Locating the Early Locke: Review of "The Pretenses of Loyalty," Pt. 2

One of the most valuable contributions of Perry’s book is his attempt to illuminate the heretofore rather unexplored territory of Locke’s early work—his 1667 Essay on Toleration and especially his 1660 First Tract on Government. So obsessed are political philosophers and Locke scholars with the magna opera of 1689 that they have tended to pass over these earlier works in silence, but from the standpoint of understanding Locke’s theory of toleration, this is a great mistake, as Perry shows. Why? Well because the early Locke was an opponent of toleration, arguing forcefully against Puritans in the First Tract that the magistrate had the right to impose uniformity in religious practice, and ought to exercise this right. Why the about-face? Only if we take seriously this question, says Perry, will we be able to understand what led him to articulate his full-blown theory of toleration in 1689, and what he sought to accomplish with that theory. Moreover, in so doing, we will find that the argument for toleration is not so much of an about-face from the argument against it as we might have imagined.

One of the most valuable contributions of Perry’s book is his attempt to illuminate the heretofore rather unexplored territory of Locke’s early work—his 1667 Essay on Toleration and especially his 1660 First Tract on Government.  So obsessed are political philosophers and Locke scholars with the magna opera of 1689 that they have tended to pass over these earlier works in silence, but from the standpoint of understanding Locke’s theory of toleration, this is a great mistake, as Perry shows.  Why?  Well because the early Locke was an opponent of toleration, arguing forcefully against Puritans in the First Tract that the magistrate had the right to impose uniformity in religious practice, and ought to exercise this right.  Why the about-face?  Only if we take seriously this question, says Perry, will we be able to understand what led him to articulate his full-blown theory of toleration in 1689, and what he sought to accomplish with that theory.  Moreover, in so doing, we will find that the argument for toleration is not so much of an about-face from the argument against it as we might have imagined.

Accordingly, Perry spends a lengthy Chapter Three of his book setting up the background of 17th-century debates over toleration, analyzing the logic of Locke’s early opposition to it, and understanding what began to change for him in the years between 1660 and 1689.

The occasion for the First Tract was the renewed debates between Anglicans and Puritans at the Restoration of Charles II as to whether the new government would tolerate diversity of practice in Prayer Book rites that the Puritans opposed.  Such debates had raged for a full century before 1660, focusing largely on the question of adiaphora, “things indifferent,” neither required nor forbidden by Scripture.  Most disputants on both sides conceded that, abstractly speaking, most of the rites in question fell into this category.  However, Puritans were inclined to argue that by reason of their propensity to superstition, the disputed rites became for all practical purposes forbidden, while Anglicans tended to argue that, once commanded by the civil authority, they became for all practical purposes required.  The latest salvo in the century-long conflict had been fired by Puritan Edward Bagshaw in his The Great Question Concerning Things Indifferent, and it was this that Locke sought to answer in the First Tract.

Given that this territory has been so woefully under-explored in scholarship to date, it would be unfair to fault Perry too much for the incompleteness of his account.  Nonetheless, I will contend here that he does omit crucial parts of the back-story, leading him to make some rather unjustified assertions about the novelty of Locke’s argument in the First Tract.  Admittedly, Perry is anxious to avoid the charge of over-emphasizing Locke’s novelty, and he begins the chapter with an attempt to survey the history of toleration before Locke, focusing particularly on John Milton and Roger Williams.  He argues that it is true that Locke provides merely the “epilogue” to a basically settled Protestant consensus that it is wrong to force conscience and enforce uniformity on religious grounds—to argue that heretics must be punished or forced to recant for the sake of their souls or because God requires it.  But he claims that Locke writes the “prologue” to a new discussion about how far toleration may be justified or even called for on political grounds.  This is a helpful distinction, but it still appears to overstate Locke’s novelty.

Indeed, Perry seems to go so far as to suggest that Locke is original in his First Tract in characterizing the question of uniformity vs. toleration as a fundamentally political one:

“What set Locke’s argument [in the First Tract] apart from others that supported uniformity in adiaphora is how thoroughly political it is. It is not an argument that uniformity of practice most pleases God but that uniformity most inclines to civil peace. . . . it is difficult to remember how unique what he says here is. Toleration for indifferent religious practices is of a piece with toleration for civil acts: The two types of acts rise or fall together” (90).

This is a remarkable assertion, hard to square both with the clear history of post-Reformation polemics about adiaphora and with Perry’s own statements in the first part of the chapter.  For if Protestant theologians had long been rejecting the idea that uniformity could be required on religious grounds, but had still argued for uniformity (as Perry acknowledges), they clearly must have done so on political grounds; and if they rejected the coercion of conscience (as Perry acknowledges), then clearly they could have argued only for enforced uniformity in adiaphora, which by definition do not touch the conscience.  Admittedly, not all had laid out quite so clearly the argument Locke was to make in the First Tract—that ecclesiastical adiaphora were by definition civil matters, that the requirements of civil peace called for them to be regulated, that citizens could not be allowed to protest conscientious exemption in civil matters that were by definition indifferent, and that uniformity must therefore be imposed in adiaphora, which encompassed most matters of outward religious practice.  But some certainly had, notably Richard Hooker, whom Locke relies on extensively.  (At one point, Perry makes a brief mention of Locke’s important debt to Hooker, only to inexplicably sideline it as irrelevant for his purposes.)  By arguing for uniformity on grounds of political prudence, then, many Protestant theologians and political theorists also proceeded Locke in suggesting that such prudence could permit religious toleration in many cases.  (Perry’s argument could have been particularly enriched by consideration of the Erastian contributions to toleration surveyed in Eric Nelson’s recent The Hebrew Republic.)

Perry also seems to overestimate the novelty of the opposition that Locke was facing.  Bagshaw, he claims, was “unique” among Puritans in arguing against uniformity on the basis that adiaphora only remained indifferent, and thus lawful for Christians, when they were optional; if they were made necessary, even by civil law, they constituted an un-Scriptural burden on Christian consciences, and must be resisted (90).  In fact, however, the same objections had been raised by Puritans a century before during the Vestiarian Controversy, and indeed appear as early as 1548 in the Lutheran Matthias Flacius’s Liber de Veris et Falsis Adiaphoris.  Locke’s counter-argument, then—that in fact enforced uniformity on civil grounds was the only way to keep adiaphora indifferent, since otherwise rival factions would increasingly seek to claim Biblical sanction for their particular rites, and thus demand that others assent to them—also had plenty of antecedents, notably in Hooker.

In any case, though Perry may attribute too much novelty to Locke at this point, he is right to see its importance, for we can see that Locke’s early opposition to toleration was “not principled but prudential” (93); if he can be persuaded that Christians will refuse to accept uniformity no matter what, and that they could be persuaded to peacefully accept diversity, he could change his mind about toleration.  In fact, as Perry goes on to show, he was eventually persuaded of both—he came to the conclusion that “when people believe their opinions are necessary, they cannot be persuaded of their indifferency,” as Robert Kraynak puts it (quoted on p. 100), and to the conclusion that even so, he could convince them to tolerate the rival practices of other Christians.

Locke’s other early argument against toleration is principled.  It seems clear to him that the magistrate rightfully has authority over all indifferent matters—the liberty that naturally belongs to individuals is ceded to the public authority upon the formation of a political society.  So far as he can see, then, there is no logical way to draw a line around which indifferent matters the magistrate may regulate, and which he cannot.  It is to provide such a criterion that Locke later develops his concept of rights, offering a new account that strictly limits the legitimate powers of civil government, and excludes matters of religious conviction, as Locke defines it, from those powers.

Perry thus situates Locke’s work firmly within the nexus of post-Reformation conflicts of loyalty.  Puritans were convinced that their loyalty to God required them to resist the magistrate’s imposition of uniformity in adiaphora, whereas conformists and the early Locke considered this a mere pretense of loyalty, given that these adiaphora were precisely those matters on which our loyalty to God makes no claim.  Eventually realizing, however, that these loyalties, pretense or not, could not be shaken, Locke resorts to a different strategy—persuading believers that their loyalty to God should permit them to allow others to worship in their own ways.  We shall turn to this, the argument of the Letter Concerning Toleration, in the next section.

Brad Littlejohn is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Edinburgh, where he is working under Oliver O’Donovan on the relationship between law, loyalty, and liberty in the thought of Richard Hooker.  He has written one monograph and edited another on the 19th-century movement known as the Mercersburg Theology, but his real passion is in the field of political theology, in which he has forthcoming book chapters on the role of Scripture in political discourse and on theological approaches to property rights. He blogs at www.swordandploughshare.com.

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