Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Toland, John
TOLAND, JOHN (1670–1722), deist, was born on 30 Nov. 1670 in the peninsula of Inishowen, near Londonderry. He was christened Junius Janus, but took the name John, by his schoolmaster's desire, in order to avoid the ridicule of his comrades. It was reported that he was illegitimate, and that his father was a priest. The authorities of the Irish Franciscan college at Prague testified in 1708 that he was of an honourable and ancient family. Their authority was the ‘History of the kingdom,’ and, presumably, Toland's own statement. Toland was brought up as a catholic, but became a protestant before he was sixteen. His abilities attracted the notice of some ‘eminent dissenters,’ who resolved to educate him as a minister. He was at a school at Redcastle, near Londonderry, and in 1687 went to the college at Glasgow. In June 1690 he was created M.A. by the university of Edinburgh, and in July received from the magistrates of Glasgow a certificate of his behaviour as a ‘protestant and loyal subject’ during his stay in that city as a student (documents printed by Des Maizeaux). After living in some ‘good protestant families,’ probably as tutor, he went to Leyden to finish his studies under the younger Frederick Spanheim. He became known to Le Clerc, to whose ‘Bibliothèque Universelle’ he sent an abstract of ‘Gospel Truth’ by Daniel Williams [q. v.], founder of the library. He is described by Le Clerc as a ‘student in divinity.’ He spent two years at Leyden, and went in January 1694 to Oxford, where he read in the libraries and wrote some fragments preserved in his works. A letter in the posthumous collection (ii. 294, &c.) shows that he was already suspected of freethinking opinions, though he professed moderate orthodoxy. Before leaving Oxford in 1695 he had finished his ‘Christianity not Mysterious.’ Its publication in 1696 produced an outburst of controversy, the first act of the warfare between deists and the orthodox which occupied the next generation. Toland did not openly profess disbelief in the orthodox doctrines, though the tendency of his arguments was obvious. He was attacked by many divines, and the book was presented by the grand jury of Middlesex. Toland went to Ireland early in 1697, where he was welcomed by William Molyneux [q. v.] as a pupil of Le Clerc and a friend of Locke. Stillingfleet had just published his ‘Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity,’ in which Locke and Toland were coupled as Socinians and called ‘gentlemen of this new way of reasoning.’ Locke took great pains in his reply to disavow the supposed identity of opinions. Toland, though he does not quote the words, was in general sympathy with the principles, of Locke's writings and had some personal acquaintance with the author. Toland reached Ireland to find himself denounced from the pulpit. Molyneux soon reports that he raised a clamour against himself by imprudent discourses in coffee-houses and other public places. Locke tells Molyneux that Toland, though showing much promise, was likely to go wrong through ‘his exceeding great value of himself.’ Both Locke and Molyneux, though condemning his persecutors, found that his indiscretion made it difficult to protect him. Peter Browne [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Cork, published a ‘Letter’ declaring that Toland was setting up for head of a new sect, and meant to rival Mahomet. The grand jury presented his book, and the House of Commons, after some sharp discussions, voted (9 Sept. 1697) that it should be burnt by the common hangman and the author arrested and prosecuted. He retreated to England, and South, in a dedication to his third volume of sermons (1698), congratulated the parliament upon having made the kingdom too hot to hold him.
Molyneux tells Locke that it had become dangerous to speak to Toland, who was in actual want and in debt for his wigs and his lodging. The persecution, however, seems also to have acted as an advertisement, and Toland obtained employment from booksellers. In 1698 he edited Milton's prose works and prefixed a life, also separately published. In this he attributed the ‘Icon Basilike’ to Gauden, and remarked that the belief in Charles I's authorship made intelligible the admission in early times of ‘so many supposititious pieces under the name of Christ and his apostles.’ He was attacked by Offspring Blackall [q. v.], who took this phrase to refer to the canonical gospels. Toland replied effectively in ‘Amyntor,’ giving a long catalogue of admittedly apocryphal books still extant as mentioned by early writers. He also defended his statement as to the ‘Icon Basilike’ against Thomas Wagstaff, who supported the royalist opinion.
Toland meanwhile looked for patronage to the party opposed to the church claims, whether freethinking whig nobles or leading dissenters and city magnates. In 1699 he was employed by John Holles, duke of Newcastle [q. v.], to edit the ‘Memoirs’ of Denzil Holles [q. v.], and in 1700 he edited Harrington's ‘Oceana’ and other works, with a life of the author. To this he was encouraged by Harley (Collection of Pieces, ii. 227), with whom he was long connected. The dedication to the city of London contains an elaborate compliment to the sturdy whig Sir Robert Clayton [q. v.], famous for his defence of the city charter. Toland incurred some ridicule by advertising superfluously in the ‘Post Man’ that Clayton did not intend to bring him in for Bletchingley in William's last parliament (see also letter to Clayton in Collected Pieces, ii. 318, &c.). Toland defended the Act of Succession (June 1701) in a pamphlet called ‘Anglia Libera,’ dedicated to the Duke of Newcastle. In recognition of his services Charles Gerard, lord Macclesfield [q. v.], took him on the mission to present the act to the Dowager-electress Sophia; Macclesfield's death soon afterwards injured his chance of preferment, although he had had some difficulties with his patron (Original Letters of Locke, &c., 1830, p. 146). Soon after his return Toland published his ‘Vindicius Liberius,’ commenting upon some proceedings in convocation in the previous spring. The lower house had desired a prosecution of the ‘Christianity not Mysterious’ and ‘Amyntor.’ Toland had written letters to the prolocutor which the house declined to hear. He now declared that he had suppressed ‘Christianity not Mysterious’ after a second edition, spoke apologetically of his youthful ‘indiscretion,’ and said that he ‘willingly and heartily conformed to the doctrine and worship of the church of England’ (Vindicius Liberius, pp. 81, 106).
Toland's career during the following years is obscure. A letter of 26 June 1705 (printed in the Collection of Pieces, ii. 337–351) professes to explain why he had never received an employment. According to this account, his crime was in too great independence of parties. He said that he had never been connected with the great whigs Somers and Halifax. He had no communication with Harley after William's death, though he had been called ‘Mr. Harley's creature.’ His support had been derived from Lord Shaftesbury (cf. the Characteristics) and certain ‘other worthy persons at home,’ with ‘some help from Germany.’ Shaftesbury, who sympathised with his freethinking, made him for some time an allowance of 20l. a year. In 1701 he had visited and been kindly received at the courts of Hanover and Berlin, of which he published an ‘Account’ in 1705. Sophie Charlotte, queen of Prussia, admitted him to her philosophical conversations (see Carlyle, Friedrich, bk. i. ch. iv.; and Erman, Mémoires de … Sophie Charlotte, 1801, pp. 198–211). To her he addressed the letters to ‘Serena.’ They contain some interesting remarks, and especially an argument to prove that motion is ‘essential to matter,’ which is described as remarkable in Lange's ‘Geschichte des Materialismus’ (2nd edit. i. 272–6, ii. 96). The letter of 1705 shows that Toland was anxious to be employed by the government, of which his old patron Harley was now a member. He thinks that Godolphin might employ him as a correspondent at Hanover, where he would not be either ‘minister or spy,’ but welcome everywhere as ‘a lover of learning.’ He also would not object to his appointment being ‘paid quarterly.’ Harley made some use of him as of other authors. He was employed to write a ‘Memorial of the State of England’ in answer to the ‘Memorial of the Church of England’ by James Drake [q. v.], which had made a great noise. He defended Harley and Marlborough in further pamphlets, and in 1707 edited a manuscript ‘Oration’ against the French, in Harley's possession. He made another foreign tour, of which an account is given by Des Maizeaux. According to Des Maizeaux, a translation of the elector palatine's ‘Declaration … in favour of his Protestant Subjects’ (1707) brought him a mission from the elector's minister in England. Toland again went to Berlin, which he was forced to leave by ‘an incident too ludicrous to be mentioned.’ Thence he visited Hanover and Düsseldorf, where the elector palatine gave him a gold chain and a hundred ducats; and went to Vienna, where he was employed to procure a countship of the empire for a French banker in Holland. Toland failed in this, which possibly (see below) covered another, mission, and, after visiting Prague at the end of 1707, got back in a penniless state to Holland. Here he stayed for some time, and published his ‘Adeisidæmon,’ dedicated to Anthony Collins [q. v.] the deist, and one or two other pamphlets. In Holland he made some acquaintance with Prince Eugène, who ‘gave him several marks of his generosity.’ Toland returned to England in 1710. He wrote some pamphlets against Sacheverell and Jacobitism. Two ‘Memorials’ of 1711 (printed in the Collection of Pieces, ii. 215–38), addressed to Harley (now Earl of Oxford), imply that he believed himself to have strong claims upon the minister. He had been employed in some way as an agent, and refers to his ‘impenetrable negotiation at Vienna,’ which was rewarded ‘by the prince that employed me.’ He wished to act as Oxford's ‘private monitor,’ and would like a moderate ‘annual allowance,’ while declining a public post. He is in favour of a coalition of moderate whigs and tories, and says that he assumes Harley's fidelity to principles of toleration and to the Hanoverian succession. He speaks bitterly of the favour shown to S[wift] and P[rior], who are allowed a familiarity now denied to him. These memorials, if ever sent, probably show that Toland's vanity, worked upon by Oxford's cajoleries, had given him an excessive notion of his own importance, but are also favourable to his political honesty. He wrote various pamphlets against Jacobites and high-churchmen, and early in 1714 published the ‘Art of Restoring,’ in which Oxford was accused of intending to follow in the steps of Monck. The pamphlet made a sensation, especially when it was known to be the work of a former dependent of the minister (Boyer, Queen Anne, p. 661), and went through ten editions.
After the accession of George I Toland continued to write political pamphlets in the same sense. They attracted little attention, however, though the ‘State Anatomy’ (1716) was answered by De Foe and Richard Fiddes [q. v.] He returned to other speculations in ‘Nazarenus’ (1718) and ‘Tetradymus’ (1720), discussing various points of ecclesiastical history in a freethinking spirit. His most curious performance was the ‘Pantheisticon’ (1720). It sets forth the principles of a supposed philosophical society of pantheists who meet and go through a kind of liturgy commemorating ancient philosophers. He was accused by Francis Hare [q. v.], in his ‘Scripture Vindicated,’ of inserting in some copies a prayer to Bacchus, which, however, according to Des Maizeaux, was written in ridicule by an adversary. Toland had the book privately printed and ‘distributed copies with a view of receiving some presents for them.’ This, no doubt, was the real motive of the performance. Toland, in fact, was sinking into distress. He seems to have been partly supported by Robert, lord Molesworth [q. v.] Some letters printed in the ‘Collection of Pieces’ show that Molesworth's favour enabled him to make some speculations in the South Sea business in 1720. Molesworth also entrusted him with the publication of the letters to himself from Shaftesbury (1721). Toland from about 1718 lived at Putney. His health failed at the end of 1721, and, after suffering patiently, he died on 11 March 1721–2, saying that he was ‘going to sleep.’ He composed a Latin epitaph for himself a few days before, speaking of his independence and his knowledge of ten languages, and ending: ‘Ipse vero æternum est resurrecturus, at idem futurus Tolandus nunquam.’
Toland was evidently a man of remarkable versatility and acuteness, and his first book struck the keynote of the long discussions as to the relation between the religion of nature and the accepted doctrines. He showed also an acute perception of the importance of historical inquiries into the origin of creeds, though his precarious circumstances prevented him from carrying out continuous studies. His contemporaries held that vanity led him to a rash exposition of crude guesses. Allowance must be made for the unfortunate circumstances which compelled him to make a living in the ambiguous position of a half-recognised political agent and a hack-author dependent upon the patronage of men in power. Some of his writings were respectfully criticised by Leibnitz, and he was in intercourse with some of the ablest men of his time. He is generally noticed along with Collins and Tindal as the object of the contempt of respectable divines, but deserves real credit as a pioneer of freethought. He had read widely and knew many languages, including Irish, which he had learnt in his infancy (see his History of the Druids), and some of the Teutonic languages.
Toland's works are: 1. ‘Christianity not Mysterious,’ 1696. 2. ‘A Discourse upon Coins by Signor Davanzani Bottiche … and translated out of Italian by John Toland,’ 1696. 3. ‘An Apology for Mr. Toland,’ 1697. 4. ‘The Militia Reformed,’ 1698. 5. ‘Life of John Milton,’ 1698 (also prefixed to Milton's ‘Prose Works,’ in 3 vols. fol.). 6. ‘Amyntor’ (contains a defence of the last, a catalogue of apocryphal Christian writings, and a history of the ‘Icon Basilike’), 1699. 7. ‘Memoirs of Denzil, Lord Holles’ (edited with a preface), 1699. 8. ‘The “Oceana” of James Harrington’ (edited with a life), 1700. 9. ‘Clito: a Poem on the Force of Eloquence,’ 1700. 10. ‘The Art of Governing by Parties,’ 1701. 11. ‘Propositions for uniting the two East India Companies,’ 1701. 12. ‘Anglia Libera’ (defence of the Act of Succession), 1701. 13. ‘Vindicius Liberius’ (on the proceedings against him in convocation), 1702. 14. ‘Paradoxes of State’ (on the king's speech), 1702. 15. ‘Reasons for addressing his Majesty to invite into England the Electress Dowager … and for attainting the pretended Prince of Wales,’ 1703. 16. ‘Letters to Serena,’ 1704 (French translation by Holbach in 1768 as ‘Lettres Philosophiques’). 17. ‘An Account of the Courts of Prussia and Hanover,’ 1705 (2nd edition in 1706 with ordinances of the Berlin Academy). 18. ‘The Memorial of the State of England,’ 1705 (answer to ‘Memorial of the Church of England’ by James Drake [q. v.]). 19. ‘Oratio Philippica ad excitandos contra Galliam Britannos’ (edited and published in English; new edition in 1709). 20. ‘Adeisidæmon’ (on the prodigies in Livy) and ‘Origines Judaicæ’ (defending Strabo's account of the Jews), 1709. 21. ‘Lettre d'un Anglois à un Hollandois au sujet du Docteur Sacheverell,’ 1710. 22. ‘The Description of Epsom,’ 1711. 23. ‘A Letter against Popery,’ 1712. 24. ‘Her Majesty's Reasons for creating the Electoral Prince of Hanover a Peer of the Realm,’ 1712. 25. ‘An Appeal to honest People against wicked Priests’ (against Sacheverell), 1712. 26. ‘Cicero illustratus, Dissertatio Philologico-Critica,’ 1712 (proposals for editing Cicero's works). 27. ‘Dunkirk and Dover,’ 1713. 28. ‘The Art of Restoring’ (a parallel between Monck and Lord Oxford), 1713 (ten editions in a quarter of a year). 29. ‘Reasons for Naturalising the Jews,’ 1713. 30. ‘The Funeral Elegy … of the Princess Sophia,’ 1714. 31. ‘The Grand Mystery laid open’ (defence of the Hanoverian succession), 1714. 32. ‘The State Anatomy of Great Britain,’ 1717; eight editions (answered by Fiddes and De Foe, to whom Toland replied in a second part). 33. ‘Nazarenus’ (containing the history of the Gospel of Barnabas, and ‘The Original Plan of Christianity’), 1718. 34. ‘The Destiny of Rome’ (the downfall of the pope proved from the prophecy of St. Malachi), 1718. 35. ‘Pantheisticon,’ 1720 (in English in 1751). 36. ‘Tetradymus, containing Hodegus’ (on the pillar of cloud and fire), ‘Clidophorus’ (on esoteric philosophy), ‘Hypatia’ (her history), ‘Mangoneutes’ (defence of ‘Nazarenus’), 1720. ‘A Collection of several Pieces of Mr. John Toland,’ 1726, includes a life (by Des Maizeaux), the ‘History of the Druids,’ a few fragments and some letters (reprinted in 1747 with Des Maizeaux's name, and in 1814).