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Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom

Author(s):Johnson, Noel D.
Koyama, Mark
Reviewer(s):Rubin, Jared

Published by EH.Net (October 2019)

Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama, Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xiv + 354 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-108-44116-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jared Rubin, Department of Economics, Chapman University.

Why does religious persecution happen when and where it does? Are there common threads linking the persecution of medieval European Jews, Russian Jews in the early twentieth century, Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, and the Rohingya people of Myanmar? Are the causes of such persecutions deeper than just anti-religious sentiment? Are they economic? Political?

These questions are difficult to grapple with, but they are also self-evidently important. Religious persecution has been with us since there has been organized religion. It is highly likely that, if your ancestors belonged to an Abrahamic faith, at least some of them were persecuted for their beliefs. Yet, with some important exceptions — the Holocaust being foremost among them — religious persecution has receded immensely in the developed world in the last two centuries. Even in places like the U.S. and Europe, where Muslims are often treated poorly, the treatment of religious minorities pales in comparison to what was possible in medieval Europe. How did we take the long road to religious freedom?

The fascinating, insightful, and highly learned Persecution and Toleration answers all of these questions, and much more. The argument put forth by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama, both of George Mason University, hinges on two institutional factors. First, persecution and toleration result from a state’s capacity to provide and administer law and order for its population. The idea is straightforward: when a state has weak capacity, it can do little to prevent persecution. The state also tends to treat people differently based on their status (Johnson and Koyama call these “identity rules”). This means that religious minorities may be particularly vulnerable. Indeed, the occasional persecution may even be good for a ruler. The reason relates to the second institutional factor: the importance of religious legitimacy. When rulers maintain their power in part by being legitimated via religion, scapegoating of religious minorities can be a powerful tool when faced with threats to stability.

One of the primary advancements made by Johnson and Koyama is the connection between legitimacy and state capacity. Their view is summed up nicely as follows (p. 32): “identity rules and a reliance on religious legitimacy complemented one another. Together, they formed part of a self-reinforcing equilibrium. States that were not strong enough to enforce more general rules, governed through identity rules and had a need to rely on religious legitimation.” In their conception, weak states (i.e., those with low capacity) sought to stay in power via some form of effective legitimacy. In medieval Europe, a natural place to turn was the Church — the one pan-European institution that held any sort of power. It was the combination of these two features that led to what Johnson and Koyama call a “conditional toleration” equilibrium. Religious minorities were tolerated, but this toleration was not absolute and could be revoked at any point. The rules that applied to these marginalized groups were not generalizable, but targeted specifically these groups. Because rules were not generalizable, the state could predate on any group it wanted when the situation called for it. This hardly meant that medieval European states constantly predated; having Jews in a town had numerous benefits, especially related to trade and finance. But, when in a bind, states could always turn to Jews (or, to a lesser extent, other marginalized groups) for funds. This was compounded by the importance of religious legitimacy. Predating marginalized groups can actually make for good politics in such a setting.

The tables turned as states grew more powerful in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformation plays a key role in Johnson and Koyama’s argument. If nothing else, it reduced the value of religious legitimation, chopping out one of the legs on which the conditional equilibrium stood. This led states such as England and the Dutch Republic to look elsewhere for power, and they (in part) did so by building state capacity. As Johnson and Koyama succinctly put it (p. 127-28): “it was precisely in those parts of Europe that were making these investments in state capacity that the increased religious heterogeneity prompted by the Reformation laid bare the weaknesses of the conditional toleration equilibrium.” This had a two-fold effect on the treatment of minorities. On the one hand, the rise of the state meant increased use of impersonal legal institutions which treated everyone (more or less) the same. The “identity rules” that had previously permitted rulers to treat minorities differently than others did not work in such a setting. The combination of generalized rules and lower religious legitimacy meant that there was much less to gain — and a lot more to lose — from persecuting minorities. In other words, Johnson and Koyama argue that it was the rise of the state and changing forms of legitimation that enabled a move away from the conditional toleration equilibrium to one where toleration was universal.

Johnson and Koyama support their theory with numerous examples from medieval and early modern European history. Many of these examples come from previously published works, and this shows in the rigor in which the examples are applied. They show how Jewish money-lending facilitated a “conditional toleration” equilibrium (Jews were useful to rulers, and thus tolerated in times of stability), while Jews were persecuted in periods of instability (caused, for instance, by weather shocks or the Black Death). They also discuss how the rise of the state contributed to the decline in witch trials and the emancipation of the Jews. Johnson and Koyama are both first-rate economic historians, and this is clearly reflected in their ability to combine deep-dive historical analyses with convincing empirical analyses.

Persecution and Toleration squarely fits into the institutional literature in economic history. It makes a major advance in the growing literature that brings together institutional and cultural analyses, revealing how they complement each other. Johnson and Koyama by no means present a purely “institutions rule” argument — cultural and political norms play a key role in their explanation. They use the interaction between norms and institutions to convincingly lay out when certain institutional equilibria are self-reinforcing or self-undermining. This is one of the finest and more serious applications of Avner Greif’s multi-layered conception of institutions I know of in the literature. Moreover, while the book is ostensibly about religious toleration (and, arguably, freedoms more generally), it also makes several key points about the rise of the modern West. Much of the literature on state capacity is concerned with the state’s ability to collect taxes (fiscal capacity) or provide law (legal capacity). These are reasonable things to consider, and this literature has rightfully taken an important place in the broader literature seeking the roots of the modern economy. But it also misses a key feature of why state capacity arises in the first place and changes over time. As laid out brilliantly by Johnson and Koyama, the state’s ability to derive legitimacy has implications for both how it treats religious minorities and why it may (or may not) invest in broadening its state capacity. In other words, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the origins or religious liberty as well as those interested in the rise of the European nation-state. This is no small feat for a 354-page book.
Jared Rubin is a professor of economics at Chapman University. His most recent book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.

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Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative