1689: John Locke’s Letter on Toleration

Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1697 (Public Domain)


John Locke pens his Epistola de tolerantia or Letter on Toleration in 1685, during his exile in Gouda. The text is published in Latin and English in 1689.


By the law of nature, he argues, all men have the right – and duty – to worship God in religious communities of their own choosing:


“Now I appeal to the consciences of those that persecute, torment, destroy, and kill other men upon pretense of religion, whether they do it out of friendship and kindness towards them, or no … I say, if all this be done merely to make men Christians, and procure their salvation, why then do they suffer whoredom, fraud, malice, and such like enormities, which, according to the Apostle, manifestly relish of heathenish corruption, to predominate so much and abound amongst their flocks and people?”
– John Locke, Epistola de tolerantia (1689)

But Locke is not a promoter of universal toleration. He draws the limit at Roman Catholicism and Atheism:


“… those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God.”
– John Locke, Epistola de tolerantia (1689)