Religion in the Early Enlightenment: The Significance of Religious Dissenters for the Seventeenth-Century Political Discourse
A blog post by Francesco Quatrini (Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale, Dipartimento di Scienze Umane e Sociali)
The last two decades have witnessed a growing interest in Enlightenment studies. Prompted by Jonathan Israel’s ground-breaking studies on the “radical Enlightenment” in the Dutch Republic, scholars have focused on intellectuals promoting new democratic concepts in the early Enlightenment period, especially within the circle around the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Such studies, however excellent, mostly focus on philosophers and freethinkers promoting secular ideas, regarded as the main driving force leading into the Enlightenment, largely disregarding religious people who fostered enlightened social practices and similar ideas in the same period and though less known now, were influential in their time. By contrast, and alongside other scholars in the fields of intellectual history, social history, and church history, my research has been focusing on the role of seventeenth-century Protestant dissenters in the promotion of political concepts that would become foundational for the Enlightenment discourse, such as, egalitarianism, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and democracy.
These concepts were indeed an integral part of the religious beliefs and practices of a Dutch dissenting movement known today as the Collegiants or Collegiant movement.
The Collegiants were a religious minority in seventeenth-century Dutch Republic and an avant-garde group in many ways. They were a multi-confessional movement founded around 1619 without clerical or governmental oversight, most of whose members belonged to several confessional and nonconformist churches (e.g., Remonstrants, Mennonites, and Socinians). In their meetings – or Colleges – the Collegiants welcomed learned and uneducated people regardless of differences in cultural, social, and religious background, in order to practice freedom of prophesying – prophecy being a mode of utterance that was not necessarily bound to religious discourse. Not only did women belong to their ranks, but they also enjoyed the same right to freely express their opinions as men did (as it can be seen from the picture above). The Collegiants thus practiced egalitarianism, freedom of speech, and toleration in real terms, just as they defended these concepts in their pamphlets. Renowned seventeenth-century intellectuals, including Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, and Pierre Bayle, had connections with Collegiant circles.
Among those who came into contact and eventually joined Collegiants circles during the 1650s and 1660s, the Polish Brethren must certainly be mentioned. The Polish Brethren – better knowns as Socinians – were an anti-Trinitarian group born around 1568 in Poland-Lithuania from a schism of the Polish Reformed Church, when some of their members embraced anti-Trinitarian views and the kind of anti-state attitude exhibited, for instance, by the Moravian Anabaptists. The Brethren were certainly different from the Collegiants: first of all, they were not a movement, but a true church, with a confession of faith, ministers, and elders; secondly, there is no evidence that they practiced egalitarian beliefs within their ranks, but, on the contrary, theirs was a hierarchical community. Despite this, the Brethren were strong defenders of freedom of religion, which we can assume they practiced on a regular basis. The social and cultural history of the several Brethren communities existing in Poland-Lithuania, Germany, and Transylvania is still quite unknown, but a fact appears to be quite certain: despite being harassed by all the other Christian denominations for their anti-Trinitarianism, there is no account of Brethren attacking or harassing other Christians for their beliefs.
And I suggest that if they did so, Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed would certainly report this in their fierce anti-Socinian campaigns throughout Europe. The Brethren thus appears to have practiced pacifism and freedom of religion on a daily basis, making use of arms and violence only when they had to defend themselves and their families from others (and even then, some of them chose to be harassed, rather than use violence to repel violence).
The meeting between the Collegiants and Polish Brethren represents also a clear proof that social practices led to the formation of new ideas. When they were expelled from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1658, some Brethren families moved to Amsterdam and joined Collegiant circles. In their past, the Brethren had never showed any particular interest in freedom of speech or egalitarianism, but once in Amsterdam, they began promoting such concepts and opposing the kind of hierarchical church authority as practiced by their fellows in Germany and Transylvania. In the foreword to the revised second edition of the Racovian Catechism – the Brethren’s confession of faith – the Brethren living and working in Amsterdam even included references to anticlerical views and to the freedom of prophesying as advocated by the Collegiants. There is no doubt that the egalitarian practices in the Colleges prompted the Brethren to develop such ideas and arguments in favor of egalitarianism. And it is at this crossroads of ideas and practices that we can see the significance of protestant dissenters for the developing of seventeenth-century political discourse. The religious practices of these dissenters and the participation in free-discussion groups co-created the development of Enlightenment values: the theory did not cause the practice, both were mutually implicated in development. Indeed, while Colleges were at first meant as meeting for free scriptural interpretations, soon Collegiants (and Brethren) in Amsterdam began discussing more practical and “secular” matters, such as ways to help Jews in difficult situation in eastern Europe and whether a Mennonite family should send their children to Calvinist schools. Therefore, if one were to extend this approach to other more famous political thinkers, such as Spinoza, Locke, and Bayle, who were in contact with Collegiants, Brethren, and other religious dissenters, they might find new aspects about how the political thinking of such prominent Enlightenment authors developed in practice. In other words, considering how their social relations with religious dissenters might have impacted on the development of their views and how these vews might have further developed such social relations could offer a different and perhaps more rich account of the Early Enligthenment period.