Toland, John

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Toland, John (1670-1722): English Religious Thinker.

John Toland is generally seen as the writer who fired the first literary salvos in the deist war against Christianity. He was from Ireland but early on abandoned his family’s Roman Catholicism for more eclectic religious beliefs. He had an excellent education, studying at Edinburgh University as well as in the Netherlands and Germany. He joined the groups of freethinkers who frequented London coffeehouses and spent much of his life quarreling with High Church divines, composing pamphlets for Whig politicians, and seeking patrons throughout Europe. Often condemned by ecclesiastical authorities and sometimes blatantly flexible in his principles, Toland never achieved the financial success or literary respectability he desired.

Christianity not Mysterious (1696), published a year after John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, had the most impact of all of Toland’s works. Locke argued that Christianity is simple, requiring only belief in Jesus as the messiah, and rational; even revelation might be above reason but not contrary to it. Toland went further, insisting that whatever is beyond reason is not Christian. His formulation rendered revelation unnecessary. Existing Christianity, Toland held, had been corrupted by power-hungry priests who introduced obscurities into it. True Christianity is a natural religion containing nothing miraculous, contradictory, illogical, or above reason. Even Locke, whom Toland considered a friend, repudiated these radical assertions.

Two of Toland’s other publications merit notice. In Letters to Serena (1704), dedicated to Queen Sophie-Charlotte of Prussia, he found the origins of ancient deities in mortal heroes and traced the continuation of pagan superstitions in Christianity. He also argued in behalf of philosophic materialism: motion is an inherent characteristic of matter. Nature is then essentially independent of any outside, directing force. This supposition led him in Pantheisticon (1720) to identify God with the universe as its soul.

Toland’s talents lay not in particularly original thought or stylistic felicity but in his ability to pull together arguments from various sources to suggest radical conclusions. His approach, which involved hinting at more than he actually stated, was adopted and adapted by the later deists.

Further Reading:

Robert E. Sullivan, John Toland and the Deist Controversy, 1982.

Robert Luehrs