Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Rehabilitation of John Toland -(1670–1722)

John Toland

"I take him to be a candid freethinker and a good scholar. But there is a violent sort of spirit reigns here, which already begins to show itself against him: and I believe I will increase daily; for I find the Clergy alarmed to a mighty degree against him."

John Locke

"None are found today in the whole mortal world, who are either as refined in their manners and more honourable, or in all the burdens and responsibilities of the good civic offices less in error than the sect of the Chinese called the literati. Their commission and mandate from the king is a civil administration which excludes religious cults. Although they believe in an eternal and incorruptible world, they do not believe in a Spirit which is distinguished from the structure of matter; and they completely reject as stories and political contrivances the doctrine of the future existence of souls."[1]

John Toland


Among other things, the historian E. P Thompson was famous for rescuing people from the condescension of history. It is a shame that Thompson did not write about John Toland because if ever a figure needed rescuing from history, it was Toland.

John Toland was many things to many people, and that is a significant problem. He was a prodigious pamphleteer, a polemicist who liked to play practical jokes. A cursory look at recent academic articles on Toland confirms difficulty in placing him in the correct political and historical context. Academics have found it profoundly difficult to find a clear picture of him. According to A R Sullivan, "Toland habitually covered his tracks, and the bulk of his papers have been destroyed".

Perhaps this is the reason why he has suffered so much over the last three centuries of historical obscurity. However, thankfully, this has started to change. The religious and philosophical outlook of John Toland, far from being a debate confined to the past, has a contemporary feel to it. According to Paul Harrison people are still looking for "some helpful guidance about our place in the universe. He continued that people are looking for a religion that does not suspend rational thought or assume an "invisible realm".

One of the foremost scientists of the 20th Century Albert Einstein was attracted to this idea. Recent scientists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have looked for a religion that would stress the beauty of the universe revealed by science.

This type of religion has been given many names such as religious atheism, religious humanism. However, according to Harrison "they all share two basic premises: acceptance of the natural world as revealed by the senses and science, and deeply religious response to that revelation".
Publishers are now showing more interest in the works of John Toland. Lilliput Press republished Christianity Not Mysterious in 1997 with accompanying essays on Toland and his work.  A Political Biography of John Toland by Michael Brown of Aberdeen University was recently published. Academics are now publishing substantial essays; one example among many is Ann Talbot's The Man without Superstition: John Toland and China.


John Toland came to England from Dublin in the summer of 1697. Toland was born in near Londonderry, Ireland on November 30 1670. He was christened in a Catholic Church but converted to Protestantism at the age of 15. Toland achieved a degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1690. He studied in England, Germany and Holland. From an early age, Toland's somewhat unorthodox views made it difficult for him the make a living. He made money writing political pamphlets and biographies for aristocrats. Toland wrote on a wide range of subjects from religious tolerance and civil liberty.

Even at the young age of 27, Toland had a very high level of political consciousness. It was during this time he produced his most famous work Christianity, Not Mysterious. Tom Wall points out in an article written for the Dublin Review of Books that  "the premise of the book was that the original message of Christianity was easily understood and accessible to human reason but had been usurped and turned into gibberish in divinity schools to serve the interest of an emergent priestly class. He argued that mysteries, so-called, could be explained by natural phenomena. The same case, expressed less stridently, had already been made by John Locke without too much of a stir. However, in Toland's case, the anti-clerical tone outraged the Anglican establishment because it was clear that their Clergy and bishops, and not just those of the papists, were targets. Archbishop Marsh of Dublin did everything he could to ensure that Toland suffered for his impertinence. Toland, referring to himself in the third person, humorously described the reception he encountered on his arrival in an appendix to subsequent editions of the book"[2].

"Mr Toland was scarcely arriv'd in that country when he found himself warmly attack'd from the Pulpit, which at the beginning could not but startle the People, who until then were equal Strangers to him and his book, yet they became, in a little time, so well accustomed to this Subject that it was as much expected of the course as if it had been prescribed in the Rubrick. This occasioned a Noble Lord to give it for a reason why he frequented not the church as formerly, that instead of his saviour Jesus Christ, one John Toland was all the discourse there."[3]

Toland was acutely aware that the publication of this book was a danger to his life. While many of the ruling elite who read the book did not understand it that did not stop them from deeming it blasphemous and ordered Toland to be arrested. His book was burnt with a grand ceremony with a hangman presiding. Toland was a "Visible, available and vulnerable" target for those who wanted to find heretics. It was perhaps not all his own making".

Toland got the message, while the book burning was deemed a piece of theatre and nothing else Toland would have known that a few months earlier, a twenty-year-old medical student, Thomas Aikenhead, had been executed for blasphemy in Edinburgh.

The Enlightenment

While it is not difficult to place Toland within the context of the Englightenment, it is a more complicated matter to figure out how important was his place in the history of the Englightenment. As Ann Talbot points out “The name of John Toland has become a relatively well known in early Enlightenment history following the pioneering work of Margaret Jacob. The extensive works of Jonathan Israel have placed him among the leading figures of the radical Enlightenment. He has returned to favour after a long period of  obscurity. Toland’s eclipse can be dated at least to Leslie Stephens’ dismissal of him as “a poor denizen of Grub Street.” It might even be said to have begun 6 with Edmund Burke’s remark, “Who born within the last forty years has read one word of Collins and Toland, and Tindal and Chubb and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves freethinkers?” Toland was a central figure in 7 the Deist controversy although he is often described as a Unitarian and a Pantheist. His philosophy has attracted considerable attention in the revival of 8 interest in his writings. Studies of his political writings have explored his role 9 in transmitting mid-seventeenth century English political ideas to the rest of Europe and the American colonies.”[4]

While it has been the current fad amongst Post Modernists writers to attack the importance of the Englightenment it was in the words of Tom Wall "a defining European historical process. It is perhaps not an overstatement to describe it as the dawn of intellectual emancipation.

If the early Enlightenment involved only small elites within Europe, in Ireland, it could only embrace a minority of a minority. But within that (Protestant) minority there were some who were more than usually receptive. Many veterans of Cromwell's army had settled here; the recipients of lands seized from Catholics. A disproportionate number of these were religiously independent. A high proportion of the Scottish Presbyterians who settled in Antrim and Down were non-subscribing (that is refusing to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith) and receptive to "New Light" liberal Presbyterianism. The oppressed Catholic majority had more compelling concerns, yet, surprisingly, it was from a Catholic, Gaelic-speaking community that one of the leading proponents of the radical Enlightenment emerged. The radical philosophers were distinguished by their direct challenges to orthodox religious beliefs and their opposition to the arbitrary power exercised by princes and prelates. John Toland gained much notoriety throughout Europe for the vehemence with which he advanced such beliefs".

Toland's work began to attract other philosophers who were beginning to cast doubt on previously held religious and philosophical views. As the Marxist writer David North writes "Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well underway.

The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment. Above all, there was a new sense of the power of thought and what it could achieve if allowed to operate without the artificial restraints of untested and unverifiable dogmas. Religion began to encounter the type of disrespect it deserved, and the gradual decline of its authority introduced a new optimism. All human misery, the Bible had taught for centuries, was the inescapable product of the Fall of Man. But the invigorating scepticism encouraged by science in the absolute validity of the Book of Genesis led thinking people to wonder whether it was not possible for a man to change the conditions of his existence and enjoy a better world.[5]

One figure who was looking for a better world was John Locke, who wrote of Toland "I take him to be a candid freethinker and a good scholar. But there is a violent sort of spirit reigns here, which already begins to show itself against him: and I believe will increase daily; for I find the Clergy alarmed to a mighty degree against him. He has raised against him the clamour of all parties; and this not so much for his difference in opinion, as by his unreasonable way of discoursing, propagating and maintaining it. Coffee houses, and public tables, are not proper places for serious discourse relating to the most important truths. But when also a tincture of vanity appears in the whole course of a man's conversation, it disgusts many that may otherwise have a due value for his parts and learning.[6]


Locke was defending a very controversial theory Pantheism coined by Toland in 1705 to describe his religious worldview. Toland who was in awe of the physical universe and believed that "minds were an aspect of the body".

While Toland never defined himself as a deist and was committed to the idea of "Pantheist esotericism" it is generally accepted amongst scholars that Toland was a Deist. According to R E Sullivan "scholars who have characterised him as a Deist have usually enveloped the label with a patchwork of qualifications and elaboration". Toland has not helped things much using the words atheism and deism as interchangeable.

While Toland defined his beliefs as pantheists anyone who defined themselves as materialists were labelled a deist or atheist. Two of the most critical materialists of the day Hobbes and Spinoza were called Deists regularly.

According to Sullivan, no one could  "agree on a single principle typical of deism, but that did not deter them from lumping individuals together as desists". That is not to say that there were no deists again according to Sullivan "they adopted this name in order to describe either their coolness toward revelation or their adherence to some kind of natural system of belief and practice. In many cases, they seem to have believed in religious principles, which resemble at least some of those that Herbert had offered in De Veritate. Sometime before 1730 Tindal had become a professing deist, but neither Toland nor Collins ever made such a profession."

According to the Frederick C Beiser, One of the important events in the history of the early English Enlightenment was the so-called 'deism controversy', which began in 1696 and did not die out until the 1740s. In the most dramatic fashion, this dispute raised anew the old question of the rule of faith. But it did so in a new form. The issue was no longer whether reason had some authority— for everyone in the 1690s was ready to grant that—but whether it had complete sovereignty. Now it was the other rules of faith—Scripture, enthusiasm, and apostolic tradition—that were in question. The controversy raised the general issue: Are there any mysteries or truths above reason in Christianity? Or are all its beliefs subject to the criticism of reason? By questioning the very possibility of revelation, the dispute cast doubt upon the old rules of faith, which claimed to be, in one form or another, sources of knowledge of revelation”[7].

[1] Quoted in Ann Talbot’s The Man without Superstition: John Toland and China.
[2] The Inishowen Oracle-Tom Wall-
[3]  An apology for Mr. Toland in a letter from himself to a member of the House of Commons in Ireland, written the day before his book was resolv'd to be burnt by the Committee of Religion : to which is prefix'd a narrative containing the occasion of the said letter.
[4] The Man without Superstition: John Toland and China-Ann Talbot-
[5] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism-By David North-24 October 1996-
[6] Works of John Locke, Volume 3
[7] The Sovereignty of Reason-Frederick C. Beiser-Published by Princeton University Press-Chapter 6-Toland and the Deism Controversy