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Monday, June 1, 1998

The Origin of Religious Tolerance

Freedom of Commerce Is the True Wellspring of Religious Toleration

In 1733 the philosopher credited with ushering in the French Enlightenment, François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, published Letters Concerning the English Nation. It was a pivotal work. Although written in French, the 24 letters were first issued from London in an English translation; the material was considered too politically dangerous for the author or any French printer to have the work to appear in France.[1]

Voltaire was no stranger to such controversy. Some years before, after being beaten up by the hirelings of an aristocrat whom he had offended, Voltaire had been thrown into the Bastille (for the second time). He was released after pledging to stay at least 50 leagues away from Paris. Voltaire chose to go as far as England, where he stayed for roughly two-and-a-half years. The result of the sojourn was the Letters on English religion and politics, written as though to explain English society to a friend back in France. They finally appeared in France in 1734 as Lettres philosophiques, or Philosophical Letters.

Letter five, “On the Church of England,” began with the observation, “This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a freeman, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.” The statement had profound implications for any citizen of France—a nation that had almost destroyed itself in order to establish Catholicism as the only practiced religion.

In the next paragraph, Voltaire pursued a theme that contributed heavily to the danger of publishing his work in France: he examined the intellectual and institutional foundation of England’s religious tolerance. First, he rejected a political explanation. Referring to the established Church of England, he acknowledged that politics strongly favored prejudice rather than tolerance. He wrote, “No one can hold office in England or in Ireland unless he is a faithful Anglican.”[2] Such political exclusion hardly promoted religious good will.

Nor did the religious preaching of the dominant church lead the nation toward toleration. According to Voltaire, the Anglican clergy worked “up in their flocks as much holy zeal against nonconformists as possible.” Yet in recent decades, the “fury of the sects . . . went no further than sometimes breaking the windows of heretical chapels.”

What, then, accounted for the extreme religious toleration in the streets of London as compared to those of Paris?

The Peace of Commerce

In letter six, “On the Presbyterians,” Voltaire ascribed the “peace” in which “they [Englishmen] lived happily together” to a mechanism that was a pure expression of the free market—the London Stock Exchange. In the most famous passage from Philosophical Letters, Voltaire observed, “Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.”

Legally and historically, England was no bastion of religious toleration: laws against nonconformists and atheists were still in force. Yet in England, and not in France, there was an air of toleration on the street that existed quite apart from the law. Even though both countries had aristocracies, England was not burdened with the unyielding class structure that crippled social and economic mobility in France. As Voltaire wrote in letter nine, “On the Government”: “You hear no talk in this country [England] of high, middle, and low justice, nor of the right of hunting over the property of a citizen who himself has not the liberty of firing a shot in his own field.”

A key to the difference between England and France lay in the English system of commerce and in the comparatively high regard in which the English held their merchants. (This is not meant to slight the substantial differences between the English and French governments—especially the constitutional ones—upon which Voltaire dwelled.) In France, aristocrats and the other elites of society regarded those in commerce with unalloyed contempt. In letter 10, “On Commerce,” Voltaire pointedly commented on the French attitude: “The merchant himself so often hears his profession spoken of disdainfully that he is fool enough to blush.” Yet in England, the “merchant justly proud” compares himself “not without some reason, to a Roman citizen.” Indeed, the younger sons of nobility often entered commerce or took up a profession. This difference in attitude was a large factor in explaining the extraordinary rise of the English middle class, their wealth deriving from trade. Indeed, the French often derided England as a nation of shopkeepers. Voltaire thought this was a compliment, observing that if the English were able to sell themselves, it proved that they were worth something.

Commerce, or shopkeeping, established an arena within which people dealt with each other solely for economic benefit and, so, ignored extraneous factors such as the other party’s religious practices. On the floor of the London Stock Exchange, religious differences disappeared into background noise as people scrambled to make a profit from one another. The economic self-interest of the Christian and the Jew outweighed the prejudice that might otherwise sour personal relations between them. They intersected and cooperated on a point of common interest: “the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Church of England man accepts the promise of the Quaker,” Voltaire wrote in “On the Presbyterians.”

Voltaire Versus Marx

Ironically, Voltaire singled out for praise precisely the same aspect of commerce—the London Stock Exchange—that Karl Marx later condemned. Both viewed the marketplace as impersonal or, in more negative Marxist terms, dehumanizing. For Marx, people in the marketplace ceased to be individuals expressing their humanity and became interchangeable units who bought and sold. To Voltaire, the impersonal nature of trade was a good thing. It allowed people to disregard the divisive human factors that had historically disrupted society, such as differences of religion and class. The very fact that a Christian who wished to profit from a Jew, and vice versa, had to disregard the personal characteristics of the other party and deal with him civilly was what recommended the London Stock Exchange to Voltaire.

In this, Voltaire’s voice is reminiscent of Adam Smith in his most popular work, The Wealth of Nations. Smith outlined how everyone in a civilized market society is dependent on the cooperation of multitudes even though his friends may number no more than a dozen or so. A marketplace requires the participation of throngs of people, most of whom one never directly encounters. It would be folly for any man to expect multitudes of strangers to benefit him out of sheer benevolence or because they like him. The cooperation of the butcher or the brewer, said Smith, was ensured by their simple self-interest. Thus, those who entered the marketplace did not need the approval or favor of those with whom they dealt. They needed only to pay their bills.

The toleration created by the London Stock Exchange extended far beyond its doors. After conducting business with each other, the Christian and the Jew went their separate ways. As Voltaire phrased it, “On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink. . . .” In the end, “all are satisfied.”

The Philosophical Letters—Voltaire’s tribute to the English middle class, their commerce, and their society—created an enormous impact on the European intellectual scene. Calling the work “a declaration of war and a map of campaign,” Will and Ariel Durant commented: “Rousseau said of these letters that they played a large part in the awakening of his mind; there must have been thousands of young Frenchmen who owed the book a similar debt. Lafayette said it made him a republican at the age of nine. [Heinrich] Heine thought ‘it was not necessary for the censor to condemn this book; it would have been read without that.’”[3]

The French Reaction

Nevertheless, French censors seemed eager to condemn it. The printer was imprisoned in the Bastille. A lettre de cachet for the elusive Voltaire’s immediate arrest was issued. By a legislative order, all known copies of the work were confiscated and burned in front of the Palais de Justice. Through the intercession of powerful friends, the lettre de cachet was withdrawn, again on the promise that he remain safely outside the limits of Paris. In this manner did the French church and state respond to Voltaire’s salute to toleration.

But the themes of the Philosophical Letters resounded deeply within the consciousness of Europe for many decades to come. One of its themes was that freedom—especially freedom of commerce—was the true wellspring of religious toleration and of a peaceful civil society. The insight was nothing short of revolutionary because it reversed the accepted argument and policies on how to create a harmonious society. Traditionally, France (along with most other European nations) attempted to enforce a homogeneous system of values on its people in the belief that common values were necessary to ensure peace and harmony, the social glue that held together the social fabric. This was thought to be particularly true of religious values.

This was not a moral argument, but a practical one: society would collapse into open violence without the cohesion provided by common values. Thus, those in authority needed to centrally plan and rigorously enforce the values that should be taught to and should be practiced by the masses. After all, if people were allowed to choose their own religious values, if values became a commodity open to competition, then civil chaos and conflict would inevitably ensue.

Voltaire argued that precisely the opposite was true. The process of imposing homogeneous values led only to conflict and religious wars. The result was a society intellectually stagnant and morally corrupt, because doubt or dissent was suppressed. It was diversity and freedom that created a thriving and peaceful society. Voltaire ended his most-quoted letter, “On the Presbyterians,” by observing: “If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.”

Perhaps one reason that Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters created such a backlash from the French leviathan was that the book’s logic, if carried beyond religion, would strike at any government attempt to impose common values or practices on the people. Indeed, Voltaire’s argument against homogeneity continues to have deep implications for the centralized policies of all governments. Those citizens who reject imposed homogeneity in religion might well be prompted to question the wisdom of many other government institutions, including public schools, which are often justified by the declared need for common values. The freedom of individuals to decide matters of value for themselves could easily prompt them to demand the right to live according to those values and to teach them to their children. Thus could the system of centralized control unravel.


  1. The number of letters included varies slightly from edition to edition. The one used as a source for this article, Philosophical Letters, trans. Ernest Dilworth (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1961), contains 25.
  2. Among the political barriers for non-Anglicans was the Test Act of 1673, which required the holders of public office to receive the sacrament in the Church of England.
  3. Will and Ariel Durant in The Story of Civilization: Part IX, The Age of Voltaire (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), p. 370.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.