John Toland


By Gary Suttle


Lexicographers credit John Toland with the first English language usage of the word "pantheist." Toland set forth precepts of Pantheism and even described membership activities for a Pantheist Society. Biographers  describe Toland as a swashbuckling adventurer in scholarship--a philosopher, a writer, a linguist, a polemicist, a diplomat, a biblical scholar, a freethinker, a deist, and ultimately a proponent of Pantheism.

His fascinating life began near Londonderry, Ireland, on November 30, 1670. Christened in the Catholic Church, he converted to Protestantism around age 15. Education led him from Christianity to freethinking. Toland acquired a degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1690. He studied further in England, Germany, and Holland.

A Dutch friend called Toland as "a free-spirited, ingenious man." But his unorthodox views and outspokenness made it hard to earn a living. He gained income by penning political pamphlets and biographies for aristocratic patrons. Toland wrote prolifically on a wide range of subjects, including religious tolerance and civil liberty. A large bibliography lists almost two hundred works authored or ascribed to him.

An important early book, Christianity Not Mysterious, provoked a fire storm because it claimed that human reason could explain biblical mysteries. Clerics burned the book and one official requested "that Mr.Toland himself should be burnt." Undeterred, Toland moved from place to place to escape prosecution, leaving controversy in his wake. He often wrote anonymously or in a foreign tongue to voice his heretical views (he claimed to know 10 languages). He also kept critics at bay by sometimes adding a nod to orthodoxy at the end of controversial tracts. "A bouncing compliment," Toland quipped, "saves all."

Toland’s writing garnered fame as well as fusillades. He discussed philosophy with notables like the German thinker Wilhelm von Leibniz, and the Queen of Prussia, Sophia Charlotte. His irrepressible pluck and his pungent pen kept him going, even as financial woes and ill health slowed him down. He wrote Physic without Physicians shortly before he died, decrying his doctor’s inept treatment: "They learn their Art at the hazard of our lives, and make experiments by our deaths." His own death came in 1722 "without any perturbation of mind." Toland’s self-written epitaph concluded "If you would know more of him, search his writings."

A book Toland wrote in 1705 entitled Socinianism truly stated...recommended by a Pantheist  to an orthodox friend contains the first known use of the term "pantheist" in an English language publication. On page seven he acknowledged "The Pantheists...of which number I profess myself to be one."   In 1709, a Toland critic named J. Fay used the term "pantheism" in English, and both terms quickly became common. (Joseph Raphson, a Cambridge mathematician, originated the words "pantheist" and "pantheism" in a 1697 theological work written in Latin...Toland had read Raphson's book).

Toland earlier expressed pantheist theory in Clito (1700) and in Letters to Serena (1704). He thought "All things were full of God," and pronounced that "The sun is my father, the earth my mother, the world is my brother and all men are my family." The Roman materialist Lucritius and especially the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno ( martyred for his pantheistic beliefs) greatly influenced Toland. He translated and defended Bruno’s Latin treatise on the infinite universe.

Toland detailed his own pantheism in Pantheisticon: sive Formula celebrandae Sodalitatis Socraticae / Pantheisticon: or, the Form of Celebrating the Socratic Society (1720, English translation, 1751). He believed in a boundless universe. He visualized the unity of all matter and the ceaseless motion of atoms. He spurned personal immortality yet averred that "Nothing dies totally, the death of one thing brings the birth of another, by a universally reciprocal exchange, and everything contributes necessarily to the preservation and welfare of the Whole."

Toland identified God with the Universe: "The power and energy of All, which has created all and which governs God, which you may call Spirit and Soul of the Universe. This is why the Socratic Associates have been called pantheists, because according to them this soul cannot be separated from the Universe itself."

The "Socratic Associates" composed a secret Pantheist Society detailed in Pantheisticon. The members met behind closed doors, and sometimes outdoors. They debated, played games, and practiced rituals complete with liturgy, credo, and recitation. For example, Toland quotes the Society’s president as saying "All things in the world are One and One in all things," to which respondents reply "What is all in all things is God, and God is eternal, has not been created, and will never die." The president endeavors, by one account, "to inspire (members) with the love of truth, liberty, and health, cheerfulness, sobriety, temperateness, and freedom from superstition."

Historians debate whether or not Toland’s Pantheist Society ever really existed. No matter. Biographers relate that he had a "widespread and varied" impact on his generation. "In his life of 52 years his restless, inquiring mind was ever active, his accomplishments were manifold, and he was an internationalist of consequence in the Age of Enlightenment."

And valuably, John Toland acted as a catalyst to bring the word "pantheist" and the idea of Pantheism into wider circulation.



Berman, David. "John Toland," in The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Gordon Stein, ed. New York: Prometheus Books, 1985

_____________."The Irish Freethinker," in  John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious, Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays.  Edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison, and Richard Kearney.  Dublin, Ireland: The Lilliput Press, 1997. (Revised and expanded version of the above entry).

Brown, Stuart.  Two Papers By John Toland, His ‘Remarques Critques sur le Systeme de M. Leibnitz...’ and the last of his Letters to Serena.  The Open University, 2001

Daniel, Stephen H.  John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind.  Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984.

_____________. “Toland’s Semantic Pantheism,” in John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious, Text, Associated Works and Critical Essays.  Edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison, and Richard Kearney.  Dublin, Ireland: The Lilliput Press, 1997.

Harrison, Paul. "Toland: the father of modern pantheism." members,

Mossner, Ernest Campbell. "John Toland," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,  Paul Edwards, ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. & The Free Press.

Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989.

Picture Credit:  Stephen H. Daniel.  The portrait of John Toland appears in the frontpiece of Professor Daniel's book,  John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind.  It came from Volume 3 of U. G. Thorschmid's Versuch einer Vollstandige Englandiche Freydenker-Bibliothek (1766).  This is the only known portrait of John Toland. Interestingly, it shows him holding a copy of Pantheisticon.

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  Text Copyright © 2002 Gary Suttle