Incendiary: John Toland and the birth of the Irish Enlightenment

A book burning in London, 1643. (click for source)
A book burning in London, 1643. (Image  is figure 8 in “Incendiary texts”, referenced and linked below)

On 18th (some say 11th) September, 1697 the book “Christianity Not Mysterious” was burned in front of the Irish Parliament Buildings. This had been ordered by the Parliament who declared some days earlier that the heretical book “be publickly burnt by the hands of the common hangman” and the author “be taken into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms and…prosecuted”. Such burning of books by the hangman had been done in England since 1634 (ref), though letters from Molyneaux to Locke suggest it had not happened in Ireland before.

The book had already caused controversy. It was denounced when it was first published in 1696, the first edition anonymously and the second under Toland’s name. The book argues that “[T]here is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and … no Christian Doctrine can be properly called a Mystery.” In other words, nothing in the Gospel can conflict with reason, the Gospel cannot transcend reason (so apparent conflicts with reason cannot be explained away as a mystery) and that no doctrine can at once be Christian and mysterious. The creation of mysteries within Christianity he attributed to innovations of competing sects.

This theory of the relationship between religion and reason went further than other supporters of reason such as Locke had dared. It was especially contentious in Ireland, since it undermined the position of the established Anglican Church over other churches. Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (of the Library) requested the Provost of Trinity College, Dr. Peter Browne, to write an answer to Toland’s book. Browne did so in his 1797 A Letter in answer to a book entitled Christianity not mysterious, condemning Toland as ‘an inveterate enemy of revealed religion’. Browne was later made the Bishop of Cork, due to Marsh’s influence, leading Toland to boast he had ‘made Browne a bishop’.

It seems unlikely that Toland knew of the depth of feeling in Dublin, however. On April 1797 William Molyneaux wrote to John Locke, saying Toland, who he had mentioned in a previous letter, had returned to Ireland:

I find since, that he is come over hither, and have had the favour of a visit from him. I now understand (as I intimated to you) that he was born in this country; but that he has been a great while abroad, and his education was, for some time, under the great Le Clerc. But that for which I can never honour him too much, is his acquaintance and friendship to you, and the respect which, on all occasions, he expresses for you. I propose a great deal of satisfaction in his conversation; I take him to be a candid free-thinker, and a good scholar. But there is a violent sort of spirit, that reigns here, which begins already to show itself against him; and, I believe, will increase daily; for I find the clergy alarmed to a mighty degree against him. And last Sunday he had his welcome to this city, by hearing himself harangued against out of the pulpit, by a prelate of this country.

This event was recalled by Toland himself in his Apology for Mr Toland. According to him, denunciations from the pulpit became a commonplace in Dublin, to the extent that some went no more to church because all the talk was of Toland, not Christ. Molyneaux suggests this increasing animosity was partially due to Toland’s own behaviour. In a reply (27 May) to a letter by Locke which hinted Toland, though gifted, might get in trouble due to his vanity, Molyneaux says:

Truly, to be free, and without reserve to you, I do not think his management, since he came into this city, has been so prudent. He has raised against him the clamours of all parties; and this, not so much by his difference in opinion, as by his unseasonable way of discoursing, propagating, and maintaining it. Coffee-houses, and public tables, are not proper places for serious discourses relating to the most important truths. But when also a tincture of vanity appears in the whole course of a man’s conversation, it disgusts many that may otherwise have a due value for his parts and learning.

By July Molyneaux tells Locke that Toland and his book are the subject of discussion by a Grand Jury in Dublin. On 11th September Molyneaux writes

Mr. T—— is, at last, driven out of our kingdom; the poor gentleman, by his imprudent management, had raised such an universal outcry, that it was even dangerous for a man to have been known once to converse with him. […] The little stock of money which he brought into this country being exhausted, he fell to borrowing from any one that would lend him half a crown, and run in debt for his wigs, cloaths, and lodging, (as I am informed,) and last of all, to complete his hardships, the parliament fell on his book, voted it to be burnt by the common hangman, and ordered the author to be taken into custody of the serjeant at arms, and to be prosecuted by the attorney-general at law.

According to Toland in his Apology, the parliament were hostile:

[I]t was moved by one that Mr. Toland himself should be burnt, and by another that he should be made to burn his Book with his own hands; and a third desir’d it should be done before the Door of the House, that he might have the pleasure of treading the Ashes under his feet.

Despite the departure of Toland, the outcry continued. Bishop Peter Browne wrote a more complete account of his argument against Toland in Procedure, Extent, and Limits of Human Understanding (1728). Bishop Edward Synge also wrote against Toland as did Jonathan Swift. These discussions sparked the Irish Enlightenment, which continued for the next sixty years, producing philosophers such as Hutcheson, Berkeley and Burke. If Locke provided the wood for Irish 18th century thought, and Molyneaux arranged it, Toland threw the petrol on the fire.

References and Further Reading

Ariel Hessayon, Incendiary texts: book burning in England, c.1640 – c.1660

John Toland Christianity Not Mysterious With Apology for Mr Toland appended (1702) Reprint of the 1st ed. published in 1696, London.

Extracts from Christianity Not Mysterious

A summary (pdf) of the arguments of Christianity Not Mysterious by Alison Morgan.

John Locke et al Some Familiar Letters between John Locke, and several of his friends. (1824)

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