John Toland

The controversial British scholar John Toland (1670-1722) is classified as a deist, although the term is not totally suitable to the content of his work or the range of his activities as a linguist, translator, political and religious polemicist, and diplomat.

Born near Londonderry, Ireland, on Nov. 30, 1670, John Toland was raised as a Roman Catholic and originally baptized Janus Junius. He converted to Protestantism when he was 16. From 1687 to 1690 he studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities. After receiving a master of arts degree, he continued to do research at the University of Leiden in Holland and later at Oxford.

Deism is the Latin cognate of the Greek term for theism. Originally used to describe writers whose theological positions were heterodox, the term was applied historically to a diverse group of English philosophers and theologians in the period between 1650 and 1750. A common theme uniting the deists is their opposition to the subordination of reason to revelation. This attitude is seen clearly in the title of Toland's 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.

Printed anonymously in 1696, the book excited more than 50 replies and refutations. The Irish Parliament and English House of Commons condemned the work to be burned, and when a second edition bore the name of the 25-year-old Toland, orders were issued for the author's arrest. Christianity Not Mysterious applies John Locke's philosophy of common sense to religion. Whereas Locke suggested that Christianity is reasonable, Toland took a decisive step in arguing that reasonable meant not mysterious. The implicit, heretical conclusion is that revelation cannot contradict reason, since "whoever tells us something we did not know before must insure that his words are intelligible, and the matter possible. This holds good, let God or man be the revealer." Toland attributed theological mysteries to scriptural misinterpretations of priests, and in this he anticipates 18th-century exponents of natural religion.

Toland spent the next years on the Continent as a diplomat attached to the courts of Hanover and Berlin. There he met and later became a correspondent of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Back in England, Toland translated the work of the Renaissance pantheist Giordano Bruno; edited Oceana, the utopian work by James Harrington; and after financial reverses worked as a newspaper-man. Toland felt that his ill health had been aggravated by inept physicians, and shortly before his death in Putney on March 11, 1722, he wrote a diatribe against the medical profession in which he complained, "They learn their Art at the hazard of our lives, and make experiments by our deaths."

The content of Toland's other writings, estimated to be between 30 and 100 works, is concerned with political, religious, and philosophical themes. Most important are two works on Milton, Life of John Milton (1698) and Amyntor (1699); speculations concerning the origin of religion in Letters to Serena (1704); and a final statement of his increasingly pantheistic philosophy in Pantheisticon (1720).

Further Reading on John Toland

Toland's Letters to Serena was republished in 1964. Peter Gay, ed., Deism: An Anthology (1968), contains part of Christianity Not Mysterious. For background see John Orr, English Deism: Its Roots and Fruits (1934).

Additional Biography Sources

Daniel, Stephen H. (Stephen Hartley), John Toland, his methods, manners, and mind, Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984.

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