John Locke was widely read by Americans during the 18th century. We’ve already read Locke’s argument about the state of nature and natural rights. Below, you’ll find excerpts from Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” Locke spends much of his time talking about the importance of tolerating of rival Christian sects, but if you read to the end, you’ll see what Locke has to say about tolerating non-Christians.
A LETTER Concerning TOLERATION
LICENSED, Octob. 3. 1689.
The Second Edition Corrected
LONDON, Printed for Awnsham Churchill
at the Black Swan in Ave-Mary Lane.
TO THE READER
The Ensuing Letter concerning Toleration, first Printed in Latin this very Year, in Holland, has already been Translated both into Dutch and French.2 So general and speedy an Approbation may therefore bespeak its favourable Reception in England. I think indeed there is no Nation under Heaven, in which so much has already been said upon that Subject, as Ours. But yet certainly there is no People that stand in more need of having something further both said and done amongst them, in this Point, than We do.
Our Government has not only been partial in Matters of Religion; but those also who have suffered under that Partiality, and have therefore endeavoured by their Writings to vindicate their own Rights and Liberties, have for the most part done it upon narrow Principles, suited only to the Interests of their own Sects.
This narrowness of Spirit on all sides has undoubtedly been the principal  Occasion of our Miseries and Confusions. But whatever have been the Occasion, it is now high time to seek for a thorow Cure. We have need of more generous Remedies than what have yet been made use of in our Distemper. It is neither Declarations of Indulgence,3 nor Acts of Comprehension,4 such as have yet been practised or projected amongst us, that can do the Work. The first will but palliate, the second encrease our Evil.
Absolute Liberty, 5 Just and True Liberty, Equal and Impartial Liberty, is the thing that we stand in need of. Now tho this has indeed been much talked of, I doubt it has not been much understood; I am sure not at all practised, either by our Governours towards the People, in general, or by any dissenting Parties of the People towards one another.
I cannot therefore but hope that this Discourse, which treats of that Subject, however briefly, yet more exactly than any we have yet seen, demonstrating both the Equitableness and Practicableness of the thing, will be esteemed highly  seasonable, by all Men that have Souls large enough to prefer the true Interest of the Publick before that of a Party.
It is for the use of such as are already so spirited, or to inspire that Spirit into those that are not, that I have Translated it into our Language. But the thing it self is so short, that it will not bear a longer Preface. I leave it therefore to the Consideration of my Countrymen, and heartily wish they may make the use of it that it appears to be designed for.
A Letter Concerning Toleration.↩
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 Characteristical Mark of the True Church.6 For whatsoever some People boast of the Antiquity of Places and Names, or of the Pomp of their Outward Worship; Others, of the Reformation of their Discipline; All, of the Orthodoxy of their Faith; (for every one is Orthodox to himself): these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather Marks of Men  striving for Power and Empire over one another, than of the Church of Christ. Let any one have never so true a Claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of Charity, Meekness, and Good-will in general towards all Mankind; even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself. The Kings of the Gentiles exercise Lordship over them, said our Saviour to his Disciples, but ye shall not be so, Luke 22:25. The Business of True Religion is quite another thing. It is not instituted in order to the erecting of an external Pomp, nor to the obtaining of Ecclesiastical Dominion, nor to the exercising of Compulsive Force; but to the regulating of Mens Lives according to the Rules of Vertue and Piety. Whosoever will list himself under the Banner of Christ, must in the first place, and above all things, make War upon his own Lusts and Vices. 7 It is in vain for any Man to usurp the Name of Christian, without Holiness of Life, Purity of Manners, and Benignity and Meekness of Spirit.8
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The Commonwealth seems to me to be a Society of Men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing of their own Civil Interests.21
Civil Interests I call Life, Liberty, Health, and Indolency of Body;22 and the 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 any one presume to violate the Laws of Publick Justice and Equity, established for the Preservation of these things,23his Presumption is to be check’d by the fear of Punishment, consisting in the Deprivationf 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 compell any one to his Religion. Nor can any such Power be vested in the Magistrate by the Consent of the People;24 because no man can so far abandon the care of his own Salvation, as blindly to leave it 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 consists in the inward and full perswasion of the mind: And Faith is not Faith without believing.25 Whatever Profession we make, to whatever outward Worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our 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 Hypocrisie, 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 perswasion of the Mind; without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the Understanding, that it cannot be compell’d to the belief of any thing by outward Force. Confiscation of Estate, Imprisonment, Torments, nothing of that Nature can have any such Efficacy as to make Men change the inward Judgment that they have framed of things.
It may indeed be alledged, that the Magistrate may make use of Arguments,  and thereby draw the Heterodox into the way of Truth, and procure their Salvation. I grant it. But this is common to him with other Men. In teaching, instructing, and redressing the Erroneous by Reason, he may certainly do what becomes any good Man to do. Magistracy does not oblige him to put offeither Humanity or Christianity. But it is one thing to perswade, another to command: One thing to press with Arguments, another with Penalties. This the Civil Power alone has a Right to do: to the other Good-will is Authority enough. Every Man has Commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of Error; and by reasoning to draw him into Truth. But to give Laws, receive Obedience, and compel with the Sword, belongs to none but the Magistrate. And upon this ground I affirm, that the Magistrate’s Power extends not to the establishing of any Articles of Faith, or Forms of Worship, by the force of his Laws. For Laws are of no force at all without Penalties, and Penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent; because they are not proper26 to convince the mind. Neither the Profession of any Articles of Faith, nor the Conformity to any outward Form of Worship (as has already been said) can be available to the Salvation of Souls; unless the Truth of the one, and the acceptableness of the other unto God, be thoroughly believed by those that so profess and practise. But Penalties are no ways capable to produce such Belief. It is only Light and Evidence that can work a change in Mens Opinions. And that Light can in no manner proceed from corporal Sufferings, or any other outward Penalties.27
In the third place. The care of the Salvation of Mens Souls cannot belong to the Magistrate; because, though the rigour of Laws and the force of Penalties were capable to convince and change Mens minds, yet would not that help at all to the Salvation of their Souls. For there being but one Truth, one way to heaven; what hopes is there that more Men would be led into it, if they had no other Rule to follow but the Religion of the Court; and were put under a necessity to quit the Light of their own Reason; to oppose the Dictates of their own Consciences; and blindly to resign up themselves to the Will of their Governors, and to the  Religion, which either Ignorance, Ambition, or Superstition had chanced to28establish in the Countries where they were born? In the variety and contradiction of Opinions in Religion, wherein the Princes of the World are as much divided as in their Secular Interests, the narrow way would be much straitned.29 One Country alone would be in the right, and all the rest of the World would be put under an Obligation of following their Princes in the ways that lead to Destruction.30 And that which heightens the absurdity, and very ill suits the Notion of a Deity, Men would owe their eternal Happiness or Misery to the places of their Nativity.
These Considerations, to omit many others that might have been urged to the same purpose, seem unto me sufficient to conclude that all the Power of Civil Government relates only to Mens Civil Interests; is confined to the care of the things of this World; and hath nothing to do with the World to come.
Let us now consider what a Church is. A Church then I take to be a voluntary Society31of Men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to
the Salvation of their Souls.
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The end of a Religious Society (as has already been said) is the Publick 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.
But it may be asked, By what means then shall Ecclesiastical Laws be established, if they must be thus destitute of all compulsive Power. I answer, They must be established by means suitable to the Nature of such Things, whereof the external Profession and Observation, if not proceeding from a thorow Conviction and Approbation of the Mind, is altogether  useless and unprofitable. The Arms by which the Members of this Society are to be kept within their Duty, are Exhortations, Admonitions, and Advices. If by these means the Offenders will not be reclaimed, and the Erroneous convinced, there remains nothing farther to be done, but that such stubborn and obstinate Persons, who give no ground to hope for their Reformation, should be cast out and separated from the Society.39 This is the last and utmost Force of Ecclesiastical Authority. No other Punishment can thereby be inflicted, than that the relation ceasing between the Body and the Member which is cut off, the Person so condemned ceases to be a part of that Church.
These things being thus determined, let us inquire in the next place, how far the Duty of Toleration extends; and what is required from every one by it.
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. For these being the Condition of Communion, and the Bond of the Society; If the Breach of them were permitted without any Animadversion, 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 damnified40 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. The whole Force of Excommunication consists only in this, that the Resolution of the Society in that respect being declared, the Union that was between the Body and some Member comes thereby to be dissolved; and that Relation ceasing; the participation of some certain things, which the Society communicated to its Members, and unto which no Man has any Civil Right, comes also to cease. For there is no Civil Injury done unto the excommunicated Person, by the Church-Minister’s refusing him that Bread and Wine, in the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which was not bought with his, but other mens Money.
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 Franchises41 that belong to him as a Man, or as a Denison,42 are inviolably to be Preserved to him. These are not the Business of Religion. No Violence nor Injury is to be offered him, whether he be Christian or Pagan. Nay, we must not content our selves with the narrow Measures of bare Justice. Charity, Bounty, and Liberality must be added to it. This the Gospel enjoyns; this Reason directs; and this that natural Fellowship we are born into requires of us. If any man err from the right way, it is his own Misfortune, no Injury to thee: Nor therefore art thou to punish him in the things of this Life, because thou supposest he will be miserable in that which is to come.
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No body therefore, in fine,49 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,50 and that Religion is to be propagated by force of Arms.
In the third Place, Let us see what the Duty of Toleration requires from those who are distinguished from the rest of Mankind, (from the Laity, as  they please to call us) by some Ecclesiastical Character and Office; whether they be Bishops, Priests, Presbyters, Ministers, or however else dignified or distinguished. It is not my Business to enquire here into the Original of the Power or Dignity of the Clergy. This only I say, That whence-soever their Authority be sprung, since it is Ecclesiastical, it ought to be confined within the Bounds of the Church, nor can it in any manner be extended to Civil Affairs; because the Church it self is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the Commonwealth. The Boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He jumbles Heaven and Earth together, the things most remote and opposite, who mixes these Societies; which are in their Original, End, Business, and in every thing, perfectly distinct, and infinitely different from each other. No man therefore, with whatsoever Ecclesiastical Office he be dignified, can deprive another man, that is not of his Church and Faith, either of Liberty, or of any part of his Worldly Goods, upon the account of that difference which is between them in Religion. For whatever is not lawful to the whole Church, cannot, by any Ecclesiastical Right, become lawful to any of its Members.
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In the last place. Let us now consider what is the Magistrate’s Duty in the Business of Toleration; which certainly is very considerable.
We have already proved, That the Care of Souls does not belong to the Magistrate.
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Concerning outward Worship, I say (in the first place) that the Magistrate has no Power to enforce by Law, either in his own Church, or much less in another, the use of any Rites or Ceremonies whatsoever in the Worship of God. And this, not only because these Churches are free Societies; but because whatsoever is practiced in the Worship of God, is only so far justifiable as it is believed by those that practise it to be acceptable unto him. Whatsoever is not done with that Assurance of Faith, is neither well in it self,74 nor can it be acceptable to God. To impose such things therefore upon any People, contrary to their own Judgment, is in effect to command them to offend God; Which, considering that the end of all Religion is to please him, and that Liberty is essentially necessary to that End, appears to be absurd beyond expression.
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In the next place: As the Magistrate has no Power to impose by his Laws, the use of any Rites and Ceremonies in any Church; so neither has he any Power84 to forbid the use of such Rites and Ceremonies as are already received, approved, and practised by any Church. Because if he did so, he would destroy the Church it self; the end of whose Institution is only to worship God with freedom, after its own manner.
You will say, by this Rule, if some Congregations should have a mind to sacrifice Infants, or (as the Primitive Christians were falsly accused) lustfully pollute themselves in promiscuous Uncleanness, or practise any other such heinous Enormities,85 is the Magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in a Religious Assembly? I answer, No. These things are not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house; and therefore neither are they so in the Worship of God, or in any Religious Meeting.
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These things being thus explain’d, it is easie to understand to what end the Legislative Power ought to be directed, and by what Measures regulated;121 and that is the Temporal Good and outward Prosperity of the Society; which is the sole Reason of Mens entring into Society, and the only thing they seek and aim at in it. 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 perswaded to be acceptable  to the Almighty, on whose good pleasure and acceptance depends his eternal Happiness. For Obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the Laws.
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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 Humane  Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.138 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, yet 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.
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But those whose Doctrine is peaceable, and whose Manners are pure and blameless, ought to be upon equal Terms with their Fellow Subjects. Thus if Solemn Assemblies, Observations of Festivals, Publick Worship, be permitted to any one sort of Professors; all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers,157 and others, with the same liberty. Nay if we may openly speak the Truth and as becomes one Man to another; neither Pagan, nor Mahumetan,  nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the Civil Rights of the Commonwealth, because of his Religion.158 The Gospel commands no such thing. The Church, which judges not those that are without, 1 Corinthians 5:12–13, wants it not. And the Commonwealth, which embraces indifferently all men that are honest, peaceable, and industrious, requires it not.