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Exchange of Letters between Empress Maria Theresa and her Son Joseph II, Austrian Co-Regent, on the Subject of Religious Toleration (1777)

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Maria Theresa to Joseph
late July, 1777

Without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifference are precisely the true means of undermining everything, taking away every foundation; we others will then be the greatest losers. It is not the Edict of Nantes that has ruined those provinces; there was never any such edict in Bordeaux, and the place is none the richer for it. What has ruined that land, with all its natural advantages, has been the ill-advised farmings out (i.e. of Crown resources), the bad administration, the weak or revengeful Ministers, the lack of religion among the officials, who are concerned only with their own interests or passions; this has ruined everything. What restraints are left for that sort of person? None, neither, the gallows nor the wheel, except religion, or cruelty against them. He is no friend of humanity, as the popular phrase is, who allows everyone his own thoughts. I am speaking only in the political sense, not as a Christian; nothing is so necessary and salutary as religion. Will you allow everyone to fashion his own religion as he pleases? No fixed cult, no subordination to the Church—what will then become of us? The result will not be quiet and contentment; its outcome will be the rule of the stronger and more unhappy times like those which we have already seen. A manifesto by you to this effect can produce the utmost distress and make you responsible for many thousands of souls. And what are my own sufferings, when I see you entangled in opinions so erroneous? What is at stake is not only the welfare of the State, but your salvation, that of a son who since his birth has been the one purpose of all my actions, the salvation of your soul. Turning your eyes and ears everywhere, mingling your spirit of contradiction with the simultaneous desire to create something, you are ruining yourself and dragging the Monarchy down with you into the abyss, destroying the fruits of all the laborious care of your forefathers, who at the cost of the greatest pains bequeathed these lands to us and even greatly improved their condition, because they introduced our holy religion into them, not, like our enemies, with violence and cruelty, but with care, pains, and expense. No spirit of persecution, but still less any spirit of indifference or tolerantism [sic]; in this I hope to maintain myself so long as I live, and I only wish to live so long as I can hope to descend to my ancestors with the consolation that my son will be as great, as religious as his forebears, that he will return from his erroneous views, from those wicked books whose authors parade their cleverness at the expense of all that is most holy and most worthy of respect in the world, who want to introduce an imaginary freedom which can never exist and which degenerates into license and into complete revolution.

Source of English translation: C.A. Macartney, ed., The Habsburg and Hohenzollern Dynasties in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, in Documentary History of Western Civilization. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper & Row, 1970, pp. 149-53. Introduction, editorial notes, chronology, translations by the editor; and compilation copyright © 1970 by C.A. Macartney. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source of original French letters: Alfred von Arneth, Maria Theresia und Joseph II. Ihre Correspondenz [Maria Theresa and Joseph II. Their Correspondence], vol. II, Vienna, 1867-68, pp. 140ff. [The correspondence is reproduced here in French.]

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