Pufendorf and Religious Toleration

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Source: Editor's Introduction to Pufendorf's Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion, in Reference to Civil Society, trans. Jodocus Crull, ed. and with an introduction by Simone Zurbuchen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).


John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, originally published in Latin in 1689, is widely known as a founding text in the history of toleration. It is usually claimed that Locke was among the first who defended a “modern” concept of toleration. This interpretation rests on the basic distinction between a “traditional” and a “modern” doctrine of toleration. The former sees toleration as a grant or privilege bestowed on individuals or groups by the ruler. Toleration is conceived not as a good in itself but rather as a temporary means to overcome religious dissent. The ultimate goal remains the reunification of different religions or religious denominations. The “modern” doctrine of toleration is marked by a shift to religious liberty or freedom of conscience. In this view, liberty is an entitlement that does not depend on an agency that grants privileges. The liberty-based approach to toleration amounts to a principled defense of religious dissent and implies the permanence and ineradicability of religious diversity.1

Although Locke’s Letter marks an important step in the history of toleration, it is by no means unique.2 It is part of a considerable body of literature on toleration that followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. By this measure the French king, Louis XIV, renounced the laws that granted toleration to the Huguenots—that is, the Calvinists—in France. It has to be considered as the last great effort of one of the European powers to bring about religious unity by means of force. It is thus no surprise that this act was met by an outcry of protestations in the European “Republic of Letters.” The lead was taken by Protestant countries such as The Netherlands, England, Brandenburg-Prussia, and Switzerland, where the Huguenot exiles had taken up residence.3


Samuel Pufendorf’s De habitu religionis christianae ad vitam civilem (Of the Nature of Religion in Relation to Civil Life, translated as Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion in Reference to Civil Society) of 1687 is one of the remarkable pieces in this literature. It is exceptional, because the doctrine of toleration is developed within the framework of modern natural law, a doctrine for which Pufendorf is well-known as one of the founding fathers. His main works are De jure naturae et gentium (The Law of Nature and Nations, 1672) and its abridgment, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, translated as The Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature, 1673). The first English translation of De habitu, which is reproduced in this volume, was published in 1698. By then Pufendorf was already renowned in England and elsewhere in Europe. The last decade of the seventeenth century witnessed extended discussion of his work in learned journals as well as the first translations of his writings. The first English translation of De officio dates from 1691, the second from 1698. The French, English, German, and many other translations of De jure and De officio that followed in the early eighteenth century testify to the lasting interest in Pufendorf’s writings on natural law. In fact, they were to play a major role in the shaping of German, Scottish, and French moral and political philosophy up to the American and French Revolutions.

As Jodocus Crull mentions on the title page of his translation, Pufendorf’s Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion may be read as an “appendix” to The Whole Duty of Man. In fact, it can be understood as an application of his natural law theory to the domain of religion and church. At the outset (secs. 2–5) Pufendorf argues that the state is not founded for the sake of religion, since religion is part of natural human freedom that cannot be delegated to the sovereign. The end of civil society consists exclusively in the security of the citizens, while religion has to be left to the care of the individual. For that reason, respect for religious freedom is one of the duties of the sovereign. Relying on the contractual theory of the state, Pufendorf denounces the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, arguing that the sovereign transgresses the limits of his power when he extends his rule to religion. If the ruler persecutes subjects because of their religion, it cannot be considered an act of legitimate rule but an unjust, hostile, or tyrannical act (sec. 6). In Law of Nature Pufendorf had also argued that the sovereign can be unjust to his subjects when he transgresses the limits of his power.4 However, in that work he did not acknowledge a right to resistance but insisted that the people have to obey the ruler, even if he degenerates into a tyrant.5 The new persecutions by the French monarch led Pufendorf to conclude in the present work that, when rulers transgress their bounds, the subjects have a right to defend their religion, even by the force of arms (sec. 52).

Important as it was, Pufendorf’s fierce opposition to the French king should not be mistaken as a turn to political radicalism. While his advocacy of religious liberty amounts to a principled defense of toleration comparable to that of Locke’s, Pufendorf’s teaching proves more complex when viewed from a broader perspective. More traditional aspects of his doctrine of toleration are brought to the fore when it is evaluated in the context of contemporary European politics, which he followed closely as adviser to some of the successful Protestant rulers.


Samuel Pufendorf was born in 1632 in a small village in Lutheran Saxony. Following studies in Leipzig and Jena, he took a position in 1658 as tutor to the family of Baron Peter Julius Coyet, the Swedish minister (ambassador) in Denmark. As a result of war between Sweden and Denmark, Pufendorf was put in prison, where he composed his first treatise on natural law, the Elementa jurisprudentiae universalis (Elements of Universal Jurisprudence, 1660). After a brief stay in Holland he was appointed professor of international law and philology (later natural and international law) in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg. In 1664 he published his first important political work, De statu imperii Germanici (On the Constitution of the German Empire, translated as The Present State of Germany), under the pseudonym “Severinus de Monzambano.” His controversial argument that the German empire was a kind of “irregular” state, because sovereignty was divided between the emperor and the estates, was widely rejected, and the work was banned in German universities and—because of its anti-Catholicism—condemned by the pope.

In 1670 Pufendorf became professor of natural and international law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Lund at the invitation of King Charles XI of Sweden. Here he published his major treatises on natural law as well as a number of supplementary and polemical essays. A brief recapture of Lund by the Danes in 1677 led him to move to Stockholm, where he served for more than ten years as privy councillor, secretary of state, and royal historian to Charles XI. In this function he composed two works on Swedish history and a comparative analysis of the interests and powers of European states, the Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe (1682–86). With the publication of Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion in 1687, Pufendorf recommended himself as adviser to the great elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, to whom he dedicated the work. In fact, he moved to Berlin in 1688 and served as court historian and privy and judicial councillor to Frederick William I and Frederick III, who was to become the first king of Prussia in 1701. Before his death in 1694, Pufendorf began writing the history of these two sovereigns, and he also composed a treatise on the reunification of Protestants in Europe, published posthumously in 1695, titled Jus feciale divinum sive de consensu et dissensu protestantium (The Law of Covenants, or on the Consensus and Dissensus among Protestants, translated as The Divine Feudal Law: Or, Covenants with Mankind, Represented).


The Divine Feudal Law merits special attention with regard to Pufendorf’s attitude toward religion and toleration, for it has to be seen as a complement to the present work. In his later work Pufendorf clarifies that toleration is just one means among others for dealing with religious dissent. It should be applied only when the reuniting of religions or denominations proves impossible.6 In Pufendorf’s view, the reuniting of Lutherans and Calvinists was possible on the basis of a theological system containing the fundamental articles necessary for salvation. In contrast, the differences between Protestants and Catholics could never be overcome, and the present text and its context in European politics explain this opinion of Pufendorf’s.

As a consequence of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Europe was divided into two blocs: a Catholic bloc led by France and a Protestant alliance led by Brandenburg-Prussia. The latter was soon to be joined by England after William of Orange’s accession to the throne in 1688. Protestant leaders such as Frederick William I of Brandenburg-Prussia perceived France as an enemy of Protestantism that aimed at establishing a universal monarchy in Europe. The division of European powers into two blocs was further complicated by the interconfessional structures of the German empire. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) provided a framework for peaceful coexistence of different religious denominations. It recognized the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist confessions and guaranteed the rights of those communities established before 1624. Consequently, the line between Protestant and Catholic realms cut across the German empire.7 In his early work on the constitution of the German empire, The Present State of Germany, Pufendorf had explained this confessional division as one of the weaknesses of the empire, describing in the last section, which he omitted in later editions, the attendant dangers. Among other things, he insisted that the German Catholic estates ought to be prevented from forming alliances with other Catholic powers against the empire.8

In the eyes of Protestant rulers, the danger of Catholic alliances was imminent after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This helps to explain why Pufendorf’s analysis of the relation between religion and civil society is not confined to the question of “how far the Power of Sovereigns extends it self in Ecclesiastical Matters.” This is the guiding question only of sections 1 to 7, where Pufendorf, as seen above, insists that the ruler has a duty to respect religious liberty. As the state is not founded for the sake of religion, the sovereign’s power in ecclesiastical affairs is restricted to ensuring that “natural religion”—that is, that part of religion that does not depend on revelation but is accessible by the help of reason alone—is maintained and cultivated among the subjects (sec. 7). Like most of his contemporaries, including Locke, Pufendorf was convinced that the belief in God’s existence and in His providence was a basic requirement of man as a moral agent. Being without this minimum of natural religion, atheists and blasphemers were deemed incapable of a moral life and excluded from toleration.

Pufendorf insists from the beginning of the work that, in addition, it must be examined “what bounds ought to be prescribed to the Priestly Order in Ecclesiastical Affairs.” If either worldly sovereigns or churches transgress their bounds, this will lead to “great Abuses, Disturbances and Oppressions, both in Church and State” (sec. 1). Pufendorf’s lengthy analyses of the origin and nature of the Jewish (secs. 8–9) and Christian (secs. 11–39) religions are clearly directed against the Roman Catholic Church, his central point being that according to Scripture no ecclesiastical sovereignty ought to be exercised by priests. Already in his Historische und politische Beschreibung der geistlichen Monarchie des Stuhls zu Rom (Historical and Political Description of the Spiritual Monarchy of Rome, 1679), he denounced the worldly ambition of the Catholic Church (the “Empire of the Pope” or the “Popish monarchy”). In section 35 of the present edition Pufendorf concludes that the religious controversies between the Protestants and the Catholics “are so deeply entangled with the Interest of the Popish Monarchy, that it is impossible for the Roman Catholicks to recede an Inch from the point of the controverted Articles, without diminution of their Authority, and endangering their great Revenues; so, that all hopes of an Union betwixt them and the Protestants, are in vain, unless the latter can resolve to submit themselves under the same Popish Yoak which they have shaken off so long ago.”

Against Catholicism Pufendorf argues that the Christian Church has to be understood as a kind of college or private society, subject to the jurisdiction of the secular ruler. He observes that the original meaning of the word ecclesia implies not statehood but democratic governance. Elders or deputies who were instituted at certain times always depended on the common consent of the congregation. For that reason, becoming a member of the church does not change the function of any man as a subject to civil government (sec. 31).

The last sections of the work (secs. 40–54) deal with the question of whether the church “received any Alteration from its former Condition, after Princes, whole Kingdoms, and States did profess the Christian religion” (sec. 40). According to Pufendorf, there was alteration indeed. Whereas the early church had to be considered as nothing but a college or private society, the church is “now being put under the particular Protection of her Sovereigns” (sec. 41). By becoming Christians, sovereigns acquire peculiar rights in ecclesiastical affairs, because of the union of their duties as Christians and as worldly rulers. Pufendorf seems thus to acknowledge that, where a state-church exists, the relation between religion and civil society is not the same as before. This explains why in this section of the work he approaches the question of toleration from a different perspective. Toleration is now discussed in terms of “reason of state.” Thus Pufendorf examines whether the sovereign’s duty to preserve public peace and tranquillity requires him to promote religious unity in the state. He first affirms that “it is not absolutely necessary to maintain the Publick Tranquility, that all the Subjects in general should be of one Religion.” However, he then adds, “It is to be wished, and ought to be endeavoured, to procure but one Faith and religion in a State.” He further suggests that, “where there is not any Publick Form of Religion established in a Commonwealth, it is the Sovereign’s care, that one may be composed.” Whether a sovereign upholds religious unity in the state or tolerates religious dissent is a question of the “Common Interest of the Commonweal” (sec. 49). Depending on time and circumstances, sovereigns may either banish dissenters or “tolerate such of their Subjects as are of a different Opinion from the Established Religion” (sec. 50). Toleration is thus conceived as a privilege granted to dissenting individuals or groups by the ruler.

In view of the shift of argumentation in the last sections of the work, the question may be raised whether Pufendorf did not himself offer powerful arguments justifying Louis XIV’s expulsion of the Huguenots from France. This is certainly not how Pufendorf saw it, for he goes on to argue that sovereigns are obligated to tolerate dissenters “if they, when they first submitted to the Government, had their Liberty of Conscience granted them by Contract; or have obtain’d it afterwards by certain Capitulations, any following Statutes, or by the fundamental Laws of the Land” (sec. 50). This applies to the Huguenots, who had been granted toleration by the Edict of Nantes. It applies also to the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic communities in the German empire, whose rights were guaranteed by the Peace of Westphalia. Those communities of the officially recognized confessions that had settled after 1624, however, as well as other Protestant and Jewish communities without contractual guarantees, had no claim to toleration in principle. The relevant principle was, rather, that of cuius regio, eius religio, which Pufendorf confirmed in the last sections of his work, leaving authority in religious matters to princes and magistrates and making toleration an instrument to maintain political stability or to promote economic prosperity.


Except for the treatises on natural law, little is known about the translation and reception of Pufendorf’s works in Great Britain. As the translations indicate,9 his writings on religion and politics were met with considerable interest. While Divine Feudal Law was left to others, Crull, the translator of the present text, also had a part in disseminating the Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe. It was first published in 1695 and reedited, at times amended, more than ten times by the middle of the eighteenth century. Crull’s biography10 may explain why he felt expert in translating the works of a German author into English. He was a native of Hamburg who applied himself to medicine, taking M.D. degrees at Leyden and Cambridge. In 1681 he became a member of the Royal Society but was unable to pay the fees because of lack of success in his profession. He subsisted principally by translating and compiling for booksellers. More telling than the few available biographical facts is, however, Crull’s dedication of Pufendorf’s work Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion to the right honorable William, Lord Craven.11 Here he recommends the work for sustaining a middle position between two extremes, one represented by those “who center the utmost Felicity of Civil Society in a Democratical form of Government,” the other by “Mr. Hobbes’s Monstrous Principles” concerning the unlimited power of the sovereign.12 Hinting at the theory of sovereignty contained in The Law of Nature and The Whole Duty of Man, Crull first observes that according to Pufendorf sovereignty is not necessarily attributed to a monarch, but sometimes also to a council. Thus in theory Pufendorf accepts monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy as three legitimate forms of government.13 Crull then points to Pufendorf’s warning to young lawyers, contained in the “appendix” to the work, “to take care, that under the Pretence of maintaining the Prerogatives of Princes, they should not be prodigal of their Liberty and Property.” For the modern reader as much as for Crull, the “appendix” is of special interest, because it is directed against Thomas Hobbes, whom Pufendorf calls “the first Inventer of this unlimited Power” [of the sovereign] and “the worst Interpreter that ever was in Divinity.” This criticism was occasioned by Adrian Houtuyn’s revival of Hobbes’s opinion in A Political Epitomy, Concerning the Power of Sovereigns in Ecclesiastical Affairs, contained in his 1681 work Politica contracta generalis.14 As the only modern commentator on the work has observed, in Houtuyn’s theory “Leviathan has gone crazy,” for the Dutch lawyer “defended a completely unlimited and for that reason also completely senseless absolutism.”15 Against this background Pufendorf exposed, once again, the limits of the sovereign power in ecclesiastical affairs. Thus he aims to demonstrate that, even when the subjects and the sovereign are of the same religion and when a church is established by law, the sovereign cannot claim the right “of being the Supream Head of the Church in the same sense, as he is the Supream Governour of the State.” As the church and the state are established for different ends, the prerogatives of the prince are limited to those “external” aspects of religious worship that are independent of its “internal” part.

In the second place, Crull insists that Pufendorf did not entirely separate the Christian religion from the state. This seems of special importance to him, because in most Christian states of the time religion was linked to the civil government, whether they retained or abolished episcopacy. After the Glorious Revolution, toleration in England was meted out in terms of the relationship between the established church and various groups of Protestant Dissenters, and Crull seems to suggest that Pufendorf’s teaching was well-suited to support the position of moderate, if not latitudinarian, churchmen.16 Thus the translator concludes the dedication with an appeal to those among the English clergy who have lately excelled by “convincing such as differ from them in Opinion, rather by strength of Argument, than any forcible Means.” It may well be that the more traditional aspects of Pufendorf’s doctrine of toleration made it attractive to the moderates in England who wished to secure toleration of religious dissent without questioning the established church.

Note on the Text and Annotations

The text has not been modified. Obvious printer’s errors have been silently corrected, but the text has had the benefit of any doubts. Most of the notes are the translator’s reproduction of Pufendorf’s references to the Bible; to these Crull has added his own references. In both cases, any mistakes made by either Crull or the typesetter have been silently corrected through comparison with Pufendorf’s original Latin text and with the Bible. In some cases, Crull has entirely omitted Pufendorf’s references; these have been added and are marked “Puf.” The remaining notes are by the editor and have been marked “SZu.”

[1.]For the distinction between a “traditional” and a “modern” doctrine of toleration, see Mario Turchetti, “Religious Concord and Political Tolerance in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France,” Sixteenth Century Journal 21 (1991): 15–25. The distinction was taken up in the editorial introduction to Difference and Dissent: Theories of Tolerance in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Cary J. Nederman and John C. Laursen (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), 5–12.

[2.]For Locke’s place in the history of toleration, see Difference and Dissent and Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment, ed. John C. Laursen and Cary J. Nederman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 1–10.

[3.]On the toleration debate in the French journals published in The Netherlands, see Jan Schillings, Het tolerantiedebat in de franstalige geleerdentijdschriften uitgegeven in de Republiek der Verenigde Provinciën in de periode 1684–1753, with a summary in English (Amsterdam: APA-Holland Universiteits Pers, 1997).

[4.]Law of Nature, book 7, chap. 8, secs. 1–4.

[5.]Law of Nature, book 7, chap. 8, secs. 5–6.

[6.]Divine Feudal Law, secs. 3–4. Cf. the introduction to my edition of this work (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2002).

[7.]See Joachim Whaley, “A Tolerant Society? Religious Toleration in the Holy Roman Empire, 1648–1806,” in Toleration in Enlightenment Europe, ed. Ole Peter Grell and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175–95.

[8.]The Present State of Germany, chap. 8, secs. 4–5.

[9.]De habitu had a second, anonymous translation: Of the Relation between Church and State: Or, How far Christian and Civil Life affect each other. … (London, 1719). The work includes a preface that gives some account of this book.

[10.]Crull’s date of birth is unknown. He died probably in 1713.

[11.]William Craven (1606–97) is known for his long association with the “winter queen” of Bohemia, the English princess Elizabeth, who was the consort of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine. A Royalist during the English civil wars, Craven provided considerable financial support for both Charles I and Charles II. Later he was a member of James II’s privy council and served as lieutenant general of the forces. After the Glorious Revolution, Craven concentrated on private activities. Among other things he is held to have been a patron of letters, because numerous works were dedicated to him.

[12.]Thomas Hobbes’s (1588–1679) main work is Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil of 1651, in which he defends the absolute power of the sovereign.

[13.]Law of Nature, book 7, chaps. 2, 5. Duty of Man, book 2, chaps. 6, 8.

[14.]Adria[a]n Houtuyn (1645–1733) served as a lawyer at the Court of Holland at The Hague. Besides the Politica contracta, he also published works on the Monarchy of the Hebrews (Monarchia Hebraeorum, 1685) and on the Batavian Republic (Reipublicae Batavae liber primus, 1689). The only available study of his Politica contracta generalis (The Hague, 1681) is in H. E. Kossmann, Politieke Theorie in Het Zeventiende-Eeuwse Nederland (Amsterdam: N. V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1960).

[15.]Kossmann, Politieke Theorie, 64.

[16.]We can only speculate whether Crull dedicated the present work to Royalists such as Craven for mere financial reasons or whether he hoped to win them over to the cause of moderation.

[1.]See note 11 to the editor’s introduction. [SZu]

[2.]The translator refers here to Pufendorf’s The Whole Duty of Man. See section II of the editor’s introduction. [SZu]

[3.]See note 12 to the editor’s introduction. [SZu]

[4.]I.e., in The Law of Nature and in The Whole Duty of Man. Pufendorf’s relation to Hobbes is discussed in Fiammetta Palladini, Samuel Pufendorf discepolo di Hobbes: Per una reinterpretazione del giusnaturalismo moderno (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1990); and in Richard Tuck, The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), chap. 5. [SZu]

[5.]John Toland (1670–1722) was an Irish-born British freethinker. His Christianity Not Mysterious, published in 1696, caused a public uproar. A great many books and pamphlets were directed against the work. The Irish parliament condemned the book and ordered Toland’s arrest. [SZu]