John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration was written in Latin in 1685, while the author was in exile in Holland. Locke had fled to Holland following the exposure of the so-called “Rye House Plot.” Though historians now doubt the extent to which the Plot was real, many of Locke’s close associates were implicated for treason in connection to the Plot, prompting him to flee England for his personal safety. He would not return until after the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when William of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart replaced the deposed James II as the king and queen of England. A Letter Concerning Toleration was first published in 1689, in both English and Latin, following the ascent of William and Mary to the throne of England.
Locke’s Letter urged religious toleration during a crucial time. In 1685, the same year that Locke penned the Letter, Catholic King Louis XIV of France had revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted limited rights and protections to Huguenots (French Protestants). As a result of this revocation, thousands of French protestants fled the country, and those that remained were subjected to intense persecutions. In 1689, the year the Letter was published in England, the English Parliament ruled in favor of “The Act of Toleration,” a statutory toleration for Protestant dissenters. Locke’s ideas about toleration argued against government involvement in matters of religion, advocated for a separation of Church and state and rejected absolutism. Below are several excerpts from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration in which Locke rejects the government’s involvement in religion. Does Locke believe that there is any one true religion? If so, does this affect his position on religious toleration? How might Locke have felt about Catholicism? What connections can be drawn between Catholicism and Absolutism?
A Letter Concerning Toleration:
- Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. Edited by Mark Goldie. The Thomas Hollis Library. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/locke-a-letter-concerning-toleration-and-other-writings
“Act of Toleration” (1689):
Edict of Fontainebleau (revocation of Edict of Nantes):
- Perry, Elisabeth Israels. From Theology to History: French Religious Controversy and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. International Archives of the History of Ideas, 67. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1973.
Other Works by John Locke:
- Two Treatises of Government
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
- Some Thoughts Concerning Education
- Two Tracts on Government
- An Essay For the Understanding Of St. Paul’s Epistles By Consulting St. Paul Himself
John Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration and Other Writings, edited and with an Introduction by Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). [Online] available from http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2375; accessed 5/3/2018; Internet.
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John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration
Since you are pleased to inquire what are my Thoughts about the mutual Toleration of Christians in their different Professions of Religion, I must needs answer you freely, That I esteem that Toleration to be the chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church. For whatsoever some People boast of the Antiquity of Places and Names, or of the Pomp of their Outward Worship; Others, of the Reformation of their Discipline; All, of the Orthodoxy of their Faith; (for every one is Orthodox to himself): these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather Marks of Men striving for Power and Empire over one another, than of the Church of Christ. Let any one have never so true a Claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of Charity, Meekness, and Good-will in general towards all Mankind; even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself. The Kings of the Gentiles exercise Lordship over them, said our Saviour to his Disciples, but ye shall not be so, Luke 22:25. The Business of True Religion is quite another thing. It is not instituted in order to the erecting of an external Pomp, nor to the obtaining of Ecclesiastical Dominion, nor to the exercising of Compulsive Force; but to the regulating of Mens Lives according to the Rules of Vertue and Piety. Whosoever will list himself under the Banner of Christ, must in the first place, and above all things, make War upon his own Lusts and Vices. It is in vain for any Man to usurp the Name of Christian, without Holiness of Life, Purity of Manners, and Benignity and Meekness of Spirit.
It may be said; What if a Church be Idolatrous, is that also to be tolerated by the Magistrate? In answer, I ask; What Power can be given to the Magistrate for the suppression of an Idolatrous Church, which may not, in time and place, be made use of to the ruine of an Orthodox one? For it must be remembred that the Civil Power is the same every where, and the Religion of every Prince is Orthodox to himself. If therefore such a Power  be granted unto the Civil Magistrate in Spirituals, as that at Geneva (for Example) he may extirpate, by Violence and Blood, the Religion which is there reputed Idolatrous; by the same Rule another Magistrate, in some neighbouring Country, may oppress the Reformed Religion; and, in India, the Christian. The Civil Power can either change every thing in Religion, according to the Prince’s pleasure, or it can change nothing. If it be once permitted to introduce any thing into Religion, by the means of Laws and Penalties, there can be no bounds put to it; but it will in the same manner be lawful to alter every thing, according to that Rule of Truth which the Magistrate has framed unto himself. No man whatsoever ought therefore to be deprived of his Terrestrial Enjoyments, upon account of his Religion. Not even Americans, subjected unto a Christian Prince, are to be punished either in Body or Goods, for not imbracing our Faith and Worship. If they are perswaded that they please God in observing the Rites of their own Country, and that they shall obtain Happiness by that means, they are to be left unto God and themselves. Let us trace this matter to the bottom.
Thus it is. An inconsiderable and weak number of Christians, destitute of every thing, arrive in a Pagan Countrey. These Foreigners beseech the Inhabitants, by the bowels of Humanity, that they would succour them  with the necessaries of Life. Those necessaries are given them; Habitations are granted; and they all joyn together, and grow up into one Body of People. The Christian Religion by this means takes root in that Countrey, and spreads it self; but does not suddenly grow the strongest. While things are in this condition, Peace, Friendship, Faith, and equal Justice, are preserved amongst them. At length the Magistrate becomes a Christian, and by that means their Party becomes the most powerful. Then immediately all Compacts are to be broken, all Civil Rights to be violated, that Idolatry may be extirpated; And unless these innocent Pagans, strict Observers of the Rules of Equity and of the Law of Nature, & no ways offending against the Laws of the Society, I say unless they will forsake their ancient Religion, and embrace a new and strange one, they are to be turned out of the Lands and Possessions of their Forefathers, and perhaps deprived of Life it self. Then at last it appears what Zeal for the Church, joyned with the desire of Dominion, is capable to produce; and how easily the pretence of Religion, and of the care of Souls, serves for a Cloak to Covetousness, Rapine, and Ambition.
Now whosoever maintains that Idolatry is to be rooted out of any place by Laws, Punishments, Fire, and Sword, may apply this Story to himself. For the reason of the thing is equal, both in America and Europe. And neither Pagans there, nor any Dissenting Christians here, can with any right be deprived of their worldly Goods, by the predominating Faction of a Court-Church: nor are any Civil Rights to be either changed or violated upon account of Religion in one place more than another.
But Idolatry (say some) is a Sin, and therefore not to be tolerated. If they said, it were therefore to be avoided, the Inference were good. But it does not follow, that because it is a Sin, it ought therefore to be punished by the Magistrate. For it does not belong unto the Magistrate to make use of his Sword in Punishing every thing, indifferently, that he takes to be a Sin against God. Covetousness, Uncharitableness, Idleness, and many other things are sins, by the consent of all men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the Magistrate. The reason is, because they are not prejudicial to other mens Rights, nor do they break the publick Peace of Societies. Nay, even the Sins of Lying, and Perjury, are no where punishable by Laws; unless in certain cases in which the real Turpitude of the thing, and the Offence against God, are not considered, but only the Injury done unto mens Neighbours, and to the Commonwealth. And what if in another Country, to a Mahumetan, or a Pagan Prince, the Christian Religion seem false and offensive to God; may not the Christians, for the same reason, and after the same manner, be extirpated there?
Secondly, Foreigners, and such as were Strangers to the Commonwealth of Israel, were not compell’d by force to observe the Rites of the Mosaical Law. But, on the contrary, in the very same place, where it is ordered, that an Israelite, that was an Idolater, should be put to death, there it is provided, that Strangers should not be vexed nor oppressed, Exodus 22:20–21.  I confess, that the Seven Nations, that possest the Land which was promised to the Israelites, were utterly to be cut off. But this was not singly because they were Idolaters. For, if that had been the Reason; Why were the Moabites,and other Nations to be spared? No, the Reason is this. God being in a peculiar manner the King of the Jews, he could not suffer the Adoration of any other Deity, (which was properly an Act of High Treason against himself) in the Land of Canaan, which was his Kingdom. For such a manifest Revolt could no ways consist with his Dominion, which was perfectly Political, in that Country. All Idolatry was therefore to be rooted out of the Bounds of his Kingdom; because it was an acknowledgment of another God; that is to say, another King; against the Laws of Empire. The Inhabitants were also to be driven out, that the entire possession of the Land might be given to the Israelites. And for the like Reason, the Emims, and the Horims were driven out of their Countries, by the Children of Esau and Lot; and their Lands, upon the same grounds, given by God to the Invaders, Deuteronomy 2. But though all Idolatry was thus rooted out of the Land of Canaan, yet every Idolater was not brought to Execution. The whole Family of Rahab, the whole Nation of the Gibeonites, articled with Joshuah, and were allowed by Treaty: and there were many Captives amongst the Jews, who were Idolaters. David and Solomonsubdued many Countries without the Confines of the Land of Promise, and carried their Conquests as far as Euphrates. Amongst so many Captives taken, so many Nations reduced under their Obedience, we find not one man forced into the Jewish Religion, and the Worship of the True God; and punished for Idolatry; though all of them were certainly guilty of it. If any one indeed, becoming a Proselyte, desired to be made a Denison of their Commonwealth, he was obliged to submit unto their Laws; that is, to embrace their Religion. But this he did willingly, on his own accord, not by constraint. He did not unwillingly submit, to shew his Obedience; But he sought and sollicited for it, as a Privilege; And as soon as he was admitted, he became subject to the Laws of the  Commonwealth; by which all Idolatry was forbidden within the Borders of the Land of Canaan. But that Law (as I have said) did not reach to any of those Regions, however subjected unto the Jews, that were situated without those Bounds.
nother more secret Evil, but more dangerous to the Commonwealth, is, when men arrogate to themselves, and to those of their own Sect, some peculiar Prerogative, covered over with a specious shew of deceitful words, but in effect opposite to the Civil Right of the Community. For Example: We cannot find any Sect that teaches expresly, and openly, that Men are not obliged to keep their Promise; that Princes may be dethroned by those that differ from them in Religion; or that the Dominion of all things belongs only to themselves. For these things, proposed thus nakedly and plainly, would soon draw on them the Eye and Hand of the Magistrate, and awaken all the care of the Commonwealth to a watchfulness against the spreading of so dangerous an Evil. But nevertheless, we find those that say the same things, in other words. What else do they mean, who teach that Faith is not to be kept with Hereticks? Their meaning, forsooth, is that the priviledge of breaking Faith belongs unto themselves: For they declare all that are not of their Communion to be Hereticks, or at least may declare them so whensoever they think fit. What can be the meaning of their asserting that Kings excommunicated forfeit their Crowns and Kingdoms?It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the Power of deposing Kings: because they challenge the Power of Excommunication, as the peculiar Right of their Hierarchy. That Dominion is founded in Grace, is also an Assertion by which those that maintain it do plainly lay claim to the possession of all things. For they are not so wanting to themselves as not to believe, or at least as not to profess, themselves to be the truly pious and faithful. These therefore, and the like, who attribute unto the Faithful, Religious and Orthodox; that is, in plain terms, unto themselves; any peculiar Priviledge or Power above other Mortals, in Civil Concernments; or who, upon pretence of Religion, do challenge any manner of Authority over such as are not associated with them in their Ecclesiastical Communion; I say these have no right to be tolerated by the Magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the Duty of tolerating All men in matters of meer Religion. For what do all these and the like Doctrines signifie, but that those Men may, and are ready upon any occasion to seise the Government, and possess themselves of the Estates and Fortunes of their Fellow-Subjects; and that they only ask leave to be tolerated by the Magistrate so long, until they find themselves strong enough to effect it?
Again; That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the Magistrate, which is constituted upon such a bottom, that all those who enter into it, do thereby, ipso facto, deliver themselves up to the Protection and Service of another Prince. For by this means the Magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign Jurisdiction in his own Country, and suffer his own People to be listed, as it were, for Soldiers against his own Government. Nor does the frivolous and fallacious distinction between the Court and the Church afford any remedy to this Inconvenience; especially when both the one and the other are equally subject to the absolute Authority of the same Person; who has not only power to perswade the Members of his Church to whatsoever he lists, (either as purely Religious, or as in order thereunto) but can also enjoyn it them on pain of Eternal Fire. It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahumetan only in his Religion, but in every thing else a faithful Subject to a Christian Magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople; who himself is intirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor, and frames the feigned Oracles of that Religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahumetan liv -ing amongst Christians, would yet more apparently renounce their Government, if he acknowledged the same Person to be Head of his Church who is the Supreme Magistrate in the State.
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