The Idea of Religious Tolerance is to Allow Religious Freedom

Sir Godfrey Kneller's portrait of John Locke, 1697.

No one should be denied equal rights on account of their religion. In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), John Locke wrote, “No man can be a Christian … without that faith which works … by love.”

The idea of religious tolerance is to allow religious freedom—in civil terms, to leave the adherents of a particular religion unmolested in private and in public. In a political sense, it means granting equal rights to individuals regardless of their religious beliefs.

Jn 1689, English philosopher and physician John Locke (1632-1704) advocated religious tolerance in his Epistola de Tolerantia (A Letter Concerning Toleration). He wrote the letter, addressed to an anonymous “Honoured Sir,” while in exile in Holland, which was a secular state that permitted religious differences. The recipient of Locke’s letter was his friend, the Dutch theologian Philipp van Limborch (1633-1712), who published it.

The objective of a modern Catholic community is the setting for John Locke’s political philosophy, and what was both a liberal and Protestant reaction to the political beliefs of the Restoration era. Having since 1666 been a disciple of the Parliamentary Whig leader Lord Ashley, later Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke was the scholarly bete noir of the Restoration Stuarts.

At that time, there were fears that Roman Catholicism might take over England. Locke was involved in helping draft the English Bill of Rights of 1689, but it did not go as far as he wanted regarding religious tolerance. The same year, Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which granted freedom of worship to Nonconformists, such as Baptists and Congregationalists, but not to Catholics and Unitarians. Locke suggested that religious tolerance might resolve the problems experienced by both government and religious leaders, and that there should be a separation between church and state.

John Locke held a studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1652, but was evicted from Christ Church on Charles II’s unambiguous orders in 1684. He was previously in banishment in the Low Countries at that point, and did not set foot in England during James’ sovereignty, which began the next year. Locke convoyed the Princess Mary on her return to England, after her husband William, Prince of Orange, acquired the success of the Revolution there in 1689.

Locke’s letter caused a controversy among members of the Anglican High Church. Clergyman and writer Thomas Long thought that the letter was part of a Jesuit plot aimed at enabling the Catholic Church to achieve dominance by causing chaos. There followed a protracted published correspondence between Locke and clergyman and academic Jonas Proast (c.1640-1710), who asserted that the state had the right to use force to make dissenters reflect on the merits of Anglicanism. Locke’s ideas came to form the basis of modern views on the toleration of religious differences.

The important works that define John Locke’s philosophy were written while he was in exile: the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the Two Treatises of Civil Government and the First Letter Concerning Toleration. None were printed until after the Revolution. As one, they collect Locke’s enduring trepidations: the nature of knowledge; entitlement to property; the legitimacy of government and its use of force; revolution; the nature of religious belief; liberty of opinion. With the benefit of hindsight, these works have also been taken as scholarly justifications for the Revolution and its jurisdictive settlement. That connection should not be overstated. For example, the English Toleration Act was in many respects a reward to Protestant nonconformists for the support they gave to the Revolution, and the honorable restraint they had shown when refusing to take advantage of James’ extra-Parliamentary declarations of indulgence.

  • John Locke’s Jurisdictional Argument: “Force, you allow, is improper to convert men to any religion. Toleration is but the removing that force.”
  • John Locke’s Anticompulsion Argument: “Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true, and the other well-pleasing to God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation.”
  • John Locke’s Limits to Toleration—Real and Imagined: “The Magistrate ought not to forbid the preaching or professing of any speculative opinions in any church, because they have no manner of relation to the civil rights of the subjects. If a Roman Catholick believe that to be really the body of Christ, which another man calls bread, he does no injury thereby to his neighbour.”
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