For the wit of man cannot for dullness keep the right way to search out truth, but strayeth in diverse errors, and as it were groping in darkness, oftentimes stumbleth, till at length it wander and vanishes away, so in seeking truth, it doth betray how unfit it is to seek and find truth.

Jean Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, II.ii.12, English translation of 1678

The unbiassed Design of the Writer, purely to defend and propagate Truth, seems to me to be that alone which legitimates Controversies. I am sure, it plainly distinguishes such from all others, in their Success and Usefulness. If a Man, as a sincere Friend to the Person, and to the Truth, labours to bring another out of Error, there can be nothing more beautiful, nor more beneficial. If Party, Passion or Vanity direct his Pen, and have an Hand in the Controversie, there can be nothing more unbecoming, more prejudicial, nor more odious.

John Locke, A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity, 1697


In an essay published in 1784 Immanuel Kant famously answered the question of Enlightenment by defining it in terms of the social and intellectual conditions of personal autonomy.[1] As anyone who has read his work knows, Kant’s answer is precisely formulated in the vocabulary of his own philosophy. Forgoing the intricacies of this exact and sometimes exacting terminology for a moment, I think we might situate the historical change Kant’s formulation implies—the invention of autonomy—by examining an earlier Enlightenment episode.[2] The seventeenth-century English philosopher and political theorist John Locke might have answered the question of Enlightenment in the following way: Enlightenment is a condition in which intellectual enquiry, a practice he called the “search after truth,” is governed by the dictates of personal conscience rather than the pillars of authority or tradition. For Locke, individuals seeking the truth by the light of reason do so as equal members of an intellectual community, which he and others called the “republic of letters,” and who demonstrate their commitment to one another and to truth by embodying the social and spiritual virtues of civility and charity.[3] As this way of putting it indicates, this English member of the “family of Enlightenments” expressed an ethos indebted to a rationalist strain of Protestant theology, one whose crooked roots reach at least as far back as Jean Calvin.[4] In time this way of framing intellectual enquiry—as a personal “search after truth” conducted by the light of natural reason, but in conjunction with others as equals and to whom one shows civility and charity—would become much more widespread.[5] It would even be adopted by prominent Protestant religious apologists in the eighteenth-century such as James Beattie and William Paley.[6] What this early Enlightenment episode encapsulates, then, is a moment of change in the history of truth. It was a moment made possible by and resulted in a change in the way the Christian religion was defined and defended. Instead of proclaiming the triumph of the Christian religion in a rhetorical contest, Locke and those of a similar mindset re-described its primacy in terms of its truth.


One way to trace the historical emergence of an Enlightenment “search after truth” is to look at early modern debates about atheism. The fact that atheists were socially and politically anathema and atheism regarded as virtually non-sensical provides us with a kind of mirror for the broadly shared conceptions of how the world held together for Europeans between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.[7] In the broadest terms, there were two primary sources for newly heightened anxieties about atheism between 1500 and 1800, both of which generated a crop of Christian apologetic responses. For better or worse, historians still tend to refer to these historical movements as the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Religious division in Reformation Europe generated widespread anxieties about the fabric of society because of the perceived connection between religious belief and social practice. It was a truism voiced in many apologies for the Christian religion, and much religious writing generally, that sinful practices generated erroneous beliefs, and unchristian doctrine led to unchristian behaviour. Concerns about the European sociopolitical order in the early modern period were necessarily concerns about the connection between belief and behavior. Religious division was therefore at once symptom and disease, and as such it threatened to overturn the ship of Christian society.[8] The rather sudden emergence of pervasive fears about atheists and atheism in the early sixteenth century, and the rise of anti-atheist apologetics in the 1580s, especially in England, can be viewed as the expression of a very deep worry about the unravelling of Christendom.

By 1550 the word atheism had entered the vernacular discourses of Europe. In a dedicatory letter to a translation of a work by Jean Calvin, Arthur Golding used the term “atheism” as a description of the state of having “no Religion.”[9] It was widely thought that atheists were re-enacting original sin by putting their own creaturely pride above that of the creator. Miles Coverdale, the famous Bible translator, used the word “atheism” in his preface to the translation of Heinrich Bullinger’s The Hope of the Faythful (1555), where he described Italian atheists as Epicureans who rejected the Christian doctrine of resurrection.[10] If you denied God’s providential ordering and sustaining of the world, in other words, it was thought that you denied a true understanding of God and were consequently an atheist.

Correspondingly, the Renaissance retrieval of classical texts included the republication and recirculation of deeply challenging materialist philosophies. The Greek philosopher Epicurus and the Roman poet Lucretius were widely considered to be ancient sources for early modern atheists. The appropriation of ancient materialism by alleged atheists such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, Thomas Hobbes, and Baruch Spinoza, to name only a few of the most notorious figures, was an extremely important additional cause for anxiety about atheism in early modern Europe. These alleged atheists often added to their work powerful arguments from the new natural philosophy (i.e. early modern “science”) and from the growing literature generated by contact with non-European societies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (i.e. early modern “anthropology”). To contemporaries both additions seemed to call the tenets of the Christian religion into question.

The division of Christendom and the revival of ancient materialism were both frequently denounced by early modern Christian apologists. Very often such denunciations were traditional, mirroring the efforts of church fathers such as Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo, who asserted the triumph of Christian religion by confuting the pagans and philosophers of their day. Increasingly early modern religious apologists adapted their arguments to the challenges posed by revised and revived ancient materialism, as well as the new natural philosophy associated with Francis Bacon and René Descartes. When he delivered his Boyle Lectures in 1697, in a sermon entitled The Atheistical Objections Against the Being of a God, the Anglican clergyman John Harris employed natural theological arguments from the design of the universe to set his sights squarely on some typical targets: “Machiavel, Spinoza, Hobbs, Blount” and “all the late Atheisticall writers.”[11]

In order to combat the perceived spread of atheism the first Boyle lecturer, Richard Bentley, sought to issue a series of devastating “confutations.” A confutation was the rhetorical form in which the content of much anti-atheist thought was delivered in England.[12] One widely used classical textbook, which most early moderns thought was penned by Cicero, the ancient Roman politician and lawyer, put it this way: “Confutation is the destruction of our adversaries argument.”[13] This tactic was a standard part of humanist rhetoric.[14] In the words of John Newton, who wrote An Introduction to the Art of Rhetorick (1671), “Confutation is a part or kind of Confirmation, in which we answer all objections.”[15] As you might imagine, answering all objections and destroying arguments left much room for manoeuvre. Huge tomes of ornate learning were published as apologetic answers to atheism in early modern Europe, such as the Huguenot nobleman Philip du Plessis Mornay’s Traité de la verite de la religion Chretien (1581) and Ralph Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678). Yet I think it would be fair to say that the outlines of these confutations remained broadly consistent between 1580 and 1720.

At base each of these early modern Christian apologies was dedicated to defending God and true religion while refuting the errors of one’s real or imagined adversaries. Most confutations therefore made a standard sequence of assertions: God’s existence was defended against his non-existence; monotheism was defended against polytheism; the Bible was defended against other sacred texts; and the God of the Bible, in the life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus Christ, was defended against the founders of all rival religions. Each step in this early modern apologetic chain was accompanied by a set of arguments responding to the supposed arguments made by alleged atheists. In this way the triumph of the Christian religion was proclaimed and rhetorically performed in a Europe where religious division seemed to presage Christendom’s decline. While the form and content of anti-atheist confutation would be challenged at times, particularly from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, it wasn’t until 1720 that Bernard Mandeville, echoing the provocative assertions made several decades earlier by Pierre Bayle, asserted that an atheist might be a “moral Man.”[16] In an anti-clerical, Erastian vein, Mandeville insisted that it was not atheists who posed the most serious threat to the order and prosperity of society. Rather, he nettled his contemporaries by asserting that that award belonged to priests who illegitimately meddled in public affairs with their disruptive rhetoric.[17]


Hugo Grotius’ De veritate religionis Christianae was arguably the most popular and influential Christian apology in early modern Europe. It was originally published in Dutch verse, going through several editions. It subsequently appeared in translation in the major European vernaculars as well as the international language of learning, Latin. The De veritate was translated into English in 1632 under the title True Religion Explained and Defended. Between 1640 and 1720 dozens of editions of English translations of De veritate followed. These translations were frequently entitled, simply enough, “The Truth of the Christian Religion.” In combination with classic early modern apologies such as du Plessis Mornay’s, also quite popular in English translation, Grotius quickly became an apologetic standard. Contemporaries recognized that De veritate was written in a polished and admirably concise humanist style, one which intentionally avoided strident confessional disputes. Echoing this appraisal, one scholar has recently argued that this combination of polished irenicism constitutes Grotius’ most important apologetic innovation.[18] Whereas du Plessis Mornay’s popular but cumbersome Traité dragged on for over 500 pages in small print, mixed ancient philosophy with baroque learning, and engaged in lengthy and tedious digressions, Grotius’ short work opted for fewer references, less elaborate examples, and more direct, simplified arguments.[19]

Due to his political and religious allegiances, Grotius was in a Dutch prison in 1620 when he began work on his apologetic poem.[20] According to his letters, he was attempting to make good use of his time in prison by reading books supplied to him by his friends. Many of these books were on religious topics. As he put it in his correspondence, Grotius saw his apologetic task as one which would unite Christians together against a common enemy. That enemy was any belief system other than the true religion. It was for this reason that he sought to refute pagans, Jews, and Muslims, after setting out his defence of the existence of God, Jesus Christ, and the reliability of the New Testament. In the early Dutch editions of his poem Grotius presents his proof of the Christian religion as a plea for peace and unity amongst Christians over intolerance and division. He was of course acutely aware of the Dutch confessional conflict between Calvinists and Arminians and insisted that Christians ought to steer the church by the light of scripture against its enemies rather than succumb to internal divisions. For this deeply learned Christian humanist living in a period wracked by war, there was a necessary connection between truth, peace, and unity.[21]

Although there can be little doubt that Grotius had a specific set of dogmatic theological positions, broadly aligned with Remonstrants such as his friend and near exact contemporary Simon Episcopius, it is worth noting that De veritate was written in terms which made no direct appeal to dogma or to revelation. Grotius wanted his argument to be based on natural reason alone. The novelty of this move is important, and it is worth pausing to take note of it, but it should not be overstated. It was a common approach in the substance of many Christian apologies to start with what could be known by natural reason and then move on to a defence of specific doctrines such as the Trinity. Indeed Episcopius wrote an account of the Remonstrant faith that began in just this way.[22] Such a procedure had also been used by such venerable figures as Thomas Aquinas and Jean Calvin. Moreover, there were contemporary apologists in England who took a similar approach. In his anti-atheist text published in 1622, entitled Atheomastix, Martin Fotherby, Bishop of Salisbury, also based his claim to silence the objections of atheists on the grounds of natural reason alone. Although Grotius was attacked by Dutch Calvinists as a Socinian for failing to defend orthodox Christian dogma or revelation, it is clear that such accusations were part of confessional disputes and should not necessarily be taken at face value, regardless of their ultimate accuracy (Grotius had indeed read Socinus). Suffice it to say that Grotius’ text was similar in structure and content to most other early modern apologies, yet, as noted, it possessed a distinctively irenic tone, a finely polished humanist style, and a widely admired rationalist simplicity.

De veritate is divided into six books. Book I establishes God’s existence, his nature, and his requirements with respect to man; books II and III define and defend the Christian religion as the true religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and on the reliability of the New Testament; books IV, V, and VI, refute the untrue religions of paganism, Judaism, and Islam. Clearly the scope and structure of De veritate is quite similar to other apologetic textbooks, including du Plessis Mornay’s, which Grotius used and admired. Grotius also made use of standard humanist rhetorical strategies: answering potential objections, invoking the authority of non-Christian testimony, confirming the witness of providence, deploying standard metaphysical and moral arguments, and upholding the veracity of both miracles and prophecy.

If we examine De veritate in greater detail we will see that it begins in a typical way. Book I of defends God’s existence, unity, and perfection, God’s providence, and man’s final end in the afterlife. Like other Christian apologies of the time, Grotius chose particular arguments to prove God’s existence. He uses the cosmological necessity of a first cause, affirmed by the fact that God’s existence has been acknowledged in all times and places. Yet, even in spite of Grotius’ alleged Socinianism, no elaborate argument is offered for God’s singular unity other than the logical assumption that the one always rules over the many. God’s infinity and perfection follow from the necessity of such attributes for the creation and maintenance of the universe. Thus God is also eternal, omnipotent, and good. Grotius vindicates providence by appealing to the testimony of nature’s orderly preservation, and to the providential preservation of certain political empires and certain religions. Finally, he defends the existence of the soul as reasonable, as universally believed by all human societies, and as necessary for the vindication of justice in the afterlife.

Book II of De veritate provides an account of Jesus Christ, his miracles, and his doctrine. Once more we encounter a bevy of standard arguments. Jewish and Romans sources alike confess that Jesus lived, was put to death, and was worshipped by intelligent men after his death. The writings of non-Christian authors such as Tacitus, and the fact that Christ’s early disciples had nothing to gain in worshipping a crucified man, were for Grotius and his contemporaries supremely good evidence that their testimony about Christ was trustworthy. Why else would the disciples suffer and die, but for their sincerely held beliefs about who Christ was, what he taught, and the miracles he performed? Furthermore, invoking an apologetic commonplace, Grotius writes that these testimonies were given at a time when they could have been contradicted and questioned. Simply put, Grotius says that the apostles, honest and simple men, would not have died unless they genuinely believed in the truth of Christ’s resurrection.

According to Grotius, as the English translation of 1669 puts it, “the chief part of Religion is manifestly placed in a pious confidence, whereby we, being composed to faithful obedience, rely wholly upon God, and without doubting believe his promises.”[23] This was an ethically superior teaching for Grotius because the God of the Christian religion forbade idolatry and commanded the performance of the most rational personal and social duties. Personally, Jesus taught that virtue was its own reward; socially, the Christian religion demands forgiveness rather than exact justice, exhorting Christians to use their temporal goods to help their neighbour. Grotius thinks it also advocates the classical virtues of modesty, temperance, goodness, and prudence. This is obviously his rather Stoic way of summarizing Jesus’ own epitome of the law and commandments. As a testimony of the perfection of this teaching, Grotius insists that Jesus not only lived according to his own doctrine, but that the acceptance of his teachings was assisted by the Holy Spirit, who providentially and peacefully guided the apostles.

In Book III of De veritate Grotius begins to distinguish between religions by comparing their sacred writings. For the Christian religion this depends on the authority of the New Testament. First, he defends the traditional ascription of New Testament authors by pointing to the testimony of the early church and the church fathers. Those New Testament writings whose authority is doubtful, he argues by contrast, contain nothing contrary to the trusted writings; those books without authors, such as Hebrews, are validated in terms of their content. We can similarly give credit to Pauline statements about times prior to Paul’s own conversion because, Grotius notes, we trust pagan historians such as Tacitus for earlier Roman history. More generally, since the authors of the New Testament did not shy away from presenting their own faults, such as their abandonment of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we can trust their motives not to deceive us. And since we are given the names, dates, and places of miracles performed by Jesus and his apostles, their veracity can be maintained, in addition to the proof derived from the fulfilment of prophecy.

As I noted earlier, books IV, V, and VI of De veritate shift to an attack on the false religions of paganism, Judaism, and Islam. The purpose of this attack was to move the ground of the defence of Christianity. The first three books provided proof of the true religion, the last three books provided proof of the false religions. It was a binary Grotius’ kept to because he ascribed to a view in which truth, peace, and unity were interdependent. This was a defence of the existence of God and the Christian religion in a post-Reformation, post-Renaissance world.

Translations of Grotius into English were early and frequent.[24] After the translation by Francis Coventry in 1632, Clarke Barksdale published a translation of the first two books of De veritate in 1652, adding book three in 1658, and a separate translation of books IV to VI in 1676. In 1680 Simon Patrick translated the whole work and added a book of his own attacking Catholicism, which went to a sixth edition by 1707. A verse translation of De veritate appeared in 1686. John Clarke translated a corrected Latin edition published by Jean Le Clerc in 1711, and revised the translation from Le Clerc as Le Clerc revised and corrected his own edition. The third Clarke translation was frequently republished in Britain throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In England as elsewhere in Europe, Grotius’ apology struck a lasting and resonant chord.

The English translation of 1632 was apparently read and approved by Grotius and did not contain any additional prefatory material. The translation of books I and II by Barksdale in 1652 contained a letter to his patron, a life of Grotius, and an appendix in which a range of Grotius’ broadly Arminian views on religion were surveyed. Later Barksdale editions in 1658 and 1669 contained the same material. In the 1686 verse translation dedicated to the natural philosopher Robert Boyle, De veritate was depicted as a text which could be easily memorised and remembered. Several of the laudatory poems included in this verse translation depict the De veritate as an appropriate poetic response to Lucretius’ De rerum natura. Ultimately these various editions did not add much to Grotius’ text. Basically they affirmed his irenic stance and his non-dogmatic approach to the proof of the Christian religion. The call for peace and unity was surely welcome in an England often divided by religion. As the reference to Lucretius indicates, it also addressed a particularly English concern with answering the arguments of atheists.

The most substantial additions to Grotius available in English were those by bishop Simon Patrick and by the philosopher, theologian, historian, and critic Jean Le Clerc. Patrick was a formidable Church of England clergyman who was made dean of Peterborough in 1679, bishop of Chichester in 1689, and eventually bishop of Ely in 1691, a post he held until his death in 1707. Patrick’s translation of De veritate added a seventh book which aimed to remove any doubts about which church possessed the truth of the Christian religion. That, of course, was the Church of England and not that headquartered in Rome. In his additional book Patrick argued, in typical Protestant fashion, that the most essential rites of the Christian religion were baptism and communion, and that nothing further was required according to the Scriptures. Indeed, the whole of the “Rule of Faith” was to be found in the Apostolic and Nicaean creeds. As he put it, the true church kept the creeds “simple and unmixed with human inventions.”[25] Patrick then engaged in a conventional attack on Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation and Catholic practices in their liturgy. Instead of appealing to tradition, Patrick lectures his Catholic readers, they should join with the early church and church fathers who agreed in regarding the scriptures as a sufficient rule of faith.

One way of reading Patrick’s additional book would be to see it as moving Grotius’ apology back into the partisan context of early modern European confessional disputes. Such a reading accords with the vociferous debates about religious comprehension and toleration in England in the aftermath of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the revolution of 1688. The additional book by Jean Le Clerc, however, translated into English shortly after its publication in 1707, pulled the De veritate back towards Grotius’ intentions by recasting the work in an Enlightened fashion—Le Clerc epitomizes the truth of the Christian religion in minimalist and moralist terms and he ties this to the case for religious toleration. Le Clerc was a Swiss Protestant theologian who left his homeland of Calvinist Geneva for the comparably calmer waters of Amsterdam in the 1680s. There he eventually secured a position as professor of philosophy at the Remonstrant college, thanks to his friend and prominent Remonstrant theologian Philip van Limborch. Le Clerc’s works were popular in England and frequently translated into English, and he was himself interested in English texts and reviewed them in the scholarly journals he edited. Across his writing he aimed to apply the clarity and concision of rationalist Cartesian criticism to theology, philosophy, history, and literature.

In the chapter he added to Grotius in his corrected edition Le Clerc argues that books II and III of De veritate contain all the “Marks of Truth” to be found in the New Testament. In a minimalist vein that Grotius shared, Le Clerc builds upon Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about which is the greatest commandment. He writes that the truth of the Christian religion amounts to sincerely confessing Jesus Christ before men, and to loving God through the performance of one’s duty to God in worship and to others in society in peace, love, and charity.[26] Like Grotius, Le Clerc emphasizes that Christians must gather together (in church) and maintain peace and unity (in society) wherever possible. What Le Clerc specifically adds to Grotius, though, is explicit support for religious toleration. He insists that no form of violent persecution can be justified against someone who honestly speaks what their conscience dictates. The only rational and clear solution, he submits, is for that person to withdraw from a society of men with whom they disagree.[27] Arguing against a commonplace of the time, Le Clerc had written elsewhere that  far from securing the state, persecution had caused social division and political instability; he flips the commonplace around and suggests that the virtues of toleration—humanity and civility—would in fact lead to political and social prosperity.[28]

Le Clerc the rationalist Protestant did not think an appeal to tradition or to ritual was essential to the Christian religion. With Grotius, his view tends to the minimalist and moralist side of the spectrum: “In a word, That is in every particular truly the Christian Religion, which without any mixture of human Invention, may be wholly ascribed to Christ as the Author.”[29] Le Clerc follows Grotius closely by appealing to what he calls the tenets of the New Testament acknowledged by all Christians. These are summarized in terms of the Apostles’ Creed. But Le Clerc the Remonstrant also strongly underlines the freedom of the will. There is no “irresistible force” driving any person’s actions according to virtue or vice. Pace Calvin, God has given his commandments, proposed rewards and punishments, offered providence and other incitements to virtue and truth, all without removing man’s liberty.[30] And so “every one is entirely obliged to follow the Light of his own Mind, and not that of another’s; and to do that which he judges best to be done, and to avoid that which he thinks to be evil.”[31] The conclusion to this line of reasoning is that no one ought to be denied communion if they acknowledge true religion as adumbrated by Le Clerc and Grotius. Nothing should “be imposed upon Christians, but those things which every one is fully satisfied in his own Mind are revealed.”[32]

In his addition to De veritate Le Clerc was declaring more widely a commitment he had maintained for decades: religious toleration. He did so in terms of personal conscience, which was effectively sacrosanct for him. Concomitantly, he rejected violent persecution by either ecclesiastical or state authority. In fact, shortly after his edition of Grotius was published in English, another set of his writings, translated from one of the journals he published in French in the Netherlands, made precisely the same point. There he states that the authority of the church derives from the “laws” of the New Testament, laws whose explanation belongs to the conscience of every Christian. No power on earth, sacred or secular, has any authority to extract blind obedience or to persecute if someone refuses to “act against the Light of his Conscience.” Salvation is basically a matter of “Truth and Virtue.” It is not subject to the authority of clergy or magistrates.[33] And Le Clerc adds an important Erastian corollary: ecclesiastical authority should not be allowed to cause any “Disturbance in the State.”[34]


Le Clerc’s support for religious toleration, his Erastian conception of the relationship between church and state, and his framing of the truth of the Christian religion in minimalist and moralist terms, were interrelated parts of a broader philosophical outlook. This outlook was shared to a substantial degree by several other notable early Enlightenment thinkers, some of whom Le Clerc counted as friends.[35] Two are relevant here: John Locke and Philip van Limborch. Together and in concert these three men advanced a specific conception of enquiry, one which might be summarized in terms of a “search after truth” according to the dictates of personal conscience, conducted with civility and charity towards others as members of an equal intellectual republic. In this respect they saw themselves as directly challenging the standard apologies for the Christian religion of their day, particularly when these took the form of anti-atheist confutation.

In virtually all of Locke’s published work in the 1690s, including the The Letters Concerning Toleration, The Reasonableness of Christianity, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and his many replies and vindications of these works, he emphasizes the “search after truth” and disparages the excesses caused by religious apologists in their attempts to defend the Christian religion according to the accepted norms in rhetorical contests.[36] Across these works Locke envisions philosophical enquiry in a civil, Ciceronian fashion, wherein disagreement should be ruled by the reasonable goal of constructive ends. The terms of argumentative debate were to be different too, limited to a set of questions that, like the natural philosophy of the period, admitted of rational deliberation. With respect to the all-important religious question of salvation, Locke advanced a provocative claim in which soteriology was reduced to one simple rational theological principle. With each of these steps, and in parallel with Le Clerc and van Limborch, Locke advocated a form of intellectual enquiry in which the truth rather than the triumph of the Christian religion was paramount.

For Locke, the “search after truth” was tied to the question of religious toleration. Those who thought that the state had an obligation to use public force because of the interconnection between religious belief and public order, frequently based on the assumption that the true Christian religion could be demonstrated with certainty, were mistaken. Those same people were often inattentive to the means by which certainty was reached and ignorant of the different levels of rational assent. As he writes in the Essay, far from defending true religion competently, arch apologists of the Christian religion opened themselves up to the probing questions of skeptics and freethinkers. Frequently such apologists appealed to the weight of a particular argument, such as the supposed universal consent in the belief in God, or the innate idea of God implanted in all men, to support their position; but Locke observed that if these arguments were successfully refuted, then they would instead become the cause of widespread unbelief. Locke rejected both the apologetic ideal of victory in a rhetorical contest and the imposition of orthodoxy by state force as the means by which the Christian religion was to be maintained. Instead, like both Le Clerc and van Limborch, he thought its defenders should rely on the persuasive force of its truth. In the Essay he writes that the Christian religion simply required the liberty “to be truly taught.” Tellingly, Locke appealed to the example of the apostles in the New Testament, who he says convinced their audience to embrace the gospel through compelling arguments and evidence.[37]

Again like Le Clerc and van Limborch, Locke had a particular conception of what counted as compelling and persuasive. This demands the right use of reason, so that someone who “thought maturely of the Causes of things” would be led “to their Original.”[38] As is well known, the Essay offered the conclusion of Locke’s own “search after truth” as a rational reflection in defence of God’s existence in Chapter X, Book IV.[39] But there he famously set aside the standard arguments from universal consent and innate ideas. In doing so Locke needed to offer an alternate conception of how God, morality, religion, and political society were interconnected. To put it briefly, Locke believed that good and bad moral actions could be clearly determined by the light of natural reason, and that it was evident that God had joined virtue and happiness together for personal and political benefit.[40]

To establish this connection Locke attempted to clarify, through re-description, the relationship between natural reason and divine revelation. He characterized the certainty of the morality of natural religion as distinct and in certain respects superior to that derived from the maxims delivered by Christian revelation in scripture. Natural morality and revealed morality were two expressions of the divine will, he conceded, but each possessed a different level of intelligibility. Whereas the true meaning of scripture had been endlessly contested, “the Precepts of Natural Religion are plain, and very intelligible to all Mankind, and seldom to be controverted.”[41] He goes on to claim that “All the great Ends of Morality and Religion” are secured without reference to the revealed will of God, which is obscured in the language of scripture. Somewhat more contentiously, Locke even thought that the “Ends of Morality and Religion” were secured without any “philosophical Proofs,” such as the soul’s immateriality.[42] How so? Locke claims that the “Voice of Reason” is clearer than the “Voice of [God’s] Spirit.”[43] For it is the voice of natural reason which reflects on the claims of those who had heard God’s spirit, or those who had recorded God’s divine action in scripture. Both Locke and Le Clerc regarded the truth of the Christian religion in terms of its natural historical veracity, in terms of the level of trust the New Testament warranted. Although he was satisfied that the Bible possessed the requisite “convincing evidence” for true belief, as a text both Locke and Le Clerc granted this historical evidence the appropriate probabilistic level of veracity for a historical source generally. And this was a level of assent much further down the scale of certainty than, say, that usually granted to the notion of the universal consent of mankind.[44] Locke dispensed with supposed certainty of arguments based on universal consent or innate ideas in favour of what he repeatedly referred to as the clear evidence for God’s existence or the trustworthiness of such evidence as existed for the revealed truths of scripture.

When Locke anonymously applied the “voice of reason” to scripture in The Reasonableness of Christianity, as a defence of what he saw as the fundamental truth of the Christian religion, he did so in keeping with the division between natural and revealed religion he expressed in the Essay.[45] Locke was also careful to insist that his soteriological minimalism was not meant to reduce all the articles of Christianity to one, but rather that this one article was solely necessary for true Christian belief:

And though by his Apostles our Saviour taught a great many other Truths, for the explaining this Fundamental Article of the Law of Faith, that Jesus is the Messiah; some whereof have a nearer, and some a more remote connexion with it, and so cannot be deny’d by any Christian, who sees that connexion, or knows they are so taught: yet an explicit belief of any one of them is no more necessarily required to make a Man a Christian, than an explicit belief of all those Truths which have a connexion with the being of a God, or are reveal’d by him, is necessarily required to make a Man not to be an Atheist: Though none of them can be denied by any one, who sees that connexion, or acknowledges that revelation, without his being an Atheist. All these Truths taught us from God, either by Reason, or Revelation, are of great use, to enlighten our Minds, confirm our Faith, stir up our Affections, &c. And the more we see of them, the more we shall see, admire, and magnifie the Wisdom, Goodness, Mercy, and Love of God in the Work of our Redemption. This will oblige us to search, and study the Scripture, wherein it is contain’d and laid open to us.[46]

At issue for Locke was the division between the voices of reason and revelation in the “search after truth.” He argued that natural reason led man to believe in one God with certain necessary attributes, providentially concerned with the world. Christians possessed religious faith because they trusted in the testimony of scripture, which was itself established upon a truth of natural reason in the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus was the foretold Messiah of the Hebrew scriptures:

As Men we have God for our King, and are under the Law of Reason: As Christians, we have Jesus the Messiah for our King, and are under the Law revealed by him in the Gospel. And though every Christian, both as a Deist and a Christian, be obliged to study both the Law of Nature and the Revealed Law, that in them he may know the Will of God, and of Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, yet in neither of these Laws is there to be found a Select Set of Fundamentals, distinct from the rest which are to make him, a Deist or a Christian. But he that believes one Eternal invisible God, his Lord and King, ceases thereby to be an Atheist; and he that believes Jesus to be the Messiah his King, ordain’d by God thereby becomes a Christian, is delivered from the Power of Darkness, and is Translated into the Kingdom of the Son of God, is actually within the Covenant of Grace, and has that Faith; which shall be imputed to him for Righteousness, and if he continues in his Allegiance to this his King, shall receive the reward, Eternal Life.[47]

Locke admits that there is no demonstrable connection between the God of philosophy and the God of scripture. And so he attempts to clarify the problem by pointing out that understanding the God of revelation is encumbered in the interminable obscurity of religious discourse and disputes about its meaning. As Locke had put it in the Essay, the interpretation of revelation is endless and contradictory, whereas the true moral dictates of natural law are generally agreed upon. If the hermeneutical principle of interpreting the Bible’s obscure passages by its clear ones was itself determined by the rational clarity of the moral natural law, this helps to explain why Locke’s view of the New Testament can appear to be little more than a baptized Ciceronian moralism.[48] Locke regarded revelation as a testimony of God and the proper object of faith, but his subordination of the claims of revelation to the supposedly clearer dictates of reason raised the ire of many contemporary apologists.[49]

In order to make his case for the supremacy of reason in determinations of morality, both natural and religious, Locke re-describes the activities of contemporary Christian apologists in terms of unwarranted assumptions and injudicious use of adversarial rhetoric. In A Third Letter for Toleration he forcefully designates his own intellectual orientation as one dedicated to “Seeking Truth, and not Triumph.”[50] It was an orientation that he thought stood in sharp contrast to those religious apologists he called “Sticklers for Orthodoxy.” This included those writers and clergymen who had written against his case for religious toleration, such as Edward Stillingfleet and John Edwards.[51] In Locke’s estimation such men were much more concerned with the rhetorical triumph of a particular version of dogmatic Christianity than they were with “Seeking Truth.”[52] Locke of course cast his own philosophical projects in the virtuous light of Ciceronian civility and Christian charity.[53] In the opening of the Essay he famously described his efforts as those of a mere under-labourer to natural philosophers such as Robert Boyle, excavating the foundation of knowledge in plain, natural-historical style. Even though he claimed to “impartially search after Truth,” Locke had the foresight to see that his texts would be censured.[54] Although his adversaries would try to link his thought with the names of alleged atheists such as Epicurus, Hobbes, and Spinoza, simply because Locke had criticized traditional apologetics, he resolutely maintained that “the taking away false Foundations is not to the prejudice, but advantage of Truth.”[55] Declaring himself to be “unbiased” in his aim to “defend and propagate the truth,” Locke argues that the truth should be the only legitimate basis upon which anyone should engage in controversy and that Christian charity should prevent men from engaging in fruitless confutation.[56] In contrast to the standard early modern model, Locke’s depiction of Paul in Athens—a depiction he shares with Le Clerc—was not one in which the apostle to the Gentiles was vainly asserting the triumph of the Christian religion, but one in which he was rationally persuading the Epicurean and Stoics of its truth.

Even though both Locke and Le Clerc regarded magistrates as political figures whose authority warranted the encouragement of virtue and the punishment of vice for the preservation of public order, neither thought magistrates should punish beliefs that were not inherently connected to immorality that threatened the stability of civil society. So, as an important corollary to their advocation of a new type of intellectual enquiry and defense of true religion, both Le Clerc and Locke argued that private religious beliefs did not automatically result in dangerous public action. Le Clerc and Locke tended to agree with the moralist strain of Anglican latitudinarianism, and certainly thought the magistrate had a civil duty to punish vices that corrupted justice and the foundation of society. And since Locke did not grant atheists toleration in the first Letter Concerning Toleration, he certainly seems to have believed that God was inextricably connected with society’s foundation. But the crucial point here is that he did not think that sincerely held religious beliefs, for which there was no clear evidence of uncivil vice, should be punished by the civil magistrate.[57]

And that was because force, exercised on a person’s body or soul, could not alter their convictions. Locke begins the first Letter Concerning Toleration—originally written in Latin as a letter to van Limborch—by associating the sign or “mark” by which the true church can be known with toleration.[58] Here he construes toleration as the practice of the moral virtues by which true Christians should be known—virtues to be exercised towards those who did and did not share one’s religious convictions. Those virtues are charity, meekness, and goodwill. These being the ethical essence of true religion for Locke, he quickly relates the consequence as he sees it: such interpersonal virtues do not grant anyone authority over such external things as religious ceremony or worship, nor do they allow for the political exercise of “compulsive Force.” For true religion is a matter of “the regulating of Mens Lives according to the Rules of Vertue and Piety.”[59]

Where does Locke draw the line between the “business” of civil government and the church, then? Civil matters are those of “Life, Liberty, Health, and Indolency of Body; and the Possession of outward things, such as Money, Lands, Houses, Furniture, and the like.” The role of the magistrate in civil affairs is to execute the laws equally as they concern the just possession of things in this world. Anyone whose actions undermine the means by which society is preserved is to be punished by the magistrate, armed with the “Force and Strength of all his Subjects, in order to the punishment of those that violate any other Man’s Rights.” However the civil magistrate is given no permit over the affair of a person’s soul. Scripture does not speak of any such permit, Locke claims, nor can any person, even if he or she wanted to, “conform his Faith to the Dictates of another.”[60] Here Locke is at pains to underline his conception of true religion, with which he had opened the Letter. He writes that “true and saving Religion consists in the inward perswasion of the Mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.” Again, a person’s understanding is not something that can be compelled to any belief by “outward force.” A magistrate may use his reason to correct, persuade, and argue with a citizen or subject of the state, but he cannot forsake the virtues of either humanity or true religion by employing his power as a magistrate to command or punish.[61]

In contrast to civil society, Locke defines the church as a voluntary society built upon the shared connection of each person’s convictions. In many respects civil and ecclesiastical society are mutually exclusive. The church cannot govern the material affairs of this life, Locke asserts, and the magistrate cannot govern the convictions of conscience. The only place where the magistrate’s power relates to the church is when the church in some way illegitimately demands a belief or practice at odds with the foundation or preservation of civil society. Although such instances are rare, at least in Locke’s estimation, he thinks that they exclude both Catholics and atheists from religious toleration. For on Locke’s view Catholics are required to give their civil allegiance to a foreign power (i.e. the papacy) and atheists, because they forsake belief in God, are unable to uphold their allegiance to civil society because they cannot in good conscience swear an oath.[62]

A person cannot “conform his Faith to the Dictates of another,” because conviction is a matter of conscience. And in Locke’s thinking conscience is not something which can or should be coerced. That does not mean the magistrate has no grounds for coercion whatsoever. Rather those grounds derive from and pertain to the nature of civil society according to the light of reason. Civil government concerns itself with the preservation and maintenance of the profane matters of life, limb, and property. It is for reasons relating to this civil solicitude that magistrates may form and enforce laws based on the rights assigned to persons. The magistrate certainly has the right to coerce those persons who infringe on the rights and freedoms of other members of a given society; but the magistrate does not have a right to coerce anyone whose beliefs or practices in no way undermine the foundation of civil government. In tandem with this view of civil government, then, Locke advocated a form of intellectual enquiry, the “search after truth,” in which the dictates of personal conscience were constitutive and paramount, and in which the interpersonal virtues of civility and charity were the expression of an egalitarian humanity. This was simultaneously the way in which he defined and defended the truth of the Christian religion, re-describing it in what he thought was the clearer light of natural reason.

In many different places Le Clerc expressed very similar views to those espoused in writing publicly by Locke. Le Clerc, with Locke van Limborch, described the intellectual community to which they belonged—what they and others called the “republic of letters”—in terms of “Reason and Light” rather than “Authority and implicit Faith.”[63] Interminable cabals and unsound arguments derived from authority and tradition, he insisted. Those committed to Enlightenment conducted their “search after truth” by deploying a constructively perspicacious logic and demonstrating equity and civility and charity to their interlocutors. When Limborch’s systematic theology was translated from Latin into English in the early eighteenth century, patronized by no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury, the preface framed his work in just these terms.[64]

On the subject of the relationship between church and state authority, in a piece written in the midst of an intense controversy on that subject in England in the early 1700s, Le Clerc points out that using rhetorical barbs against one’s argumentative opponent is not to the point. He characterizes such tactics as the attempt to win a dispute by means of a rhetorical triumph rather than discerning the truth of the matter.[65] On the subject of rhetoric itself, published in a separate collection of his articles which were also translated into English, Le Clerc outlines a series of strictures that effectively undermined the status of disputatious argument. Once again he claims that such rhetorical disputers aim at argumentative victory in a contest, and thus forsake the pursuit of truth.[66] In his famous debate with Richard Simon about the nature of Christian scripture, a dispute which ranged over such important matters as biblical inspiration and apostolic infallibility, Le Clerc had, at least in his own eyes, attempted to practice what he preached. He writes there that it is beneath the dignity of true religion to employ either unsound principles or “Sophistical Arguments.”[67] Indeed in this debate Le Clerc employs a motto from the church father Jerome—one he said was modeled by Erasmus, Grotius, and Episcopius—to the effect that it is better to teach and to listen, rather than to confute error sharply or to “conquer” those with whom one disagrees.[68] Religious disputers who sought to distract their opponents from the simple, rational truth embodied in and taught by Jesus Christ, were for Le Clerc the kind of disputers whose search for subtleties and mysteries evidenced their ecclesiastical self-interest. Such men, he continues, condemn the rest of mankind and completely ignore the more pressing question of morality.[69]

Le Clerc frequently forwarded an argument in which he suggests that his contemporary religious apologists set aside rhetorical subtlety in favour of emphasizing the essence of true religion. Underlining the clear and simple moral truths of the Christian religion, Le Clerc writes, is the best means of combatting the libertinism and atheism his contemporaries feared. The contrast he chooses to make in this case is that of the inquisition, a subject about which van Limborch had published at length and in a similar spirit. It would not do, Le Clerc insists, to try and silence and coerce someone such as Spinoza. Instead Le Clerc suggests that what is truly needed is a civil, charitable philosophical engagement. Perhaps he had in mind the debate about the truth of the Christian religion van Limborch published between himself and the Jewish scholar Isaac Orobio de Castro.[70] Le Clerc certainly had in mind the kind of writing that he himself, Locke, and van Limborch took up.[71] For he thought that those who attempted to confute atheists by the standard apologetic means were unaware of the “true Proofs of the Divinity of our Religion” and ignorant of the proper “Method us’d by many of those who have undertaken to defend it against Atheists and Infidels.”[72] To repeat, that method consisted of treating interlocutors with equity and charity, reasoning carefully, clearly, and constructively, and adopting a dispassionate and disinterested perspective.[73]

Writing upon the death of Locke and van Limborch in the journal he published, each piece being later translated into English in the early 1700s, Le Clerc praises his friends for their philosophical precision and perspicuity, as well as their formulation of the ends of true religion as good morals. He expresses his admiration for them not only for the way they conceived of the “search after truth,” but for the way in which they conducted and defended where that search led. Simply put, Le Clerc thought both Locke and van Limborch were exemplary for the content of their work and its form. When van Limborch confuted those he disagreed with, for instance, he did so “by strict Reasoning, and not by Reproaches and contumelious language.”[74] Le Clerc said the same of Locke. His friend’s dedication to the truth, and the civil, pacific way he engaged in dispute about it—free from the rhetorical battery of personal attacks—was his lasting legacy.[75] In turn, when Le Clerc himself died, at least one edition of his work made virtually the same set of statements about him.[76]


In 1724 Le Clerc’s edition of Grotius’ De veritate was sold with a treatise he had published thirty years earlier in French, De l’incredulité (1696). This work had been previously translated into English in 1698 under the title A Treatise of the Causes of Incredulity. In it Le Clerc expresses a concern he shared with many of his contemporaries about the spread of religious indifference and unbelief. We have already seen that he was familiar with Spinoza’s allegedly atheistic philosophy. However, Le Clerc’s solution to the problem of religious indifference and unbelief was not that of anti-atheist confutation. Instead, as we might now expect, Le Clerc reoriented the defence and definition of the Christian religion in the terms his friend Locke used, the “search after truth.” And like Locke and van Limborch, and indeed other rationalist Protestants whose orthodoxy was sometimes suspect to contemporaries (chiefly in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity), Le Clerc thought this diligent rational search could not lead anywhere other than to the “Gospel-Virtue” taught by Christ. By drawing upon De veritate as a successful and exemplary apology, Le Clerc hoped to address the causes or motivations of unbelief in general while simultaneously avoiding the incivility and excess of the rhetoric of confutation. So, although he mentions the philosophical arguments of thinkers regarded as notorious unbelievers, such as Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, Le Clerc is more interested in offering a response to the indifference caused by religious division. His counter-argument to indifference and division should be clear by now. He thinks an earnest “search after truth” will undoubtedly lead to an affirmation of the “rule of faith” as clearly taught in the New Testament. Le Clerc writes in the confidence that this conception of intellectual enquiry—whose ethos is egalitarian, polite, and charitable, and whose rational method is indebted to the clarity and concision of both Descartes and Locke—will answer the more challenging arguments offered by Spinoza or his adherents.

If we compare what the classical Rhetorica ad Herennium and early modern rhetorical textbooks say about confutation with Le Clerc’s strictures against religious disputation in De l’incredulité, the point I have been trying to make should become clearer still. First, diagnosing the causes of unbelief is no longer subsumed under a rhetorical exercise in which victory in a disputatious contest is the aim. Second, the proof of the Christian religion is no longer its historical triumph over paganism, but the triumph of truth more generally. As Le Clerc puts it: “The thing we treat of is not a Dispute, wherein Men only design to shew their Wit, and get the Victory, but the Question is about the Search of a Truth, the Knowledge whereof is equally useful to both Sides.”[77] Apparently this was a historical lesson in the battle of the moderns against the ancients, which one scholar has recently identified with the core of the Enlightenment.[78] “The Teachers of the Primitive Church and their Followers, whilst Paganism was still considerable in the World, labour’d more in confuting the Religion of the Heathens, than to prove the truth of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.”[79] This apostolic method had been revived in Le Clerc’s day, but a new direction was now being taken:

It was agreed therefore to prove directly the Truth of Christianity, without insisting upon the Confutation of other Persuasions. And it may truly be said, to the Honour of the present Age, and of that immediately preceding it, that this Matter was never manag’d with better Success. The Heathens, the Jews, and the [Muslims] were not ill confuted before, but the Truth of the Christian Religion was far from being ever so well prov’d.[80]

Proving the truth of the Christian religion “directly” was a new and important development in Le Clerc’s view. Although no specific reference is here made to Grotius’s De veritate, given that De l’incredulité was later joined with the De veritate and that Grotius is so frequently mentioned and held out so often as an exemplar, it seems eminently reasonable to conclude that Le Clerc had Grotius—and himself—in mind.[81]

Le Clerc goes on to add an important revision of the principle of confutation in religious apologetics: “The Desire of convincing Infidels should not induce us to make use of weak Proofs against them; for certainly such Methods must need render ’em more averse to Christianity.”[82] In this regard Le Clerc considers the case of his near contemporary Louis Cappel, a biblical scholar at the Protestant school at Saumur. In his scholarship Cappel had written that certain Jewish scribes (the Masoretes) were the first to insert vowels into the ancient Hebrew texts, and he had also drawn attention to variant readings in the most ancient biblical manuscripts. But for his trouble Cappel was attacked as an atheist. Fascinatingly, Cappel had himself written a fairly typical confutation of atheism, popular enough to be translated into English in 1660 as The Hinge of Faith and Religion. Le Clerc was himself involved in similar controversies, such as his famous debate with Richard Simon about scripture and its authoritative interpretation. But in referencing Cappel, Le Clerc would seem to be saying that those writers and speakers who employ the techniques of confutation in an indiscriminate fashion simply “confirm Unbelievers in their Obstinacy.”[83] In a point similar to that made by Locke in the Essay, Le Clerc insists that such disputers simply highlight weak points and often develop insincere arguments: “This is a true Character of a Pleader, who is not very sure of being in the right; he suppresses whatever seems to him any way contrary to what he defends, whether it be true or false, if he is afraid it might appear from thence that he is in the wrong.”[84] And so the “Spirit of Dispute is altogether inconsistent with the search after Truth.” Le Clerc continues: when someone “has put on the Character of an Adversary, he thinks no more of Truth, but of the Glory which may be gotten by triumphing over him whom he has assaulted.”[85] This links up neatly with his minimalist and moralist vision of the Christian religion:

Every Man that loves the Truth, that according to his best Understanding embraces all that he conceives in the Gospel, that orders his Life by what he believes, and that endeavours as much as possible he can to encrease his Knowledg, does all that is requisite to obtain Salvation from the Mercy of God, according to the Ideas we have of it from the Gospel.[86]

It would seem to be the case that Le Clerc regarded the form of intellectual enquiry he advocated in tandem with Locke and van Limborch as in some sense the essence of the Christian religion.[87] For on his view salvation is promised to all those persons who, according to the light of reason, sincerely and charitably endeavoured to search after and live by the truth.


In the De veritate Hugo Grotius tried to move the defence of the Christian religion away from confessional disputes prevalent in seventeenth-century Europe, and instead employed a concise, polished, rationalist humanist style to define and defend true religion along moralist and minimalist lines. For Grotius this meant according to natural reason, with no direct appeal to dogma or revelation. In addition to many translations and editions published throughout Europe, Grotius’ vision was translated into English and published with relatively little emendation from 1632 to 1680, when Simon Patrick first added a seventh book to De veritate. Patrick returned Grotius to a more confessional setting, emphasizing a stereotypically Protestant view of Catholicism as having deviated from the “rule of faith” found in the New Testament. Up to a point, Le Clerc shared this concern with Patrick. Yet, as I have noted, Le Clerc made two notable deviations. Both were consistent with and derived from his participation in the “republic of letters,” alongside his friends Locke and van Limborch.[88] First, in support of religious toleration, Le Clerc insisted that force could and should not be used against a sincere Christian’s conscience; and second, he reinforced and amplified the definition and defence of the Christian religion as a defence of truth generally, rather than the performance of a rhetorical triumph. For he thought that the character of a disputant stood at odds with that of a true Christian.

The history of the reception of De veritate in the early modern period as told here reveals one of the routes by which an apologetics based on the triumph of the Christian religion was challenged by a definition and defence of the Christian religion based on a religiously motivated and ethically oriented “search after truth.”[89] The religious motivations and ethical commitments of Locke and Le Clerc and van Limborch derived from what may be called their “Enlightened” advocation of Grotius over Calvin. Their conception of and commitment to the sanctity of personal conscience, in addition to their adherence to the endeavour of each individual to apprehend the truth, as the basis of true religion, presupposed an important revision of the ways in which the Christian religion had been defined and defended in Europe for centuries. This revision was part and parcel of their influential redefinition and re-description of intellectual enquiry. As they saw it, the “search after truth” was properly grounded in the autonomous authority of personal conscience, conducted with equal others and embodied in the social virtues of civility and charity. It might even be said that Kant’s answer to the question of Enlightenment was anticipated by a century.[90]



[1] In addition to his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant’s formulation in the Critique of Judgement explicitly associated Enlightenment with emancipation from the heteronomy of authority and tradition. See: I. Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. C. Meredith, rvsd. N. Walker, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 124.

[2] See: J. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1998, which culminates in a contextualization of Kant’s philosophy.

[3] My argument explicitly develops that put forward by John Marshall in John Locke and Early Enlightenment Culture: religious intolerance and arguments for religious toleration in early modern and ‘early Enlightenment’ Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2006 (as stated on p. 1). See also: D. Goodman, The republic of letters: a cultural history of the French enlightenment, Cornell University Press, 1994, and her summary on p. 2.

[4] The phrase is borrowed from J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 9. The general point about “Protestant ethos” is one partly derived from a reading of J. Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the ‘Two Treatises of Government’, Cambridge University Press, 1969. Though Dunn locates Locke’s thought more specifically in puritanism.

[5] Indeed Moses Mendohlssen had answered the same question as Kant in 1784, in terms of “an as yet uncompleted process of education in the use of reason, which should be open to all.” See D. Outram, The Enlightenment, 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 1.

[6] Indeed when Beattie was accused of being less than charitable to David Hume in the former’s An Essay on The Nature and Immutability of Truth In Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism (1770), he revised his language in subsequent editions of that popular work in light of this fact.

[7] See: K. Sheppard, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England: The Atheist Answered and His Errors Confuted, Brill, 2014, chapter 1.

[8] In England this anxiety was particularly prevalent after the civil war (1640-1660). See: J. Spurr, The Restoration Church of England, 1646-1689, Yale University Press, 1991, pp. 235-8. But as Spurr rightly observes, the fear was a general one in the post-Reformation world.

[9] A. Golding, “Epistle Dedicatory,” in J. Calvin, Concernynge Offences, trans. A. Golding, London, 1567.

[10] H. Bullinger, The Hope of the Faythful, trans. M. Coverdale, London, 1555, “Preface.”

[11] J. Harris, The Atheistical Objections Against the Being of a God, and His Attributes, London, 1698, p. 20. Boyle had himself hinted at these kinds of connections in R. Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, London, 1690, in his preface: “But though I am not so little acquainted with the present Age, as to expect to plead for Religion with the Approbation of Atheists, or of Libertines, yet I shall not think my Pains altogether mispent, if what I have written, either Startle any Irreligious Reader so far, as to Engage him to consult abler Assertors of Christianity and Virtue, than I pretend to be; or else prove so happy, as to Confirm and Strengthen, by new Arguments and Motives, those that have heartily embraced the Christian Faith and Morals, though perhaps not upon the firmest Grounds.”  On Boyle’s will and the establishment of the lectures in accordance with his longstanding apologetic aims, see: M. Hunter, Robert Boyle: Between God and Science, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009, chapter 14.

[12] See: Sheppard, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England, chapter 2.

[13] See the Loeb edition of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, particularly at 1.3.4, 3.4.8, and 3.10.18.

[14] For definitions of confutation from the period see: L. Cox, The Art or Crafte of Rhetoryke, London, 1534, pp. [41, 43-5, 54]; T. Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, London, 1554, p. [iv]; R. Rainold, A Book Called the Foundacion of Rhetorike, London, 1653, p. [46].

[15] J. Newton, An Introduction to the Art of Rhetorick, London, 1676, pp. 92-3.

[16] B. Mandeville, Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness, London, 1720, p. 4. Mandeville was echoing Pierre Bayle, who had suggested, rather controversially, an atheist was capable of moral virtue in his Pensées divers sur la comète du 1680, Rotterdam, 1683, vol. I, p. 435: « Ainsi on ne peut pas réfuter par l’expérience la conjecture que l’on fait d’abord sur ce subject-là, savoir que les Athées ne sont capable d’aucune vertu morale … Mais il n’est pas difficile de faire voir, que cette conjecture est trés-incertaine. » Bayle’s work was translated into English as Miscellaneous Reflections Occasion’d by the Comet which appeared in 1680, London, 1708.

[17] See my essay: “Inventing the virtuous atheist: an Enlightenment episode.

[18] J. P. Heering, Hugo Grotius as Apologist for the Christian Religion, Brill, 2004, p. 242.

[19] The most apt contemporary comparison—in terms of impact rather than content—might be Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, first a popular radio series in the UK delivered during the Second World War, and afterwards a lastingly popular book.

[20] R. Tuck, Philosophy and Government, 1572-1651, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 179-90.

[21] For more on this see: H. Nellen, Hugo Grotius: A Lifelong Struggle for Peace in Church and State 1583-1645, trans. J. C. Grayson, Brill, 2014.

[22] For the English translation see: S. Episcopius, The Confessions or Declaration of the Ministers or Pastors, Which in the United Provinces are called Remonstrants, Concerning the chief Points of Christian Religion, London, 1676. This work originally appeared in Latin in 1621.

[23] H. Grotius, Hugo Grotius, his most choice Discourses, Out of that excellent Treatise De veritate Religionis Christiane, trans. C. Barksdale, 4th ed., London, 1669, p. 57.

[24] For more detail see: Marco Barducci, “Political and Ecclesiological Contexts for the Early English Translations of Grotius’s De Veritate (1632-1686),” Grotiana, 33, 2012, pp. 70-87.

[25]  H. Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Religion, trans. S. Patrick, 4th ed., London, 1694, p. 198.

[26] See: Henk Nellen, “Minimal Religion, Deism and Socinianism: On Grotius’s Motives for Writing De Veritate,” Grotiana, 33, 2012, pp. 25-57.

[27] H. Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Religion. Corrected and Illustrated with Notes by Mr. Le Clerc. To which is added a Seventh Book Concerning this Question, What Christian Church we ought to join our selves to, trans. J. Clarke, London, 1711, pp. 294-5.

[28] J. Le Clerc, Parrhasianna: Or, Thoughts upon Several Subjects; as, Criticism, History, Morality, and Politics, trans. anon., London, 1700, pp. 214-5.

[29] Le Clerc ed., Truth of the Christian Religion, p. 296.

[30] Le Clerc ed., Truth of the Christian Religion, pp. 311-2.

[31] Le Clerc ed., Truth of the Christian Religion, pp. 315-6.

[32] Le Clerc ed., Truth of the Christian Religion, p. 324.

[33] J. Le Clerc, The Rights of the Christian Church Adjusted, trans. anon., London, 1711, pp. 9-10.

[34] Le Clerc, Rights of the Christian Church Adjusted, p. 23.

[35] Again, for more on this, see Marshall, John Locke and Early Enlightenment Culture.

[36] I am here developing an account I put forward in chapter 7 of Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England.

[37] [J. Locke,] A Third Letter concerning Toleration, London, 1692, p. 270.

[38] J. Locke, An Essay concerning Humane Understanding, London, 1690, pp. 87-8 (I.IV.8).

[39] See: V. Nuovo, Christianity, Antiquity, and Enlightenment: Interpretations of Locke, Springer, 2011, chapter 9, on Locke’s proof of God and his resistance to the atheistic aspects of Epicurean materialism.

[40] Critics such as Thomas Burnet and others wanted Locke to give an account of his ethical theory, which he never did. See J. Marshall, John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 402-4. J. Schneewind attempts to fill in the pieces for Locke in Invention of Autonomy, pp. 141-59.

[41] J. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. Nidditch, Clarendon Press, 1975, pp. 489-90 (III.IX.23).

[42] This was Locke’s straightforward position before being challenged by Stillingfleet. Locke, Essay, 1690, p. 270. For the revised text of this section post-Stillingfleet see: Locke, Essay, pp. 539-43 (IV.III.6).

[43] Locke, Essay, p. 598 (IV.VII.11).

[44] Locke, Essay, p. 663 (IV.XVI.9).

[45] Marshall, Locke: Resistance, chapter 9.

[46] [J. Locke,] A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity, London, 1697, pp. 74-5.

[47] [Locke,] Second Vindication, 77-8.

[48] On the central place of Cicero in Locke’s thought, see Marshall, Locke: Resistance, pp. 299-315.

[49] [Locke,] Second Vindication, p. 197.

[50] [Locke,] Third Letter, p. 300.

[51] Who, as John Dunn has pointed out, were not quite wrong to detect the force of Locke’s ideas as lessening religious conviction in others, even if they did not do so in Locke himself. See J. Dunn, Locke, Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 21.

[52] [Locke,] Second Vindication, p. 381.

[53] Marshall, Locke and Early Enlightenment Culture, pp. 652-7. Marshall has shown here that this complaint about lack of charity and excessive disputatiousness was a central feature of Locke’s tolerationist thought and that of early Enlightenment tolerationist thought generally. For a similar point see David Wootton’s argument about Locke’s “Philanthropy, or The Christian Philosophers” in his “Introduction” to John Locke, Political Writings, Hackett, 2003, p. 58. See also Nuovo, chapter 1, which elaborates an account of Locke’s pursuit of truth in terms of Robert Boyle’s ideal of a “Christian Virtuoso.”

[54] Locke, Essay, p. 65 (I.II.28).

[55] Locke, Essay, p. 10 (“Epistle to the Reader”).

[56] [Locke,] Second Vindication, pp. 479-80. Of course, Locke was not above accepting certain assumptions where it suited his purpose, as in the Essay, where Hobbes is maligned.

[57] Marshall, Locke: Resistance, pp. 379-83.

[58] For an edition of Locke’s letter that provides helpful historical context to the development of his views, see J. Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. J. Tully, Hackett, 1984. A much lengthier introduction to Locke’s historical context can be found in Marshall, Locke: Resistance.

[59] [J. Locke,] A Letter concerning Toleration, London, 1690, pp. 1-2. All subsequent references are to this edition.

[60] [Locke,] Letter concerning Toleration, pp. 6-7.

[61] [Locke,] Letter concerning Toleration, pp. 7-8.

[62] For the ways in which God fits within Locke’s political philosophy, see both Dunn, John Locke, and J. Tully, A discourse on property: John Locke and his adversaries, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[63] Le Clerc, Parhassiana, p. 108.

[64] P. van Limborch, A Compleat System, or Body of Divinity, 2nd ed., London, 1713, p. x.

[65] Le Clerc, The Rights of the True Christian Church Adjusted, p. 7.

[66] Le Clerc, Parhassiana, pp. 54-96.

[67] J. Le Clerc, Five Letters concerning the Inspiration of the Holy Scritpures, trans. anon., London, 1690, p. 7.

[68] Le Clerc, Five Letters, p. 55. Perhaps adherence to this sentiment partly explains why Episcopius was translated into English around the same time, advocating quite similar arguments as Le Clerc was putting forth originally in French. Episcopius was a blood relative to Le Clerc’s friend, Limborch, who published a life of Episcopius and an edition of his works. See above, note 22.

[69] Le Clerc, Five Letters, pp. 106-8.

[70] P. van Limborch, De veritate religionis Christianae amica collatio cum erudito Judaeo, Gouda, 1687.

[71] See in particular: Le Clerc, Five Letters, 119-50.

[72] Le Clerc, Five Letters, p. 196.

[73] Le Clerc, Five Letters, pp. 196-8. See also: Le Clerc, Parrhassiana, pp. 111-13, 119-20.

[74] J. Le Clerc, A Funeral Oration upon the Death of Mr. Philip van Limborch, trans. anon., London, 1713, pp. 15-6.

[75] J. Le Clerc, An Account of the Life and Writings of Mr. John Locke, trans. anon., 2nd ed., London, 1713, p. 57.

[76] Le Clerc, Parrhassiana, pp. 243-301.

[77] J. Le Clerc, A Treatise of the Causes of Incredulity, trans. anon., London, 1697, pp. 278-79.

[78] See: D. Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy, Chicago University Press, 2010.

[79] Le Clerc, Treatise of Incredulity, p. 1.

[80] Le Clerc, Treatise of Incredulity, p. 2.

[81] For support of my suggestion here see: J. J. V. M. de Vet, “Jean Leclerc, an Enlightenment Propagandist of Grotius’ De Veritate Religionis Christianae,” Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis, 64, 1984, pp. 160-195.

[82] Le Clerc, Treatise of Incredulity, p. 79.

[83] Le Clerc, Treatise of Incredulity, p. 232.

[84] Le Clerc, Treatise of Incredulity, p. 233.

[85] Le Clerc, Treatise of Incredulity, p. 241.

[86] Le Clerc, Treatise of Incredulity, p. 129.

[87] On the broader redefinition of religion in rationalist terms in the English Enlightenment, see P. Harrison, ‘Religion’ and religions in the English Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 2. For a contemporary consideration of the category of religion, which connects up with Harrison’s work in what I think are some fascinating ways, see B. Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept, Yale University Press, 2013.

[88] For Limborch the connection between impartial and civil intellectual enquiry into the truth and toleration was made clear in his history of the inquisition, originally published in Latin in 1692. See the translator’s introduction: P. van Limborch, The History of the Inquisition, trans. S. Chandler, vol. 1, London, 1731, particularly the opening paragraph, pp. 1-2, as well as Limborch’s dedicatory letter, also to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, particularly at p. vi.

[89] I am thus obviously in whole-hearted agreement with Justin Champion, who writes that the reception of De veritate “is a convenient and valuable device for monitoring the stages and progress of intellectual and religious change.” See: J. Champion, “‘Socinianism Truly Stated’: John Toland, Jean Leclerc and the Eighteenth-Century Reception of Grotius’s De Veritate,” Grotiana, 33, 2012, p. 120.

[90] Which, I hasten to add, is not to say that this early Enlightenment episode only matters because it anticipates Kant, or that it wholly explains Kant’s answer. Both of which are strategies of argument that Franco Venturi cautioned against, in my view rightly. See F. Venturi, Utopia and reform in the Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1971.