This post was originally published under the title of Why the Elizabethan Persecution of Roman Catholics was both Just and Right, however I’ve decided to expand and reorient some of the arguments.

Given the recent spate of Mohammedan terrorist attacks I thought that it would be good to outline both the Protestant Two Kingdoms basis of religious tolerance as it articulated by John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and why it does not apply to certain forms of Mohammedanism as well as Roman Catholicism.

The recent terrorist attack in France, Nice

John Locke’s Basis for Religious Tolerance

It would require an entire post to even outline the Protestant Two Kingdoms theology (see here for that), however I think a brief statement would be helpful in orienting our discussion.

The Protestant Two Kingdoms refers to the spiritual realm, “spiritual” in the sense of the realm of spirits, concerning the inward invisible parts of a man, his soul, conscience and his heart, etc, and the bodily realm, the realm of temporal, empirical and visible things concerning the external or bodily parts of man or civil affairs. (The Two Kingdoms is frequently confused with the American “Church and State” which is a very different thing altogether.)

Having distinguished the two parts of the human conditions, the spiritual and the bodily, it becomes a lot easier to understand Locke’s argument for religious tolerance. John Locke does not ground his arguments for religious tolerance upon the basis of some supposed right to religious freedom or whatever but upon the basis that coercion cannot bring about genuine God pleasing faith. It would be useful to quote at some length from his letter:

Illustration of Joan of Arc Being Burned at the Stake
Illustration of Joan of Arc Being Burned at the Stake — Image by © Leonard de Selva/CORBIS

…if anyone endeavour to convert those that are erroneous unto the faith, by forcing them to profess things that they do not believe and allowing them to practise things that the Gospel does not permit, it cannot be doubted indeed but such a one is desirous to have a numerous assembly joined in the same profession with himself; but that he principally intends by those means to compose a truly Christian Church is altogether incredible.


All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true and the other well pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation. For in this manner, instead of expiating other sins by the exercise of religion, I say, in offering thus unto God Almighty such a worship as we esteem to be displeasing unto Him, we add unto the number of our other sins those also of hypocrisy and contempt of His Divine Majesty.

In the second place, the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force. Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgement that they have framed of things.

It may indeed be alleged that the magistrate may make use of arguments, and, thereby; draw the heterodox into the way of truth, and procure their salvation. I grant it; but this is common to him with other men. In teaching, instructing, and redressing the erroneous by reason, he may certainly do what becomes any good man to do. Magistracy does not oblige him to put off either humanity or Christianity; but it is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties. This civil power alone has a right to do; to the other, goodwill is authority enough. Every man has commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of error, and, by reasoning, to draw him into truth; but to give laws, receive obedience, and compel with the sword, belongs to none but the magistrate. And, upon this ground, I affirm that the magistrate’s power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws. For laws are of no force at all without penalties, and penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent, because they are not proper to convince the mind. Neither the profession of any articles of faith, nor the conformity to any outward form of worship (as has been already said), can be available to the salvation of souls, unless the truth of the one and the acceptableness of the other unto God be thoroughly believed by those that so profess and practise. But penalties are no way capable to produce such belief. It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men’s opinions; which light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties.

Note very carefully the premises employed in this argument. He assumes the goal of Christian salvation and the promotion of a “truly Christian Church”. His argument is not “everyone has a human right to profess any religious belief they want”, but rather that a profession of faith which comes about by coercion does not accomplish the goal of Christian salvation. For the persons coerced, his profession is not a genuine one of which he is “fully persuaded”. In fact such hypocritical profession, far from promoting his salvation, instead displeases God by virtue of its hypocritical nature.


To summarise the arguments in this section, there are two parts of the human condition, the inner spiritual part concerning a man’s heart, conscience and mind, and the outward bodily part concerning a man’s bodily and visibly material affair. Civil authorities have a care only via outward visible part because his chief instrument or power consists only of outward force or compulsion. It is however impossible for outward force or compulsion to bring about a full persuasion of the truth of an article of faith in one’s heart or mind. Only persuasion and arguments can produce genuine faith and assent to those articles of faith. As such, magistrates are not to use their coercive power to compel profession of articles of faith or conformity of worship.

John Locke’s Basis for Intolerance of Certain Religious Sects

Once we are clear that the basis for religious tolerance is grounded upon the Protestant Two Kingdoms theology, which teaches the futility of employing coercion to bring about genuine faith, rather than some intrinsic right of freedom of religion, any cognitive dissonance in Locke not extending religious tolerance to Mohammedanism is dispelled.

For Locke the civil authority has care over the bodily or outward aspect of the commonwealth. In Protestant civics this traditionally consists of civic ordinances like property, contracts, trade, families, marriages, civil or outward peace and order, etc. In aid of such ends civil authorities employ the sword to punish and deter those who would disrupt the outward peace of the land, provide for the material welfare of the people within its realm, as well as resolve contractual and property disputes and enforce them by the sword.


If the integrity of such civic ordinances are maintained by the rule of civil authorities, then civil authorities are rightly concerned with any entity, especially religious ones, who would reject the legitimacy of their rule and their civic obligations simply on the basis of differing ecclesiastical membership. That is, civil authorities cannot tolerate any sect which believes itself to be freed from all civil obligations emanating from civil authorities which are not sanctioned by certain ecclesiastical authorities or not of the same religion as those sects. Locke would argue that the obligations to obey the civil authorities derive directly from God, the validity of their laws and obligations obtains by virtue of their intrinsic merits in relation to the common good or by our reason or natural law. What Locke cannot tolerate is the idea that the authority of civil rulers are contingent upon the will of an ecclesiastical community or membership of the same or that validity of laws follow sectarian profession rather than its intrinsic merits in relation to the common good.

We have to be very careful about this argument. This does not mean that civil authorities are infallible and can never be questioned or criticised or even disobeyed in particular cases where the authorities have made a grievous mistake. What is important is that one believes that one ought to be loyal and support the civil authorities as fundamentally legitimate even if they have erred in particular cases. One ought to seek, through lawful and non-violent means, to correct the errors of one’s authorities rather than to think that the civil authority itself is illegitimate, and all their commands or laws invalid, simply because they have made a mistake in particular case. It would be instructive to quote here the 18th century philosopher, George Berkeley, who has a interesting definition of what “loyalty” or “obedience” consists of:

Only thus much I shall take for granted, That there is in every Civil Community, some where or other, placed a Supreme Power of making Laws, and enforcing the Observation of them. The fulfilling of those Laws, either by a punctual performance of what is enjoyned in them, or, if that be inconsistent with Reason or Conscience, by a patient Submission to whatever Penalties the Supreme Power hath annexed to the Neglect or Transgression of them, is termed Loyalty; as on the other hand, the making Use of Force and open Violence, either to withstand the execution of the Laws, or ward off the Penalties appointed by the Supreme Power, is properly Named Rebellion.

Passive obedience: or, the Christian doctrine of not resisting the supreme power, proved and vindicated … In a discourse deliver’d at the College-chapel.

Thus according to Berkeley “loyalty” is compatible with not conforming to a command incompatible with one’s conscience as long as one submits to the punishment prescribed while “rebellion” consists of violent and coercive attempts to withstand the law and its penalties.

The sects which Locke censures are not those which believe that civil authorities are fallible or that in particular cases where civil authorities have decreed in a grievously mistaken manner, incompatible with one’s conscience, one can disobey. Rather, the sects which Locke censures are those which believe that the authority of civil rulers are derived from the approval of certain ecclesiastical figures or contingent upon membership in those sects, which presume unto themselves the power to free their members from all obedience to common civil laws or loyalty to their rulers simply on the basis of differing religion. Locke in another part of his letter explains this in greater detail:

I say, first, no opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate. But of these, indeed, examples in any Church are rare. For no sect can easily arrive to such a degree of madness as that it should think fit to teach, for doctrines of religion, such things as manifestly undermine the foundations of society and are, therefore, condemned by the judgement of all mankind; because their own interest, peace, reputation, everything would be thereby endangered.

Another more secret evil, but more dangerous to the commonwealth, is when men arrogate to themselves, and to those of their own sect, some peculiar prerogative covered over with a specious show of deceitful words, but in effect opposite to the civil right of the community. For example: we cannot find any sect that teaches, expressly and openly, that men are not obliged to keep their promise; that princes may be dethroned by those that differ from them in religion; or that the dominion of all things belongs only to themselves. For these things, proposed thus nakedly and plainly, would soon draw on them the eye and hand of the magistrate and awaken all the care of the commonwealth to a watchfulness against the spreading of so dangerous an evil. But, nevertheless, we find those that say the same things in other words. What else do they mean who teach that faith is not to be kept with heretics? Their meaning, forsooth, is that the privilege of breaking faith belongs unto themselves; for they declare all that are not of their communion to be heretics, or at least may declare them so whensoever they think fit. What can be the meaning of their asserting that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms? It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the power of deposing kings, because they challenge the power of excommunication, as the peculiar right of their hierarchy. That dominion is founded in grace is also an assertion by which those that maintain it do plainly lay claim to the possession of all things… These, therefore, and the like, who attribute unto the faithful, religious, and orthodox, that is, in plain terms, unto themselves, any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals, in civil concernments; or who upon pretence of religion do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion, I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion. For what do all these and the like doctrines signify, but that they may and are ready upon any occasion to seize the Government and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects; and that they only ask leave to be tolerated by the magistrate so long until they find themselves strong enough to effect it?

Again: That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country and suffer his own people to be listed, as it were, for soldiers against his own Government. Nor does the frivolous and fallacious distinction between the Court and the Church afford any remedy to this inconvenience; especially when both the one and the other are equally subject to the absolute authority of the same person, who has not only power to persuade the members of his Church to whatsoever he lists, either as purely religious, or in order thereunto, but can also enjoin it them on pain of eternal fire. It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

timthumbLocke’s arguments I trust are sufficiently clear and his reference to Mohammedans who take their marching orders from “the Mufti of Constantinople”, or in our present day context, from the ISIS or any other Mohammedan sect, cannot be tolerated nor their opinions suffered to be propagated among us.

One needs to be careful with this argument. The Muslims of today by and large are obviously very different from the Mohammedans of the past. Many of them have shed their political theology and no longer believe that the legitimacy of civil rulers or their laws are contingent upon approval of the Islamic community nor needs be derived from Islamic profession or premises. However what is clear is that for those Mohammedans which believe that an Islamic theocracy is the only valid form of civic arrangement and all other civic arrangements are invalid, those Mohammedans cannot be suffered to be at liberty in the land nor their creeds and arguments be allowed to be propagated.

We can get a clearer idea of this when we look into the case study of the Elizabethan persecution of the Roman Catholics and, on the basis of the arguments outlined here, why their persecution was justified.

The Case of Elizabethan Romanism

When looking at the persecution of the Roman Catholics during the Elizabethan Era, we should not imagine that the Romans of that time were anything like the benign post-Vatican II Roman Catholics armed with Dignitatis humanae, preaching religious freedoms and rights of conscience, etc. That Roman Catholics under Queen Elizabeth I were nothing more than poor innocent Romans who just wanted to practice their faith in peace and quietness but were prevented and cruelly persecuted by that nasty bloodthirsty and intolerant Anglican Queen would not be a true reflection of the situation at that time.

First, the Roman Catholic Church then was not merely a benign religion, it was in fact a political and civil empire. Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 issued his papal bull Unam Sanctam, explicitly stating that all power and authority in heaven and on earth, both earthly and spiritual, civil and ecclesiastical, belongs in his hands.

Sciarra Colonna slapping Pope Boniface VIII across the face, 1303

We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal. For when the Apostles say: ‘Behold, here are two swords’ [Lk 22:38] that is to say, in the Church… Certainly the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: ‘Put up thy sword into thy scabbard’ [Mt 26:52]. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.

However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power. For since the Apostle said: ‘There is no power except from God and the things that are, are ordained of God’ [Rom 13:1-2], but they would not be ordained if one sword were not subordinated to the other and if the inferior one, as it were, were not led upwards by the other…

Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Thus, the Pope did not only claim to rule the Church, he also claims to rule all the commonwealths in the world, lording even over kings and royalty and claiming jurisdiction over temporal affairs. Whether directly or indirectly is a matter of dispute among Roman Catholics, what is clear however is that ultimately such papal power claims to be the source of legitimacy of all civil rulers, perhaps even going so far as to be able to appoint and dispose of kings as we shall later see.

The Papal Subversion of Elizabeth’s Rule

We have to note that Elizabeth was willing to tolerate Roman Catholics performing their own private worship away from the common worship of the Anglican Church. The problem was that Pope Pius V was not willing to extend the same courtesy to the Queen and not only had her excommunicated, but also deposed as the rightful ruler of England as well. Whether or not Unam Sanctam claims the right to rule the civil realm directly, Pope Pius V certainly behaved as if it did. In the words of his own bull Regnans in Excelsis:

Therefore, resting upon the authority of Him whose pleasure it was to place us (though unequal to such a burden) upon this supreme justice-seat, we do out of the fullness of our apostolic power declare the foresaid Elizabeth to be a heretic and favourer of heretics, and her adherents in the matters aforesaid to have incurred the sentence of excommunication and to be cut off from the unity of the body of Christ.

And moreover (we declare) her to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.

And also (declare) the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm and all others who have in any way sworn oaths to her, to be forever absolved from such an oath and from any duty arising from lordship. fealty and obedience; and we do, by authority of these presents , so absolve them and so deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended title to the crown and all other the above said matters. We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.

So what you have here is a group of people who belong to an organisation which subverts the authority of the civil rulers of the realm by freeing them from subjection to lawful authority and which tells them that they have no obligation whatsoever to the rule of the civic authority of the realm. Also, you have here also an organisation which in effect, has declared war on their own country by refusing to recognise the Queen as the lawful ruler of England. Furthermore after the Pope issued the bull, he commanded all English Roman Catholics to aid in deposing the Queen.

How would you, as a civil ruler, react to this? Suppose, as an analogy, England suddenly finds itself in war against France and the French King tells all his French subject that they are released from any need to adhere to the laws and customs of England and to try to overthrow the Queen of England. Would it not be reasonable for the English authorities to detain and even deport masses of French subject back to France? Likewise you have here a group of people who essentially possess a conflict of loyalties between that of their lawful civil ruler, Queen Elizabeth I, and their papal ruler Pope Pius V, whereby the latter has essentially released all his faithful papal subjects from obedience to the Queen and has, for all intents and purposes, declared war upon her by refusing to recognise her as the lawful ruler of the realm and commanded all his faithful to get rid of her. This is essentially a hostile invasion. Is it not reasonable for the English authorities to both persecute and arrest all these papists and made to recant their obedience to the Pope and to affirm their obedience to the Queen as the lawful authority of the realm?

As we’ve noted from the start, religious tolerance has its limits, and when a religion transgress those limits in seeking to subvert lawful civil authority, then it is entirely both right and just for lawful civil authority to persecute those who seek to subvert authority and make them recant their rebellion. Such is case for the Roman Catholics in Elizabeth’s time.

The Execution of Guy Fawkes, a Roman Catholic radical who tried to blow up Parliament

Eventually the fears of Elizabeth were justified with the discovery of the Ridolfi Plot which sought to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot was not merely the conspiracy of a couple of Roman Catholics, it had written papal approval as well. Although the plot was foiled, its discovery revealed that fundamentally one truly cannot serve two civil masters, and for many years since then, there remained the entirely justified and reasonable suspicion among the English concerning the loyalty of the Roman Catholics who answered to another throne and another ruler in conflict with the Protestant civil rulers of England. And it is a suspicion sadly confirmed over and over again as subsequent Popes supported rival claimants to the English throne.

Conclusion: The Present Mohammedan Situation

There are of course many notable parallels to contemporary Mohammedanism. Despite attempts to localise the phenomenon to the Wahhabi sect or to the ISIS alone, the fact is that, like the zombie virus, it has exceeded the control of its original hosts and is mutating and adapting itself to any situation it can find. The dream is that of a restored “pure” Islamic theocracy against the corrupt civil authorities of the non-Islamic world which are delegitimised by virtue of their refusal to receive the political principle of Islam. Regardless of the more technical aspects of this politico-theological vision, it is a vision which is leaping from host to host, lying dormant in some, activating others unto great and terrible deeds.

The Restoration of the Caliphate

Our greatest fear concerning the Mohammedans is that the window for containing this “viral outbreak” may have already passed, and that the inability to distinguish between hosts with dormant viruses and those with active viruses may require dramatic and radical “quarantine” measures for which we do not have the stomach to carry out.

2 thought on “Lockean Intolerance of Mohammedanism with Elizabethan Popery as a Case Study”
  1. […] The Abolition of Differences of Convictions The English concept of liberty was formulated in the aftermath of the religious conflicts which arose between the puritans and the high church Anglican. The thought goes that surely it is possible for us to hold to our religious convictions and yet still live in the same commonwealth, eat together, trade together, work together, etc. The Magisterial Protestant doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was vital in the development of this line of thought whereby it is held that outward civic life could be held in common with people of very different religious convictions or beliefs. It is however important to note that there are limits of course as to the range of such religious convictions which the commonwealth can tolerate and John Locke himself in his Letters Concerning Toleration was quite clear that religions which taught that the legitimacy of civic ordinances and oaths were subject to the will of an ecclesiastical power could not be in any wise tolerated by the commonwealth. (Although he mentions the Caliph of Constantinople by name, “everyone knew” that he was referring to the Roman Catholics in particular. For a more developed argument see here.) […]

  2. Reblogged this on Deus Ex Machina and commented:

    Updated my old post on Elizabethan persecutions of Roman Catholics by adding new sections on Locke’s views of religious tolerance and with special application to the present Mohammedan situation.

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