John Toland

On this date in 1670, John Toland was born in Ireland, where he was rumored to be the son of a Catholic priest. He was "Educated from the cradle in the grossest superstition and idolatry," he later wrote in Apology (1697). By age 15, he had rejected Roman Catholicism by "his own reason." He studied at Glasgow College from 1687-1690, aligning himself with Presbyterianism. He earned a Master's Degree in Glasgow in 1690. He then studied at Leyden, Holland. A Dutchman, Benjamin Furley, wrote John Locke that Toland had become "a free-spirited, ingenious man," but "having cast off the yoke of spiritual authority . . . has rendered it somewhat difficult for him to find a way of subsistence in the world." Patrons, including the deistic Lord Shafesbury, helped him. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (source of quotes) terms Toland "perhaps the first professional freethinker." Toland directed the bulk of his writing, more than 100 works, against established religion while shrewdly qualifying his statements to avoid prosecution. Toland was the first to be called a "freethinker" (by Bishop Berkeley). At Oxford, Toland wrote "Christianity not Mysterious" (1696), in which he credited "cunning priests" with the promotion of irrationality. Toland returned to Ireland for a visit, where his book was castigated from the pulpits and by the Irish House of Commons, which ordered the book burnt and the author arrested. One member of the House even moved "that Mr. Toland himself should be burnt." Toland moved to London. By 1704, Toland, who had translated the pantheistic work of Giordano Bruno, called himself "a Pantheist," and is believed to be the first to use the term. In his "History of the Soul's Immortality," Toland asserted that this doctrine was a self-serving invention by Egyptian priests. He also wrote a Life of Milton (1698) and political tracts. The courts of Holland, Hanover, Vienna and Berlin received Toland; he dedicated his Letters to Serena (1694) to the Queen of Prussia. His pamphlet "Nazarenus" (1718) contained early samples of biblical criticism. "Pantheisticon" (1720) rejected supernaturalism. His essay "Tetradymas" contains bible criticism and a description of the murder of Hypatia. D. 1722.

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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