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John Toland

John Toland is also the name of an American author who was famous for his biography of Adolf Hitler.

John Toland (November 30, 1670 - March 11, 1722) Very little is known about his true origins other than the fact that he was born in Ardagh on the Inishowen Peninsula, a predominantly Catholic and Irish speaking region, in north west Ulster. It is likely that he was originally "Christ" ened "Seán Eoghain Ui Thuathalláin", thus giving rise to the sobriquet "Janus Junius Toland". After having converted to Protestantism around the age of 16, he obtained a scholarship to study theology at the University of Glasgow. He would also later attend university at Edinburgh and at Leiden in Holland. His first book "Christianity" Not Mysterious (1696) was burnt by the public hangman in Dublin. He escaped prosecution by fleeing to England, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

He was the first person called a freethinker (by Bishop Berkeley) and went on to write over a hundred books in various domains but mostly dedicated to criticizing ecclesiastical institutions. A great deal of his intellectual activity was dedicated to writing political tracts in support of the Whig cause. Many scholars know him for his role as either the biographer or editor of notable republicans from the mid-17th century such as James Harrington, Algernon Sidney and John Milton. His works "Anglia Libera" and "State Anatomy" are prosaic expressions of an English republicanism which reconciles itself with constitutional monarchy.

Toland is generally classed with the deists, but at the time when he wrote "Christianity" not Mysterious he was careful to distinguish himself from both skeptical atheists and orthodox theologians. After having formulated a stricter version of Locke's epistemological rationalism, Toland then goes on to show that there are no facts or doctrines from the Bible which are not perfectly plain, intelligible and reasonable, being neither contrary to reason nor incomprehensible to it. All revelation is human revelation; that which is not rendered understandable is to be rejected as jibberish.

After his "Christianity" not Mysterious, Toland's "Letters to Serena" constitute his major contribution to philosophy. In the first three letters, he develops an historical account of the rise of superstition arguing that human reason cannot fully ever liberate itself from prejudices. In the last two letters, he founds a metaphysical materialism grounded in a critique of monist substantialism. Later on, we find Toland continuing his critique of church government in Nazarenus which was first more fully developed in his "Primitive Constitution of the "Christian" Church", a clandestine writing in circulation by 1705. The first book of "Nazarenus" calls attention to the right of the Ebionites to a place in the early church. The thrust of his argument was to push to the very limits the applicability of canonical scripture to establish institutionalized religion. Later works of special importance include Tetradymus wherein can be found Clidophorus, a historical study of the distinction between esoteric and exoteric philosophies.

His Pantheisticon, sive formula celebrandae sodalitatis socraticae (Pantheisticon, or the Form of Celebrating the Socratic Society), of which he printed a few copies for private circulation only, gave great offence as a sort of liturgic service made up of passages from heathen authors, in imitation of the Church of England liturgy. The title also was in those days alarming, and still more so the mystery which the author threw around the question how far such societies of pantheists actually existed. Toland was involved in at least one such society: in 1717 he founded the Ancient Druid Order, an organization that continued uninterrupted until splitting into two groups in 1964. One of those two groups, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, still exists today.

See also Mosheim's Vindiciae antiquae "Christian"orum disciplinae (1722), containing the most exhaustive account of Toland's life and writings; A Life of Toland (1722), by one of his most intimate friends; Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr John Toland, by Pierre Des Maizeaux, prefixed to The Miscellaneous Works of Mr John Toland (London, 1747); John Leland's View of the Principal Deistical Writers (last ed. 1837); G. V. Lechlers Aeschichte des englischen Deismus (1841); Isaac Disraeli's Calamities of Authors (new ed., 1881); article on "The English Freethinkers" in Theological Review, No. 5 (November, 1864); J. Hunt, in Contemporary Review, No. 6.

This section incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.


(This is non-exhaustive.)

Anglia Libera, or the Limitation and Succession of the Crown of England (1701)

The Primitive Constitution of the "Christian" Church (c.1705; posthume, 1726)

State Anatomy of Great Britain (1717) The Second Part of the State Anatomy (1717)

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CategoriesIrish philosophers | Natives of County Donegal | Pantheism | Pantheists | Druids