A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. John Locke
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A LetterConcerning Tolerationand Other Writings
This book is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., a foundation established to encourage study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The cuneiform inscription that serves as our logo and as a design element in Liberty Fund books is the earliest-known written appearance of the word “freedom” (amagi), or “liberty.” It is taken from a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.
Introduction, editorial additions, and index © 2010 by Liberty Fund, Inc.
This eBook edition published in 2013.
Thomas Hollis (1720–74) was an eighteenth-century Englishman who devoted his energies, his fortune, and his life to the cause of liberty. Hollis was trained for a business career, but a series of inheritances allowed him to pursue instead a career of public service. He believed that citizenship demanded activity and that it was incumbent on citizens to put themselves in a position, by reflection and reading, in which they could hold their governments to account. To that end for many years he distributed books that he believed explained the nature of liberty and revealed how liberty might best be defended and promoted.
A particular beneficiary of Hollis’s generosity was Harvard College. In the years preceding the Declaration of Independence, Hollis was assiduous in sending to America boxes of books, many of which he had had specially printed and bound, to encourage the colonists in their struggle against Great Britain. At the same time he took pains to explain the colonists’ grievances and concerns to his fellow Englishmen.
The Thomas Hollis Library makes freshly available a selection of titles that, because of their intellectual power, or the influence they exerted on the public life of their own time, or the distinctiveness of their approach to the topic of liberty, comprise the cream of the books distributed by Hollis. Many of these works have been either out of print since the eighteenth century or available only in very expensive and scarce editions. The highest standards of scholarship and production ensure that these classic texts can be as salutary and influential today as they were two hundred and fifty years ago.
The Context of Intolerance
Protestant Europe inherited a fundamental belief from the medieval Catholic Church: that membership of the church was coextensive with membership of the commonwealth and that it was the duty of a “godly prince” to promote and support the true religion. Protestants agreed with Catholics that “schism” and “heresy” were intolerable, though what counted as orthodoxy now depended on which side of the Alps one stood. There was therefore no intrinsic connection between religious freedom and the advent of Protestantism. Luther was ferocious against the Anabaptists, calling down the wrath of the German princes upon them. At Geneva, Calvin burned Servetus for heresy. In England, the regime of Elizabeth and the early Stuarts drove religious nonconformists to flee to the Netherlands and America; in the Netherlands, Calvinists harassed those who deviated into Arminianism; and in Massachusetts, separatists were punished. During the English Civil Wars, Presbyterians, who had suffered under the episcopal Church of England, were vociferous in demanding suppression of the radical Puritan sects. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation witnessed extraordinary savagery in the name of religious orthodoxy, in events such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France and the Cromwellian annihilation of Irish “papists.” Nor was there any cessation after the mid-seventeenth century. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, under which Protestant Huguenots had achieved a measure of toleration, causing thousands to flee, and introducing a new word, refugee, into the English language; thousands who were left behind faced torture, enslavement, and death. In England, the later Stuart era saw the final attempt in that country’s history to coerce citizens to be of one church: the Anglican church restored after the Civil Wars. Hundreds of Quakers died in prison, the Baptist John Bunyan was incarcerated in Bedford jail, and William Penn resolved to create a safe haven, which he named Pennsylvania.
It is mistaken to suppose that the practice of intolerance betokened mere unthinking bigotry. On the contrary, a fully developed ideology of intolerance was articulated in countless treatises and sermons and was upheld by Protestants and Catholics alike. Religious minorities were castigated on three grounds. First, dissenters were seditious dangers to the state, and their claims of “conscience” were masks for rebellion and anarchy. Second, they were schismatic violators of the unity and catholicity of God’s church, since Christian creeds taught that the church is “one.” Third, they held erroneous beliefs that endangered their souls and polluted those of their neighbors, so that they should be obliged to harken to the truth. To these political, ecclesiastical, and theological objections could be added ethical suspicions that dissenters were closet libertines who concealed their depravity under outward piety. Scripturally, it was claimed