John Toland

John Toland

Toland, John, 1670-1722, British deist, b. Ireland. Brought up a Roman Catholic, Toland became a Protestant at 16. He studied at Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Leiden and after 1694 lived at Oxford for several years. In 1696 he published Christianity not Mysterious, in which he tried to reconcile the scriptural claims of Christianity with the epistemology of John Locke. He asserted that neither God nor his revelation is above the comprehension of human reason. The book was widely attacked, and it was burned in Ireland in 1697. Toland's next work (1698) was a biography of John Milton, which also caused a scandal; it contained a passage that was believed to cast doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament. His Anglia Libera (1701), in support of the Act of Settlement (see Settlement, Act of), brought him favor from the court of Hanover, where he was received by the Electress Sophia. To her daughter, Sophia Charlotte, he addressed his Letters to Serena (1704), in which he argues that motion is an intrinsic quality of matter, thus repudiating the Cartesian conception. In his Pantheisticon (1720) he develops the pantheistic ideas implicit in the Letters. He is believed to have been the first to use the term pantheism.

John Toland (November 30, 1670 - March 11, 1722) was an Irish philosopher.


Very little is known about his true origins other than the fact that he was born in Ardagh (Ballyliffin) on the Inishowen Peninsula, a predominantly Catholic and Irish speaking region of County Donegal, in north west Ulster. It is likely that he was originally christened "Seán Eoghain Ui Thuathalláin", thus giving rise to the sobriquet "Janus Junius Toland". After having converted to Protestantism around the age of 16, he obtained a scholarship to study theology at the University of Glasgow. He would also later attend university at Edinburgh and at Leiden in Holland. His first book Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) was burnt by the public hangman in Dublin. He escaped prosecution by fleeing to England, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Political thought

John Toland was the first person called a freethinker (by Bishop Berkeley) and went on to write over a hundred books in various domains but mostly dedicated to criticizing ecclesiastical institutions. A great deal of his intellectual activity was dedicated to writing political tracts in support of the Whig cause. Many scholars know him for his role as either the biographer or editor of notable republicans from the mid-17th century such as James Harrington, Algernon Sidney and John Milton. His works "Anglia Libera" and "State Anatomy" are prosaic expressions of an English republicanism which reconciles itself with constitutional monarchy.

After Christianity Not Mysterious, Toland's views grew – bit by bit – more radical. His opposition to hierarchy in the church also led to opposition to hierarchy in the state; bishops and kings, in other words, were as bad as each other, and monarchy had no God-given sanction as a form of government. In his 1704 Letters to Serena - in which he coins the expression 'pantheism' - he carefully analyses the manner in which truth is arrived at, and why people are prone, as the Marxists might express it, to forms of 'false consciousness.'

In politics his most radical proposition was that liberty was a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. Political institutions should be designed to guarantee freedom, not simply to establish order. For Toland, reason and tolerance were the twin pillars of the good society. This was Whiggism at its most intellectually refined, the very antithesis of the Tory belief in sacred authority in both church and state. Toland's belief in the need for perfect equality among free-born citizens was extended to the Jewish community, tolerated, but still outsiders in early eighteenth century England. In his 1714 Reasons for Naturalising the Jews he was the first to advocate full citizenship and equal rights for Jewish people.

Toland's world was not all detached intellectual speculation, though. There was also an incendiary element to his political pamphleteering, and he was not beyond whipping up some of the baser anti-Catholic sentiments of the day in his attacks on the Jacobites. He also produced some highly controversial polemics, including the Treatise of Three Imposters, in which Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all condemned as the three great political frauds.

His republican sympathies were also evidenced by his editing of the writings of some of the great radicals of the 1650s, including James Harrington, Algernon Sydney, Edmund Ludlow and John Milton. In his support for the Hanoverian monarchy he somewhat moderated his republican sentiments; though his ideal kingship was one that would work towards achieving civic virtue and social harmony, a 'just liberty' and the 'preservation and improvement of our reason.' But George I and the oligarchy behind Walpole were about as far from Toland's ideal as it is possible to get. In many ways he was thus a man born both too late and too early.

Contributions to natural philosophy

Toland influenced Baron d'Holbach's ideas about physical motion. In his Letters to Serena, Toland claimed that rest, or absence of motion, is not merely relative. Actually, for Toland, rest is a special case of motion. When there is a conflict of forces, the body that is apparently at rest is influenced by as much activity and passivity as it would be if it were moving.

Religious thought

Toland is generally classed with the deists, but at the time when he wrote Christianity not Mysterious he was careful to distinguish himself from both skeptical atheists and orthodox theologians. After having formulated a stricter version of Locke's epistemological rationalism, Toland then goes on to show that there are no facts or doctrines from the Bible which are not perfectly plain, intelligible and reasonable, being neither contrary to reason nor incomprehensible to it. All revelation is human revelation; that which is not rendered understandable is to be rejected as gibberish.

After his Christianity not Mysterious, Toland's "Letters to Serena" constitute his major contribution to philosophy. In the first three letters, he develops a historical account of the rise of superstition arguing that human reason cannot ever fully liberate itself from prejudices. In the last two letters, he founds a metaphysical materialism grounded in a critique of monist substantialism. Later on, we find Toland continuing his critique of church government in Nazarenus which was first more fully developed in his "Primitive Constitution of the Christian Church", a clandestine writing in circulation by 1705. The first book of "Nazarenus" calls attention to the right of the Ebionites to a place in the early church. The thrust of his argument was to push to the very limits the applicability of canonical scripture to establish institutionalized religion. Later works of special importance include Tetradymus wherein can be found Clidophorus, a historical study of the distinction between esoteric and exoteric philosophies.

His Pantheisticon, sive formula celebrandae sodalitatis socraticae (Pantheisticon, or the Form of Celebrating the Socratic Society), of which he printed a few copies for private circulation only, gave great offence as a sort of liturgic service made up of passages from heathen authors, in imitation of the Church of England liturgy. The title also was in those days alarming, and still more so the mystery which the author threw around the question how far such societies of pantheists actually existed. The term "pantheism" was coined by Toland to describe the philosophy of Spinoza. Toland was involved in at least one such society of pantheists: in 1717 he founded the Ancient Druid Order, an organization that continued uninterrupted until splitting into two groups in 1964. Both those groups, The Druid Order and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, still exist today.

Impact and legacy

Toland was a man not of his time; one who advocated principles of virtue in duty, principles that had little place in the England of Robert Walpole, governed by cynicism and self-interest. His intellectual reputation, moreover, was subsequently eclipsed by the likes of John Locke and David Hume, and still more by Montesquieu and the French radical thinkers. Edmund Burke in his "Reflections on the Revolution in France" wrote dismissively of Toland and his fellows: "Who, born within the last 40 years, has read one word of Collins, and Toland, and Tindal, and Chubb, and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers?"

Still, in Christianity not Mysterious, the book for which he is best known, Toland laid down a challenge not just to the authority of the established church, but to all inherited and unquestioned authority. It was thus as radical politically and philosophically, as it was theologically. This, and his political views, have given him an afterlife that could never have been dreamed of by Burke. It has even been argued that he was the "first Marxist" because of his views on the relationship between matter and motion.

Further reading

See Mosheim's Vindiciae antiquae christianorum disciplinae (1722), containing the most exhaustive account of Toland's life and writings; A Life of Toland (1722), by one of his most intimate friends; Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr John Toland, by Pierre Des Maizeaux, prefixed to The Miscellaneous Works of Mr John Toland (London, 1747); John Leland's View of the Principal Deistical Writers (last ed. 1837); G. V. Lechlers Aeschichte des englischen Deismus (1841); Isaac Disraeli's Calamities of Authors (new ed., 1881); article on "The English Freethinkers" in Theological Review, No. 5 (November, 1864); J. Hunt, in Contemporary Review, No. 6. Margaret Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1976).


  • J. I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750
  • M. C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans
  • This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.


This is a non-exhaustive list.

  • Christianity Not Mysterious: A Treatise Shewing, That there is nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor Above It: And that no Christian Doctrine can be properly called A Mystery (1696)
  • An Apology for Mr. Toland (1697)
  • Amyntor, or the defence of Milton's life (1698)
  • Amyntor, or a Defence of Miltons Life (1699)
  • Edited James Harrington's Oceana and other Works (1700)
  • The Art of Governing Partys (1701)
  • Limitations for the next Foreign Successor, or A New Saxon Race: Debated in a Conference betwixt Two Gentlemen; Sent in a Letter to a Member of Parliament (1701)
  • Propositions for Uniting the Two East India Companies (1701)
  • Hypatia or the History of a most beautiful, most virtuous, most learned and in every way accomplished lady, who was torn to pieces by the clergy of Alexandria to gratify the pride, emulation and cruelty of the archbishop commonly but undeservedly titled St Cyril (1720)
  • Anglia Libera, or the Limitation and Succession of the Crown of England (1701)
  • Reasons for Address His Majesty to Invite into England their Highnesses, the Electress Dowager and the Electoral Prince of Hanover (1702)
  • Vindicius Liberius (1702)
  • Letters to Serena (1704)
  • The Primitive Constitution of the Christian Church (c.1705; posthume, 1726)
  • The Account of the Courts of Prussia and Hanover (1705)
  • Socinianism Truly Stated (by "A Pantheist") (1705)
  • Translated A. Phillipick Schiner's Oration to Incite the English Against the French (1707)
  • Adeisidaemon - or the "Man Without Superstition" (1709)
  • Origines Judaicae (1709)
  • The Art of Restoring (1710)
  • The Jacobitism, Perjury, and Popery of High-Church Priests (1710)
  • An Appeal to Honest People against Wicked Priests (1713)
  • Dunkirk or Dover (1713)
  • The Art of Restoring (1714) (against Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer|Robert Harley)
  • Reasons for Naturalising the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland on the same foot with all Other Nations (1714)
  • State Anatomy of Great Britain (1717)
  • The Second Part of the State Anatomy (1717)
  • Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile and Mahometan Christianity (1718)
  • The Probability of the Speedy and Final Destruction of the Pope (1718)
  • Tetradymus (1720) translated into English in 1751
  • Pantheisticon (1720) translated into English in 1751
  • History of the Celtic Religion and Learning Containing an Account of the Druids (1726)
  • A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr John Toland, ed. P. Des Maizeaux, 2 vols. (1726)
  • His manuscripts can be found at the British Library, London W2, MSS. ADD. 4292

External links

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