlightened or deluded reason shall dictate to him? Certainly, provided he does not disturb the public order. It does not depend on man to believe or not to believe; but it depends on him to respect the usages of his country. If you insist that it is a crime to disbelieve in the dominant religion, you condemn the first Christians, your fathers, and you justify those whom you reproach with persecuting them.

You say that there is a great difference; that all other religions are the work of man, and the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church alone is the work of God. But, surely, the fact that our religion is divine does not imply that it should rule by hatred, fury, exile, the confiscation of goods, imprisonment, torture, murder, and thanksgiving to God for murder? The more divine the Christian religion is, the less it is the place of man to command it; if God is its author, he will maintain it without your aid. You will know well that intolerance begets only hypocrites or rebels. Fearful alternative! Would you, indeed, sustain by executioners the religion of a God who fell into the hands of executioners, and who preached only gentleness and patience?

Reflect on the frightful consequences of the right of intolerance. If it were allowed to despoil, cast in prison, and put to death a citizen, who at a certain degree of latitude, would not profess the religion generally admitted at that degree, how could we except the leaders of the State from those penalties? Religion equally binds the monarch and the beggar; hence more than fifty doctors or monks have made the monstrous assertion that it was lawful to depose or slay any sovereign who dissented from the dominant religion, and the Parliaments of our kingdom have repeatedly condemned these abominable decisions of abominable theologians. [The Jesuit Busenbaum, edited by the Jesuit La Croix, says that "it is lawful to kill a prince excommunicated by the Pope, in whatever country he may be found, because the universe belongs to the Pope, and he who accepts this commission does a charitable deed." This proposition, drawn up in the antechambers of hell, has done more than anything to raise France against the Jesuits. (They were expelled from France in 1767.-- M.J.) They endeavoured to justify themselves by pointing out that the same conclusions are found in St. Thomas and other Dominicans. As a matter of fact, St. Thomas of Aquin, the "angelic doctor" and " interpreter of the divine will" - such are his titles - says that an apostate prince loses his right to the crown, and should no longer be obeyed (Bk. 11., Part II., quest. xii.); that the Church. may· punish him with death; that the Emperor Julian was tolerated only because the Christians were weak (same passage); that it is right to kill any heretic (same place, questions xi. and xii.); that those are laudable who free a people from a tyrannical prince, etc. We must admit that Gerson, Chancellor of the University, went farther than St. Thomas, and the Franciscan Jean Petit much farther than Gerson.--J,M.]

The blood of Henry the Great [IV.] was still warm when the Parliament de Paris issued a decree making the independence of the Crown a fundamental law. Cardinal Duperron, who owed his position to Henry the Great, arose in the States of 1614 against the decree of the Parliament, and had it suppressed. All the journals of the time record the terms which Duperron used in his discourse: "If a prince became an Arian," he said, "we should be obliged to depose him."

Let us be allowed to say that every citizen is entitled to inherit his father's property, and that we do not see why he should be deprived of it, and dragged to the gibbet, because he takes sides with one theologian against another.

We know that our dogmas were not always clearly explained and universally received in the Church. Christ not having said in what manner the Holy Ghost proceeded, the Latin Church long believed with the Greek that he proceeded from the Father only; after a time it added, in the Creed, that he also proceeded from the Son. I ask whether, the day after this decision, any citizen who preferred to keep to the old formula deserved to be put to death? But is it less unjust and cruel to punish today the man who thinks as people thought in former times? Were men guilty in the days of Honorius I because they did not believe that Jesus had two wills?

It is not long since the Immaculate Conception began to be generally accepted; the Dominicans still refuse to believe it. [It was not defined by the Church until 1854.- J. M.] At what particular date will these Dominicans incur the penalties of heresy in this world and the next?

If we need a lesson how to behave in these interminable disputes, we should look to the apostles and evangelists. There was ground for a violent schism between Peter and Paul, and Paul withstood Peter to the face, but the controversy was peacefully settled. The evangelists in turn had a great field of combat; if they had resembled modern writers. They contradict each other frequently; yet we find no dissension among their followers over these contradictions, and they are neatly reconciled by the fathers of the Church. St. Paul, in his epistle to a few Jews at Rome who had been converted to Christianity, says at the end of the third chapter that faith alone glorifies, and works justify no one. St. James, on the contrary, in his epistle (ch. ii.) says constantly that one cannot be saved without works. Here is a point that has separated two great sects among us, yet made no division among the apostles.

If the persecution of those with whom we dispute were a holy action, the man who had killed most heretics would be the greatest saint in Paradise. What a poor figure the man who had been content to despoil and imprison his brothers would cut by the side of the zealot who had slain hundreds of them on Bartholomew's day! Here is a proof of it. The successor of St. Peter and his consistory cannot err. They approved, acclaimed, and consecrated the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Therefore this deed was holy; and therefore of two assassins who were equal piety one who had killed twenty-four Huguenot women would have double the glory of the man who had killed only a dozen. By the same reasoning fanatics of Cevenes would have ground to believe that they would be elevated in glory in proportion to the number of priests, monks, and Catholic women they had slain. It is a strange title to glory in heaven.

[This section is somewhat abridged, as much of it is better developed in preceding works.- J. M.]
Divine right means, I believe, the precepts which God himself has given. He ordered that the Jews should eat a lamb cooked with lettuces, and that the eaters should stand, with a stick in their hands, in commemoration of the Passover; he commanded that in the consecration of the high-priest blood should be applied to his right ear, right hand, and right foot. They seem curious customs to us, but they were not to antiquity. He ordered them to put the iniquities of the people on the goat hazazel, and forbade them to eat scaleless fishes, hares, hedgehogs, owls, griffins, etc. He instituted feasts and ceremonies.

All these things, which seem arbitrary to other nations, and a matter of positive law and usage, being ordered by God himself, became a divine law to the Jews, just as whatever Christ ordered is a divine law for us. Let us not inquire why God substituted a new law for that which he gave to Moses, and why he laid more commandments on Moses than on Abraham, and more on Abraham than on Noah. It seems that he deigns to accommodate himself to the times and the state of the human race. It is a kind of paternal gradation. But these abysses are too deep for our feeble sight. Let us keep to our subject, and see first what intolerance was among the Jews.

It is true that in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy there are, very severe laws, and even more severe punishments, in connection with religion. Many commentators find a difficulty in reconciling the words of Moses with the words of Jeremiah and Amos, and those of the celebrated speech of St. Stephen in Acts. Amos says that in the deserts the Jews worshipped Moloch, Rempham, and Kium. Jeremiah says explicitly (vii. 12) that God asked no sacrifice of their fathers when they came out of Egypt. St. Stephen says in his speech to the Jews (Acts vii. 42): "Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices for the space of forty years in the wilderness? Yea, ye took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Rempham."

Other critics infer that these gods were tolerated by Moses, and they quote these words of Deuteronomy (xii. 8): "When ye are in the land of Canaan, ye shall not do all the things that we do here this day, where every man does what he pleases." They find encouragement in the fact that nothing is said of any re1igious act of the people in the desert, and there is no mention of Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, or public prayer in any shape. Circumcision, moreover, the seal of the covenant, was not practiced.

It is enough, it seems to me, that it is proved by Holy Scripture that, in spite of the extraordinary punishment inflicted on the Jews on account of the cult of Apis, they had complete liberty for a long time. Possibly the massacre of twenty-three thousand men by Moses for worshipping the golden calf set up by his brother led him to appreciate that nothing was gained by severity, and induced him to close his eyes to the people's passion for strange gods.

Sometimes he seems to transgress his own law. He forbade the making of images, yet set up a brazen serpent. We find another deviation from the law in the temple of Solomon. He had twelve oxen carved to sustain the great basin of the temple, and in the ark were placed cherubim with the heads of eagles and calves. It seems to have been this calf-head, badly made, and found in the temple by Roman soldiers, which led to the belief that the Jews worshipped an ass.

The worship of foreign gods was vainly prohibited. Solomon was quite at his ease in idolatry. Jeroboam, to whom God had given ten parts of the kingdom, set up two golden calves, and ruled for twenty-two years, uniting in his person, the dignities of monarch and pontiff. The little kingdom of Judah under Rehoboam raised altars and statues to foreign gods. The holy king Asa did not destroy the high places. The high-priest Urijah erects in the temple, in the place of the altar of holocausts, an altar to the king of Syria (2 Kings xvi.). In a word, there seems to be no real restraint in matters of religion. I know that the majority of the Jewish kings murdered each other but that was always to further a material interest, not on account of belief. [Voltaire's eagerness to show the tolerance of the Jews is purely paradoxical and ironical. His sole object in this section is to expose the crudities of the Old Testament, under the cloak of orthodox theological reasoning. Hence he omits the savage laws of Deuteronomy against foreign cults.- J. M.]

It is true that some of the prophets secured the interest of heaven in their vengeance. Elias brought down fire from heaven to consume the priests of Baal. Elisha caused forty-two bears to devour the children who commented on his baldness. But these are rare miracles, and facts that it would be rather hard to wish to imitate.

It is also objected that the Jewish people were very ignorant and barbaric. In the war with the Midianites Moses ordered that all the male children and their mothers should be slain and the booty divided. Some commentators even argue that thirty-two girls were sacrificed to the Lord: "The Lord's tribute was thirty and two persons [virgins]." (Numbers xxxii. 40). That the Jews did offer human sacrifices is seen in the story of Jephthah [Judges xi 39], and the cutting-up of king Agag by the priest Samuel. Ezekiel even promises that they will eat human flesh: "Ye shall eat the horse and the rider; ye shall drink the blood of princes." Some commentators apply two verses of this prophecy to the Jews themselves, and the others to the carnivorous beasts. We do not find in the whole history of this people any mark of generosity, magnanimity, or beneficence; yet some ray of toleration escapes always from the cloud of their long and frightful barbarism.

The story of Micah and the Levite, told in chapters xvii. and xviii. of Judges, is another incontestable proof of the great liberty and toleration that prevailed among the Jews. Micah's wife, a rich Ephraimite woman, had lost eleven hundred pieces of silver. Her son restored them to her, and she devoted them to the Lord, making images of him, and built a small chapel. A Levite served the chapel, receiving ten pieces of silver, a tunic, and a cloak every year, besides his food; and Micah said: "Now know I the Lord will do me good seeing I have a Levite to my priest" (xvii. I3).

However, six hundred men of the tribe of Dan, who wanted to seize some village of the district to settle in, and had no priest-Levite to secure the favour of God for their enterprise, went to Micah's house, and took the ephod, idols, and Levite, in spite of the remonstrances of the priest and the cries of Micah and his mother. They then proceeded with confidence to attack the village of Lais, and put everything in it to fire and sword, as was their custom. They gave the name of Dan to Lais in honour of their victory, and set Micah's idol on an altar; and, what is still more remarkable, Jonathan, grandson of Moses, was the high priest of this temple, in which the God of Israel and Micah's idol were worshipped.

After the death of Gideon the Hebrews worshipped Baal-berith for nearly twenty years, and gave up the cult of Adonai; and no leader or judge or priest cried for vengeance. Their crime was great, I admit; but if such idolatry was tolerated, how much the more easily should we tolerate differences within the proper cult.

Some allege as a proof of intolerance that Lord himself had allowed his ark to be taken by the Philistines in a battle, the only punishment inflicted on the Philistines was a secret disease resembling hemorrhoids, the overthrowing of the statue of the Dagon, and the sending of a number of rats into their country. And when the Philistines, to appease his anger had sent back the ark, drawn by two cows which had calves, and offered to God five golden rats and five golden anuses, the Lord slew seventy elders of Israel and fifty thousand of the people for looking at the ark. The answer is plain, then Lord's chastisement is not connected with difference of cult, or idolatry.

Had the Lord wished to punish idolatry, he would have slain all the Philistines who dared to take his ark, and who worshipped Dagon; but he slew fifty thousand and seventy men of his own people merely because they looked at an ark at which they ought not to have looked. So different are the law, the morals, and the economy of the Jews from anything that we know today; so far are the inscrutable ways of God above our own! However, God is not punishing a foreign cult but a profanation of his own, an indiscreet curiosity, an act of disobedience possibly a spirit of revolt. We realize chastisements belong to God only in the Jewish theocracy. We cannot repeat too often times and ways that these times have no relation to our own.

Again, when in later years the idolatrous Naaman asked Elisha if he were allowed to accompany his king to the temple of Rimmon, and worship with him, Elisha--the man who caused children to be devoured by bears--merely said, "Go in peace." More remarkable still is the fact that the Lord orders Jeremiah to put cords and yokes round his neck, and send them to the kings of Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, saying, on the part of the Lord: "I have given all your lands to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, my servant." Here we have an idolatrous king declared to be the servant and favourite of God.

The same Jeremiah, whom the petty king of the Jews, Zedekiah, had put in prison and then pardoned, advises the king, on the part of God, to surrender to the king of Babylon. Thus God takes the part of an idolatrous king. He gives him possession of the ark, the mere sight of which had cost fifty thousand and seventy Jews their lives, the holy of holies, and the rest of the temple, the building of which had cost a hundred and eight thousand gold talents, a million and seventeen thousand silver talents, and ten thousand gold drachmas, left by David and his officers for the construction of the house of the Lord; which, without counting the funds used by Solomon, amounts to nineteen thousand and sixty-two million francs, or thereabouts, of our money [more than £750,000,000]. Never was idolatry so signally rewarded! I am aware that the figure is exaggerated, and may be due to a copyist; but if you reduce the sum by half, or to a fourth or an eighth, it is still astonishing. One is hardly less surprised at the wealth which Herodotus says he saw in the temple of Ephesus. But treasures are nothing in the eyes of God; the title of his 'servant," which is given to Nebuchadnezzar, is the only real treasure.

God is equally favourable to Kir, or Koresh, or Kosroes, whom we call Cyrus. He calls him "his Christ," "his Anointed," although he was not anointed in the ordinary meaning of the word, and he followed the religion of Zoroaster; he calls him his "shepherd," though he was a usurper in the eyes of men. There is no greater mark of predilection in the whole of Scripture.

You read in Malachi that "from the east to the west the name of God is great among the nations, and pure oblations are everywhere offered to him." God takes as much care of the idolatrous Ninevites as of the Jews; he threatens and pardons them. Melchizedech, who was not a Jew, sacrificed to God. The idolatrous Balaam was a prophet. Scripture shows therefore, that God not only tolerated other peoples, but took a paternal care of them. And we I be intolerant!


Hence both under Moses, the judges, and the kings you find constant instances of toleration. Moses says several times (Exodus xx.) that "God punishes the fathers in the children, down to the fourth generation"; and it was necessary thus to threaten a people to whom God had not revealed the immortality of the soul, or the punishments and rewards of another life. These truths were not made known either in the Decalogue or any part of Leviticus or Deuteronomy. They were dogmas of the Persians, Babylonians Egyptians, Greeks, and Cretans; but by no means formed part of the Jewish religion. Moses does not say: "Honour thy father and thy mother if thou wouldst go to heaven"; but: "Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayst live long on the earth." He threatens the Jews only with maladies and other material evils. Nowhere tell them that their immortal souls will be tortured after death or be rewarded. God, who himself led his people, punished or rewarded them at once for their good or bad actions. Everything was temporal. Those who ignorantly maintain that Moses taught immortality of the soul strip the New Testament of one of its greatest advantages over the Old Testament. It is certain that the law of Moses spoke only of temporal chastisement, down to the fourth generation. However, in spite of the precise formulation of this law and the express declaration of God that he punish down to the fourth generation, Ezekial announces the very opposite to the Jews. He says (xviii,2o) that the son will not bear the iniquity of his father; and he even goes so far as to make God say that he had given them "statutes that were not good" (xx. 25).

The book of Ezekiel was nevertheless inserted in the canon of inspired writers. It is true that the synagogue did not allow anyone to read it until he was thirty years old, as St. Jerome tells us; but that was in order that young men might not make evil use of the too candid pictures of vice in chapters xvi and xxii. The book was always received, in spite of the fact that it expressly contradicted Moses.

When the immortality of the soul was at length admitted, which probably began about the time of the Babylonian captivity, the Sadducees continued to believe that there were no punishments and rewards after death, and that the power of feeling and thinking perished with us, like the power of walking and digesting. They denied the existence of angels. They differed from the other Jew much more than Protestants differ from Catholics, yet they remained in the communion of their brethren. Some of their sect even became high-priests.

The Pharisees believed in fatalism and metempsychosis. The Essenians thought that the souls of the just went to the Fortunate Islands, and those of the wicked into a kind of Tartarus. They offered no sacrifices, and met in a special synagogue. Thus, when we look closely into Judaism, we are astonished to find the greatest toleration in the midst of the most barbaric horrors. It is a contradiction, we must admit; nearly all nations have been ruled by contradictions. Happy the contradiction that brings gentler ways into a people with bloody laws.


Let us now see whether Jesus Christ set up sanguinary laws, enjoined intolerance, ordered the building of dungeons of the inquisition, or instituted bodies of executioners.

There are, if I am not mistaken, few passages in the gospels from which the persecuting spirit might deduce that intolerance and constraint are lawful. One is the parable in which the kingdom of heaven is compared to a king who invites his friends to the wedding-feast of his son {Matthew xxii.) The king says to them, by means of his servants: "My oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready. Come unto the marriage." Some go off to their country houses, without taking any notice of the invitation; others go about their business; others assault and slay the king's servants. The king sends his army against the murderers, and destroys their town. He then sends out on the high road to bring in to the feast all who can be found. One of these sits at table without a wedding dress, and is put in irons and cast into outer darkness.

It is clear that, as this allegory concerns only the kingdom of heaven, it certainly does not give a man the right to strangle or put in jail a neighbour who comes to sup with him not wearing a festive garment. I do not remember reading anywhere in history of a prince who had a courtier arrested on that ground. It is hardly more probable that if an emperor sent his pages to tell the princes of his empire that he had killed his fatlings and invited them to supper, the princes would kill the pages. The invitation to the feast means selection for salvation; the murder of the king's envoys represents the persecution of those who preach wisdom and virtue.

The other parable (Luke xiv.) tells of a man who invites his friends to a grand supper. When he is ready to sit at table, he sends his servant to inform them. One pleads that he has bought an estate, and must go to visit it; as one does not usually go to see an estate during the night, the excuse does not hold. Another says that he has bought five pairs of oxen, and must try them; his excuse is as weak as the preceding--one does not try oxen during the night. A third replies that he has just married; and that, assuredly, is a good excuse. Then the holder of the banquet angrily summons the blind and the lame to the feast, and, seeing that there are still empty places, says to his valet: " Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in."

It is true that this parable is not expressly said to be a figure of the kingdom of heaven. There has, unhappily, been too much abuse of these words, "Compel them to come in"; but it is obvious that a single valet could not forcibly compel all the people he meets to come and sup with his master. Moreover, compulsory guests of this sort would not make the dinner very agreeable. According to the weightiest commentators "Compel them to come in" merely means "Beg, entreat, and press them to come in." What, I ask you, have this entreaty and supper to do with persecution?

If you want to take things literally, will you say that a man must be blind and lame and compelled by force, to be in the bosom of the Church? Jesus says in the same parable: "When thou makest a dinner or supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours." Has anyone ever inferred from this that we must not dine with our kinsmen and friends when they have acquired a little money?

After the parable of the feast Christ says (Luke xiv. 26): If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost? "Is there anybody in the world so unnatural as to conclude that one must hate one's father and mother? Is it not clear that the meaning is: Do not hesitate between me and your dearest affections?

The passage in Matthew (xviii. 17) is quoted: "If he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." That does not absolutely say we must persecute pagans and the farmers of the king's taxes; they are cursed, it is true, but they are not handed over to the secular arm. Instead of the prerogatives of citizenship being taken from these farmers of taxes, they have received.the greatest privileges. It is the only profession that is condemned in Scripture, and the one most in favour with governments. Why, then, should we not be as indulgent to our erring brethren as to the tax-gatherers?

The persecuting spirit further seeks a justification of itself in the driving of the merchants from the temple and the sending of a legion of demons from the body of a possessed man into the bodies of two thousand unclean animals. But who can fail to see that these are instances of the justice which God deigns to render to himself for the contravention of his law? It was a lack of respect for the house of the Lord to change its purview into a merchant's shop. It is no use saying that the Sanhedrim and the priests permitted this only for the sake of the sacrifices. The God to whom the sacrifices were made might assuredly destroy this profanation, though he was hidden in a human form; he might also punish those who introduced into the country such enormous herds of animals forbidden by a law which he deigned to observe himself. These cases have no relation whatever to persecution on account of dogma. The spirit of intolerance must be very poor in argument to appeal to such foolish pretexts.

Nearly all the rest of the words and actions of Christ breathe gentleness, patience, and indulgence. He does not even break out against Judas, who must betray him; he commands Peter never to use the sword; he reproaches the children of Zebedee, who, after the example of Elias, wanted to bring fire from heaven on a town that refused them shelter.

In the end Christ succumbed to the wicked. If one may venture to compare the sacred with the profane--God with a man--his death, humanly speaking, had some resemblance to the death of Socrates. The Greek philosopher was a victim to the hatred of the sophists, priests, and leaders of the people; the legislator of the Christians was destroyed by the Scribes, Pharisees, and priests. Socrates might have escaped death, and would not; Jesus Christ offered himself voluntarily. The Greek philosopher not only pardoned his calumniators and his wicked judges, but begged them to treat his children in the same way if they should ever be so fortunate as, like himself, to incur their hatred; the legislator of the Christians infinitely superior, begged his father to forgive his enemIes.

If it be objected that, while Socrates was calm, Jesus Christ seemed to fear death, and suffered such extreme anguish that he sweated blood--the strongest and rarest symptom of fear--this was because he deigned to stoop to all the weakness of the human body that he had put on. His body trembled-- his soul was invincible. He taught us that true strength and grandeur consist in supporting the evils under which our nature succumbs. It is a splendid act of courage to meet death while you fear it.

Socrates had treated the sophists as ignorant men and convinced them of bad faith; Jesus, using his divine rights, treated the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, fools, blind and wicked men, serpents, and vipers.

Need I now ask whether it is tolerance or intolerance that is of divine right? If you wish to follow Jesus Christ, be martyrs, not executioners.


For a government to have the right to punish the errors of men it is necessary that their error must take the form of crime; they do not take the form of crime unless they disturb society; they disturb society when they engender fanaticism; hence men must avoid fanaticism in order to deserve toleration.

If a few young Jesuits, knowing that the Church has condemned the Jansenists, proceed to burn a house of the Oratorian priests because the Oratorian Quesnel was a Jansenist, it is clear that these Jesuits ought to be punished.

Again, if the Jesuits have acted upon improper maxims and their institute is contrary to the laws of the kingdom their society must be dissolved, and the Jesuits must be abolished and turned into citizens. The evil done to them is imaginary--the good is real. What hardship is there in wearing a short coat instead of a long black robe, and being free instead of being a slave?

If the Franciscan monks, carried away by a holy zeal for the Virgin Mary, go and destroy a Dominican convent, because the Dominicans believe that Mary was born in original sin, it will be necessary to treat the Franciscans in much the same way as the Jesuits.

We may say the same of the Lutherans and Calvinists. It is useless for them to say that they follow the promptings of their consciences, that it is better to obey God than men, or that they are the true flock, and must exterminate the wolves. In such cases they are wolves themselves.

One of the most remarkable examples of fanaticism is found in a small Danish sect, whose principle was excellent. They desired to secure eternal salvation for their brethren; but the consequences of the principle were peculiar. They knew that all infants which die unbaptised are damned, and that those which are so fortunate as to die immediately after baptism enjoy eternal glory. They therefore proceeded to kill all the newly-baptised boys and girls that they could find. No doubt this was a way of securing for them the highest conceivable happiness and preserving them from the sin and misery of this life. But these charitable folk forgot that it is not lawful to do a little evil that a great good may follow; that they had no right to the lives of these children; that the majority of parents are carnal enough to prefer to keep their children rather than see them slain in order to enter paradise; and that the magistrate has to punish homicide, even when it is done with a good intention.

The Jews would seem to have a better right than any to rob and kill us. Though there are a hundred instances of toleration in the Old Testament, there are also some instances and laws of severity. God has at times commanded them to kill idolaters, and reserve only the marriageable girls. Now they regard us as idolaters, and, although we tolerate them today, it is possible that, if they became masters, they would suffer only our girls to live.

They would, at least, be absolutely compelled to slay all the Turks, because the Turks occupy the lands of the Hittites, Jerbusites, Amorrhaeans, Jersensaeans, Hevaeans, Aracaeans, Cinaeans, Hamataeans, and Samaritans. All these peoples were anathematised, and their country, which was more than seventy-five miles long, was given to the Jews in several consecutive covenants. They ought to regain their possessions, which the Mohammedans have usurped for the last thousand years.

If the Jews were now to reason in this way, it is clear that the only reply we should make would be to put them in the galleys.

These are almost the only cases in which intolerance seems reasonable.


In the early years of the reign of the great Emperor Ram-hi a mandarin of the city of Canton heard from his house a great noise, which proceeded from the next house. He inquired if anybody was being killed, and was told that the almoner of the Danish missionary society, a chaplain from Batavia, and a Jesuit were disputing. He had them brought to his house, put tea and sweets before them, and asked why they quarreled.

The Jesuit replied that it was very painful for him, since he was always right, to have to do with men who were always wrong; that he had at first argued with the greatest restraint, but had at length lost patience.

The mandarin, with the utmost discretion, reminded them that politeness was needed in all discussion, told them that in China men never became angry, and asked the cause of the dispute.

The Jesuit answered: "My lord, I leave it to you to decide. These two gentlemen refuse to submit to the decrees of the Council of Trent."

"I am astonished," said the mandarin. Then, tuning to the refractory pair, he said: "Gentlemen, you ought to respect the opinions of a large gathering. I do not know what the Council of Trent is, but a number of men are always better informed than a single one. No one ought to imagine that he is better than others, and has a monopoly of reason. So our great Confucius teaches; and, believe me, you will do well to submit to the Council of Trent."

The Dane then spoke. "My lord speaks with the greatest wisdom," he said; "we respect great councils, as is proper, and therefore we are in entire agreement with several that were held before the Council of Trent."

"Oh, if that is the case," said the mandarin, "I beg your pardon. You may be right. So you and this Dutchman are of the same opinion, against this poor Jesuit." "Not a bit," said the Dutchman. "This fellow's opinions are almost as extravagant as those of the Jesuit yonder, who has been so very amiable to you. I can't bear them."

"I don't understand." said the mandarin. "Are you not all three Christians? Have you not all three come to teach Christianity in our empire? Ought you not, therefore, to hold the same dogmas?"

"It is this way, my lord," said the Jesuit; "these two are mortal enemies, and are both against me. Hence it is clear that they are both wrong, and I am right."

"That is not quite clear," said the mandarin; "strictly speaking, all three of you may be wrong. I should like to hear you all, one after the other."

The Jesuit then made a rather long speech, during which the Dane and the Dutchman shrugged their shoulders. The mandarin did not understand a word of it. Then the Dane spoke; the two opponents regarded each other with pity, and the mandarin again, failed to understand. The Dutchman had the same effect. In the end they all spoke together and abused each other roundly. The good mandarin secured silence, with great difficulty, and said: "If you want us to tolerate your teaching here, begin by being yourselves neither intolerant nor intolerable."

When they went out the Jesuit met a Dominican friar, and told him that he had won, adding that truth. always triumphed. The Dominican said: "Had I been there, you would not have won; I should have convicted you of lying and idolatry." The quarrel became warm, and the Jesuit and Dominican took to pulling each other's hair. The mandarin, on hearing of the scandal, sent them both to prison. A sub-mandarin said to the judge: "How long does your excellency wish them to be kept in prison?" "Until they agree," said the judge. "Then," said the sub-mandarin, "they are in prison for life." "In that case," said the judge, "It until they forgive each other." "They will never forgive each other," said the other; "I know them." "Then" said the mandarin, "let them stop there until they pretend to forgive each other."

{Ed: While most of us intuitively realize the truth in this parable, it also happens to fit a thesis on this web site: Sociopaths must win at all costs. It is they, when they co-opt families, tribes, nations, or religions, that cause most of the violence on earth. Genes for survival do not fit well with peaceful societies. But just as there are genes for violence, so also there are genes that counter violence. In many societies, the latter seem to have edged ahead on the street and in the halls of governance.]


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.