Deism and the Early Enlightenment at the Worth Library

Deism and the Early Enlightenment at the Worth Library


The initial impetus for the emergence of deism in the eighteenth century was the major advances in both scientific and philosophical thinking that occurred in the previous centuries. The scientific revolution transformed the intellectual landscape through the methodologies and findings of figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), René Descartes (1596-1650), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Coupled with this, the work of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), queried the authority and authorship of the Bible and the possibility of divine intervention in worldly affairs, whilst John Locke’s (1632-1704) empiricist epistemology had a seminal influence upon the growth of the Enlightenment. Whilst in some cases this work did not openly challenge religious orthodoxy, it tacitly undermined faith-based beliefs through the application of empirical enquiry. Through experimentation it was demonstrated that the world was governed by universal laws and was intelligible to mankind through observation. The implications of adopting a sceptical approach to tradition, biblical authority, and the limits of human understanding, was that the advocacy of intellectual freedom in a spirit of free enquiry could lead to potentially heterodox religious views which were seen as a substantial challenge to both state and ecclesiastical authority. Such concerns provoked anxiety surrounding the destabilising influence such views would have on social order and cohesion. Deism was one such movement.

Deism is not a singular movement. Each of the individuals who have been classified as deists did not subscribe to a clearly defined set of beliefs and the three deist writers in this exhibition, John Toland (1670-1722), Matthew Tindal (1657-1733), and Anthony Collins (1676-1729), had ‘multiple identities’ (Hudson: 2009, p. 27). This exhibition focuses on the material within Edward Worth’s (1676-1733) collection. These three writers were the most prominent of those classified as deists but there were also influential precursors such as Edward Herbert (1583-1648) and Charles Blount (1563-1606), as well as numerous contemporaries who were often classified as deists such as, Thomas Woolston  (1668-1733), Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), Thomas Morgan (died 1743) William Wollaston (1659-1724), Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), and Peter Annet (1693-1769).

Some common characteristics of deism include a call for rational enquiry, the superiority of reason over divine revelation, and a critical attitude towards the established religions of the period, especially clerical influence and exclusivist claims to truth. They advanced heterodox views such as the assertion that God does not intervene in the world and denied the possibility of miracles. However, not all deists subscribed to all of these arguments and the term does not denote an all encompassing philosophical or theological position. Their stated outlooks are also complicated by their social and cultural content. The public forums for the discussion of views that challenged prevailing orthodoxy were within narrow confines so some may have practised what David Berman termed ‘the art of theological lying’ (Berman: 1987), whereby their texts stated claims to belief in God were cover for more radical atheistic views. However, it was their role in articulating a public critique of established religion that helped to widen the parameters of public discourse more evident in the later High Enlightenment. The controversy caused by the rise of deism was an enormous contribution to intellectual life in the eighteenth century and the arguments of these thinkers place them amongst the architects of the Enlightenment and ‘powerful agents of modernity’ (Gay: 1968, p. 10).


John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1700 ed.), frontispiece portrait


What is the source of our knowledge? What are the limits of human understanding?

These are amongst the most important questions that John Locke sought to investigate when in 1689 he published, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

John Locke was born in England in 1632, the son of a legal clerk who later participated in the English Civil War (1642–1651), supporting the Parliamentarians. He was educated at both Westminster College and the University of Oxford. Having secured a number of posts at Oxford he left the university in 1667 to take up a role within the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683). From 1675 he travelled to both France and the Netherlands. He returned to England in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and in 1689 published his magnum opus. Locke attempted an ambitious project but brevity will not allow full justice to be given to its scope beyond touching upon a number of significant ideas in the work.

The work is divided into four books.

Book I examines the possibility that as humans we have access to innate knowledge.

Book II advances Locke’s arguments that experience is the source of human ideas.

Book II explores the role that language plays in our understanding of knowledge.

Book IV examines what constitutes knowledge and whether there are limits to our knowledge.


John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1700 ed.), title page


Locke begins his investigation in Book I by interrogating the source of our ideas which are the basis on which we construct knowledge. He challenges the prominent contemporary idea that humans possessed innate ideas. He does this by subjecting innateness to empirical analysis and concludes that there is no strong evidence to support it. Innate ideas are those which are ‘stamped upon the Mind of Man, which the Soul receives in its very first Being; and brings into the world with it’ (I.2.1.). Locke challenges some of the arguments advanced in favour of innate ideas. For example, the argument of universal consent argues that there are principles which are universally agreed upon by all humans which are held to support the existence of innate ideas. For Locke, not only does universal agreement not equate to innateness, but he denies the existence of universal agreement. He uses the example of children and the mentally disabled not comprehending certain propositions to disprove the existence of universal assent:

‘If therefore children and Idiots have souls, have minds, with those Impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these Truths, which, since they do not, it is evident that there are no such Impressions. For if they are not Notions naturally imprinted, How can they be innate? And if they are Notions imprinted, How can they be unknown? To say a Notion is imprinted on the Mind, and yet at the same time to say, that the mind is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this Impression nothing’. (I.2.5.)


This challenge to innate ideas was not simply epistemological but had far reaching practical implications, especially with regard to the basis for belief in a wide variety of issues. This was appreciated by Locke who wrote that belief in innate ideas ‘eased the lazy from the pains of search, and stopp’d the inquiry of the doubtful concerning all that was once styled innate: and it was of no small advantage to those who affected to be Masters and Teachers, to make this the Principle of Principles, That principles must not be questioned’. Such a position ensured that individual reason and judgement were not considered adequate. The result was a ‘posture of blind Credulity’ so that people could ‘be more easily governed by, and made useful to, some sort of Men, who had the skill and office to principle and guide them’. This has significant consequences for human relations as it gives certain individuals the power ‘to have the Authority to be the Dictator of Principles, and Teacher of unquestionable Truths’ (I.4.24.).

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1700 ed.), II.11.17.


Book II is concerned with Locke’s explanation of the source of ideas and knowledge. Locke maintains that experience is the source of all knowledge. He wrote that prior to experience the mind is ‘white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas’, what later writers would refer to as a tabula rasa (blank slate). He advances two types of experience: ‘Our Observation employ’d either about external Sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by our selves, is that, which Supplies our Understandings with all the materials of thinking’ (II.1.2.) The former are the ideas that are provided from our five senses. The latter refers to the mind reflecting upon its own operations, examples include thinking, believing, remembering, doubting. These two experiences provide us with simple ideas, the basic and fundamental units of thought, examples include colours and sounds. For Locke our minds can put a variety of simple ideas together to form complex ideas which can be of different varieties: ideas of modes, substances, and relations. Ideas of relations are relational concepts (eg. brother). Substances have independent existences (eg. animals). Modes are dependent upon substances (eg. numbers). These lead Locke to a discussion of a wide variety of ideas such as space, time, and solidity amongst other topics, as well as his exposition of the primary and secondary qualities of objects. Primary qualities are the characteristics of objects that exist independently of a perceiver such as its shape, texture, solidity, etc. whilst secondary qualities are the ability to produce ideas in perceivers such as colours, taste, smell, etc. This distinction is central to Locke’s examination of language in Book III.

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1700 ed.), Book IV.19.1.


This book is mainly focused upon the relationship between ideas and words. He investigates the names of substances and modes and argues that physical substance is composed of atoms about which we have no experience. We are familiar with the primary and secondary qualities (nominal essence) but have no knowledge of the composition at an atomic level (real essence). As a result our naming conventions do not derive from the real essence. Here, Locke aims to highlight how the misuse of language is a barrier to knowledge. Language is the primary means of communication between humans and how we express our ideas. But, we also need our words to convey the same idea to those with whom we are communicating or else communication through language would be impossible. Some problems that arise include that words do not carry constant meanings. The meaning of the words used may also not be the same as the nature of that which it denotes. Many of our words convey complex ideas which some will experience difficulty in using in the suitable way due to an insufficient understanding of its meaning. The solutions Locke proposes are only using words of which we have a clear idea and ones that consistently represent the same idea, as well as defining words where necessary.


John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1700 ed.), Book IV.16.4.


Book IV is concerned with what constitutes knowledge and the limits of human understanding. Knowledge is defined as ‘the perception of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas’ (IV.1.2.). If knowledge is only possible through perception humans are limited in what they can know with certainty. If the real essence is unavailable to us our knowledge of the material world relies on probability rather than certainty. Locke primarily focuses on two main types of knowledge. Intuitive knowledge when the individual directly perceives the relationship between ideas. Demonstrative knowledge is the perception of the relationship between ideas through intermediate ideas. The work confines the extent of human knowledge within a limited scope. Locke encouraged his readers not to despair at his conclusions arguing that ‘some Things are not to be understood’ and we have sufficient knowledge for our needs. He wrote that:

‘‘Tis of great use to the Sailor, to know the length of his Line, though he cannot with it fathom all the depths of the Ocean. ‘Tis well he knows, that it is long enough to reach the bottom, at such Places, as are necessary to direct his Voyage, and caution him against running upon Shoals, that may ruin him. Our Business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our Conduct. If we can find out those Measures, whereby a rational Creature put in that State, in which Man is in, in this World, may, and ought to govern his Opinions, and Actions depending thereon, we need not to be troubled that some other things escape our Knowledge (I.1.6.).’


John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1700 ed.), Book IV.20.12.


Edward Worth’s collection includes not only a copy of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding but also Locke’s later work Two Treatises on Government (1689), a landmark publication in political philosophy that was to exert an influence on both the American and French Revolutions. The collection also includes the collected works of John Locke which contain other influential texts including, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693), and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

The influence of Locke’s work was immense and he was to have a seminal influence upon the growth of the Enlightenment. Hans Aarsleff has called Locke ‘the most influential philosopher of modern times’ on the basis that his work ‘set us free from the burden of tradition and authority, both in theology and knowledge, by showing that the entire grounds of our right conduct in the world can be secured by the experience we may gain by the innate faculties and powers we are born with’ (Aarsleff: 1994, p. 252). Locke’s empiricist epistemology also played a central role in developing the ideas of later writers such as John Toland (1670-1722), Matthew Tindal (1657-1733), and Anthony Collins (1676-1729).


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) can be regarded as amongst the most influential political philosophers of all time. His master work Leviathan concentrates on social and political order. It is an early example of social contract theory and his analysis was that harmony could be achieved if people provided absolute submission to a singular sovereign power. Such a conclusion can be seen as provoked by his political environment where wars had ravaged both England and Continental Europe. Consequently, his view was that any governing regime that imposed order and provided security, no matter how repressive in other respects, was preferable to wars ‘or that dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge’ (Leviathan, p. 141). Hobbes premises his views upon consideration of life in the state of nature where people posses unassailable autonomy and wrote in an oft quoted passage that the dangers of this state ensure that human life is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, p. 99). Leviathan is a work that covers a wide range of issues. For present purposes, his approach to religion, especially biblical criticism, is relevant.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London, 1651), frontispiece.


Hobbes provides a critical examination of prophecy and argues for a naturalistic explanation. He undermined the claims of those who assert they experienced a vision of God. For him their experience is akin to a having a dream about God: ‘to say he hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say that he dreamed God spake to him, which is not of force to win belief from any man that knows dreams are for the most part natural and may proceed from former thoughts’ (Leviathan, p. 288). For someone to declare otherwise and believe that they had been given special access to revelation was the product of ‘selfe conceit, and foolish arrogance, and false opinion of a mans own godlinesse, or other vertue, by which he thinks he hath merited the favour of extraordinary Revelation’ (Leviathan, p. 288).

In his investigation of miracles a similarly sceptical approach is advocated. He does not explicitly deny miracles but the strong inference is that they are the result of ‘Arts of Magick, and Incantation’ rather than divine intervention. He once again utilises biblical exegesis and compares the miraculous acts recounted in Exodus:

‘As for example, when we read that after the Rod of Moses being cast on the ground became a Serpent, the Magicians of Egypt did the like by their Enchantments; and that after Moses had turned the waters of the Egyptian Streams, Rivers, Ponds, and Pooles of water into blood, the Magicians of Egypt did so likewise, with their Enchantments.’


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London, 1651): Of Miracles.


Hobbes concludes that if pagan magicians in Egypt could replicate these acts of God it must be the result of ‘Imposture, and delusion, wrought by ordinary means’ and therefore ‘those texts that seem to countenance the power of Magick, Witchcraft, and Enchantment, must needs have another sense, than at first sight they seem to bear’. (Leviathan, p. 342). For Hobbes, such as position is threatening to social and political stability as the ‘ordinary ignorance, stupidity, and superstition of mankind’ leave them susceptible to the intrigues of those seeking to deceive them. Hobbes provides a number of examples, such as the power that could be wielded by someone who knew an eclipse was about to occur and publicly predicted it and claimed divine revelation for their knowledge. In such a scenario the person may be regarded as a prophet and therefore convince people to carry out any number of destabilising actions (Leviathan, pp. 342-3). He wrote that if the fear of superstition ‘by which crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people’ could be removed people ‘would be much more fitted than they are for civil obedience. And this ought to be the work of the schools; but they rather nourish such doctrine’ (Leviathan, p. 18).

This rejection of supernaturalism must be understood in the context of Hobbes’ political system which places the sovereign as the supreme authority. His materialist conception of world was necessary for his political project as a supernatural realm would delimit the supreme authority of an earthly sovereign. His hermeneutic was connected to his advocacy of state supremacy in religious affairs. This also impacted on ecclesiastical structures where it was asserted that appointments to an episcopacy or claims of clerical power from God to preach and administer sacraments were in fact an authority that was derived from the sovereign. Hobbes dismissed supernatural elements espoused by religious bodies and instead argued that all authority extending from ordination to scriptural interpretation were to be the exclusive power of the sovereign and advocated subservience to the supreme civil authority. The reason for this was the diversity of interpretations surrounding religious affairs. In Hobbes’s view a singular interpretation advocated by the sovereign should be adopted and publically supported by all. However, he was primarily concerned with the expression of religious convictions not belief in them. Private beliefs that differed were acceptable so long as public advocacy of the stated belief system was maintained. This was his means of eradicating sectarian violence and competing scriptural and ecclesial claims. Hobbes’ methodology had a significant impact on future efforts at biblical analysis. His critical reading of scripture ranks him, along with Baruch Spinoza, as one of the earliest exponents of modern biblical exegesis.


Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670)


The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was one of the most controversial and revolutionary texts produced in the early modern period. Jonathan Israel has described it as ‘one of the most profoundly influential philosophical texts in the history of western thought’. (Israel: 2007, p. viii) while Steven Nadler has called it ‘one of the most important books of western thought ever written’ (Nadler: 2011, p. xi).


Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Hamburg, 1670), title page


Its author was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). He was born into an Amsterdam merchant family in 1632. A member of that city’s Jewish community he was educated at the Talmud Torah School, leaving formal education aged seventeen to take up a role with his father’s importing business. His unorthodox views eventually resulted in excommunication from his faith for what were unspecified ‘monstrous deeds’ and ‘abominable heresies’. He subsequently articulated his views in a number of works, foremost amongst these were the posthumous Ethics (1677), and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus published anonymously in 1670.

Spinoza’s broad aim in the Tractatus was to increase individual freedom by limiting the remit of religious authority and establishing the distinctions between philosophy and theology. For him the aim of philosophy was to determine rational truth while the aim of theology was obedience. Spinoza sought to explain how ecclesiastical authorities asserted their power over people and challenged contemporary views regarding revealed religion, clerical influence, and scriptural coherency. His approach at undermining this influence was to demonstrate the basis of intolerance, inter-denominational enmity, and intellectual narrowness lay in erroneous understandings and interpretations of biblical texts regarding issues such as miracles and prophecy. Spinoza held that these could be demonstrated to be the result of vivid imaginations rather than divinely inspired interventions and revelation.


Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Hamburg, 1670), p. 1.


The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is a seminal work of political philosophy but also influential in the development of biblical exegesis which was used to bolster his political aims to limit the power of religious authorities within the state. His influential approach to the study of the Bible was to begin an examination free from prejudicial judgments regarding its content and composition. The hermeneutical approach adopted was an important development and his emphasis upon historical context and appreciation of the belief systems of a given historical period in analysing a text, utilising reason as a tool of analysis, was a notable development. Regarding prophets in the Bible Spinoza argues that they were not ‘endowed with more perfect minds’ than other humans ‘but only a more vivid power of imagination’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 30). He argued that the position of the narrator is significant and their biases need to be taken into account. These are determined through psychological, physiological, and cultural factors: the mood of the prophet, his temperament, and, most importantly, the superstitions and prejudices that were part of his cultural upbringing. His approach highlights a key distinction in his methodology, that of ‘true meaning’ and the ‘truth of fact’. The former involves investigating the assumptions and meaning intended by the author. This requires understanding the historical context in which the work was produced taking into account, for example, contemporary linguistic conventions. The investigation of the true meaning may not bear any relation to factual truth which is understood as an absolute physical reality. To achieve understanding of a text such as the Bible requires not a judgement on what is true, or the product of divine revelation, but a critical historical methodology informed by the context in which the narrative was produced. This necessitated the removal of all supernatural elements in an explanatory mechanism that was rooted in a naturalistic interpretation of human existence.


Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Hamburg, 1670), index.


Spinoza’s work is also notable for its treatment of miracles. He argues that miracles are impossible as ‘no event can occur to contravene nature which preserves an eternal, fixed and immutable order’. For Spinoza the laws of nature are divine and eternal and if people assent to belief in their suspension they would ‘be compelled to assert that God acts contrary to his own nature…nothing is more absurd’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 83). He goes on to write that belief in miracles that contravene natural law would enhance doubt in God’s existence and ‘would make us doubt our faith in all things and lead us to atheism’. (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 87). He argues that in the Bible God is represented as interventionist but this ignores the natural causes of events. For Spinoza, the purpose of this was to ‘impress devotion upon the minds of the common people.’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 90). Spinoza bolsters his arguments here by providing biblical references to ‘miracles’ and noting that their occurrence is often preceded by natural events. He concluded that:

‘all things that are truly reported to have happened in Scripture necessarily happened according to the laws of nature, as all things do. If anything is found which can be demonstrated conclusively to contradict the laws of nature or which could not possibly to follow from them, we must accept in every case that it was interpolated into the Bible by blasphemous persons. For whatever is contrary to nature, is contrary to reason, and what is contrary to reason, is absurd, and accordingly to be rejected.’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 91).


Spinoza was one of the first to examine the Bible as the product of human endeavour and not the divinely revealed word of God. For him, religion was unrelated to liturgical ceremonies, dogmas, and rituals but was the exercising of simple moral rules. Spinoza denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, seeing him as a moral teacher whose teachings were divorced from subsequent ecclesiastical developments in Christianity. His attack on clerical authority drew a contrast between originators of religions, such as Jesus Christ, and the misrepresentation of their teachings by later interpreters, thus affirming the teachings of religions whilst dismissing the structures and dogmas of organised religion as motivated by avarice and power. He rallied against ‘superstition’ and commented on the potential for individuals such as clergy to accumulate power and influence by imbuing such superstition with ritualistic elements and elaborate doctrines to buttress their credibility.


Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Hamburg, 1670), p. 67.


Aligned to his critiques of divine revelation and ecclesiastical authority was his concern to develop a theory of toleration and articulating a defence of freedom of expression. He reflected on the potential to enhance individual liberty and free expression and expounded a vision of political organisation at variance with the dominant understanding about the nature and purpose of the state and its congruity with the Christian religion. He argued that dogmatic religious positions were imposed upon people as a result of religious teachings which asserted doctrinal homogeneity was in the interest of individual and communal salvation. Through an exposure of the means through which this is affected Spinoza aimed to enhance religious toleration and decrease denominational discord. It was one of Spinoza’s chief intentions to demonstrate that freedom of expression was not only possible but necessary for the stability of a state: ‘not only may this liberty be granted without risk to the peace of the republic and to piety as well as the authority of the sovereign power, but also that to conserve all of this such freedom must be granted’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 247). For Spinoza the chief menace to freedom of expression was clerical influence which served to impose limits on public debate and stifle what he called the ‘freedom to philosophize’:

‘it is completely contrary to the common liberty to shackle the free judgment of the individual with prejudices or constraints of any kind…laws are enacted about doctrinal matters, and beliefs are subjected to prosecution and condemnation as if they were crimes, and those who support and subscribe to these condemned beliefs are sacrificed not for the common welfare but to the hatred and cruelty of their enemies.’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 7).

What makes Spinoza’s theory of toleration noteworthy is his subordination of freedom of worship and conscience to freedom of thought and his advocacy of democracy as the bedrock upon which state stability could be maintained and individual liberty preserved:

‘the state is never safer than when piety and religion are taken to consist solely in the practice of charity and justice, when the right of the sovereign authorities, whether in sacred or secular matters, is concerned only with actions, and when everyone is allowed to think what they wish and to say what they think.’ (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p. 247).


Jonathan Israel has observed that Spinoza was ‘the first great philosopher since the rise of philosophy itself, in ancient Greece, to argue unequivocally, forcefully, and as an intrinsic and central part of his system that democracy is and must always be the best form of human organization’. (Israel: 2007, p. xxviii). Tractatus theologico-politicus provoked a hostile reaction upon its publication and subsequent history and Steven Nadler has observed that contemporaries regarded it ‘as the most dangerous book ever published’ (Nadler: 2011, p. xi). The book however represents the philosophical foundation of modern liberal democracy, was a major contribution to the birth of the Enlightenment, and marks Spinoza out as ‘the most original, radical, and controversial thinker of his time’ whose ‘philosophical, political, and religious ideas laid the foundation for much of what we now regard as “modern”’ (Nadler: 2011, p. xv).


John Toland


John Toland (1670-1722) has been described as ‘the father of Irish philosophy’ (Berman: 1982, p. 151). His first published text, Christianity Not Mysterious, appeared in 1696 and was his most influential and controversial work. In his arguments the influence of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is discernible and the implications of his work were drawn out more starkly. Locke had attempted to delineate the boundaries between faith and reason. For Locke reason was the ability of the mind to ascertain truth from all the ideas it has derived from sensation and reflection whilst faith was to acknowledge the legitimacy of knowledge not based upon sensation or reflection. As we have noted, Locke confines the extent of human knowledge within a limited scope and asserted that a proposition from divine revelation must not contradict our intuitive knowledge as this would undermine the foundations of knowledge. Consequently, Locke argues that we must interrogate any claims to divine revelation whilst also acknowledging that there are limits to the scope of human reason and there are things beyond or above human comprehension. The implications of this assessment were made more explicit by Toland and others who argued for a religion that was intelligible to reason alone and allocated no role to divine revelation.  Whilst Locke himself rejected the deist position his insights certainly proved influential in the formation of their arguments. Also evident is the decisive influence of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in shaping Toland’s analysis of miracles and the ‘mysterious’, ceremonial aspects of Christianity.

In Christianity Not Mysterious Toland argues that the Christian scriptures are not contrary to reason and there is nothing about the Christian religion that is mysterious. Following Locke, he argued that divine revelation cannot subvert reason and must be appraised for its ‘conformity with our Natural notices’ and must ‘agree with our common Notions’. (Christianity Not Mysterious, p. 31). Toland was arguing that revelation must be presented in terms comprehensible to human reason. He utilises biblical exegesis to argue that there are numerous instances in Scripture where supposed faith can be interpreted as an act of rationality. For example, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac had been interpreted as an act of faith. For Toland, this commitment was the outcome of rational reflection as God had previously told Abraham that his descendents would be kings. To reconcile the act of killing his only son with the past commitment to his continued lineage required him to reconcile the contradiction and deduce that God would revive Isaac by a miracle, just as he had been born. Toland argues that there are things above reason in the sense that they are not fully understood but this is not something that is beyond reason. Like Locke, he argues that we have a limited understanding and this is applicable to our ideas of the natural and as well as the supernatural. He utilises Locke’s distinction between real and nominal essences to argue that not having knowledge of the real essence of a thing does not render it mysterious as in that case everything would be mysterious.

His analysis of the reasons that Christianity has been characterised as mysterious focuses upon the early Christian leaders and Christian philosophers.  He argues that early converts to Christianity had been made more amenable to the new religion by the incorporation of the more familiar ritualistic and ceremonial aspects of their belief systems and the introduction of elaborate ceremonies around the sacraments. A priesthood was created who were imbued with mystical knowledge and simplicity was abandoned in favour of affectations. This resulted in a hybrid religion where Christianity incorporated aspects of pagan belief ‘as if the most impious Superstitions could be sanctified by the Name of Christ’ (Christianity Not Mysterious, p. 153). Toland holds Christian philosophers responsible for mystifying the text of Scripture who employed their philosophy in defence of Christianity but the effect of integrating them was ‘what before was plain to every one, did now become intelligible only to the Learned’. This was designed to ensure they retained their position by ‘making themselves sole Masters of the Interpretation’ (Christianity Not Mysterious, p. 154). The laity was instructed to ‘adore what we cannot comprehend’ (Christianity Not Mysterious, p. 1). The consequence of this is a religion no longer based upon rational enquiry and empirical observation but upon obedience ‘where upon Incredulity always follows’, to be exploited ‘by the Slight and Cunning of Men ready to deceive’ (Christianity Not Mysterious, p. 133).


John Toland, Amyntor: or, a defence of Milton’s life (London, 1699), title page.


The impact of Toland’s works was enormous and resulted in numerous replies and condemnations. The criticism elicited did not silence him and other works were forthcoming, including Amyntor: or, a defence of Milton’s life published in 1699. The book was a reply to critics of his earlier biography of John Milton. In it, Toland compiled a long list of apocryphal works that had been attributed to Christ, Mary, and the Apostles. He questioned the basis for inclusion or exclusion of canonical texts and attempted to draw out the inconsistencies in evaluations.  He wrote that, ‘there is not one single Book in the New Testament which was not refus’d by som of the Ancients as unjustly father’d upon the Apostles, and really forg’d by their Adversaries’ (Amyntor p. 56).  He called for the excluded texts to be re-examined on the basis that new critical methods had developed which were unavailable to early Christians. Whilst not explicitly questioning the authority of the New Testament, which would have resulted in prosecution, the work strongly hints at Toland’s doubts about the authenticity of the New Testament and consequently Christian doctrine and clerical authority.


John Toland, Amyntor: or, a defence of Milton’s life (London, 1699), pp. 20-21.


Matthew Tindal, The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (1706)


On the 25 March 1710, the common hangman, acting on the order of the House of Commons, burned copies of The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted as a result of its ‘scandalous, seditious, and blasphemous libels’ which were perceived as promoting ‘immorality and Atheism’. The book had been published anonymously but suspicion of authorship quickly became associated with Matthew Tindal (1657-1733).


Matthew Tindal, The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (London, 1706), title page.


The book highlighted what Tindal saw as the inconsistency between worshipping God according to conscience and the privileged spiritual authority claimed by the clergy. Tindal wrote in favour of conscience being the arbiter of belief and was against censuring individuals on the basis of their principles. His work sought to demonstrate the incoherency of institutional religion and argued that clerical efforts to assert their role were the result of self-interest and dishonesty rather than any privileged spiritual insights.  Once again the influence of Locke’s work is evident in Tindal’s use of his political theory to undermine the idea that one person can assert authority over another in religious matters. His target was mostly the Roman Catholic Church but his argument can also be seen as a not so thinly veiled attack on the Church of England.

The primary argument in the work is ‘that there cannot be two Independent Powers in the same Society’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 20). By this Tindal was referring to the power of the church and the power of the civil authorities and concluded that the civil power was the superior of the two. The influence of Leviathan may be in evidence here in the dominant role Tindal allotted to the state. He argued that the Church had yielded to the state and was therefore accountable to the civil authorities.  For him, any claims to independent authority would subvert the Reformation and demonstrate an affinity with principles ‘nearer to the Church of Rome than to that of England’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. lxxx).

The work also examines how much authority over religious issues could be vested in the civil power. Tindal rejects clerical power based on an appeal to divine right but allowed the possibility that such power could be given by the state legal system.  To investigate, he examined the source of the power of civil magistrates and argued that it must be derived from the consent of those who are being governed. Those being governed can only assent to entrusting powers that they possess. He argued that for people to achieve their aims they must leave the state of nature as their goals cannot be realised without a proper mechanism to dispense justice, a power which is ceded to the civil authorities. However, the civil power is limited to the powers which people exerted in the state of nature and had the authority to cede to the civil power, which are the right to life, liberty, and property. For Tindal this was an ongoing process and the legitimacy of authority required renewal by succeeding generations as laws ‘derive their Authority from the present Government, so this owes its obliging Power not to any Compacts of the People in former Ages, but to the Consent of the present Generation’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 7).

For Tindal there are limits upon the remit of authority of the civil power and he argues that they should have no competency in ‘indifferent Matters’ such as the choice of how to worship God: ‘if Conscience was not concern’d about the manner of worshipping God, the Magistrate cou’d have no Right to abridg Men of their Liberty, but is as much oblig’d to protect ‘em in the way they chuse of worshipping him, as in any other indifferent matter’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 16). This limited the magistrate’s authority to civil matters and does not allow them to proscribe beliefs that are not opposed to societal well-being.


Matthew Tindal, The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (London, 1706), p. 120.


Tindal’s assertion that there cannot be two autonomous authorities operating in a society at the same time requires that only one body has ‘supreme power’ and there cannot be competing powers which may contradict each other and create confusion and conflict so one powerbase is the only course of action.  The clerical claims to power independent of the civil power are inconsistent according to Tindal and ‘so far from having any Foundation in Religion or Reason, that they are Absurd and Impious’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 120). For example, their claims to have authority beyond that of the laity to initiate priests. This ability can only refer to powers of miracles or prophecy granted to the Apostles which clergy do not have: ‘plainly the Clergy cannot now pretend a Right to the disposing of the Extraordinary Gifts of the Holy Spirit, unless they had a Power equal to that of the Apostles’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 74). He also questioned their claims that the Holy Spirit acted as a guiding influence in the work of church bodies:

‘I need only Say that their Conduct is a sufficient Demonstration to the contrary, since those benign virtues which are the Product of that Spirit, are likelier to be found any where else than in such Assemblys; and ‘twou’d be strange if Divinity ‘shou’d chuse to dwell where Humanity was seldom to be found.’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 205).


He also challenged the clergy’s claim of the right to excommunicate adherents. Tindal argued this was an attempted undermining of the powers of magistrates and had the added social consequence of further alienating excommunicants: ‘supposing the best way to make a notorious Offender turn from his evil courses, is to have nothing to do with their Ministry, and therefore he is to be hinder’d from hearing their Sermons, receiving the Sacrament from their hands, or coming near the Church where they officiate’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 93). He identifies the development of excommunication resulting from the clergy’s desire for more power over their congregations. For him, it was in the interest of religion that power was vested in the laity but ‘tis the Clergy’s Interest on the contrary to have it corrupted; because they, as such, have no other way to gain a Power of Lording it over their Brethren’ (The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted, p. 190). For Tindal, clerical claims of independent power were threatening to state stability as the imposition of religious tests in civil matters increased tensions, provoked hostility, and could be utilised to weaken the authority of the state.


Matthew Tindal, The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (London, 1706), p. 205.


In his later work Christianity as Old as Creation (1733) Tindal went further and argued against the authority of revealed religion and suggested that the accessibility of natural religion based upon reason was preferable, writing that ‘not adhering to those Notions Reason dictates concerning the Nature of God, has been the Occasion of all Superstition, and all those innumerable Mischiefs, that Mankind, on the Account of Religion, have done either to themselves, or one another’ (Christianity as Old as Creation, p. 73). Revealed religion was malleable and had been utilised by clergy for their own ends. He reiterates some of the points he argued in The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted such as rejecting the position that any independent power should be granted to clerical authorities (Christianity as Old as Creation, p. 108). He argues that sacraments such as confession and practices such as laying on of hands and excommunication were income generating practices that were designed to assert an authority that the clergy never possessed to assert.  He further utilises biblical exegesis and highlights aspects of Scripture that do not accord with reason and concludes that ‘the best Way not to be mistaken, is to admit all for divine Scripture, that tends to the Honour of God, and the Good of Man; and nothing which does not’ (Christianity as Old as Creation, p. 297).


Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Free-Thinking (1713)


The English philosopher Anthony Collins was born in 1676 and educated at both Eton College and the University of Cambridge. A disciple of John Locke (1632-1704), who saw Collins as his philosophical successor, in 1713 he published his most controversial work: A Discourse of Free-Thinking.  By ‘free-thinking’ Collins meant the ability of the human mind to determine the truth of a proposition based solely on the strength of the available evidence. Such an approach necessitated the freedom to arrive at an informed conclusion without fear of persecution for the assertion of views that ran counter to mainstream normative discourses.


Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Free-Thinking (London, 1713), title page.


The book is primarily concerned with religion and the capacity of reason to establish religious truths. It is strongly anti-clerical and argues for the necessity of religious toleration. It challenged established norms that advocated belief without evidence, or the formation of beliefs that actively ignored contradictory evidence. Collins advocated an investigation of religious questions liberated from restrictive censures imposing limits upon enquiries.

Divided into three sections, the first two sections advance Collins’ arguments in favour of free-thinking while the third is used to counter the objections against free- thinking.


Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Free-Thinking (London, 1713), p. 5.


For Collins, restrictions on free thought led to falsehoods and superstition being regarded as truth. For thoughtful and productive enquiry, thinking needed to be freed from imposed limits on what was allowable within public discourse. He utilised the analogy of restrictions being placed on a craft. If restrictions were placed upon painting, ‘it is evident the Art in that particular would be narrow’d and restrain’d’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 6). For him the mind was the same and in a period where limits were placed upon the freedom to think freely ‘a prodigious Ignorance prevail’d’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 8). He noted that it was only through free-thinking that scientific advances such as developments in astronomy were possible.

In the period religious dogma dictated that in the pursuit of salvation belief in certain issues was essential whilst beliefs contrary to these led to damnation. Collins argued that such importance was attached to these beliefs that ‘Men are deny’d the Right to think by the Enemies of Free-Thinking’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 32), limiting their capacity to interrogate and reflect upon their belief systems. As a consequence they hold ‘opinions they have imbib’d from their Grandmothers, Mothers or Priests’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 32). This method meant that ‘they can only be in the right by chance; whereas by Thinking and Examination, they have not only the mere accident of being in the right, but have the Evidence of things to determine them to the side of Truth’. (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 33) The import of such reliance on the beliefs of others was that ‘they do in effect declare they would have been Papists or Heathens, had they had Popish or Heathen Priests for their Guides, or Popish or Heathen Grandmothers to have taught them their Catechisms’. (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 35)

Consequently, the application of reason was necessary due to the multiplicity of interpretations advanced on religious matters and supposed revelations ‘supported by Miracles, containing new Notions of the Deity, new Doctrines, new Commands, new Ceremonies, and new Modes of Worship’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 40). The ability to think freely on these matters and distinguish truth from error required the analysis of contradictory evidence to conclude the truth or otherwise of a given proposition.

This was given particular impetus by Collins’ analysis of the multitude of differing interpretations amongst various religious denominations and also within individual denominations. Disagreements concerning the nature and attributes of God, the meaning of scripture, and a variety of doctrinal differences amongst priests, whom he called ‘the chief Pretenders to be the Guides to others in matters of Religion’, ensured that ‘Free-Thinking on the Nature and Attributes of the Eternal Being or God, on the Authority of Scriptures, and on the Sense of Scriptures, unavoidable’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 46). Collins also attacked the rituals, ceremony, and dogmas that characterised a number of Christian denominations as unnecessary on the basis of rational enquiry. He wrote that:

‘God being incapable of having any addition made either to his Power or Happiness, and wanting nothing, can require nothing of Men for his own sake, but only for Man’s sake; and consequently, that all Actions and Speculations which are of no use to Mankind, [as for instance, Singing or Dancing, or wearing of Habits, or Observation of Days, or eating or drinking, or  slaughtering of Beasts…or the Belief of Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation, or of any Doctrines not taught by the Church of England] either signify nothing at all with God, or else displease him, but can never render a Man more acceptable to him.’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 37-8).


The final section attempts to counter arguments advanced against free-thinking. Amongst these was the anxiety that free-thinking allowed for an innumerate number of divergent opinions and would produce social disorder. Collins argued that diversity of opinion was commonplace in society and no ill effects were produced as a result of allowing free debate on a variety of subjects. He argued that it was restraint being placed upon thinking that was at fault in disputes ‘and that Liberty of Thinking is the Remedy for all the Disorders which are pretended to arise from Diversity of Opinions’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 103) and ‘mere Diversity of Opinions has no tendency in nature to Confusion in Society.’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 101)

A common argument advanced in the period was that free-thinking would result in an increase in atheism and it has been argued that Collins himself was an atheist (Berman: 1988, pp. 70-92). In print, Collins argued that in the absence of free-thinking ‘it remains only for Men to take up their Religion upon trust from the Priest’ with the truths of religion depending upon ‘fallible men’. In such a scenario ‘Ignorance is the foundation of Atheism, and Free-Thinking the Cure of it. And thus tho it should be allow’d, that some Men by Free-Thinking may become Atheists yet they will ever be fewer in number if Free-Thinking were permitted, than if it were restrain’d’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 105).


Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Free-Thinking (London, 1713), p. 109.


It was argued that priests were specialists in the same way that lawyers and doctors were specialists and their specialism should be relied upon by their adherents. To this Collins asserted that whilst a person could be treated by a physician and acted for by a lawyer they were ‘by no means under an Obligation implicitly to believe the Principles or Opinions upon which the one prescribes or the other acts’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 108). The difference for Collins was that in matters of religion: ‘I am oblig’d to believe certain Opinions myself, and can depute no Man to believe for me; nor will any Man’s Belief save me, except my own. So that it is my Duty to think for my self in matters of Religion, and I am at liberty whether I will study Law or Physick’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 109). Collins further argued that with lawyers and physicians it was only worldly matters that were at stake but in matters of religion the fate of the soul was in jeopardy: ‘If I die thro the Conduct of a Physician, or lose my Right by the Conduct of my Lawyer, that is the worst which can befall me; but if I trust to a Priest who is in the wrong, I am suppos’d to be eternally damn’d’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 110). He ends by refuting the idea that free thinkers are the ‘most infamous, wicked, and senseless of all Mankind’ (A Discourse of Free-Thinking, p. 118). Collins invoked the lives and works of a number of figures he considered freethinkers who were generally accepted as being virtuous individual characters including Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato (429?–347 BCE), Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Cicero (106-43 BCE) as well as British thinkers including Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

While much of the Worth Library is comprised of medical texts, Edward Worth had a wide variety of interests in contemporary thought. The collection contains works by many prominent thinkers that helped lay the intellectual and philosophical foundations of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, including, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), John Toland (1670-1722), and Matthew Tindal (1657-1733), as well as Anthony Collins (1676-1729) . Edward Worth seems to have been interested in heterodox views and works that challenged the intellectual hegemony of the established Church and indeed all revealed religion.




Aarsleff, Hans, ‘Locke’s Influence’ in, Vere Chappell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion of Locke (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 252-289.


Berman, David, ‘Deism, Immortality, and the Art of Theological Lying’, in J.A.L. Lemay (ed.), Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment: Essays Honouring Alfred Owen Aldridge (London, 1987).


Berman, David, A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London, 1988).


Berman, David, Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment in Irish Philosophy (Berlin, 1982).


Brown, Michael, A Political Biography of John Toland (Abingdon, 2016).


Chappell, Vere (ed.), Baruch de Spinoza, (New York, 1992).


Collins, Anthony, A discourse of free-thinking (London, 1713)


Connolly, Patrick J., ‘John Locke (1632—1704)’, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Daniel, Stephen H., John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind (Montreal, 1984).


De Spinoza, Benedict, Theological-political treatise, Jonathan Israel (ed.), (Cambridge, 2007).


Duddy, Thomas, A History of Irish Thought (London, 2002).


Duncan, Stewart, ‘Thomas Hobbes’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),


Dybikowski, James, ‘Collins, Anthony (1676–1729)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.


Garrett, Don (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. (Cambridge, 1996).


Gay, Peter, Deism: An Anthology (London, 1968).


Herrick, James A., The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680-1750 (Columbia, 1997).

Hudson, Wayne, ‘Atheism and Deism Demythologized’ in Wayne Hudson, Diego Lucci, and Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (eds.), Atheism and deism revalued: heterodox religious identities in Britain, 1650-1800 (Surrey, 2014), pp. 13-23.


Hudson, Wayne, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (London, 2009).


Israel, Jonathan, Enlightenment contested: philosophy, modernity, and the emancipation of man, 1670-1752 (Oxford, 2006).


Israel, Jonathan, Radical enlightenment: philosophy and the making of modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001).


Lalor, Stephen, Matthew Tindal, Freethinker: An Eighteenth-Century Assault on Religion (London, 2006).


Leask, Ian, ‘The Undivulged Event in Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious’, Atheism and Deism Revalued: Heterodox Religious Identities in Britain, 1650-1800 (Surrey, 2014), pp. 63-80.


Lloyd, Sharon A. and Susanne Sreedhar, ‘Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition),


Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, 1700 ed.).


Lowe, Edward Jonathan, Locke (New York, 2005).


Morrow, Jeffrey L., ‘Leviathan and the Swallowing of Scripture: The Politics behind Thomas Hobbes’ Early Modern Biblical Criticism’, Christianity and Literature, 61, (2011), pp. 33-54.


Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).


Nadler, Steven, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton, 2011).


Nadler, Steven, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999).


Newey, Glen, The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Hobbes and Leviathan (Abingdon, 2008).


Newman, Lex, (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Cambridge, 2007).


Pyle, A.J., Locke (London, 2013).


Rickless, Samuel, Locke (Malden, 2014).


Scruton Roger, Spinoza (Oxford, 1986).


Sheehan, Jonathan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton, 2007).


Springborg, Patricia, (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’ Leviathan (Cambridge, 2007).


Tindal, Matthew, Christianity as Old as Creation (London, 1732 ed.).


Tindal, Matthew, The Rights of the Christian Church Asserted (London, 1706).


Toland, John, Amyntor: or, a defence of Milton’s life, (London, 1699).


Toland, John, Christianity Not Mysterious (London, 1702 ed.).


Uzgalis, William, ‘Anthony Collins’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2014 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).


Uzgalis, William, ‘John Locke’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).


Whipple, John, ‘Hobbes on Miracles’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 89, (2008), pp. 117 –142.


Exhibition curated by Dr Brendan Power, Edward Worth Library.

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