A Letter concerning Toleration

A Letter concerning Toleration

A Letter concerning Toleration

A Letter concerning Toleration

Excerpt

The principal mark of a great book is that it can be read and understood without exploring its specific historical circumstances. Still, ideas have a natural history as well as a dialectical timelessness. We should, therefore, learn something from the attempt to fit a man's book into his own life and his own age. This is particularly the case with A Letter Concerning Toleration. For here John Locke is not only revealing his own mind; he is at the same time reacting against the sectarian climate of opinion prevailing in his day together with its attendant waves of religious persecution. Thus the Letter turns out to be an important document for the historian of seven- teenth-century England. In fact, it may be regarded as the theoretical counterpart of the Toleration Act of 1689, the religious by-product of the "Glorious Revolution," of which Locke was to become explicit apologist the year following in Two Treatises of Government. A few details about the origins and career of the Letter should be suggestive of the trials and tribulations of seventeenth-century British life.

Reflecting a timorous and taciturn soul, Locke's thoughts concerning toleration, like his ideas on everything else, took a long time to gestate and reach the public's attention. All of his religious writings carry the Latitudinarian stamp of his student days at Oxford, where he came under the influence of the English theologian, John Owen, one of the earliest pioneers in the struggle for the freedom of worship. Our author's very first work (1660), an unpublished essay entitled Whether the Civil Magistrate May Lawfully Impose and Determine the Use of Indifferent Things in Reference to Religious Worship, the substance of which is incorporated in the Letter, anticipates his constant plea for "mutual toleration" throughout his life.

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