A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke

Maura Jane Farrelly

Professor Maura Jane Farrelly, Brandeis University

John Locke was a seventeenth-century English philosopher and one of the early architects of a philosophy of government now known as “liberalism.” His ideas had a strong influence on the thinking of America’s Founders.

A liberal political philosophy is one that says the authority of any government is derived from the consent of the governed and the purpose of any government is to secure and defend the rights of the individual – including the right to worship God as one thinks fit.

Locke wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration to his friend (who later published it) around the time of the “Glorious Revolution,” a coup in which Parliament rose up against the Catholic king of England, James II, and invited his Anglican daughter, Mary, and her Calvinist husband, William of Orange, to assume the throne.  Many members of Parliament believed the hierarchical organization of the Catholic Church was a threat to individual rights.

King James II had actually been born a Protestant, but he fled to France in the 1640s, during the English Civil War.  That war resulted in the execution of his father, King Charles I.

France was a Catholic country, ruled by the flamboyant “Sun King,” Louis XIV, who adhered to a philosophy of government – endorsed by the Catholic Church at the time – known as “the divine right of kings.”  This philosophy said that monarchs derived their authority not from the people, but from God – and that their authority was, therefore, absolute and not subject to any laws.

James was exposed to Catholicism while in France, and he converted sometime around 1668 or 1669.  He became England’s king in 1685, when his older brother, Charles, died with no legitimate children.  Protestants in England worried that James might try to replicate the absolutism of France’s Sun King, but they took solace in the fact that James was old, and that his heir was his older daughter Mary, a Protestant.

But then in 1688, James’ second wife, a Catholic, gave birth to a son who would be raised Catholic.  The Glorious Revolution followed.

 

Questions to consider in this reading:

  • What does Locke believe is the purpose of “the commonwealth”?
  • Why, according to Locke, is religious belief a matter that necessarily lies outside the realm of politics?
  • Why does Locke exclude Catholics and atheists from his mandate of religious toleration?

A Letter Concerning Toleration

John Locke

1689

 

Honoured Sir[1],

Since you are pleased to inquire what are my thoughts about the mutual toleration of Christians in their different professions of religion, I must needs answer you freely that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church… For it is impossible that those should sincerely and heartily apply themselves to make other people Christians, who have not really embraced the Christian religion in their own hearts. If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love

Note that this language about Christianity is reminiscent of Roger Williams’ language in The Bloudy Tenent.

For if it be out of a principle of charity, as they pretend, and love to men’s souls that they deprive them of their estates, maim them with corporal punishments, starve and torment them in noisome prisons, and in the end even take away their lives — I say, if all this be done merely to make men Christians and procure their salvation, why then do they suffer whoredom, fraud, malice, and such-like enormities, which (according to the apostle)[2] manifestly relish of heathenish corruption, to predominate so much and abound amongst their flocks and people?

Locke is almost certainly being sarcastic here – to make an important point: people who use the authority of government to promote Christianity do not have their priorities in order.

These, and such-like things, are certainly more contrary to the glory of God, to the purity of the Church, and to the salvation of souls, than any conscientious dissent from ecclesiastical decisions, or separation from public worship, whilst accompanied with innocence of life…

That any man should think fit to cause another man — whose salvation he heartily desires — to expire in torments, and that even in an unconverted state, would, I

Here Locke is again using sarcasm to call out Christians. He points out that when Christians torture non-Christians to the point of death, they are sending non-Christians to Hell, according to the tenets of their own belief system.  And that doesn’t strike Locke as a terribly “Christian” thing to do.

confess, seem very strange to me, and I think, to any other also. But nobody, surely, will ever believe that such a carriage can proceed from charity, love, or goodwill. If anyone maintain that men ought to be compelled by fire and sword to profess certain doctrines, and conform to this or that exterior worship, without any regard had unto their morals; if anyone endeavour to convert those that are erroneous unto the faith, by forcing them to profess things that they do not believe and allowing them to practise things that the Gospel does not permit, it cannot be doubted indeed but such a one is desirous to have a numerous assembly joined in the same profession with himself; but that he principally intends by those means to compose a truly Christian Church is altogether incredible. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at if those who do not really contend for the advancement of the true religion, and of the Church of Christ, make use of arms that do not belong to the Christian warfare. If, like the Captain of our salvation, they sincerely desired the good of souls, they would tread in the steps and follow the perfect example of that Prince of Peace, who sent out His soldiers to the subduing of nations, and gathering them into His Church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation…

The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light… But, however, that some may not colour their spirit of persecution and unchristian cruelty with a pretence of care of the public weal and observation of the laws; and that others, under pretence of religion, may not seek impunity for their libertinism and licentiousness; in a word, that none may impose either upon himself or others, by the pretences of loyalty and obedience to the prince, or of tenderness and sincerity in the worship of God; I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.

This is the essence of Locke’s project: to figure out where that thing that Thomas Jefferson would later call a “wall of separation between Church & State” should be built.

If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men’s souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency[3] of body; and the

In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke defined natural rights, which civil authorities were obliged to protect, as “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson used that list, then, to come up with his own assertion, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that people have rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These “unalienable” rights were part and parcel of what it meant to be a human being; they could not, therefore, be rightfully taken away by any government. Indeed, Jefferson, like Locke, believed it was the obligation of government to protect and nurture these rights. One does wonder how our current debates over the question of whether and how the government should provide for Americans’ healthcare might have been different, had Jefferson used this list from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, rather than the list from the Second Treatise.

possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general and to every one of his subjects in particular the just possession of these things belonging to this life. If anyone presume to violate the laws of public justice and equity, established for the preservation of those things, his presumption is to be checked by the fear of punishment, consisting of the deprivation or diminution of those civil interests, or goods, which otherwise he might and ought to enjoy. But seeing no man does willingly suffer himself to be punished by the deprivation of any part of his goods, and much less of his liberty or life, therefore, is the magistrate armed with the force and strength of all his subjects, in order to the punishment of those that violate any other man’s rights.

Now that the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments, and that all civil power, right and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls, these following considerations seem unto me abundantly to demonstrate.

First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.

For Locke, this was the real absurdity of any effort to force faith. Governments can force behavior (even when they shouldn’t); they can never force faith.

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 unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation. For in this manner, instead of expiating other sins by the exercise of religion, I say, in offering thus unto God Almighty such a worship as we esteem to be displeasing unto Him, we add unto the number of our other sins those also of hypocrisy and contempt of His Divine Majesty.

In the second place, the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force. Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgement that they have framed of things…

Let us now consider what a church is. A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.

I say it is a free and voluntary society. Nobody is born a member of any church; otherwise the religion of parents would descend unto children by the same right of inheritance as their temporal estates, and everyone would hold his faith by the same tenure he does his lands, than which nothing can be imagined more absurd. Thus, therefore, that matter stands. No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but everyone joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God. The hope of salvation, as it was the only cause of his entrance into that communion, so it can be the only reason of his stay there. For if afterwards he discover anything either erroneous in the doctrine or incongruous in the worship of that society to which he has joined himself, why should it not be as free for him to go out as it was to enter…

It follows now that we consider what is the power of this church and unto what laws it is subject…

The end of a religious society (as has already been said) is the public worship of God and, by means thereof, the acquisition of eternal life. All discipline ought, therefore, to tend to that end, and all ecclesiastical laws to be thereunto confined. Nothing ought nor can be transacted in this society relating to the possession of civil and worldly goods. No force is here to be made use of upon any occasion whatsoever. For force belongs wholly to the civil magistrate, and the possession of all outward goods is subject to his jurisdiction…

And, first, I hold that no church is bound, by the duty of toleration, to retain any such person in her bosom as, after admonition, continues obstinately to offend against the laws of the society.

This passage reminds me of my friend Luis, a staunch atheist, who went through a phase where he wanted a greater sense of “community.” To that end, he attended a Congregationalist service in our neighborhood.  At the cookies-and-punch reception afterwards, Luis asked the people there if they had any space in their congregation for an atheist. “I found them to be very intolerant,” he said to me with complete sincerity afterwards. It turns out no one felt he could become a member of the congregation. “Luis, it’s like you took a golden retriever to a Collie Club meeting,” I said. “The collie people aren’t intolerant just because they insist there’s no place for a golden retriever in a collie club. It’s a COLLIE club.”

For, these being the condition of communion and the bond of the society, if the breach of them were permitted without any animadversion[4] the society would immediately be thereby dissolved. But, nevertheless, in all such cases care is to be taken that the sentence of excommunication, and the execution thereof, carry with it no rough usage of word or action whereby the ejected person may any wise be damnified in body or estate. For all force (as has often been said) belongs only to the magistrate, nor ought any private persons at any time to use force, unless it be in self-defence against unjust violence. Excommunication neither does, nor can, deprive the excommunicated person of any of those civil goods that he formerly possessed. All those things belong to the civil government and are under the magistrate’s protection…

Secondly, no private person has any right in any manner to prejudice another person in his civil enjoyments because he is of another church or religion. All the rights and franchises that belong to him as a man, or as a denizen[5], are inviolably to be preserved to him…

What I say concerning the mutual toleration of private persons differing from one another in religion, I understand also of particular churches which stand, as it were, in the same relation to each other as private persons among themselves: nor has any one of them any manner of jurisdiction over any other; no, not even when the civil magistrate (as it sometimes happens) comes to be of this or the other communion. For the civil government can give no new right to the church, nor the church to the civil government. So that, whether the magistrate join himself to any church, or separate from it, the church remains always as it was before — a free and voluntary society. It neither requires the power of the sword by the magistrate’s coming to it, nor does it lose the right of instruction and excommunication by his going from it. This is the fundamental and immutable right of a spontaneous society — that it has power to remove any of its members who transgress the rules of its institution; but it cannot, by the accession of any new members, acquire any right of jurisdiction over those that are not joined with it. And therefore peace, equity, and friendship are always mutually to be observed by particular churches, in the same manner as by private persons, without any pretence of superiority or jurisdiction over one another…

Nobody, therefore, in fine, neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion. Those that are of another opinion would do well to consider with themselves how pernicious a seed of discord and war, how powerful a provocation to endless hatreds, rapines, and slaughters they thereby furnish unto mankind. No peace and security, no, not so much as common friendship, can ever be established or preserved amongst men so long as this opinion prevails, that dominion is founded in grace and that religion is to be propagated by force of arms…

Every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery; whose happiness depending upon his believing and doing those things in this life which are necessary to the obtaining of God’s favour, and are prescribed by God to that end. It follows from thence, first, that the observance of these things is the highest obligation that lies upon mankind and that our utmost care, application, and diligence ought to be exercised in the search and performance of them…

But besides their souls, which are immortal, men have also their temporal lives here upon earth; the state whereof being frail and fleeting, and the duration uncertain, they have need of several outward conveniences to the support thereof, which are to be procured or preserved by pains and industry. For those things that are necessary to the comfortable support of our lives are not the spontaneous products of nature, nor do offer themselves fit and prepared for our use… forasmuch as men thus entering into societies, grounded upon their mutual compacts of assistance for the defence of their temporal goods, may, nevertheless, be deprived of them, either by the rapine and fraud of their fellow citizens, or by the hostile violence of foreigners, the remedy of this evil consists in arms, riches, and… in laws; and the care of all things relating both to one and the other is committed by the society to the civil magistrate…

The purpose of the Commonwealth.

These things being thus explained, it is easy to understand to what end the legislative power ought to be directed and by what measures regulated…And it is also evident what liberty remains to men in reference to their eternal salvation, and that is that every one should do what he in his conscience is persuaded to be acceptable to the Almighty, on whose good pleasure and acceptance depends their eternal happiness. For obedience is due, in the first place, to God and, afterwards to the laws.

But some may ask: “What if the magistrate should enjoin anything by his authority that appears unlawful to the conscience of a private person?” I answer that, if government be faithfully administered and the counsels of the magistrates be indeed directed to the public good, this will seldom happen. But if, perhaps, it do so fall out, I say, that such a private person is to abstain from the action that he judges unlawful, and he is to undergo the punishment which it is not unlawful for him to bear. For the private judgement of any person concerning a law enacted in political matters, for the public good, does not take away the obligation of that law, nor deserve a dispensation. But if the law, indeed, be concerning things that lie not within the verge of the magistrate’s authority (as, for example, that the people, or any party amongst them, should be compelled to embrace a strange religion, and join in the worship and ceremonies of another Church), men are not in these cases obliged by that law, against their consciences. For the political society is instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man’s possession of the things of this life. The care of each man’s soul and of the things of heaven, which neither does belong to the commonwealth nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to every man’s self…

But to come to particulars. I say, first, no opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate. But of these, indeed, examples in any Church are rare.

Locke believes few religions in the world will preach a doctrine that undermines the foundation of a properly ordered commonwealth. If one does, then he is clear that civil society cannot tolerate it. But do you think he’s correct that such instances are rare?

For no sect can easily arrive to such a degree of madness as that it should think fit to teach, for doctrines of religion, such things as manifestly undermine the foundations of society and are, therefore, condemned by the judgement of all mankind; because their own interest, peace, reputation, everything would be thereby endangered.

Another more secret evil, but more dangerous to the commonwealth, is when men arrogate[6] to themselves, and to those of their own sect, some peculiar prerogative covered over with a specious show of deceitful words, but in effect opposite to the civil right of the community. For example: we cannot find any sect that teaches, expressly and openly, that men are not obliged to keep their promise; that princes may be dethroned by those that differ from them in religion; or

Slightly more than a hundred years before Locke wrote this, Pope Pius V issued a decree (called a “bull”) that excommunicated England’s Queen Elizabeth I, called her “the pretended Queen of England,” and absolved her subjects of any allegiance to her. What do you think Locke is implying in this paragraph about the place of Catholicism in late 17th century English society?

that the dominion of all things belongs only to themselves. For these things, proposed thus nakedly and plainly, would soon draw on them the eye and hand of the magistrate and awaken all the care of the commonwealth to a watchfulness against the spreading of so dangerous an evil. But, nevertheless, we find those that say the same things in other words. What else do they mean who teach that faith is not to be kept with heretics? Their meaning, forsooth, is that the privilege of breaking faith belongs unto themselves; for they declare all that are not of their communion to be heretics, or at least may declare them so whensoever they think fit. What can be the meaning of their asserting that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms? It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the power of deposing kings, because they challenge the power of excommunication, as the peculiar right of their hierarchy… These, therefore, and the like, who attribute unto the faithful, religious, and orthodox, that is, in plain terms, unto themselves, any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals, in civil concernments; or who upon pretence of religion do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion, I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate… For what do all these and the like doctrines signify, but that they may and are ready upon any occasion to seize the Government and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects; and that they only ask leave to be tolerated by the magistrate so long until they find themselves strong enough to effect it…

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.

Remember that Locke said this when you read Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. As for other practical opinions, though not absolutely free from all error, if they do not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated…


  1. The initial letter was probably written to Philip van Limborch, a Protestant theologian from Amsterdam.
  2. Paul the Apostle was from Tarsus, in what is now Turkey.  He came from a prominent Jewish family, but converted to Christianity.  He devoted his life to spreading the message of Christianity throughout the Middle East.  Thirteen of the 27 books in the Christian New Testament are attributed to Paul.
  3. a lack of pain
  4. “animadversion” = censure
  5. “denizen” = a foreigner who is accorded certain rights in his or her adopted country
  6. “arrogate” = to claim without justification

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