Although Locke was by no means the first person to argue in favor of religious toleration, he seems to have been the first to base his argument on a general theory about the functions and limits of political authority. At the time of the Restoration he had given the civil magistrate a qualified power to impose forms of religious worship, but from 1667 onwards he insisted that the magistrate’s powers are limited to protecting civil goods. The essential role of the state, he thought, was to settle disputes, the existence of an impartial umpire being the defining characteristic of civil society.
No such umpire is needed, he thought, in religious disputes. God has not created one, and it is not for us to authorize a Hobbesian mortal god to act in his place. For Locke, religion is concerned with salvation in the next world and is only a matter of concern to the individual, which means that there is no need to empower an umpire [End Page 115] to resolve disputes about doctrine or worship. The state therefore has no authority to require uniform worship or to impose religious tests for civil office, and there is little or no room for any kind of established church. Individual believers can, and usually will, join together to form churches (the plural should be noted) or other religious societies, but these are purely voluntary societies which have no coercive powers over their own members, let alone over anyone else. All such churches or other religious societies are entitled to toleration, Locke concluded, provided that they do not hold beliefs or engage in practices inconsistent with membership in civil society, and provided they are themselves willing to tolerate others. On this he was explicit: intolerant religions have no right whatever to demand toleration from others.
The essentials of Locke’s account can be found in the Essay Concerning Toleration, written shortly after he joined Lord Ashley’s household in 1667. This rough and unpolished work, however, was written while Locke was still working out his ideas. It was not published until the nineteenth century. It is printed here in full, including Locke’s later additions, the text being taken from the Clarendon edition. In the winter of 1685–1686, when he was in hiding in Amsterdam, being suspected (probably wrongly) of complicity in Monmouth’s rebellion, Locke wrote the Epistola de Tolerantia, an admirably clear and lucid summary of his arguments. It was published in 1689, shortly after his return to England, and an English translation, titled A Letter Concerning Toleration, followed later that year. This was made by his friend William Popple and is reproduced here in full from the second edition of 1690.
Locke’s own papers contain a large number of notes and fragments on toleration, and twenty-one of these, mostly written between 1667 and 1685, are printed in this collection. Many of them undoubtedly merit inclusion, notably the 1674 paper “Excommunication,” here entitled “Civil and Ecclesiastical Power,” which contains Locke’s most systematic discussion of the differences between church and state. Others could perhaps have been omitted, including the early essay (1661) on infallibility, the notes on Samuel Parker (1669), and two pieces of uncertain authenticity, “Philanthropy” and the queries on Catholic infallibility, both dating from 1675. All of these are readily available elsewhere, notably in Mr. Goldie’s earlier collection of Locke’s Political Writings, from which these texts are taken. Doing this would have freed up space for longer extracts from Locke’s 1681 critique of Stillingfleet, a lengthy work that has yet to be printed in full and from which only one extract is included here.
One particular merit of this edition is that it includes thirty-six pages of extracts from the Third Letter on Toleration, Locke’s longest work on the subject and one of the least read. It has never been reprinted in full since it was first published in 1692, except in the various editions of Locke’s collected works. The well-chosen...
John Locke's "Letter on Toleration"
- Category: Book Reviews
- Published: 26 November 2008
- Written by Laure Principaud
John Locke (1632-1704) was one of the major English thinkers of the XVIIth century. He was the son of landed English gentry and studied classical literature, which destined him, first to a teaching post at the university and later, to ordination in the Church of England. To flee from that fate, Locke studied medicine and philosophy but the socio-political events in England at the time led him on to political interest. He acquired his political education when he worked for the first Earl of Shaftesbury, a powerful figure of the political scene in England. Locke was his medical advisor and became a permanent member of the household. Together with the Earl of Shaftesbury, he was exiled to Holland and returned to England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
In Locke's time, England was in a state of socio-political chaos in which political and religious matters were closely meshed. England was Christian, but no longer Catholic, and in this part of Christendom, there existed, besides the Church of England, many dissenting churches in conflict. After the bloody dictatorship of Cromwell (died 1658), Locke had witnessed the reign of the Stuart dynasty, Charles II (1660-1685) and James II (1685-1688). These two kings were absolutist, secretly Catholic and tried indirectly to favour the return of their church.
Religious conflicts between all the dissident churches had reached a high level of violence. Moreover, the struggle between King and Parliament was constant: it was the time of creation of the two major political groups of the English Parliament: the Whigs who defended Parliament's rights and the Tories who defended the Monarchy's prerogatives. In 1679, the Whigs carried the vote of the Habeas Corpus Act which confirmed and extended the right to enjoy individual liberties. But James II, with the Tories' support, managed to succeed to Charles: this marked the beginning of a brutal and clumsy reign. James II wanted to impose the return of absolutism and Catholicism: tensions reached a high level. The English people, through Parliament, then called on the Stathouder of Holland, William of Orange, who had married Mary, James' elder daughter. On November 5, 1688, William landed in England; Jacques fled to France. The Parliament proposed the throne of England to William and Mary, subject to the condition that they sign the Bill Of Rights (1689) which defined and guaranteed the rights and liberties of Parliament. It was the « Glorious Revolution » which led England on the path towards a constitutional regime.
John Locke dedicates his « Letter concerning toleration » (1689) to William, the new king. Like all the Locke's work, this « Letter » is by no means an apolitical philosophical paper, but the result of a pragmatic and political way of thinking. He observes and notes that before the Glorious Revolution there had been « a governement partial in matter of religion » and « religions who vindicate their own rights for the only interest of their own sects », in short « a narrowness of spirit on all sides » cause of the « miseries » of England. Locke presents his letter as an important and pragmatic body of thought concerning toleration between religious groups and the role of the State whose object was to guarantee peace and order in the country. In all his works, Locke meditates on individual liberties and the role of government. He is the founder of political Liberalism. His thought influenced Enlightenment ideas in Europe (Voltaire, Montesquieu...) and definitely played a role in the Revolutionary events at the end of the XVIIIth century.
Among Locke's major works « Two treatises of Government » published in 1690, and « An Essay concerning Human Understanding », published in 1693, are worth mentioning.
2) Why is a « law of toleration » necessary? : Locke's arguments
The entire «Letter concerning toleration » is a response to that question. So what is a « law of toleration »? It's a law which defines and clearly separates the roles and powers of churches and the State concerning religious matters. The aim is to prevent the violence which exists between churches and between the churches and the State. The boundaries between the two must be clear and unmovable:
- The Churches' actions must be limited to what concerns men' souls.
- The State's actions must be limited to what concerns the care of the commonwealth.
The stake is to guarantee « an absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty ».
According to Locke, a church is « a voluntary society of men joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their soul ». Thus, a church can be only a voluntary association of people who make the free choice of being there and who can leave the group if it seems to be no longer appropriated to their salvation. So the rules which organise the association can't be imposed onto the whole society of England. The strongest power that a church has is to exclude a member from the community, but this member retains his civil rights, for « belonging to a church can't be an argument to prejudice another person in his civil enjoyments ». Civil rights are the same for all the citizens, whatever their denominations may be. In that way, Locke bases a great deal of his argumentation on religious considerations: he refers to the Bible in order to show that for the aim of Christianity, and the role of the church, the appropriate means are incompatible with terrestrial interest and the thirst for power. Indeed, the business of « true religion » is not the « striving for power and empire »: « the Kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, said our Saviour to his disciples, but ye shall not be so » (Luke XXII, 25, 26). The only role of church is to guide Christians in their « war upon (their) own lusts and vices ». For that purpose, the church's servants have only one mean of action: « the exemplary holiness of their conversation », not violence and persecutions. « How easily the pretence of religion, and the care of soul serves for a cloak to covetousness, rapine and ambition ». Toleration, for Locke, is an evident necessity both for Christian reasons and reasonable reasons.
* State / Civil government
Civil magistrates caring for men' souls is not only an absurdity to the common sense, for Locke, but also illegitimate (there is no legitimation by God for this in the Bible) and impossible: civil government has only one means, the laws, and these laws are not appropriate for inner and personal belief. Constraint can't persuade.
The interest of the commonwealth refers only to « life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like ». So, the State's role in the business of toleration is to guarantee civil rights and the civil peace: « laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud or the violence of the others ». To force someone by law to believe in what he doesn't want to believe is not only absurd for Locke but it's an offence done to God. The other consequence is that « neither pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commowealth because of his religion (...) the commonwealth which embraces indifferently all men that are honest, peacable and industrious ».
Civil power can't interrupt a religious ceremony except if, in that ceremony, things forbidden in civil life (human sacrifices, for instance) are done, placing in danger the security and safety of Nation and people. Indeed, « the part of the magistrate is only to take care that the commonwealth receive no prejudice and that there be no injury done to any man ».
A civil power which shows itself incapable of doing this job can be overthrown by the people: in that way, liberty of conscience is finally the more important thing.
So the laws of toleration must guarantee civil peace and the State is a sort of regulator. With that in view, Locke also considers this as a rampart against the atheist's arguments. Locke considers them as a danger for the civil order: « the taking away of God (...) dissolves all » so « those are not to be tolerated who deny the being of God ». Locke devolves to churches a role of moral regulation. In his approach to atheism, Locke's view of toleration is a far cry from what we mostly accept today.
According to Locke, wars and troubles are not caused by the diversity of opinions (religious, but also political) but by:
- the refusal of toleration to those who are of different opinions
- the insatiable desire for domination and the credulity of the multitude.
And it is this unstable climate which goes against civil peace and all liberties (and against economic prosperity finally).
« If the law of toleration were once so settled, that all churches were obliged to lay down toleration as a foundation of their own liberty; and teach that liberty of conscience is every man's natural right »
3) The main thrust of Locke's thought
The stakes of toleration in Locke's thought are the respect of civil liberties, of natural rights (liberty, life, and property) and public peace. These arguments are legislative and pragmatic: intolerance (or in-toleration) is a political inanity, the root cause of all disturbances. Thus the word « toleration » denotes a juridical act, contrary to the word « tolerance », which rather designates a state of mind, an individual or collective virtue. More than the dignity of other people or mutual comprehension, it is what constitutes the practical conditions of cohabitation in a pluri-religious state which interests Locke.
The Political Liberalism of Locke has a link with his theory of understanding (which, in short, says that each idea arises through individual experience, thus any idea can vary between one man and another). For Locke, concerning political and religious subjects, there is no one Truth but only some values which can be accepted or not; and the cohabitation of these values can be translated into laws.
Moreover, Locke grants an important role to individual concience, a conscience based upon reason. A thing is just and legitimate if it is accepted by the individual's reason: the idea of individual responsibility is one of the main notions in Locke's philosophy. So the legitimacy of civil government is based on Trust, on confidence. If civil government goes against that Trust, the people has the right and the duty to judge it and to rise up against it. In that way, Locke's philosophy about toleration provides a first theoretical limit to sovereign power.
* Locke's thought had an important repercussion in the Europe of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. Many thinkers of the Enlightenment were inspired by this political liberalism, including the French Revolution and the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights in 1789 (and up till today). Among French philosophers, Voltaire wrote about the toleration in his « Traité sur la tolérance », published in 1763. Voltaire wrote, like Locke, in a troubled socio-political context and was inspired by the British model, but his philosophy of toleration is quite different. At the end of Louis XIV's reign and at the beginning of the reign of Louis XV, persecution against religious minorities, in particular against the Protestant Huguenot « Camisards », started up again. People's consciences were still marked by the religious wars of the XVIth century. Voltaire wrote his essay about toleration in the context of the Jean Calas case, a Protestant man unfairly accused of having assassinated his own son, allegedly because he wanted to become a Catholic. This case inspired Voltaire to write against all religious persecutions. Voltaire who has read Locke retained some of his arguments, in particular the ideas that each citizen must obey first and foremost to his own reason and may legitimately rise up against any bad government, and that toleration is a necessity in a pluralistic empire for the sake of a Nation's peace. But, contrary to Locke who advocates a clear separation between the role and power of the churches and the role and power of civil government, Voltaire advocates the subordination of the Church to civil power as the only means to guarantee toleration (thus, he appealed to the King's council in the Calas case).
* Nowadays, in France, the question of the way of living together in a pluri-religious state has again been raised in the debate about secularity. The word « tolérance » in French has today a more extended signification and has often lost its political meaning to take on a more moral turn. The relations between Church and State concerning religion translate into the 1905 Act of Parliament which is the heritage of Enlightenment philosophy, the French Revolution and the Dreyfus case. The 1905 Act of Parliament establishes the separation of the roles and powers of Churches and the State in society. This question of secularization was to re-emerge in a big way in public discourse in the 1980s with the demonstrations for the defence of state-funded private schools, the first « veil affair » or the Vivien report concerning sects. According to Raphael Liogier (in «Une laïcité légitime », La France et ses religions d'Etat», published in 2006), in spite of this very law, France is one of the States which get the most deeply involved in religious matters, through its imposition of regulations. In Raphaël Liogier's purview, the particularity of this secular intervention is simultaneously to deny any intention of intervention while interceding to a very considerable degree in the religious field at the same time. The « neutrality » advocated by the State is what enables it to intercede positively in the social game and in the religious field, as an arbitrator. According to R. Liogier, and in that way he seems to concur with Locke's views on toleration, a secular State should not declare itself « neutral », but « incompetent » on issues of religion. The State can intercede in the religious field, if the security of the state or the safety of the human being are in jeopardy, but the state should not pronounce on what a good or a bad, a true or a false belief, or what the signification of such or such a religious rule or behaviour, may be...
Locke's « Letter concerning toleration », written in 1689, raised some important issues then, which can still help us today to question our own way of considering cohabitation in a pluri-religious setting and the role the state should play in that perspective.