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  Letters concerning Toleration Locke’s Views on Church and State  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XIV. John Locke.

§ 12. Earlier Pleas.

There had been many arguments for toleration before this time, but they had come from the weaker party in the state. Thus Jeremy Taylor’s Liberty of Prophesying appeared in 1646, when the fortunes of his side had suffered a decline. For Owen the credit is claimed that he was the first who argued for toleration “when his party was uppermost.” 14  He was called upon to preach before the House of Commons on 31 January, 1649, and performed the task without making any reference to the tragic event of the previous day; but to the published sermon he appended a remarkable discussion on toleration. Owen did not take such high ground as Milton did, ten years later, in his Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes—affirming that “it is not lawful for any power on earth to compel in matters of religion.” He abounds in distinctions, and, indeed, his position calls for some subtlety. He holds that the civil magistrate has duties to the church, and that he ought to give facilities and protection to its ministers, not merely as citizens, but as preachers of “the truth”; on the other hand he argues that civil or corporal penalties are inappropriate as punishments for offences which are purely spiritual. The position ultimately adopted by Locke is not altogether the same as this. He was never an ardent puritan; he had as little taste for elaborate theologies as he had for scholastic systems of philosophy; and his earliest attempt at a theory of toleration was connected with the view that, in religion, “articles in speculative opinions [should] be few and large, and ceremonies in worship few and easy.” The doctrines which he held to be necessary for salvation would have seemed to John Owen a meagre and pitiful creed. And he had a narrower view, also, of the functions of the state.
The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every particular man’s goods and person. And so it ought to be. For truth certainly would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. She is not taught by laws, nor has she any need of force, to procure her entrance into the minds of men. Errors, indeed, prevail by the assistance of foreign and borrowed succours. But if truth makes not her way into the understanding by her own light, she will be but the weaker for any borrowed force violence can add to her.

Note 14. Orme, W., “Memoirs of John Owen,” prefixed to the latter’s Works, 1826, vol. I, p. 76. [ back ]

  Letters concerning Toleration Locke’s Views on Church and State  

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