John Toland

views updated May 23 2018

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

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 Sources

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

Toland, John (1670-1722)

views updated May 23 2018

Toland, John (1670-1722)

John Toland, first chief of the revived Druid movement in England, was born on November 30, 1670, near Londonderry, Ireland. Originally named Junius Janus, he took the name John to avoid being a butt of jokes by his youthful schoolmates. Though raised a Catholic, he converted to Protestantism as a teenager. Some Irish Protestants saw to his education and eventually sent him to Glasgow. He earned his M.A. at Edinburgh in 1690. He completed his education in Leyden, Holland.

By the early 1690s, he had begun to hold liberal opinions that questioned the orthodoxy of his teachers. In 1696 he published his most famous work, Christianity not Mysterious, now considered an early classic of the Deist movement, a movement that not only denied the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but challenged the idea of God's continued activity in the world. He soon became the subject of sermons denouncing his thought. After the Irish House of Commons voted to burn the book and sent out orders for his arrest, Toland moved to England. He made his living as an editor and writer on a variety of subjects. Though he would often attempt to distance himself from his work, he was never successful, as he basically continued to believe. However, his beliefs would lead in a different direction.

In 1717, a number of delegates from what have been described as Druidic circles across the British Isles and Brittany met in Covent Gardens (London) at the Apple Tree Tavern. There they organized the Mother Grove of a revived Druidic order, a group continuing the ancient Druidic traditions as then understood. Toland was elected the chief of this grove, called Ar Tigh Geatha Gaurdeachus. Toland's own understanding of Druidism seemed to have been summarized in his 1720 publication Pantheisticon, in which he described a nature-oriented religion. He died two years later on February 11, 1722, at Putney, where he had been living since 1718.

While there were rumors of an earlier Druidic organization, possibly traceable to John Aubrey, an early writer on Druidism whom Toland had met in 1694, from Toland's term as the Druidic leader there is an organizational continuity of modern Druidism.


Carr-Gomm, Philip. The Elements of the Druid Tradition. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1991.

Toland, John. Christianity not Mysterious. N.p., 1696.

. Pantheisticon. Putney, 1720.

Toland, John

views updated May 23 2018

Toland, John

John Toland (1670–1722), freethinker, was born into the Irish-speaking Catholic community of Inishowen, Co. Donegal. After receiving primary education locally, he entered Glasgow University and became identified with Presbyterianism and student discontent. Graduating with an M.A. (Edinburgh) in 1690, he moved first to London and then to Leyden (1692–1693). During a year at Oxford, he began work on a never-to-becompleted Irish dictionary. In 1696 he published Christianity Not Mysterious, which caused great scandal, alarming even John Locke, whose influence was discernible in its argument. Toland had to cut short a visit to Dublin in 1697 when the commons ordered that his tract be burned and its author arrested. Back in London he wrote a biography of John Milton (1699) and pamphlets questioning Anglican and Tory pieties. Over the years his religious views became increasingly divorced from mainstream Christian orthodoxy. The controversy over Christianity Not Mysterious in 1697 was a fore-taste of the dismay that his later works would cause. The term pantheist was apparently coined by Toland, whose developing ideas on religion can be traced in Socinianism Truly Stated (1705), Adeisdaemon (1709), and, most shocking to contemporaries, Nazarenus (1718) and Pantheisticon (1720).

A strong advocate of the Hanoverian succession, he was on the delegation to Hanover that presented the Act of Settlement (1701) to the Electress Sophia. Funded by wealthy patrons, he made his living as a Whig propagandist, though he was not to be rewarded with office or emolument after the Hanoverian succession. His only interventions in Irish affairs in the last decade of his life were expressions of anxiety about Catholic revival and criticism, in Reasons Most Humbly Offered (1720), of the British Parliament's Declaratory Act (6th George I). In his last years he depended on the patronage of the Whig radical Robert Molesworth, and he died in relative poverty in London on 11 March 1722. He once described himself as "avowedly a commonwealth's man" (Simms 1969, p. 312), to which might be added William Molyneux's assessment: "a candid free-thinker and a good scholar" (Simms 1969, p. 310).

SEE ALSO Church of Ireland: Since 1690


Harrison, Alan. Béal eiriciúil as Inis Eoghain: John Toland (1670–1722). 1994.

McGuinness, Philip, et al., eds. John Toland's "Christianity Not Mysterious": Text, Associated Works, and Critical Essays. 1997.

Simms, J. G. "John Toland (1670–1722): A Donegal Heretic." Irish Historical Studies 16, no. 63 (1969): 304–320.

James McGuire

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