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John Locke: Deist or Theologian?
David Barton - 11/2005
JOHN LOCKE

Many law and history professors and uninformed historical writers commonly assert that John Locke was a secular political writer or a deist. Often, these claims are made without the logical effort of studying Locke or his writings directly. (Rather, the views of other writers who wrote about Locke are studied!) If you have such a professor, or hear such assertions, here are a few helpful questions that you can use:

Questions About John Locke that Demand An Answer

  • In 1669, John Locke assisted in the drafting of the Carolina constitution under which no man could be a citizen unless he acknowledged God, was a member of a church, and used no “reproachful, reviling, or abusive language” against any religion. 1

    How can the constitutional requirement that no one can become a citizen (1) unless he acknowledges God; (2) be a member of a church; and (3) not attack religion, be considered a secular political philosophy?

  • Many of Locke's political ideas were specifically drawn from British theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600), whom Locke quotes heavily in approbation throughout his own political writings. 2

    If Locke draws so heavily from (and frequently cites) a theologian throughout his own political works, how can it be true that his political philosophies were totally secular?

  • In his most famous political work, his Two Treatises of Government, Locke set forth the belief that successful governments could be built only upon the transcendent, unchanging principles of natural law that were a subset of God's law. For example, he declared:

    [T]he Law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men's actions must . . . be conformable to the Law of Nature, i.e., to the will of God. 3

    [L]aws human must be made according to the general laws of Nature, and without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made. 4

    How can Locke's declaration that the laws of legislators must be conformable “to the will of God” and that human laws cannot contradict “any positive law of Scripture” be considered part of a secular political philosophy?

  • Locke's Two Treatises of Government were heavily relied upon by the American Founding Fathers. In fact, signer of the Declaration Richard Henry Lee declared that the Declaration itself was “copied from Locke's Treatise on Government.” 5 Yet so heavily did Locke draw from the Bible in developing his political theories that in his first treatise on government, he invoked the Bible in one thousand three hundred and forty nine references; in his second treatise, he cited it one hundred and fifty seven times.

    How can so many references to the Bible in Locke's most famous political work be reconciled with the charge that his political philosophies were totally secular?

  • While many today classify John Locke as a deist, secular thinker, or a forerunner of deism, 6 previous generations classified John Locke as a theologian. 7

    How can the charge that Locke's political philosophies were totally secular be squared with the fact that he was long considered a theologian?

  • John Locke's many writings included a verse-by-verse commentary on Paul's Epistles. He also compiled a topical Bible, which he called a Common Place-Book to the Holy Bible, that listed the verses in the Bible, subject by subject. Then when anti-religious enlightenment thinkers attacked Christianity, Locke defended it in his book, The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures. And then when he was attacked for defending Christianity in that first work, he responded with the work, A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity. Still being attacked two years later, Locke wrote, A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity. 8 No wonder he was considered a theologian by his peers and by subsequent generations!

    How can a theologian who wrote so many books on the writings and doctrines of the Bible and Christianity (and who frequently cited the Scriptures in his political writings) also be a writer whose political philosophies were totally secular?

  • Significantly, when during the Founding Era it was charged that Locke was a secular writer, it drew a sharp response from law professor James Wilson - a signer of the Constitution and an original Justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. Wilson declared:

    I am equally far from believing that Mr. Locke was a friend to infidelity [a disbelief in the Bible and in Christianity 9]. . . . The high reputation which he deservedly acquired for his enlightened attachment to the mild and tolerating doctrines of Christianity secured to him the esteem and confidence of those who were its friends. The same high and deserved reputation inspired others of very different views and characters . . . to diffuse a fascinating kind of lustre over their own tenets of a dark and sable hue. The consequence has been that the writings of Mr. Locke, one of the most able, most sincere, and most amiable assertors of Christianity and true philosophy, have been perverted to purposes which he would have deprecated and prevented [disapproved and opposed] had he discovered or foreseen them. 10

    How can the charge that political philosophies were totally secular be explained with the claim by such a prominent legal authorities that Locke was “one of the most able, most sincere, and most amiable assertors of Christianity”?



NOTES

[1] John Locke, A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Locke Never Before Printed or Not Extant in His Works (London: J. Bettenham for R. Francklin, 1720), pp. 3, 41, 45, 46.

[2] Locke, Two Treatises, passim.

[3] John Locke, Two Treatises on Government (London: J. Whiston, etc., 1772), Book II, p. 285, Chapter XI, §135.

[4] John Locke, Two Treatises on Government (London: J. Whiston, etc., 1772), Book II, p. 285, Chapter XI, §135, n., quoting Hooker's Eccl. Pol. 1. iii, sect. 9.

[5] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XV, p. 462, in a letter to James Madison on August 30, 1823.

[6] See, for example, Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, John Bowker, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 151; Franklin L. Baumer, Religion and the Use of Skepticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company), pp. 57-59; James A. Herrick, The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680 - 1750 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), p. 15; Kerry S. Walters, Rational Infidels: The American Deists (Durango, CO: Longwood Academic, 1992), pp. 24, 210; Kerry S. Walters, The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 6-7; John W. Yolton, John Locke and the Way of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 25, 115.

[7] See Richard Watson, Theological Institutes: Or a View of the Evidences, Doctrines, Morals, and Institutions of Christianity (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1857), Vol. I, p. 5, where Watson includes John Locke as a theologian.

[8] Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, 1911, s.v. "John Locke."

[9] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "infidel."

[10] James Wilson, The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, Bird Wilson, editor (Philadelphia: Lorenzo Press, 1804), Vol. I, pp. 67-68, "Of the General Principles of Law and Obligation."

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