John Toland

AWI❤: Barbara Palvin
John Toland

John Toland was an English deist, philosopher, diplomat, political controversialist, secular and biblical scholar, and linguist. Christened “Janus Junius” in the Roman Catholic Church, Toland later took the name of John.

He was born near Londonderry, Ireland, possibly of partial French extraction. At the age of sixteen he ran away from school to become a Protestant Whig. In 1687 he turned up at Glasgow University and in 1690 was awarded an MA at Edinburgh University.

For two years he studied at the University of Leiden under Friedrich Spanheim the younger, and in 1694 he settled at Oxford for some time to carry on research in the Bodleian Library. “The Character you bear in Oxford,” he was informed by a correspondent, “is this; that you are a man of fine parts, great learning, and little religion.”

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Gospel Contrary

The stream of books and pamphlets, mostly anonymous or pseudonymous, that followed has been estimated by various authorities to range from thirty to one hundred. His most famous work, Christianity not Mysterious: Or, A Treatise Shewing That there is nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor above it: And that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d A Mystery, appeared in 1696, when he was but twenty-five years old, elicited some fifty refutations and prosecution in both England and Ireland.

In Ireland it was condemned by Parliament and ordered to be burned by the common hangman; an order was issued for the author’s arrest. In England it was presented as a nuisance by the grand jury of Middlesex and roundly denounced in Parliament and in pulpit. In 1697, Toland replied to the Irish condemnation with the Apology for Mr. Toland and in 1702 to the English with Vindicius Liberius: Or, Mr. Toland’s Defence of himself.


Toland’s political publications are numerous. He was always the defender of toleration and the opponent of superstition and enthusiasm, a consistent Whig and a Commonwealth man.


Outspoken and not very politic, he dedicated several of his tracts to the Whig deist Anthony Collins, who held similar convictions. Among Toland’s more important political publications are the Life of John Milton (1698) and Amyntor: Or, a Defence of Milton’s Life (1699), both of which have religious as well as political overtones.

In 1701 the Art of Governing by Parties and Anglia Libera: Or, the Limitation and Succession of the Crown of England explain’d and asserted were published; the latter, supporting the Act of Settlement, was well received by Sophia, electress of Hanover.

As a result Toland became secretary to the embassy to Hanover under Lord Macclesfield and presented a copy of the act and the book to Sophia. She was not, however, entirely pleased with his Reasons for addressing his Majesty to invite into England their Highnesses, the Electress Dowager and the Electoral Prince of Hanover (1702).

Aoi Mizutani
Sophia Charlotte

Nevertheless, the electress was instrumental in introducing Toland to the court of Berlin and to her daughter Sophia Charlotte, wife of Frederick, the first king of Prussia. For the queen he composed Letters to Serena (1704) and An Account of the Courts of Prussia and Hanover (1705).

At the invitation of the electress, Toland met Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and held numerous discussions with him in the presence of the queen. The two philosophers, though disagreeing on certain fundamentals, respected each other, kept up a correspondence for years, and to some extent were mutually influenced.


Toland’s chaotic career worsened throughout his life. He had early been under the political patronage of the third earl of Shaftesbury and later under that of Robert Harley, Lord Oxford. For the earl of Shaftesbury he had written political tracts, but Toland lost his friendship by publishing one of the earl’s works, An Inquiry concerning Virtue, without authorization.

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For Harley he wrote political tracts and brought out an edition of James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana with a biography but lost his friendship in 1714 with the Art of Restoring and The Grand Mystery Laid Open, wherein he implied distrust of his patron’s loyalty to the Hanoverian succession.

Of necessity, he became a Grub Streeter and lost everything in the South Sea Bubble of 1720. As a result he either wrote or revised someone else’s text of The Secret History of the South-Sea Scheme.

The following year his health went into a rapid decline, abetted by the inept treatment of a physician, which inspired the indomitable Toland, ill as he was, to write a tract titled Physic without Physicians (“They learn their Art at the hazard of our lives, and make experiments by our deaths”). In 1722 he died in extreme poverty.

Christianity Not Mysterious

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Christianity Not Mysterious

Like David Hume in “Of Miracles” (1748), Toland found an appropriate quotation for his title page from Archbishop Tillotson: “We need not desire a better Evidence that any Man is in the wrong, than to hear him declare against Reason, and thereby acknowledge that Reason is against him.” The first edition appeared anonymously, but the second edition of the same year (1696) bore Toland’s name.

Always professing some form of theism here and in subsequent writings, Toland, in his work, has affinities with the rationalistic religious common notions of Lord Herbert of Cherbury and with the empiricism and commonsense approach of John Locke in An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). He remained, however, fundamentally a rationalist in the line of Giordano Bruno, René Descartes, Benedict de Spinoza, and Leibniz.

Drawing freely upon Lord Herbert, the Cambridge Platonists, and Locke, though without naming names, Toland set out to prove that no Christian doctrine is mysterious—that is, above reason: “Could that Person justly value himself upon his being wiser than his Neighbors, who having infallible Assurance that something call’d a Blictri had a Being in Nature, in the mean time knew not what this Blictri was?” Faith and revelation involve both knowledge and assent, but revelation must rely upon the evidence of faith.

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hallmark of Puritanism

In the Gospels, Toland correctly points out, “mystery” does not designate what cannot be known by man but, rather, what is revealed only to the chosen few. Faith, the hallmark of Puritanism, is consequently of no avail without the confirmation of reason.

Like many of the deists Toland argued that priestcraft introduced mysteries and then fostered them by ceremonies and discipline. Unlike Bishop Warburton, that eighteenth-century colossus of controversy who is alleged to have said, “Orthodoxy is my doxy; heterodoxy, another man’s doxy,” Toland ends Christianity not Mysterious with “I acknowledge no Orthodoxy but the Truth.”

It was widely believed that Toland was a disciple of Locke, and he had been described to Locke by William Molyneux in 1697 as “a candid Free-Thinker, and a good Scholar.” However, when Christianity not Mysterious aroused such a stir, Locke, who seems hardly to have realized the logical consequences of his own Arminianism (witness his prolonged controversy with Bishop Stillingfleet), repudiated any approval of his so-called disciple.

Biblical Criticism

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Biblical Criticism

Oddly enough, Toland’s biblical criticism first appears in the seemingly innocuous Life of John Milton, wherein, suggesting that the Eikon Basilike was not written by Charles I but was a priestly forgery, he proceeds to remark that many supposititious pieces under the name of Christ and his apostles had been accepted in the period of primitive Christianity.

Divines rushed in where scholars feared to tread, charging Toland with attacking the authenticity of the Gospels. Toland speedily responded with Amyntor, which contains a catalog of apocryphal pieces twenty-two pages in length and is one of the earliest examinations of scriptural canon by an Englishman.

Though in no sense definitive, Toland’s catalog forced the issues of the canon and of early church history upon the scholars. Christ did not, he declares, institute one religion for the learned and another for the vulgar.

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simplicity of reason

Toland’s exploration of early Jewish religion and of the Druids’ religion—he was an adept in the Celtic language—led him to the conviction that the simplicity of reason has been corrupted by the machinations of priestcraft.

Letters to Serena explores somewhat unsystematically the beginnings of religion, examining the origin and force of prejudices, the history of the immortality of the soul among the heathens, the origin of idolatry, and motivations of heathenism. These and other explorations embryonically anticipate Hume in the Natural History of Religion (1757) and the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779).

Toland argued that belief, prejudice, and superstition are ingrown from infancy. “You may reason yourself into what religion you please; but, pray, what religion will permit you to reason yourself out of it?”

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simple intuitive

He found a perfect example of surviving simple intuitive religion in a French letter written in 1688 from Carolina: “We know our Saviour’s precepts without observing them, and they [the Indians] observe them without knowing him.”

As Toland put it elsewhere, “Those who live according to Reason ... are Christians, tho’ they be reputed Atheists.” In “Hodegus,” an essay of 1720, he interprets Old Testament miracles by a naturalistic method, thereby anticipating Hermann Samuel Reimarus and the German rationalistic school of biblical exegesis.

Philosophical Development

Toland’s rationalism led him to translate and to defend Bruno’s Latin treatise of 1514 on the infinite universe and innumerable worlds. In turn, he proceeded into a variety of naturalistic monism, which eventuated in pantheism.

Philosophical Development
Philosophical Development

In the Letters to Serena he attacked Spinoza for his disavowal of the necessity of motion to matter, but in later works he had lavish praise for much of Spinozism. Socinianism truly stated: being an example of fairdealing in theological Controversy, a work of 1705 in which is found the first use of the word pantheist, is essentially pantheistic.

Toland’s final statement, however, if it is to be taken seriously, was published in 1720 in Holland; termed “Cosmopoli,” it was issued under the pseudonym Janus Junius Edganesius (indicating Inis-Eogan or Eogani Insuli, the northernmost peninsula of Ireland and the place of Toland’s birth).

Pantheisticon: sive Formula celebrandae Sodalitatis, the work referred to and translated into English in 1751, has been variously interpreted as a serious exposition of the philosophy of pantheism, a literary hoax, a sort of litany in derision of Christian liturgies, a mask to disguise atheism, a modernized version of the secret doctrines of Freemasonry, and a device to stimulate new thinking.

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freedom from superstition

The work consists of a dialogue between the president of a pantheistical society which acknowledges no other God than the universe and its members, who respond to his endeavors to inspire them with the love of truth, liberty, and health, cheerfulness, sobriety, temperateness, and freedom from superstition.

It is sufficiently evident that Toland was not a really original thinker but one who reflected many influences. Born Roman Catholic, he became Protestant. He was a latitudinarian, a freethinker, a deist, a materialist, and a pantheist. In a Latin epitaph that he composed for himself, he laid claim to the knowledge often languages.

He was a prolific writer on many subjects, sometimes confused and contradictory, sometimes foreshadowing aspects of modern thought. In his life of fifty-two years his restless, inquiring mind was ever active, his accomplishments were manifold, and he was an internationalist of consequence in the Age of Enlightenment.

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the Age of Enlightenment

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