A bronze statue of a naked male figure raising his arms as if to conduct a choir, baton in hand. He is posed against a background of windows, and walls covered with creeper stems

Handel’s Messiah, John Toland and the fight against Deism.

I have written before about the Irish philosophy connections to Handel’s Messiah, first performed in Dublin on 13th April, 1742. Philosophers Edward Synge and Patrick Delany were captivated by the production that Swift almost had halted. Edward Synge sent a testimonial to Handel praising the music, but also the words. The words, indeed, he believed key to the oratorio’s success1

1 one is the Subject, which is the greatest & most interesting. It Seems to have inspir’d him/
2 Another is the Words, which are all Sublime, or affecting in the greatest degree.
3 a Third reason […] T’is there is no Dialogue […] in this Piece the attention of the Audience is Engag’d from one end to the other […] Many, I hope, were instructed by it, and had proper Sentiments inspir’d in a Stronger Manner on their Minds.

These words would have been music to the ears of the man who wrote the libretto for Messiah, Charles Jennens (and they were sent to him by Handel when Handel returned to London in September). Charles Jennens was a man of property, who was horrified by the spread of freethinking ideas. The suicide of his brother was attributed to doubts about Christian belief. He combined this with a passion for music, and convinced Handel that he had the ability to write librettos sympathetic to Handel’s music. The first two collaborations (Saul and Israel in Egypt) were based on the Old Testament and were not successes (though to be fair, success was eluding Handel in London.) In the summer of 1741, rumours abounded that Handel was leaving London. On 10th July, Jennens wrote to a friend2:

I hope I will perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.

Jennens drew on a poem by (Swift’s friend) Pope, Messiah (1712), on works by 17th century religious poet Abraham Crowley and on scripture itself. His agenda was not to simply appeal to the faithful but to deists and sceptics, in other words, people unlikely to persuaded by a sermon even if they heard one, but who might be moved by an oratorio heard in the theatre. “The libretto is about biblical revelation and salvation…and adhered to a strongly mystical view of Christianity.” 3

But who were these free-thinkers, deists and sceptics? As Brian Lynch succinctly put it in the Irish Times, “Handel’s Messiah should be understood as a massive attack on a native Irish speaker from Donegal called Seán Ó Tuathaláin” 4, the “the Oracle of the Anti-Christians” as Swift called him in 17085, one John Toland.

Salvation for all?

John Toland played a pivotal role in the evolution of deism. Classical Deism was first defined by Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648), the so-called Father of Deism. Strictly Herbert was not a Deist because he accepted a role for revelation in religion. His argument for natural religion derives from humanist principles. His positive humanism leads him to deny the inherited depravity of man, and to assert human nature everywhere is alike and unchanging. This suggests that, in justice, all should have the chance of being saved. His emphasis on God’s unwavering desire to help humanity combined with that imperative leads to the conclusion that God must have given the means of salvation to all. The proliferation of religious sects leads to the question: how do I know which is true? Herbert argued that this could only be answered if there were universal ways of following God independent of any specific sects6.

Locke attacked Herbert’s idea of common notions of religion implanted by God in humanity in the Essay concerning Human Understanding, as part of his general attack on innate ideas. However Locke agreed with Herbert that human nature was not entirely corrupt and God’s justice must be comprehensible and hence encompass all humanity. Locke argues that the powers humans have are sufficient for them to learn that God exists: “the knowledge of a God be the most natural discovery of human reason”7 However the fact that reason is sufficient does not mean that reason easily achieved that goal: in The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) Locke concludes that before Christ only the Israelites (Judaism) and the pagan philosophers (Plato et al) had a knowledge of the true God. While Herbert sees paganism as an expression of humanity’s innate drive towards God, Locke sees it as nothing but superstition. This leads him to see revelation as necessary for true knowledge of religion, and for the absolute obedience that is necessary to achieve immortality, and that natural religion cannot provide8

However this means that the universal salvation available to all that Locke wants to argue for is not available. Locke attempted to argue that, in justice, those who have never heard of Christ will be judged based on their use of reason, but that then implies salvation is available without Christ. It also leaves the issue that, per Locke, hardly anyone is capable of reaching knowledge of God. In the end, Locke suggests that “our short views, and narrow understandings, may utterly incapacitate us to see that wisdom, and to judge rightly of it”9. This amounted to an appeal to mystery, and a retreat from viewing God’s justice as comprehensible that some found unacceptable. It also removed the hope of certainty10.

“a most firm Perswasion built upon substantial Reasons”

John Toland met these issues head-on, not least in the title of Christianity not Mysterious, which both echoed Locke’s 1695 work and attacked the appeal to mystery. Drawing on Book 4 of Locke’s Essay and Reasonableness of Christianity, Toland argued that there is nothing in true Christianity that is contrary to or above human reason. There are no mysteries, and accepting mysteries in religion leaves an open door for superstition, manipulation and falsehood11.

Reason, for Toland, allowed for the certainty in religion both Locke and Herbert aspired to. He asserted “we hold that Reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude; and that nothing reveal’d, whether as to its Manner or Existence, is more exempted from its Disquisitions, than the ordinary Phenomena of Nature”12.

For Toland, reason grounds faith, and using reason means relying on evidence, including our ideas. “Nor can any Man shew me in all the New Testament another Signification of Faith but a most firm Perswasion built upon substantial Reasons”13. Toland also insists that religious truth must be open to everyone, implying that everyone must be able to judge the truth of religious claims for themselves, meaning reason must be more capable than Locke thought it. Toland argues against those who claim the poor and illiterate cannot aspire to such a faith, asking if they can truly believe the unintelligible to the intelligible, and point out that the poor and illiterate were the chosen audience of Christ14

As for revelation, Toland disagrees with Locke that it is distinct from faith. At most revelation is information that can be inspected and compared with other evidence. This is why revelation cannot be contrary to reason – if it were, it could not be assessed in this way, and could play no part in faith (which is reason in another dress.)15 If we simply accept what we are told, then we can only be correct in religion by chance of birth: “if we may not examine and understand our Faith, every Man will be oblig’d implicitely to continue of that Religion wherein he is first educated”16 Nor can we hope to evaluate the sects around us. Toland, like the deist Charles Blount before him, attributed the spread of mystery in religion to organised religion and priestcraft, a reoccurring theme in his future work.

Fighting Toland

“The appeal to tradition and authority has become hollow on this ground, and so the deists are happy to embrace the anti-authoritarian and individualistic connotations of Locke’s account of reason”17. These connotations were not necessarily welcome to Locke himself. When Toland (no longer welcome in Oxford) showed up in Dublin, William Molyneux met him soon after his arrival and wrote of the meeting to Locke on 6th April 1697: “I take him to be a candid free-thinker, and a good scholar”18. Locke’s reply advised caution towards Toland.

If Locke was resistant, most were opposed and none more so than church and state authorities in Dublin. In the event, the sermon mentioned by Molyneux in his April letter was only the start of fierce opposition that led to the burning of Christianity not Mysterious, the rapid departure of its author and, incidentally, a surge in philosophical debate in Dublin. Among the criticism’s of Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious was one by Edward Synge, father of the Messiah fan. Toland remained unbowed, publishing an Apology for himself, before moving into editing republican works, and causing yet another scandal when his John Milton (1698) seemed to question the authenticity of the New Testament.

The Irish hostility continued: two major users of the term “free-thinker” in a negative sense before 1713 (when Collins’s Discourse of Free-thinking made the term notorious) were Swift (who also attacked Toland specifically) and the Irish non-juror Charles Leslie19 Steel’s newspapers all attacked free-thinking. Steel also obliquely attacked Toland: Toland was probably the target of the letter signed “Philonous” that appeared in The Spectator dated 28th November 171120. It’s arguable that such attention did more good than harm to free-thinking ideas.

Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal developed Toland’s use of Lockean propositions. Collins also, with writers such as William Whiston and Thomas Woolston continued Toland’s criticism of miracle accounts. While the deism controversy died out in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, its influence continued though the popularity of thinkers who partially agreed with deists, Hume being a major example. Deism continued in France and Germany, and Kant’s project can be see as that of a “deist who, having undermined the metaphysical foundations of many forms of desigm, sought to provide the project with alternative foundations.”21

It’s fortunate Jennings was not to know the fate of his mission. As it was, he was put out when he heard that the Messiah was to be premiered in Dublin. However, there was probably no place which was more likely to receive it so positively. Its reception in London in 1745 was much more muted, and it continued to be performed in Dublin to acclaim while in London it remained unheard for three years. Dublin opinion has prevailed, and a survey in 2014 found Messiah the world’s most popular piece of music. “To millions Messiah does indeed convey such assurance [of redemption, salvation and everlasting life], but in an increasingly secular age millions of others are simply enchanted by the emotional power of the oratorio, by the sublime beauty of the music Handel composed”22

A bronze statue of a naked male figure raising his arms as if to conduct a choir, baton in hand. He is posed against a background of windows, and walls covered with creeper stemsFeatured Image: A Statue In Memory Of Handel’s Messiah, Fishamble Street. William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Further Reading

Irish Baroque Orchestra (2017) “Messiah 1742-2017” Irish Baroque Orchestra (pdf online)

John Toland (1696) “Christianity not mysterious” on Early English Books Online (online).

John Locke (1824) “The Reasonableness of Christianity” in The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, Vol. 6, London: Rivington, 12th ed. (Liberty Fund online).

“Deism” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online)

“John Toland” in New World Encyclopedia (online).


  1. Quoted in Jonathan Bardon (2015) Hallelujah: the story of a musical genius and the city that brought his masterpiece to
    Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, p 173. Synge also included his own libetto “The Penitent” p. 172
  2. Bardon (2015), pp. 51-58. Quote on pp. 57-58
  3. Bardon (2015), pp. 58-61. Quote on p. 61.
  4. Brian Lynch (2015) “Review: Hallelujah, by Jonathan Bardon – another handle on Handel” in Irish Times (19 Dec 2015).
  5. Jonathan Swift (1711) “An argument against abolishing Christianity” in Jonathan Swift Archive (online), p. 178.
  6. Peter Byrne (1989) Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion, London: Routledge, pp. 22-3.
  7. John Locke (1824) “Essay concerning Human Understanding” in The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, Vol. 1, London: Rivington, 12th ed. (Liberty Fund online).
  8. Byrne (1989), pp. 37-44.
  9. John Locke (1824) “The Reasonableness of Christianity” in The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, Vol. 6, London: Rivington, 12th ed. (Liberty Fund online).
  10. Byrne (1989), pp. 45-47.
  11. Byrne (1989), pp. 70-1.
  12. Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison & Richard Kearney (eds) 1997 John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious, Dublin: Lilliput Press, p. 17 (The State of the Question, para 7.)
  13. McGuinness, Harrison & Kearney (1997), p. 83 (Section 3.4 para 57).
  14. McGuinness, Harrison & Kearney (1997), p. 87 (Section 3.4 para 67).
  15. Byrne (1989), pp. 72-3.
  16. McGuinness, Harrison & Kearney (1997), p. 85 (Section 3.4 para 61).
  17. Byrne (1989) p. 73.
  18. John Locke (1824) The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, Vol. 8, London: Rivington, 12th ed. (online Liberty Fund) http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1444#Locke_0128-08_767.
  19. J. M. Robertson and H. B. Adelmann (1906) A short history of freethought ancient and modern, London : Watts, pp. 6-7.
  20. A. Chalmers (1856) The Spectator Vol. IV, Boston: Little, Brown & Co, p. 29 footnote. “The person here alluded to was probably Mr Toland, who is said by the Examiner to be the butt of the Tatler and Spectator.”
  21. Merold Westphal (2002) “The emergence of modern philosophy of religion” in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (eds.) A Companion to Philosophy of Religion London:Blackwell, pp. 111-117. See pp. 111-113. Quote on p. 113.
  22. Bardon (2015) p. 64, p. 190, p. 217 (quote on p. 217.)
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