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The Inishowen Oracle

Tom Wall

John Toland may have felt apprehensive when he landed in Dublin in the summer of 1697. Aged twenty-seven, his recently published book Christianity not Mysterious had already got him into trouble in England. The premise of the book was that the original message of Christianity was easily understood and accessible to human reason but had been usurped and turned into gibberish in divinity schools to serve the interest of an emergent priestly class. He argued that mysteries, so called, could be explained by natural phenomena. The same case, expressed less stridently, had already been made by John Locke without too much of a stir. However, in Toland’s case the anti-clerical tone outraged the Anglican establishment because it was clear that their clergy and bishops, and not just those of the papists, were targets. Archbishop Marsh of Dublin did everything he could to ensure that Toland suffered for his impertinence. Toland, referring to himself in the third person, humorously described the reception he encountered on his arrival in an appendix to subsequent editions of the book.

Mr Toland was scarcely arriv’d in that country when he found himself warmly attack’d from the Pulpit, which at the beginning could not but startle the People, who until then were equal Strangers to him and his Book, yet they became, in a little time, so well accustomed to this Subject that it was as much expected of the course as if it had been prescribed in the Rubrick. This occasioned a Noble Lord to give it for a reason why he frequented not the church as formerly, that instead of his saviour Jesus Christ, one John Toland was all the discourse there.

But that was the least of his troubles. A Grand Jury ‑ by all accounts few of its members had read the offending book and some who had confessed to not understanding it ‑ determined Christianity Not Mysterious to be blasphemous and ordered that Toland be arrested. He made a rapid departure, but his book was burned with great ceremony in front of the Parliament Building in College Green with the hangman presiding. A farce it may have been, but Toland would have been mindful of the fact that, just a few months earlier, a twenty-year-old medical student, Thomas Aikenhead, had been executed for blasphemy in Edinburgh.

After three centuries of relative obscurity, Toland has begun to receive some attention from historians of the period. Christianity Not Mysterious was republished by Lilliput Press in 1997 with accompanying essays on Toland and his work by a number of writers. More recently, A Political Biography of John Toland by Michael Brown of Aberdeen University was published. Brown is an expert on the period, who specialises in Irish and Scottish political and religious matters. He appears not to be an admirer of Toland or his writing: at one point he refers to Christianity Not Mysterious as a missive of hate. Toland was indeed a strident freethinker, but probably no more harsh in his polemics than his contemporary adversaries. Brown believes that Toland can best be understood as an early eighteenth century conspiracy theorist. While conceding that politics during the period was inherently conspiratorial, he sees Toland as almost pathologically paranoid about this: seeing conspiracies in all manner of things. Such reasoning can only be, at best, speculative and Brown’s frequent tangential excursions into psychology, sometimes by reference to twenty-first century examples, irritatingly distract from what is an otherwise scholarly historical narrative.

The enlightenment was a defining European historical process. It is perhaps not an overstatement to describe it as the dawn of intellectual emancipation. Centuries of biblically inspired belief about human provenance, the natural world, and the role of the divine in both, became subjects of dispute among the learned. It began with what was to become known as the Scientific Revolution. Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican model ‑ that the Earth was not the centre of the universe ‑ caused consternation in Rome and he was silenced. But others were outside the reach of the Church, whose enforcement capability had been greatly curtailed by the late seventeenth century. States, including some Catholic territories, had secularised their inquisitorial institutions, although most still enforced laws against blasphemy. Relative safe havens for the enlightened existed, especially in Holland, England and some German states, although to blatantly espouse atheism was to court arrest almost everywhere before the 1700s. The Enlightenment was Europeanwide, encompassing scholars in virtually all Western and central European countries and in some of their colonies.

Most early philosophers were, or at least claimed to be, religious. René Descartes insisted that his scientific views did not controvert the fundamentals of his Catholic faith, although this did not prevent his books being placed on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. Spinoza, on the other hand, was a declared freethinker and inspired others to question the truths of religious dogma. The Jesuits were to the fore in the counteroffensive, but they were constrained by their grounding in scholasticism, involving what Jonathon Israel, author of Radical Enlightenment, describes as an essentially magical, Aristotelian, pre-scientific view of the world. As the eighteenth century progressed, the focus of philosophy moved to political issues, including the balance of rights between the people and the monarch which contributed to the American and French revolutions. The enlightenment period is considered to have ended by the early nineteenth century; the result, in part, of the excesses of the French Revolution.

If the early Enlightenment involved only small elites within Europe, in Ireland it could only embrace a minority of a minority. But within that (Protestant) minority there were some who were more than usually receptive. Many veterans of Cromwell’s army had settled here; the recipients of lands seized from Catholics. A disproportionate number of these were religiously independent. A high proportion of the Scottish Presbyterians who settled in Antrim and Down were non-subscribing (that is refusing to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith) and receptive to “New Light” liberal Presbyterianism. The oppressed Catholic majority had more compelling concerns, yet, surprisingly, it was from a Catholic, Gaelic-speaking community that one of the leading proponents of the radical Enlightenment emerged. The radical philosophers were distinguished by their direct challenges to orthodox religious beliefs and their opposition to the arbitrary power exercised by princes and prelates. John Toland gained much notoriety throughout Europe for the vehemence with which he advanced such beliefs.

John Toland was born in Ardagh, near Ballyliffen in the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal, in 1670. Schooled locally, he converted to Protestantism in his teens. His enemies were to later claim that he was the son of a Catholic priest, an accusation which Jonathan Swift was happy to broadcast. It was Swift who gave Toland that title The Great Oracle of the Anti-Christians in his 1708 satirical That the Abolishing of CHRISTIANITY in ENGLAND, May, as Things now Stand, be attended with some Inconveniences. The latter part of this tract contains a direct attack on Toland, whom Swift describes as an Irish Priest, the Son of an Irish Priest. Swift, notwithstanding his satirical wit, which deserted him when attacking Toland, was a conservative in politics and theology, and, of course, more relevant in this context, a cleric.

The accusation of a priestly paternity was something Toland was determined to disprove. He went to the trouble in 1708 of canvassing a statement of his heritage from Donegal-born Franciscans resident in Prague. They, generously in the circumstances, testified that he originated from a good, noble and ancient family in Inishowen. Whatever his origins, he must have been something of a child prodigy. Supported by Irish Protestants – they no doubt envisaged him becoming a minister and converting more of his former co-religionists through Irish ‑ Toland was sent to study divinity at the University of Glasgow. He went on to further studies in Edinburgh and Leiden in Holland where Descartes had resided. His studies at Leiden were financed by Daniel Williams, a leading Presbyterian who had for a time ministered to the Wood Street congregation in Dublin. Toland’s stay in Scotland would have converted him to, or more likely, confirmed him in, his Presbyterianism while his Leiden sojourn would have exposed him to more liberal religious and sceptical influences. His studies made him a scholar of some repute, literate in Latin and Greek and fluent in a number of European languages.

Despite the hostile reception he received on his visit following the publication of Christianity not Mysterious, Toland was not without influential supporters in Dublin. William Molyneux, founder of the Dublin Philosophical Society and translator of Descartes into English, was sympathetic to his views though wary of the man. Describing his character to their mutual acquaintance John Locke, he wrote:

I take him to be a candid free-thinker and a good scholar. But there is a violent sort of spirit reigns here, which already begins to show itself against him: and I believe will increase daily; for I find the Clergy alarmed to a mighty degree against him.

He went on to observe:

He has raised against him the clamour of all parties; and this not so much for his difference in opinion, as by his unreasonable way of discoursing, propagating and maintaining it. Coffee houses, and public tables, are not proper places for serious discourse relating to the most important truths. But when also a tincture of vanity appears in the whole course of a man’s conversation, it disgusts many that may otherwise have a due value for his parts and learning.

Molyneux clearly deprecated Toland’s lack of discretion and manners. Whatever his faults however, Toland retained the more significant friendship of Robert Molesworth (later Viscount Molesworth). Molesworth, a leading Whig and member of the Irish Privy Council, hosted meetings in his house near Swords of scientists, writers and philosophers, which included Swift and Francis Hutchinson. He was to support Toland, financially and otherwise, until the latter’s death in 1722. There is no evidence that Toland ever again visited his homeland although aspects of its constitutional arrangement and ancient history were to occupy his thoughts towards the end of his life. While he trimmed his sails from time to time to please particular patrons, he remained steadfast in his anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism. He described himself as a “Commonwealthman”, believing republicanism to be the ideal form of government. Nevertheless, he supported the Williamite settlement, seeing the shift in the balance of power in favour of parliament it occasioned as a more than acceptable compromise. He was prodigious and eclectic in his writings. He wrote tracts about the coinage; the benefits of a standing militia; equal rights for Jews, Church and civil governance; the English Constitution; a critique of Spinoza’s theories on matter and motion and much more. He also translated and reprinted early philosophical works and acquired and sold rare books. But it was to matters concerning religion and religious dogma that he frequently returned. The year following his Dublin visit, he was the subject of controversy again for allegedly casting doubt on the divine provenance of the New Testament. In a passage of his biography of John Milton, concerning an alleged forgery attributed to King Charles I, he remarked:

I cease to wonder any longer how many superstitious pieces under the name of Christ, his Apostles and other great Persons, should be published and approved in those primitive times, when it was of so much importance to have them believed.

This provoked the King’s chaplain to accuse him of asserting that the New Testament was fraudulent. Toland’s thorough knowledge of biblical apocrypha: unapproved or spurious texts – many of which he listed in his defence – saved him, along with his explanation that:

..a great many spurious Books were early fathered on Christ, his Apostles, and other great Names, part whereof are still acknowledged to be genuine and the rest to be forged.

Toland now insisted on his Christian credentials, claiming that he did not intend any attack on Christianity but only on those subtractions, additions, and other alterations which had corrupted that pure institution. It is difficult to know whether such protestations were genuine or made for reasons of security and advantage. He never desisted, though, from an all-encompassing anti-clericalism. A verse from his “Clito”, a poem on the force of eloquence, demonstrates the extent of his contempt for clerics of all hues:

Nor will I here desist: all holy Cheats
Of all Religions, shall partake my threats,
Whether with the sable Gowns they show their pride,
Or under Cloaks their Knavery they hide,
Or what foe’er disguise they chuse to wear,
To gull the People, while their Spoils they share.

The comprehensiveness of his anti-clericalism aroused hostility even from dissenters. Many, with good reason, considered him to be a deist from an early stage. Whether through development, or greater clarity, in his beliefs, he declared himself, in 1705, to be a pantheist – a term designed to encompass Spinoza’s concept of God: everything in the world is one and part of the nature of God. It was a belief system popular among radical philosophers in the eighteenth century with no regard for dogma. Toland was, in that context, a believer in God, a deist and a sceptic as regards Christian revelation.

The various controversies occasioned by his writings, and not least the attacks on him by High Church Anglicans in Ireland and England, brought him to the favourable attention of radical Whigs – those non-conformist “sneaking regarders” of the republican Commonwealth ‑ a number of whom provided protection and support. He began to write pamphlets, usually commissioned by influential Whigs, including Lord Shaftesbury. He found a patron, for a time, in Robert Harley, then speaker of the House of Commons and later chief minister. With Harley’s support, he played a role in forging the Hanoverian succession. He was part of the small delegation sent to present the Act of Succession to the Electress Sophia, the heiress presumptive to Princess (later Queen) Anne. However, a public proposal of his that she and her grandson (later George I) settle in England prior to the succession displeased all concerned, causing Toland to be shunned by many of his erstwhile political friends.

His dream of financial security though placement in an office of state gone, he had to live on what he could earn by his books and translations. What little surplus he accumulated, along with borrowings from Molesworth, was lost in the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. Nevertheless, he continued to receive support and encouragement from Molesworth. His last great projects involved research into Celtic antiquity. His knowledge of Old Irish facilitated his work on An Account of an Irish Manuscript of the Four Gospels, published in 1718 as part of his biblical criticism Nazarenus. In this he portrayed communities of Culdees (Ceile-De, that is People of God) who formed monastic communities in early medieval Ireland, Scotland and England in idealised terms: free from the corrupting influence of the Roman Church. His book on druidic culture and society remained unfinished but was published posthumously. The History of the Druids was developed from correspondence on the subject with Molesworth. In part a diatribe against priestcraft, it nevertheless illustrates, as was no doubt intended, the encyclopaedic knowledge of the author. Using his familiarity with classical Greek and Latin, as well as the Celtic dialects, he extracted an impressive amount of evidence from a wide range of sources concerning the institutions, monuments, culture and beliefs of early Celtic societies. The product of all this knowledge was, as always, to be interpreted in a way that coincided with his religious and political beliefs. Early Celtic societies were deemed laudable in their liberality but the encroachment of superstition was seen to be an inevitable feature of all institutionalised religions.

Toland suffered severe pain in his later years and died penniless in a room in Putney in London in 1722. His only valuables were piles of books stacked on chairs. Days before he died he composed his own epitaph. After recounting his origin and studies, he described himself as:

A cultivator of every kind of Learning;
Skilled in more than ten languages;
A champion of truth;
An assertor of liberty;
But the follower or client of none;
Nor was he either by menaces or misfortunes,
Deterred from pursuing the path,
Which he chalked out to himself
Uniformly preferring his integrity to his interest.

It is not the whole truth, or even wholly true. But it is not too far from the truth. Toland was not among the great innovators: his gifts were more in the field of polemics. Nonetheless, his learning and influence were acknowledged by likeminded philosophers. As a man he was seen by some as vain, unmannerly, wild and reckless. His abiding anti-clericalism is sometimes attributed to either abuse by or parentage by a priest. It is, perhaps, just as likely that he became convinced that the role of the cleric is to construct and maintain edifices, in the form of mysteries, dogmas and rituals that, as he put it, gull the people. At this remove we cannot know what drove him. Like many converts and emigrants, he may have had many internal demons and conflicting emotions. What can, and should be, belatedly acknowledged in his native land is his important contribution to the European radical enlightenment.

Books contributing to this essay included: A Political Biography of John Toland by Michael Brown; Pickering & Chatto (2012) and Christianity Not Mysterious ‑ Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays eds Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison and Richard Kearney, Lilliput Press (1997).


Tom Wall is a former Assistant General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. His Masters Degree thesis in UCD is titled “Understanding Irish Social Partnership ‑ An Assessment of Corporatist and Post-Corporatist Perspectives” (2004).