An Irish precursor of the Enlightenment

John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious: Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays ed

John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious: Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays ed. Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison and Richard Kearney Lilliput Press 352pp, £25/£11.99

The year 1670 saw the birth of a remarkable and hugely influential, though now almost forgotten, man. John Toland was born in the parish of Clonmany on the Inishowen peninsula in Co Donegal. The details of his life are sketchy, and even his name is the subject of debate. Toland was a native Irish-speaking Catholic, but converted to Protestantism at the age of fifteen. There was a time when such a conversion was neither popular nor profitable, the Catholic James II having become king of England in 1685.

Toland was a scholarship student at Redcastle, near Derry, before moving to Scotland in 1687 to study divinity. (He received his M.A. from Edinburgh the day before the battle of the Boyne.) He studied also in Leyden and Utrecht and travelled widely, visiting the cosmopolitan centres of Europe, winning enemies and influencing people as he went.

Toland is a mass of contradictions. He was most likely born into a bardic family, with strong roots in Gaelic culture, roots he never forgot, in 1708 receiving a certificate from the Franciscan college at Prague affirming his origination. (Incidentally, the Franciscan superiors who wrote this certificate were two O'Neills and an O'Devlin probably also from Donegal.)

He had great sympathy for minorities, writing in 1714 that Jewish immigration into Britain and Ireland should be encouraged, a remarkably tolerant attitude for the time, yet refused to contemplate the idea of the "native Irish" as equal members of the ruling class in Ireland. He was proud of his Gaelic roots but saw William of Orange's accession to the English throne as the beginning of a glorious age of reason.

It is for his own part in the promotion and development of this age of reason that Toland is remembered. The publication of Christianity not Mysterious in 1696 was a defining moment in the movement into the Enlightenment, sparking off the work of George Berkeley, Francis Hutche son and Edmund Burke in Ireland, while in France Voltaire and Diderot were influenced by Toland's writings. John Locke, with whom Toland had a mutually influential relationship, is said to have coined the term "free-thinker" in order to describe him, while Leibniz wrote letters of criticism on Toland's later works. After Christianity not Mysterious, Locke publicly distanced himself from Toland because of the dangers involved: in 1697 one Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh for insulting the Trinity and scriptural authority. Christianity not Mysterious, Toland's first major work, reissued here with the minimum of modernisation and incorporating the two editions overseen by Toland, argues that the Gospel can be rationally understood and that the notion of religious mysteries is a harmful obfuscation fostered by power-seeking clergy.eque Royale in Paris by a renegade priest, Toland praises the Irish Christianity up to the ninth century as allowing freedom of conscience, being free from "priestcraft" (perhaps one of the attractions, Philip McGuinness suggests, for Toland of protestantism) and being itself a form of egalitarian republicanism. In fact seeing it says McGuinness, as a sort of Protestantism in its independence from Rome and from superstition. (This independece is very much a moot point in studies of early Irish Christianity.)

Toland was only 26 when Christianity not Mysterious was published and subsequently banned by the Irish House of Commons, and then publicly burned by the common hangman, on their order. An order was put out for Toland's arrest, which he says himself "he took care to avoid".

With this book Toland had, to his own surprise, managed to upset almost everyone. In attacking the idea of Christian mysteries he was not only eroding the power of the clergy but also questioning the separation of Christianity into rival religions or sects, and hence robbing the Ascendancy power in Ireland of its philosophical foundation. Toland subsequently had to leave Ireland, never to return.

Toland's Apology and Defence of 1697 are included in the present edition as well as his Vindicius Liberius, a defence of Christianity not Mysterious against the Anglican synod of 1702.

Christianity not Mysterious opens with a short discussion of reason and of how our faculties are informed, but soon eases into a more historical work on the Christian Church. It is a philosophical and historical study of religion, a political tract in its questioning of all authority which claims precedence over the individual's thought, and also a moral tract, forcing each reader to question his or her own reasons for holding a belief, whether those reasons be ignorance, laziness or because "they serve our own Designs better than the Truth".

The apologias of 1697 and 1702 are themselves spirited pieces of writing, occasionally going on the offensive, as when he asks, in the most respectful phrasing possible, how the Irish House of Commons claims the power to declare whether an idea or a work is heretical. To my mind these defences are every bit as interesting as the main work itself, their politic tone lending itself to some very enjoyable, though deadly serious, writing.

Also included within this edition are eight specially commissioned essays on Toland and Christianity not Mysterious. The essays by Richard Kearney and David Berman are biographical sketches, placing Toland in the context of Europe and Ireland, Kearney drawing comparisons with a host of more recent Irish writers, Berman drawing links between Toland's various works. Alan Harrison's essay on Toland's Celtic background is more focused but also meshes life and work. The essays by Desmond M. Clarke and Stephen H. Daniel explore discrete elements of Toland's work.

These are all fine studies, each essay brushing across the others as well as across the text itself, making for a copy well worn and well marked by the time you've reached the end.

But Philip McGuinness's three essays, on Toland and the Enlightenment, Toland and Irish politics and Toland and science, are excellent studies of the times and of the man, continually aware of the complexities of the age and of the labyrinthine relationships between politics and religion, and also of the subtleties of the work of a man who was truly of his time.. A book such as this teaches us that from people such as this all subsequent ages can learn.

Barty Belgey is a writer and critic