Toland, John (1670–1722), freethinker and polemical writer, was probably born in Inishowen, Co. Donegal, on 30 November 1670. Reputed to be the illegitimate son of a catholic priest, Toland may have been baptised ‘Joannes Eugenius’, which he later altered to a pen name, ‘Janus Junius’. A shepherd in his early youth, he converted to presbyterianism at the age of 14, and attended school at Redcastle. He then moved to Glasgow, where he attended the university, registering as a full scholarship student in 1687. Apparently involved in rabbling the clergy there in 1689, he decamped to Edinburgh, where he received an MA on 30 June 1690 – a common practice for those wishing to avoid the oath of allegiance.
Having gained a testimony of his orthodoxy from teachers in Glasgow, he spent time in London, in the circles around Daniel Williams, the ‘presbyterian pope’, with Toland publishing an abstract of Williams's Gospel truth stated and vindicated in the Bibliothèque Universelle. Through Williams, Toland moved to Leiden (1692), where he furthered his education, working with Fredrich Spannheim the younger. Spannheim introduced Toland to the fundamentals of biblical criticism, including the importance of Greek and Hebrew sources, and opened him to latitudinarian theology. Toland was also a member of the circle of the quaker émigré, Benjamin Furly, and this connection introduced him to Jean Le Clerc, Pierre Bayle, and Algernon Sidney, among others. Furly also facilitated Toland's introduction to John Locke, when Toland returned to England in the summer of 1693.
Quickly moving out of London, Toland utilised the resources at Oxford University to further linguistic study, being briefly involved in Edmund Gibson's plans to republish Camden's Britannica, which appeared in 1695. Toland was also engaged in compiling an Irish–English dictionary, and was working towards a treatise showing that Ireland was originally a colony of the Gauls. In this he may have been helped by informal contacts with the Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhuyd (qv). Toland caused consternation in Locke with his roguish behaviour and public espousal of controversial religious opinions. These led to his being ordered from Oxford by the vice-chancellor, regrouping in London in the winter of 1695, and finding solace in the presence of Locke's old pupil, Lord Ashley, later 3rd earl of Shaftesbury. He also frequented circles of Socinians centred in Thomas Firmin, John Freke, Matthew Tindal, and James Tyrrell.
Christianity not mysterious (1695)
His opinions got him into deeper trouble when Toland's first major publication, Christianity not mysterious, appeared in late 1695 (it has a 1696 imprint). It was presented to the Middlesex grand jury – alongside The lady's religion, which is occasionally attributed to Toland – as a heretical text, and they proceeded to seek out the author. Toland fled to Dublin in early 1697, where he encountered just as fervent a clerical opposition, having the book condemned by the Dublin grand jury and sanctioned by the Irish house of commons. In September the book was ordered to be burned twice by the public hangman in College Green, and once near the Tholsel, with a warrant issued for his arrest. Christianity not mysterious argues that reason is a sufficient faculty for the comprehension of Scripture, and that doctrines which are inexplicable must be accretions of false tradition and thus should be rejected. Mystery is defined as those elements of the faith which were unclear but which Scripture has subsequently revealed and clarified. The book also offers a sociological understanding of the churches as power brokers based on obfuscation and secrecy, a characteristic Toland denoted ‘priestcraft’. The book prompted numerous refutations, notably one by Peter Browne (qv), with Toland claiming that he had effectually made his antagonist bishop of Cork and Ross as a result. Much of the opposition may have been garnered through Toland's political affiliation with the freethinker John Methuen (qv), who had just been appointed lord chancellor of Ireland. It was rumoured that Toland was his personal secretary, and hence the book may have been caught up in the whig–tory conflict of the period.
In flight from the Irish tempest, Toland used the London print houses regularly to defend his book in a series of apologias and in a controversy with Bishop Edward Stillingfleet over the implications of Lockean sensationalism and Socinianism. Having returned to England, he fell back on the patronage and friendship of the 3rd earl of Shaftesbury, availing of this connection to publish a draft of the earl's Inquiry on merit (1699), which the family later claimed was a piracy. In the same year, Toland was to revisit Holland, having clearly sustained his interest in developments there – in 1697 he had translated Le Clerc's irenic Treatise on the causes of incredulity.
Political writings; association with Robert Harley
While the relationship with Shaftesbury slowly cooled, Toland turned for support to Robert Harley. The head of the English country party, Harley had noted Toland as a useful polemicist since 1698, when Toland had issued The militia reformed, which opposed a standing army and sought an irregular home guard instead. He also wrote, in collaboration with Walter Moyle and fellow-Irishman John Trenchard (qv), An argument, shewing that a standing army is inconsistent with a free government (1697) and, with Trenchard, A short history of standing armies in England (1698).
The relationship with Harley resulted in studies and editions of an array of seventeenth-century commonwealth thinkers. All published in 1698, these included an edition of John Milton, the work of Denzil Holles (in which he was supported by the nephew John Holles, duke of Newcastle), The discourses of government by Algernon Sidney, and Edmund Ludlow's (qv) Memoirs. The last of these – an edition of A voyce from the watch tower – saw Toland exercise considerable editorial licence, turning Ludlow's puritan and anti-monarchical tract into a paean for an enlightened tolerant monarch and a critique of clerical power. A controversy arose over the similarly polemical treatment of Milton, whom Toland made into an irenic figure who in late life abandoned all Christian denominations and favoured toleration and free speech. Also controversial was Toland's denial that Charles I had penned the Eikon Basilke, a claim he linked to credulous belief in scripture. This led to a controversy with Offspring Blackall, later bishop of Exeter, and the writing of Amyntor (1699), which lists some seventy spurious gospels and apocrypha. This in turn led to criticisms from the pens of Samuel Clarke, John Richardson (fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge), and the unitarian Stephen Nye. In 1699 the convocation of the Church of England endeavoured to sanction Toland publicly but failed to agree terms. A second attempt in 1701 again did not achieve success. The lower house of convocation also attempted to assert its legislative power by prosecuting Christianity not mysterious. Although it failed in this project, with the upper house determining that they did not have the power to proceed against him, Toland both reissued the text and wrote Vindicius liberius (1702) in its defence.
In 1700 Toland produced an edition of the works of James Harrington, and a year later he wrote The art of governing by parties under the direction of Robert Harley. In 1705 Toland published The memorial of the state of England, a plea for protestant unity in defence of religion and liberty when confronted by French political ambition. Toland later claimed that Harley, secretary of state for the northern department (1704–08), had promised to recompense him for all his effort by making him keeper of the paper office, a sinecure worth £400 a year. If made, the promise was certainly not kept, but occasional payments from Harley's political war-chest did occur. In this labour, Toland was becoming both a pen for hire and a philosopher in action, thinking on the move and prepared to write for immediate political purpose.
The Hanoverian succession
At the core of Toland's political programme was the Hanoverian succession, which saw him write Anglia libera (1701), a defence of the act of settlement passed that year. He also penned Limitations for the next foreign successor (1701), which proposed that all future monarchs be elected, and contained one of the first uses of the terminology North, South, and West Britain to speak of Scotland, England, and Ireland respectively. This resulted, in the same year, in Harley appointing Toland as a secretary at the embassy in Hanover under Lord Macclesfield (they did not like each other). This station led Toland to present the act of settlement to the electress Sophia, and the order of the Garter to the future George I. While at the court in Berlin, Toland was to meet Leibniz, with whom he conducted an extended correspondence concerning the value of Benedict Spinoza's philosophical system. Upon return to England he gained an audience with William III.
Following the accession of Queen Anne in March 1702, Toland's connection with Harley was suspended. He had foolishly issued in January 1702 a pamphlet entitled Reasons for addressing his majesty (William III) in which he proposed inviting the dowager electress and her grandson to stay in England, thereby securing the throne, suggesting Anne was simply there as a caretaker. On 16 May 1702 the English house of lords condemned the work as tending to ‘alienate the affections of the subjects of this kingdom from her majesty’, placing Toland outside the bounds of acceptable political society for a time.
This misfortune brought on a second visit to Hanover (1702), with Toland hoping rather naively that he would be given the post of tutor to the future George II. Initially diverted to Berlin, he met Sophie Charlotte, the queen of Prussia, to whom he addressed three of the Letters to Serena (1704), which he began to compose while there. Alongside espousing Toland's long-held views concerning female equality of intellect and ability, the letters treated of religious prejudice, pagan attitudes to immortality, and the origins of idolatry. Two further letters addressed the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza, with Toland arguing, against them, that motion was essential to matter. Toland also went by invitation of the king of Prussia to Berlin, which resulted in his penning a travelogue, An account of the courts of Prussia and Hanover (1705), which praised the German courts as centres of tolerance. In October 1701 he was involved in a formal debate with the court chaplain, Isaac Beausobre, who found Toland to be heterodox in his opinions concerning the nature of God.
The anglican pantheist
Leaving in November 1702, Toland returned again to London, where he appears to have been a central figure in a freethinking commonwealth circle, known to its members as ‘the College’, which gathered around the Grecian Coffeehouse in Devereux Court. It included such figures as John Trenchard and Walter Moyle. This community was publicly attacked in Edward Ward's scabrous assault, A secret history of the Calves Head Club (1703), which purported to relate the dealings of a fictitious assembly founded by John Milton that celebrated the anniversary of the regicide of Charles I on 30 January, an official anglican fast day.
In the period from late 1704 to 1707 Toland attempted to recommence his relationship with Harley. In publishing the Memorial, Toland had chosen to dedicate the work to Godolphin, but openly praised Harley in its content. The key intermediary for reestablishing some trust between the two men was the quaker leader William Penn (qv). The period 1704–7 saw Toland effectively on political probation. It also saw Toland make public his conversion to anglicanism, an act which he endeavoured to explain in the Principle of the protestant reformation explained (1704). This argued that the fact of individual fallibility in considering religious dogmas implies that disagreeing with any particular doctrine ought not to result in the individual being exiled from a national church. By 1707 Toland had certainly taken communion in the anglican creed, claiming that it was a public declaration of loyalty, and not a means whereby divine grace was imparted to a communicant. Yet in 1705, in Socinianism truly stated, he had signed himself as a pantheist, the first use of the term in English.
A fifth visit to the Continent was undertaken in 1707, initially in the company of freethinker Anthony Collins. Possibly prompted by work as a spy for Harley, it saw Toland visit Berlin, Düsseldorf, Vienna, and Prague, alongside the Netherlands and Hanover. He was certainly collecting books for Harley, himself a bibliophile of note. This visit was prompted by his pamphlet supporting the catholic elector palatine, The declaration lately published (1707), issued at the request of the British resident, who was seeking promotion. This volte-face in his relationship to catholic rulers gives some credence to the notion that Toland was little more than a political hack. However, an unspecified ‘incident too ludicrous to be mentioned’ led to Toland's quick departure from the court and his return to Hanover, where, despite opposition from cautious courtiers, he was favoured with lengthy private audiences by the electress Sophia.
Toland's 1707 visit to Hanover was recast when Harley fell from power in February 1708, having failed to construct a bipartisan administration. Toland chose to stay in the Netherlands till Harley regained office (as chancellor of the exchequer and head of the ministry), which did not occur till August 1710. During this self-imposed exile, Toland concentrated in biblical criticism, allowing him to maintain and expand his Dutch contacts and to meet with an array of European intellectual notables. One such, Baron von Hohendorf, commissioned Toland to enrich the library of his patron, Prince Eugene of Savoy. This placed Toland at the heart of a continent-wide network of thinkers interested in clandestine manuscript material and heterodox ideas. This prompted Toland to bring to the press Adeisidaemon (1709), which means the un-superstitious man, and which argued that Livy was one such, and Origines Judaicae (1709), which contended that Strabo was a better historian of the Jewish people than Moses. This wider community cohered in the pre-Masonic sociability of the Knights of Jubilation, who met in the Hague from c.1710, and of which Toland was an active member, and which may have been involved in the publication of the Traité des trois imposteurs (1711). Moreover, Toland was to proselytise for the ideas of the Italian Rosicrucian, Giordano Bruno. Toland was to help arrange the publication of an edition of Bruno's Spaccio de la bestia trionfante (Expulsion of the triumphant beast) in 1713, and among the papers published after Toland's death was ‘An account of Jordan Bruno's book of the infinite universe and innumerable worlds’.
Return to political writing
Toland began to reengage in English politics by repeatedly intervening in the debate over Henry Sacheverell's sermon of 1710, publishing The Jacobitism, perjury and popery of high church men (1710) and High church displayed: being a compleat history of the affair of Dr Sacheverel (1711). On his returning to England in early 1711 and settling in Epsom, the relationship with Harley, on which Toland had pinned very high hopes, cooled dramatically when rumours spread that Toland was a correspondent of the attempted assassin, who had struck at Harley in March 1711. The relationship had, however, already been failing, as Harley had led Sacheverell's supporters into power and abandoned his bipartisan ambitions. Also forcing them apart was Harley's policy of parleying with the French, a position that led Queen Anne to sanction his creation of an administration. Toland saw war with France as a desirable anti-catholic crusade, and central to propping up the Hanoverian settlement. He started to act as an informer for the whig opposition while still asking Harley for financial aid. Despite rumours that Harley might offer Toland an office, and attempt to heal the breach at a personal level, Toland finally marked the rift with the Art of restoring (1714) which compared Harley to Gen. George Monck (qv), whose letters he had also edited for an edition of the same year. The pamphlet projected Harley as sitting at the head of an Irish catholic-non-juring-French conspiracy to revoke the act of succession and reestablish the Jacobite line. It even accused Harley of treasonably being in the pay of the French.
By 1717 the context had dramatically changed: with the Hanoverian succession secure and the Jacobite rising in Scotland defeated, Toland was to issue a two-part State anatomy of Great Britain, which was a manifesto for the commonwealthmen who surrounded his old ally Robert Molesworth (qv), Viscount Molesworth of Swords. The Anatomy proposed a raft of legislation including a toleration act, the removal of the occcasional conformity act and the test and corporation act which hindered dissenters, and the suppression of the convocation of the Church of England. Its proposal to regulate the pulpits placed the text into the Bangorian controversy. Its remit was wider, however, for Toland also advocated a peerage bill and reform of the universities, repealing the clerical qualification for holding office. This all constituted a programme of action that would have deconfessionalised and republicanised the state structure in accordance with Toland's long-term ambitions. The administration led by the earl of Stanhope did try to effect aspects of this agenda in 1719, repealing the occasional conformity and schism acts, and proposing a peerage bill which was defeated in the commons, suggesting that this may have been the period in which Toland was closest to the practical exercise of power.
Final works; death; assessment By 1718 Toland was living in Putney, lodging in the house of a carpenter. Despite his extensive publication record and his proximity to men of power, Toland was poor and living by his pen. This may account in part for his 1719 tract The destiny of Rome, which promoted a prophecy attributed to St Malachy (qv) concerning the end of the papacy. It is estimated that he made about £200 from all his publications, and had to use Molesworth's name as a guarantor when he chose to invest in South Sea Company stock. The subsequent bursting of the Bubble in the spring of 1721 ruined him, and severely embarrassed his patron. Molesworth's attempts to find fault with the company directors may have ensured that Toland's ambitions to join Robert Walpole's new administration were thwarted, and Toland railed against Walpole by reissuing Shaftesbury's 1698 text, The danger of mercenary parliaments, in 1722.
The period from 1718 on also saw Toland work hard on a series of esoteric tracts, notably Nazarenus (1718), which published as authentic a fifteenth-century Dutch forgery, the Gospel of Barnabas, alongside an account of early Irish Christianity, the reform movement of the eighth and ninth centuries, whose members were known as the Culdees. Based on the Gospel of Máel-Brigte (qv), it argued that the ancient Irish church was closer to the anglican confession than the Roman tradition. Tetradymus and Pantheisticon were both published in 1720. The first contained four treatises: the first offering a naturalistic explanation for the pillar of fire that guided Moses through the wilderness, the second arguing for the difference between exoteric and esoteric opinions, the third narrating the fate of Hypatia, an Alexandrine woman murdered by a clerically inspired mob, and finally a defence of Nazarenus. Pantheisticon, which was privately printed and distributed, offered a Latin text for an occult club in direct parody of the anglican service book. It promoted a form of pantheism that defined God as immanent in the universe itself. 1720 also saw Toland draw together the bulk of his intermittent project, a history of the druids. This was dedicated to his final and most loyal patron, Molesworth, who despite the losses accrued in the Bubble, supported Toland, sharing both intellectual and political sympathies. Indeed, Toland may have written Reasons most humbly offered to the honourable house of commons (1720) for Molesworth, arguing as it did against the declaratory act (on the powers of the British parliament in Ireland) of that year. A year later he issued Letters from the right honourable earl of Shaftesbury to Robert Molesworth, which – while he admitted in the preface that it had been against the wishes of the recipient – actually aided Molesworth's thwarted campaign to enter parliament in the election of 1722 by associating his name directly with a whig republican patriarch. Toland's health was deteriorating, however, and he was to die of a mix of jaundice, kidney stones, rheumatism, and drink-related decline on 11 March 1722. His last words are said to have been ‘I am poisoned by a physician’.
Although not profoundly original in his thought, Toland was an able polemicist for both free-thought and commonwealth republicanism. He personified the limits to which early eighteenth-century thought could be taken. His deism, and subsequent pantheism, were characteristic of a radical strain of early enlightenment thought, while his political views on the limits of monarchical power and active citizenship paralleled his anticlericalism and concern for intellectual freedom. He is credited with having exported a kind of speculative Freemasonry to the European continent. While his writing is often opaque and awash with scholastic learning, at its best it is filled with polemical energy and anger. His scholarly labours in relation to Irish antiquity were notable in their day, and lie behind the interest in the generation of 1760–1800. A bibliography of his writings is in G. Carabelli, Tolandiana. Materiali bibliografici per lo studio dell'opera e della fortuna di John Toland (1670–1722) (Florence, 1975), and Toland is shown in the frontispiece to Urban Gottlob Thorschmid, Vollständige Engländische Freydenker-Bibliothek, iii (Cassel, 1766).
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).