Science & Tech

Graduate student Scott Sowerby finds surprising side to King James II

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English ruler, known to history as an autocrat, was ahead of his time on matters of religious tolerance

In 1688, in the “Bloodless” or “Glorious Revolution,” King James II of England, abandoned by many of his supporters and facing an invading army from the Netherlands led by his son-in-law William of Orange, fled to France and exile. But what if James fell, not because he was arrogant and obtuse, but because he held ideas and convictions that were centuries ahead of their time? What if James II were a religious pluralist, an advocate of tolerance and the primacy of the individual conscience, well before such a perspective became a popular, if not obligatory, doctrine for modern democracies? History graduate student Scott Sowerby has combed through archives throughout England and found evidence that he believes will change the way historians view James II. “It’s clear that James was supporting religious toleration,” said Sowerby. “But most historians have seen that as a mask he would have dropped once he achieved his ends. I’ve found more evidence than anyone else that his religious tolerance was real.” Sowerby’s most striking piece of evidence is a diary he found in a small, obscure record office in northern England in which the diarist recorded a speech made by James. In the speech, the king makes a striking comparison between racial and religious toleration. “Suppose there should be a law made that all black men should be imprisoned, it would be unreasonable. We have as little reason to quarrel with other men for being of different opinions than as for being of different complexions.” As far as he knows, Sowerby is the first scholar to read this diary.