John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration”: Begging the Question?

[This post should have been published Tuesday, November 8. Apologies for the delay.]

I promised in yesterday’s Great Books Monday post that I would make a separate post dealing with Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration.” I’d like to get other people’s feedback on this piece because I’m still sorting through my own thoughts; last week was the first time I’d ever read the essay in its entirety.

As in some of his other writings, Locke makes persuasive, maybe even compelling, arguments from definitions and first principles in the “Letter Concerning Toleration.” However, his definitions and first principles present certain problems, and if one doesn’t accept them as legitimate, it seems to me that his entire argument collapses.

Take, for instance, Locke’s definitions of “commonwealth” and “church.” Locke says of the former:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

Then a bit later, we find this statement:

A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.

If you accept these definitions, then the rest of Locke’s argument will look great. The State has nothing to do with spiritual things, and the church has nothing to do with material things, ergo no civil penalties should ever be levied on anyone because of religious practice. (For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stay within the bounds of Locke’s arguments, even though he leaves open the possibility of penalties against atheists and “intolerant” faiths.)

Here’s my problem, though: at a minimum, it’s arguable whether such definitions of church and state can be legitimately derived from either scripture or the pre-Enlightenment history of the West (or the history of any other civilization, for that matter). Apart from a few Anabaptists, who would have accepted these definitions as late as 1600? No one in England, as far as I can tell.

Locke defends these definitions, but not at any great length, and I doubt anyone not already of his opinion would have been persuaded by them.

Of course, Locke makes many sound points in the essay, such as when he expresses skepticism that religious persecution is really motivated by concern for the souls of the persecuted people. (He fails to address the argument that persecution might be necessary to stop heresy from spreading, though.) And my discussion above doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in toleration or that I think there are no good arguments for it. It just seems to me that Locke has not provided the bulletproof case for it many people seem to assume he has.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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