1902 Encyclopedia > John Toland

John Toland
English deist
(1670-1722)




TOLAND, JOHN (1670-1722), or Janus Junius, as his sponsors are said to have named him, usually described as a chief leader of the English deists, was born November 30, 1670 or 1671, in the north of Ireland, near Londonderry. He was the son, perhaps illegitimate, of Catholic parents, and was brought up in their faith. But in his fifteenth year he became a zealous Protestant, and in 1687 he passed from the school at Redcastle to Glasgow university, recommended by the magistrates of Redcastle " for his affection to the Protestant religion." Thus early in life he became "accustomed to examination and inquiry, and was taught not to captivate his understanding to any man or society." After three years at Glasgow he entered the university of Edinburgh, taking his M.A. degree there June 30, 1690. He then spent a short time in some Protestant families in England, and with their assistance went to Leyden university, to qualify him for entering the Dissenting ministry. He spent about two years in Leyden, studying ecclesiastical history especially under the famous scholar Frederick Spanheim. At the expiration of that time he took up his abode, January 7, 1694, at Oxford, having good introductions to Creech, Mill, and others. Here he made large use of 'the Bodleian Library, and soon acquired the reputation of being " a man of fine parts, of great learning, and of little religion," though there is no evidence to show that the last distinction was justly his due. His letters show that he then claimed to be a decided Christian, and that he was too orthodox to be classed with the Arians or the Socinians. At the same time the characteristic freedom and originality of his mind were displayed by his anticipation of subsequent doubts of the integrity of the book of Job, and the separation of the historical prologue and the speeches of Elihu from the original poem. While at Oxford he commenced the book which called him into notoriety, and became one of the standard "deistical writings " - his Christianity not Mysterious.1 The book gave great offence, and several replies to it were immediately published. The author was prosecuted by the grand jury of Middlesex the year of its publication ; and, when he attempted to settle in Dublin at the beginning of 1697, he was greeted with dangerous denunciations from the pulpits and elsewhere. He was soon prosecuted before the court of King's Bench, and on September 9th his book was condemned by the Irish parliament to be burned and its author to be arrested. He escaped the latter part of the sentence by flight to England. The title and the philosophical principles of Toland's book were singularly akin to those of Locke's famous work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, published the year before ; and Locke's opponents seized the opportunity of fathering upon the philosopher the doctrines of his more heterodox and less guarded disciple. Thus Toland's work became the occasion of the celebrated controversy between Stillingfleet and Locke, in which Locke takes pains to show the difference between his position and Toland's. Toland's next work of importance was a preface and some slight alterations ; and the third appeared in 1702 with an appended Apology for Mr Toland.

his Life of Milton (1698), in which, in connexion with his exposure of the fictitious authorship of the Eikon Basilike, he found occasion to make reflexions on " the numerous supposititious pieces under the name of Christ and His apostles and other great persons." This provoked the charge that he had called in question the genuineness of the New Testament writings, and he replied in his Amyntor, or a Defence of Hilton's Life (1699), to which he added a remarkable list of what are now called apocryphal New Testament writings. In his remarks he really opened up the great question of the history of the canon, towards the examination of which Stephen Nye, Jeremiah Jones, and Nathanael Lardner made in reply to him the first valuable contributions. The next year his Amyntor and Christianity not Mysterious were under discussion in both Houses of Convocation, and the Upper House declined to proceed against the author. In 1701 Toland spent a few weeks at Hanover as secretary to the embassy of the earl of Macclesfield, and was received with favour by the electress Sophia in acknowledgment of his book Anglia Libera, a defence of the Hanoverian succession. On his return from the Continent he published a defence of himself, and of the bishops for not prosecuting him, Vindicius Liberius (1702), and several political pamphlets. The next year he visited Hanover and Berlin, and was again graciously received by the electress and her daughter Sophia Charlotte, queen of Prussia. On his return to England (1704) he published Letters to Serena, and afterwards acknowledged that the queen of Prussia was intended by the pseudonym. In these letters he anticipated some of the speculations of modern materialism. The next year appeared his Account of Prussia and Hanover, of which Carlyle has made use in his Life of Frederick the Great. From 1707 to 1710 he is again on the Continent, - at Berlin, Hanover, Dusseldorf, Vienna, Prague, and The Hague, with very varying fortunes, but generally of an adverse character. In 1709 be published A deisidmmon and Origines Juclaicw (The Hague), in which, amongst other things, he maintained that the Jews were originally Egyptians, and that the true Mosaic institutions perished with Moses. This work provoked a number of replies from Continental theologians. In 1710 he returned to England, living chiefly in London and latterly at Putney, loving the country and his books, and subsisting precariously upon the earnings of his pen and the benevolence of his patrons. His literary projects were numerous (see the incomplete list in Mosheim); and the nobler traits of his warm Irish nature appear in his projected history of the ancient Celtic religion and his chivalrous advocacy of the naturalization of the Jews. The last of his theological works were Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity (1718), and Tetradymus (1720), a collection of essays on various subjects, in the first of which, " Hodegus," he set the example subsequently followed by Reimarus and the rationalistic school in Germany, of interpreting the Old Testament miracles by the naturalistic method, maintaining, for instance, that the pillar of cloud and of fire of Exodus was a transported signal-fire. His last and most offensive book was his Pantheisticon (Cosmopoli, 1720). He died May 11, 1722, as he had lived, in great poverty, in the midst of his books, with his pen in his hand, and left behind him a characteristic Latin epitaph, in which he could justly claim to have been "veritatis propugnator, libertatis assertor."





Toland is generally classed with the deists, but at the time when he wrote his first book, Christianity not Mysterious, he was decidedly opposed to deism, nor does Leland deal with that work as an exposition of deistical views. The design of the work was to show, by an appeal mainly to the tribunal of Scripture, that there are no facts or doctrines of the "gospel," or "the Scriptures," or "Christian revelation" which, when revealed, are not perfectly plain, intelligible, and reasonable, being neither contrary to reason nor incomprehensible to it. The work undoubtedly aimed a blow at some of the dogmas of later Christian times, but it claimed to be "a vindication of God's revealed will against the most unjust imputations" which occasioned "so many deists and atheists." Toland's line of argument is to show that the supposition of the doctrines of the gospel being repugnant to clear and distinct ideas and common notions leads into absurdities and inevitable scepticism; that the proof of the Divinity of Scripture is its self-evidencing power; that, though men are dependent on Divine revelation for the knowledge of the most important truths, the truths must themselves be plain and intelligible when revealed; that all the doctrines, precepts, and miracles of the New Testament are perfectly intelligible and plain; that, though reason is disordered in the case of many men, the disorder is not in the faculty itself but in the use made of it; that in the New Testament "mystery" never means anything inconceivable in itself, but things naturally intelligible enough, which are either so veiled by figurative words or rites, or so lodged in God's sole knowledge and decree, that they could not be discerned without special revelation; that no miracle of the gospel is contrary to reason, for they were all produced according to the laws of nature, though above its ordinary operations, which were therefore supernaturally assisted; that mysteries were first introduced into Christianity by the early admission into the church of Levitical ceremonies and heathen rites and mysteries, and especially by mixing up heathen philosophy with the simple religion of Christ. The work was intended to be the first of three discourses, in the second of which he was to attempt a particular and rational explanation of the reputed mysteries of the gospel, and in the third a demonstration of the verity of Divine revelation against atheists and all enemies of revealed religion. But, like so many other of his numerous projects, this failed of execution. After his Christianity not Alysteriaus and his Anzyntor, Toland's Nasarenus was of chief importance, as railing attention to the right of the Ebionites to a place in the early church, though it altogether failed to establish his main argument or to put the question in the true light. Nis Pantheistic," sire Formula celebrandm Sodalitatis Soeraticx, 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 round the question how far such societies of pantheists actually existed. Poor Toland had been outlawed by the churches of his day, and took a most imprudent delight in alarming and mystifying his persecutors. This and all his later works must be read from the point of view first suggested by Herder: "Who can refuse to see in Toland the man of wide reading and of clear intellect, and the earnest inquirer, although, as embittered by persecutions, with every fresh book he dipped his pen in a more biting acid ?"

See 3loshelm's Vindicim Antigum Christianorum Diaciplinv, 1st ed., 1720, 25 ed., 1722 (the life of Toland prefixed to the 2d edition of this essay gives still the best and most learned acconnt we have of his life and writings); "Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr John Toland," by Des Maizcanx, prefixed to The Miscellaneous Works of Mr John Toland, in 2 vols., London, 1747; Leland's View of the Principal Deistical Writers; Herder's Adrastea; Leochler's Geschichte des englischen Deismus; Isaac Disraeli's Calamities of Authors ; Theological Review, November 1864; Hunt's article in Contemporary Review, voL rill., and his Religious Thought in England; Leslie Stephen's History of English Thought in Eighteenth Century; Cairns's Cunningham Lectures for 1880. On Toland's relation to the subsequent Ttibingen school, as presented in his Nazarenus, see Theological Review, Oct,, 1877 ; and on his relation to materialism, F. A. Lange's Geschichte des Materialismus. (J. F. S.)







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