No one has made a greater contribution to the development of Freethought in Ireland than John Toland (1670-1722), and it is the responsibility of the modern secular movement to publish and popularise his writings which have been sadly neglected in his own country and in Britain. Despite his reputation as a thinker and writer of the stature of David Hume, his work has been largely published in France, Holland and Germany, leaving him almost unknown in the English speaking world.
He was born in the remote peninsula of Inishowen, Co Donegal, and brought up in the Catholic faith. His exact birthplace is recorded as Redcastle or Muff by some authorities and by a local historian as Ardagh in the parish of Clonmany.
His first book Christianity Not Mysterious was written in 1696 and published in 1697 but was declared heretical by the Grand Jury in the Court of the King's Bench in Dublin. It was brought before Parliament for examination and judgement in August of that year and was ordered to be publicly burned by the common hangman and the author to be taken into custody. The sentence on the book was carried out on September 11th and it was burnt in front of the Parliament House gate in the open street, although Toland himself evaded arrest by fleeing to England. The book and the events surrounding it, however, distinguish him as Ireland's first dissident writer whose criticism of the established religious perception of man, creation and the universe brought him into conflict with both Church and State.
Toland was known locally in his youth in Donegal as 'Eoghain na Leabhar' (Eoin of the Books) because of his addiction to literature and reading. With the assistance of the Church of Ireland, to which he converted at an early age, he became a student at Glasgow University. He became a Presbyterian later and after three years went to the University of Edinburgh where he obtained the degree of Master of Arts in July 1690. His knowledge of classical languages by this time was enormous and he spoke most European languages fluently.
He also had the advantage of an upbringing in the Gaelic language, then spoken in his native birthplace, and he spent a year at Oxford after leaving Edinburgh studying manuscripts in his native tongue with a view to compiling a Gaelic dictionary. This didn't materialise, but he wrote a book entitled The History of the Druids as a result of these studies, which demonstrates his grasp of Gaelic and his understanding of its origins, lore and traditions. As with all other knowledge acquired by him, Toland used Gaelic to explore the origins of superstition in ancient Ireland, and The History of the Druids, not published until 1726 some years after his death, reflects this. In his book The Druids Kendrick refers to Toland's work, describing it as 'a curious and rambling account', ignoring the fact that it contains a wealth of information based on a study of the Gaelic, Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian languages and their cultural backgrounds.
From Oxford he went to London where he became an acquaintance of John Locke, who was prompted to publish his book The Reasonableness of Christianity on learning that Toland planned to launch Christianity Not Mysterious at an early date. Critiques of Christianity had to be disguised as manuscripts that added to the richness of Christian literature at this time, when heretics ran the risk of losing their liberty if not their lives, as Toland's experience in Dublin demonstrates. His sometimes indiscreet prose often offended many liberals such as Swift and Locke, who had no desire for public controversy.
Soon Toland was corresponding with the Huguenot savant Jean Le Clerc, who had taken refuge in Holland. Toland sent him a copy of Gospel Truth Stated and Vindicated by Williams with a covering letter explaining that a controversy had developed over the book. Le Clerc published an extract from the book on Toland's suggestion, along with his letter in Bibliothèque Universelle of which he was editor. Williams and his friends were so impressed with Toland's piety and zeal that they collected money to send him to study at Leyden in 1692. His exposure to the freethinking, tolerant atmosphere of Holland and his encounters with heretical organisations there caused him to reject all forms of 'spiritual authority' from then on and this led to the publication of Christianity Not Mysterious.
Toland's spirited 'defences' issued against the condemnation of his work as 'heresy' and 'atheism' by his native Parliament earned him the sympathy of 18th century rationalists - in particular, the German rationalist and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. One of those who attacked Toland was Dr Peter Browne, Provost of Trinity College, who afterwards became Bishop of Cork, and it was said that the latter position was his reward for his dogmatic denunciation of Christianity Not Mysterious. During his lifetime Toland wrote almost 100 books, and as he gained greater understanding his writings became more sceptical of established belief.
He also involved himself in many of the political controversies that centred around the Crown, and being a Whig he had a liberal attitude to the relations between Church and State. He supported the House of Hanover in the controversy about the succession, and in defence of this position he stated: "I have always been, now am, and ever shall be persuaded that all sorts of magistrates are made for and by the people, and not the people for or by the magistrates ... and consequently that it is lawful to resist and punish tyrants of all sorts ... I am therefore avowedly a Commonwealth's man".
In 1701 he went to Hanover as part of an official delegation headed by Lord Macclesfield to present the Act of Settlement and bring the Order of the Garter to George 1. The act decreed that Anne, Mary's sister and sister-in-law of William, would succeed William to the throne. William and the Parliament accepted this settlement because it prevented the Stuart princes from demanding the Crown at a future date, while Toland and his supporters were satisfied because it placed most of the real power under the control of Parliament. He became well known to German and Prussian royalty and on his return the following year he recorded his impressions of the courts of Prussia and Hanover and noted: "In both courts there was an absence of sectarian divisiveness ... and that the clergy seldom appear at court in either Hanover or Berlin".
At this time he became friends with both the Electress Sophia and her daughter Serena, Queen of Prussia, and later wrote a book entitled Letters to Serena, described by Simms as 'The intelligent woman's guide to rationalism'. This work contains his views on the origins of superstition, prejudice and many other 'notions' which afflict humanity.
He became a colleague of Robert Harley (1661-1724), then an influential Whig politician in the coalition government that headed the war against Louis XW. In 1705 he offered to serve Harley in Germany, because of his contacts and his knowledge of the language, and some writers have said that he wanted to spy, though he himself stated that he would be 'neither minister nor spy' but a private observer. Some also imply that he succumbed to patronage, but when Harley turned his coat and formed the Tory ministry of 1710 to seek peace with France, Toland stood firm for the Whig line and told Harley that he was opposed to any peace negotiations with France. He then produced a pamphlet entitled The Art of Restoring in which he made a comparison between Harley and General Monk, who had abandoned the commonwealth and restored a Stuart king. This pamphlet was reprinted no fewer than 10 times during 1714 and contributed significantly to Harley's downfall and eventual disgrace.
Toland was concerned about the effect of Tory policy in Ireland where the fortunes of the Stuart pretender were followed closely, and he predicted a Catholic revival. He worked with Robert Molesworth, a native of Dublin who was also a commonwealth man, renowned at the time for attacking the autocratic monarchy of Denmark. His acquaintance with George 1 and his friendship with Serena did not prevent him from opposing the king's Declaratory Act by which the English Parliament asserted its legislative and judicial power in Irish affairs. It is clear that Toland's political positions were consistently liberal in relation to the issues of the day.
In Letters to Serena we find many of his political convictions as well as his scepticism. In this book he also correctly asserts that motion is essential to matter and he criticises the views of Descartes and Spinoza on the subject.
One of the books that followed this was Adeisidaemon - or the ‘Man Without Superstition’ - written in Latin and published in 1709, in which he asserts that superstition is more dangerous to the state than atheism. This book also generated much hostility, especially on the continent as it was published in Holland, and it was banned by Papal decree. It was here that he first referred to the 'pantheistic' ideas of early philosophers, which even upset Leibniz who tried to influence him at the time in the belief that he had gone too far. Toland was unmoved, however, and stated that he intended to publish Adeisidaemon without any alteration.
Another noteworthy book was Nazarenus, published in 1718, which contains the story of an Irish manuscript of the Four Gospels in Latin. This was a manuscript that had been stolen from the Royal Library, Paris, and came into Toland's hands directly from the thief who brought it into Holland and allowed him to study it for a few months. Previously it had been assumed that it was in Anglo-Saxon characters, but Toland noticed that they were Irish and that a colophon in Irish showed the manuscript had been written in 1138 in Armagh by an Irish monk named Mael Brigte. He informed Harley of the existence of the manuscript and he later bought it for the sum of £20, and today it is in the British Museum. The story demonstrates once again his grasp of linguistics and learning. In the same book he gives an account of religious dissent in ancient Ireland that is unrecorded by Christian historians. This concerns a group called the 'Culdees' who were actively attempting to establish a reform movement in the Irish Church in the 8th and 9th centuries. His knowledge of the native language enabled him to translate 'Culdees' to 'Ceili De' which is proper Irish and means 'God's Spouses'.
In 1720 he published Pantheisticon in which he argues that 'God' is simply a way of referring to the universe and that the conventional God is non-existent. He wrote: “In an infinite space there can be no up or down, no centre or extremities. There is an infinite number of other worlds similar to the earth we inhabit, circling around their suns (which we call the fixed stars). The Universe (of which the world we know is only a very small part), is infinite in extent as well as in potential. By the continuity of all and by the contiguity of its parts it is one. In its totality it is immobile, having no space outside of itself, but in its parts it is mobile by infinite intervals”.
This book was also used as a model for masonic movements because it contained a scheme for Socratic clubs, and it was widely circulated in France. At that time the greatest sceptic in pre-revolutionary France was D'Holbach, and he based much of his thought on Toland.
Always a liberal and a republican in the true sense of the word, preparing the way for the French and Irish revolutions of the late 18th century, Toland edited and published James Harrington's Oceana and other Works in 1700. According to Professor Richard Keamey of UCD, this was the single work most responsible for the dissemination of republican thinking in 18th century England and Ireland. In his famous introduction to the classic republican work Toland recommended 'the careful perusal of Greek and Roman historians' as a means of rediscovering the sources of republican theory. It would be an education for our so-called modern 'republicans' to study Toland and the ancient philosophers, where they will discover that sectarianism and republicanism are incompatible.
Professor Kearney states in his article: "At the very moment Toland hoped to return to his own people in triumph having achieved international acclaim in England and on the continent - they turned on him, put a price on his head and sent him back into exile. In his own introduction to the work that caused these events, Christianity not Mysterious, Toland himself stated: "I believe that all men will readily allow that none should speak with more freedom and assurance than he that defends or illustrates the truth".