Tolerance and conviction

Daily Reading for January 23 • Phillips Brooks, Bishop of Massachusetts, 1893

In studying first, then, the nature of tolerance, that much-belauded and much-represented grace of our own time, we want to start with this assertion,—which is, indeed the key-assertion of all I have to say,—that it is composed of two elements, both of which are necessary to its true existence, and on the harmonious and proportionate blending of which the quality of the tolerance which is the result depends. These elements are, first, positive conviction; and second, sympathy with men whose convictions differ from our own.

Does it sound strange to claim that both these elements are necessary to make a true tolerance? Have we been in the habit of thinking that strong, positive conviction was almost incompatible with tolerance? Have we perhaps been almost afraid to yield to the temptation to let ourselves go into the tolerant disposition of our time, because it seemed to us as if there were no place there for that sure and strong belief which we knew was the first necessity of a strong human life? It would not be strange if we had all felt such a fear. It would be strange if any of us had entirely escaped it, so studiously, so constantly, so earnestly has the world been assured that positive faith and tolerance have no fellowship with one another. “The only foundation for tolerance,” Charles James Fox said, “is a degree of skepticism.”

Not many months ago a most respected clergyman of my own town, speaking at the dedication of a statue of John Harvard in the university which bears his name, declared of the Puritans by whom that college was created: “They were intolerant, as all men, the world over, in all time, have always been, and will always be, when they are in solemn earnest for truth or error.” I think that those are melancholy words. The historical fact is melancholy enough. That fact we must grant as mainly true, though not without fair and notable exceptions; but to foretell that man will never come to the condition in which he can be earnest and tolerant at once,—that is beyond all things melancholy; that spreads a darkness over all the future, and obliterates man’s brightest hope. That condemns mankind to an endless choice between earnest bigotry and tolerant indifference,—or, rather, to an endless swinging back and forth between the two in hopeless discontent, in everlasting despair of rest.

Against all such statements of despair we want to take the strongest ground. We want to assert most positively that so far from earnest personal conviction and generous tolerance being incompatible with one another, the two are necessary each to each. “It is the natural feeling of all of us,” said Frederick Maurice in one of those utterances of his which at first sound like paradoxes, and by and by seem to be axioms,—“it is the natural feeling of all of us that charity is founded upon the uncertainty of truth. I believe it is founded on the certainty of truth.”

From Tolerance: Two Lectures Addressed to the Students of Several of the Divinity Schools of the Protestant Episcopal Church by Phillips Brooks (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1887). Found at

Past Posts