Schwartz, Stuart B. All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-300-15854-0.

The early modern Atlantic world, in Iberia as well as in Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World, was home to an enormous religious diversity. A simple catalog of the religions that Stuart Schwartz mentions in his book All Can Be Saved gives some idea of how diverse the Atlantic world was: Catholic Christianity, in both its pre- and post-Tridentine formulations; Judaism; Islam; Protestant Christianity, especially Dutch Reformed, French Huguenot, and German Lutheran Protestants; African animist religions; Native American animist religions; European traditions of magic and the occult; and skepticism and unbelief. Of course religious belief as actually held seldom fell into such systematic categories, and Schwartz discusses many kinds of forced and voluntary religious intermingling, among which were Jews and Muslims who converted to Christianity, Old Christians who layered Catholicism on top of folk religions or skepticism, Native Americans and Africans who mixed Christianity with their traditional religions, and Christians who were influenced by Native American and African religions or converted to Islam or Judaism. The question that motivates Schwartz’s study is this: Out of that religious milieu, how did many Iberian Christians come to hold the proposition that “each person can be saved in his or her own religion” (epigraph)? Put another way, how did toleration develop out of religious conflict?

Scholars studying the history of toleration or the confessionalization of Europe have given several answers to that question. Some have traced the rise of toleration to the Atlantic and particularly Iberian religious milieu itself. The argument is that Catholics, Jews, and Muslims had for some time learned to peacefully coexist, and that the Spanish Reconquista and the Catholic Inquisition, with the forced conversion of Jews and Muslims to Catholicism, was an aberration, albeit a long one. Others have argued that the Inquisition encouraged skepticism and disbelief, by forcing Conversos and Moriscos and even Old Christians to lie about their true religious beliefs, making religion a more interior and less public matter. Still others have argued that toleration came about through the philosophies of Enlightenment elites and through the pragmatic attempts of monarchs to rule over diverse populations. Though not rejecting these arguments out of hand, Schwartz regards them as insufficient, for they do not adequately connect skepticism to relativism or toleration, nor do they fit all the facts.

Schwartz offers a refined interpretation based on his reading of Inquisition documents from Spain, Portugal, and the New World. In those documents he has found a great many common people who expressed ideas contrary to Catholic dogma. Two categories of dissenting ideas are particular important to the analysis: ideas about religious relativism, and ideas about sex. Many people, including Old Christians and foreigners and not just New Christians, expressed a belief that people could be saved outside of the Catholic Church, expressly contradicting the dogma of Cyprian and Augustine that extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation). This idea was commonly couched in Schwartz’s epigraph quoted above and also in the phrase “better a good Moor than a bad Christian” (191) and in the concept of three equally valid laws, “that of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that of Mohammed, and that of Señor Moses” (51). People who held such ideas were frequently denounced, yet they continued to articulate them before Inquisitorial questioning and even torture. Those ideas were frequently coupled with ideas about sex. Contrary to church teaching, many in Iberia refused to regard sex outside of marriage as a sin, so long as it was not adulterous. In the New World, that concept was extended to a popular sanction of sex with Indians or Africans, so long as they were not baptized. Schwartz examines the two sets of ideas in tandem because ideas about sex, unlike ideas about religion, have measurable demographic effects.

Whence came these unorthodox ideas? Schwartz argues that ideas of tolerance came from common people themselves. They crafted them from their own experience with other faiths and from their own sense of justice, as can be seen in arguments that Jews and Muslims had done them no personal harm and that the Inquisition was wrong to seize their property. They also formed these ideas from their own understanding of Christianity, by giving more weight to God’s benevolence and the duty to love one’s neighbor than to claims of universality. Despite the post-Tridentine insistence that they must not, people interpreted Catholic teaching and the Bible for themselves, and Iberian Christians frequently criticized a newly invasive, papal form of the church. Schwartz’s point is that toleration—or official state permission for different faiths—sprang not simply from philosophy or statecraft, but from the ideas of common people who were literate, who traveled, who interacted with other faiths, and who above all judged right and wrong for themselves. To quote his conclusion, toleration came “also from common people, who, drawing on their own experiences, their own understanding of the tenets of their faith, and their own sense of justice, created a soil of tolerance” (255).

This book is persuasive in its argument, not least because it is sophisticated in its ideas of theology, vernacular ideas, interiority, and layered religious identity. Still, I wish to offer two critiques, or rather extensions, of Schwartz’s argument, one concerning theology and another concerning lived religion.

First, theology. The argument of this book takes place in the context of an Atlantic world in which the three monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths all shared a central concern with salvation. This Schwartz takes for granted. What happens if that assumption is questioned? For those three faiths account for just part of the religious world that Schwartz is describing, but Native American and African religions, European folk magic, and Enlightenment skepticism do not share the search for salvation. Tolerance based on relativism and the shared significance of soteriology is one thing, while toleration based on skepticism or the idea that religion is not about salvation is quite another. Schwartz’s analysis would have been more cogent had he distinguished more carefully between these two distinct theological ideas.

Second, lived religion. Schwartz spends much of the book exploring the conditions that made tolerance possible in the context of an expanding Catholic church. But Schwartz seems to have missed a crucial element: as paradoxical as it might seem, Catholicism itself was a necessary precondition for tolerance. I do not mean Christian ideas of loving one’s neighbor or the universal love of God, which Schwartz is careful to exposit. Rather, I mean that Catholic practice as experienced by laypeople seems to have encouraged toleration. There are two hints to this in Schwartz’s book. The first is the concept of the “three laws.” Schwartz explores tolerance in the concept of the plurality of religions, but not in their shared practice of law. While the concept of law is not the same in Judaism, Islam, and Catholic Christianity, each religion regards law as essential to the pursuit of salvation. The second hint is the language laypeople used to express their idea about how one receives salvation. To quote Oliveira e Sousa, “Our Lord God was very merciful that he had to save those who lived good lives . . .”; and to quote Inocencio de Aldama, “Any person can save themselves in the law that they may profess so long as they keep it, be they Moor, infidel, or heretic” (89–90, emphasis mine). The emphasis is on earning salvation through obedience to law, which in each religion is a set of practices. It is very difficult to see a similar idea of tolerance developing among, say, Genevan Reformed Protestants, for whom grace as opposed to law and God’s election as opposed to free will were the determinants of people’s salvation. But this is not so much a question of theology as lived religion. The “rustic Pelagians” of Iberia and the New World were intent on earning their salvation through Catholic reforms instituted at Trent, most notably annual participation in the Eucharist, annual auricular confession, and the use of devotional techniques such as the rosary or Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Might Catholics have noticed similarities between their own practices and the rituals of Jews and Muslims, and concluded not only that they were all seeking salvation, but that they were all seeking salvation in the same way?

Schwartz is to be applauded for his exposition of vernacular ideas, and his work might be strengthened by future investigations into the relationship between vernacular ideas, theology, religious practice, and lived religion.


It is always encouraging to see well done reviews done with care, clarity, and an appreciation and understanding of the topic. Your points are well-taken and I appreciate the thought you have put into the critique. My response is that I feel on the first critique you are a bit too hard, after all there is considerable discussion of Africans and syncretism in the chapter on Brazil and some mention of them elsewhere. Also, converso ideas of “salvation” seem to have their origin more in Christian theology rather in that of Judaism.

On the second, there may be something there in that the emphasis on good works presents a catholic position to some extent, but the problem is, as I implied in the last chapter,that such ideas of tolerance could also be found elsewhere in Europe in Protestant communities–a position, by the way that B. Kaplan’s Divided by Faith also argues.

In any case, thanks for the thoughtful review.

Stuart Schwartz — 1 December 2010