September 4, 2019
A “once in a generation” discovery of a centuries-old manuscript by John Locke shows the great English philosopher making his earliest arguments for religious toleration, with the scholar who unearthed it calling the document “the origin and catalyst for momentous and foundational ideas of western liberal democracy”.
Dated to 1667-8, the manuscript titled “Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others”, was previously unknown to academia. It had been owned by the descendants of one of Locke’s friends until the 1920s, when it was sold at auction to a book dealer. From there, it went into private collections until it was donated to St John’s College, Annapolis, in the latter half of the 20th century. It lay unstudied in archives until Locke scholar JC Walmsley noticed a reference to it in a 1928 book dealer’s catalogue, and raised an eyebrow: Locke, a hugely influential Enlightenment thinker, was not known to have extended his arguments for religious tolerance to Catholics.
“This [title] sounded entirely unlikely to me,” Walmsley said. “Locke was known for not extending his toleration to Catholics, and I checked through the online listing of Locke manuscripts to see if it even remotely matched a description of any known Locke manuscript. It did not. This suggested one of two things; that the manuscript described was misattributed to Locke – which happens more often than might be supposed – or there was an unknown Locke manuscript which had some very surprising content.”
Scans showed the attribution was correct, while further research revealed it had previously been unknown to scholars.
“Locke is supposed to have never tolerated Catholics,” said Walmsley. “All his published work suggested that he would never even consider this as a possibility. This manuscript shows him taking an initial position that’s startling for him and for thinkers of his time - next to no one suggested this at this point. It shows him to be much more tolerant in certain respects than was ever previously supposed.”