John Locke and Toleration

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


The scholarly aim of the project was to bring to completion a critical edition of the last major unpublished manuscript by the English philosopher John Locke, Bodleian MS. c. 34, the so-called 'Defence of nonconformity'. The project will bear fruit in 1. A critical edition of the manuscript and related materials by Locke and his foil, the Anglican divine Edward Stillingfleet, containing a general introduction (30000 words) a textual introduction (15000 words) a transcription of Locke's text (80 000 words), explanatory and text critical notes (25000 words), transcriptions of two works by Edward Stillingfleet (140000 words), with textual and explanatory notes (10000 words), plus appendices (10000 words), under consideration by the Clarendon Press, 2. A fresh contextualization of Locke's arguments about toleration in the setting of 17th and 18th reflection on the confessional state, provided in a chapter for the Continuum companion to Locke, 3. A revision in thinking about Locke's attitude to toleration and his identity as a spokesman for liberal views on freedom of conscience, individual freedom, and secular politics, provided in an article published in political theory.

Layman's description

The concept of toleration is fundamental to modern political thinking throughout the western world and it is something that was bitterly fought for in the 17-18th centuries, dominated as they were by the tradition of a confessional state. But confessional states are back with us in many parts of the world. The history of the toleration struggle, and the pivotal position of the English philosopher John Locke in that struggle, is well known. The purpose of this project is to revise, and perhaps to transform, the conventional wisdom on the subject by preparing a critical edition of a major unpublished manuscript by Locke devoted to it. The manuscript has been known to biographers of Locke since its rediscovery in the 19th century, and to a small group of specialist scholars of the politics of religion in 17th-century England and of the history of toleration, for much of the 20th century. But it is frustrating - indeed almost impossible - to read without a competent key. This is partly because of the quality of the writing (mostly not Locke's own), partly because it consists to a large extent in detailed comments on printed texts which need to be constantly on hand if the material is to become intelligible. As a result, most scholars have tended to deal with it perfunctorily and have thereby distorted the nature of Locke's contribution to the study. The few attempts that have been made to transcribe and publish isolated segments have not been a great success. A complete and accurate transcription will enable Locke to speak for himself, while a fresh contextualization of its genesis and contents sheds new light on a debate that split Protestantism very deeply at a decisive period in its development,

Key findings

The critical findings of the project relate to the standard views of Locke, liberalism, and toleration. On the standard view of these items, Locke gives classic expression to a view of toleration that is central to liberalism. This view embraces at least five connected positions, that (i) religion is the business of the individual, whose (ii) possesses a right to choose his way of addressing it, so that (iii) religion is private, i.e. optional and is to be (iv) tolerated by the state – thus (v) coercion of this individual by government in respect of religion is inappropriate. These views, it is supposed, are given organized form by Locke who relies on them to ground his rejection of the use of force in relation to religion. However there is a curious inconsistency, even blemish, in his thinking, because he denies toleration to Roman Catholics and atheists. The result is a Locke who is a simulacrum of John Stuart Mill or John Rawls. This project decisively shifts the terms in which Locke is understood away from this standard view. It shows that with Locke religion is neither private nor optional, and is a matter of duty rather than right primarily, a duty prescribed by natural law. Law directs Locke to jurisdiction, and, more precisely, to two corresponding jurisdictions, the eccesiastical and civil. The different ends implied in these two jurisdictions and the different ways in which they are established make church and state free from each other’s direction, so that worship in a church is simply outside civil jurisdiction, and not subject to it: this worship is therefore not tolerated by the state, for the state has no jurisdiction over it, but is free, and toleration finds its place in the toleration of other people's manner of worshipping God by every one. Conversely the state, because it is responsible for upholding the ends implied in civil jurisdiction, is required to coerce Roman Catholics and atheists, whose different prepossessions undermine the possibility of civil jurisdiction. The state protects civil interests against threats even when these threats are religiously inspired or irreligiously inspired. In short, Locke is not Mill or Rawls and the liberal story about toleration rests on a misreading of Locke and selective quotation of a limited range of the available evidence.

Effective start/end date13/10/0812/01/09


  • AHRC: £16,964.00