John Locke


From LOCKE AND SOCINIANISM, before 1871 by Augustus De Morgan

Among the books which in my younger day were in some orthodox publication lists—I think in the list of the Christian Knowledge Society, but I am not sure—was Locke's1 "Reasonableness of Christianity." It seems to have come down from the eighteenth century, when the battle was belief in Christ against unbelief, simpliciter, as the logicians say. Now, if ever there was a Socinian2 book in the world, it is this work of Locke. "These two," says Locke, "faith and repentance, i. e., believing Jesus to be the Messiah, and a good life, are the indispensable conditions of the new covenant, to be performed by all those who would obtain eternal life." All the book is amplification of this doctrine. Locke, in this and many other things, followed Hobbes, whose doctrine, in the Leviathan, is fidem, quanta ad salutem necessaria est, contineri in hoc articulo, Jesus est Christus. For this Hobbes was called an atheist, which many still believe him to have been : some of his contemporaries called him, rightly, a Socinian. Locke was known for a Socinian as soon as his work appeared : Dr. John Edwards,4 his assailant, says he is "Socinianized all over." Locke, in his reply, says "there is not one word of Socinianism in it :" and he was right : the positive Socinian doctrine has not one word of Socinianism in it ; Socinianism consists in omissions. Locke and Hobbes did not dare deny the Trinity : for such a thing Hobbes might have been roasted, and Locke might have been strangled. Accordingly, the well-known way of teaching Unitarian doctrine was the collection of the asserted essentials of Christianity, without naming the Trinity, etc. This is the plan Newton followed, in the papers which have at last been published.5

1 John Locke (1632-1704), the philosopher. This particular work appeared in 1695. There was an edition in 1834 (vol. 25 of the Sacred Classics) and one in 1836 (vol. 2 of Christian Library).

2 I use the word Socinian because it was so much used in Locke's time ; it is used in our own day [before 1872] by the small fry, the unlearned clergy and their immediate followers, as a term of reproach for all Unitarians. I suspect they have a kind of liking for the word; it sounds like so sinful. The learned clergy and the higher laity know better : they know that the bulk of the modern Unitarians go farther than Socinus, and are not correctly named as his followers. The Unitarians themselves neither desire nor deserve a name which puts them one point nearer to orthodoxy than they put themselves. That point is the doctrine that direct prayer to Jesus Christ is lawful and desirable : this Socinus held, and the modern Unitarians do not hold. Socinus, in treating the subject in his own Institutio, an imperfect catechism which he left, lays much more stress on John xiv. 13 than on xv. 16 and xvi. 23 . He is not disinclined to think that Patrem should be in the first citation, where some put it : but he says that to ask the Father in the name of the Son is nothing but praying to the Son in prayer to the Father. He labors the point with obvious wish to secure a conclusive sanction. In the Racovian Catechism, of which Faustus Socinus probably drew the first sketch, a clearer light is arrived at. The translation says : "But wherein consists the divine honor due to Christ? In adoration likewise and invocation. For we ought at all times to adore Christ, and may in our necessities address our prayers to him as often as we please ; and there are many reasons to induce us to do this freely." There are some who like accuracy, even in aspersion.—A. De M.

Socinus, or Fausto Paolo Sozzini (1539-1604), was an antitrinitarian [etc. All notes by D. E. Smith except the marked "A. De M." by De Morgan.   (WPT)]

3 "As much of faith as is necessary to salvation is contained in this article, Jesus is the Christ."

4 Edwards (1637-1716) was a Cambridge fellow, strongly Calvinistic. He published many theological works, attacking the Arminians and Socinians. Locke and Whiston were special objects of attack.

5 Sir I. Newton's views on points of Trinitarian Doctrine ; his Articles of Faith, and the General Coincidence of his Opinions with those of J. Locke ; a Selection of Authorities, with Observations, London, 1856. [. . . ] A. De M.

2nd edition 1872.
Chicago, London : Open Court 1915,
Vol. I, pp. 143-4.



Amongst other acquaintances of Stephen Nye and Thomas Firmin were both laymen and clergymen whose theological views, though not strictly Socinian, were in close sympathy with the Socinian protest against the Nicene and Athanasian Trinity. Foremost of these was John Locke (1632-1704) who, as Gordon suggested, 'may pass for the Socinus of his age'. In Locke's writings we find 'the same lay disengagement from scholasticism, the same purpose of toleration tempered by prudence, the same interest in the minimising of essentials, and the same recurrence to Scripture, interpreted (that is to say, rationalised) by common sense rather than by profound exegesis.'1 Locke's sympathies were with the Latitudinarians almost from the first. Many of these he knew personally, meeting them not infrequently at a haunt popular with them—namely the house of Thomas Firmin in Lombard Street.2 Whether Firmin influenced Locke's theology3 may be left open to question. Possibly he did. But that both men shared many ideas in common is beyond doubt. The works of Arminian and Socinian writers were influential in the development of Locke's ideas and at his elbow when he wrote the Letters on Toleration (1689, 1690, 1692) and the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

The autograph catalogue of his library, book-lists, and catalogues of books4 bequeathed by him to Peter King and Francis Masham reveal the considerable extent of his collection of Sociniana. Amongst the foreign authors whose works Locke possessed are Acontius, Castellio, Episcopius, Grotius, Crell, Ruar, Sand, Schlichting, Smalcius, F. Socinus, Völkel, Wolzogenius, and Wissowatius. Of the works of Socinian authors, especially Socinus, Smalcius, and Schlichting, he had a very representative collection. Amongst English writers whose works he used are Hales, Chillingworth (The Religion of Protestants, Bidle ('concerning Trinity'), Knowles ('against Ferguson'), Nye, Cudworth, and Whichcot. In addition, Locke's library contained the Racovian Catechism, the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum,5 and two Socinian tracts : Anonymi dissertatio de pace et concordia ecclesiae and Brevis disquisitio de regula credendi (both attributed by Locke to Hales). Under a special entry, 'Unitarians', Locke lists The Brief History, seventeen other items, and three volumes of 'Unitarian Tracts'. Locke was not the man to be satisfied with merely having these books upon is shelves. They were his tools, authorities, and sources for reference, as extracts from his commonplace books reveal. Most methodical in hi studies, he sometimes made a précis of an author's arguments in which he was particularly interested. Amongst his papers is one in which he had begun to do this with the Socinian Völkel's large work, De vera religione.

The contents of Locke's library throw some light upon he drift of his thinking, but the most important witnesses to Locke's essentially Unitarian position are, of course, his writings. He always repudiated his debt to the 'Racovians'.  (etc)   (pp. 325-327)

1   A. Gordon, Heads of English Unitarian History, p. 31.

2   H. R. Fox Bourne, The Life of John Locke (1876), i. 310-11.

3   As R. I. Aaron suggests in John Locke (1937), pp. 301-2.

4   In the Lovelace Collection of Locke manuscripts at the Bodleian Library.

5   'Bought for me at the Bishop of Chesters auction' in May, 1697, for the sum of [etc] as appears from a single account sheet.

* * *

Locke's views on toleration are well known. In these, too, he was the representative thinker of his age.4 Remonstrants and Socinians, as Henry Hedworth had observed, both held 'that conscience ought to be free in matters of faith'.5 Locke was of the same mind. He can hardly have moved in Remonstrant and Socinian circles, as he did, without having been strongly influenced in this direction.1

Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727), an intimate friend of Locke, as we now know, was a Unitarian. Contrary to the popular idea of this great Englishman, recent investigations have shown that his primary interests were religious and theological. Privately he denied the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ as both unintelligible and unscriptural. His views were never made public during his lifetime owing to his natural diffidence and the probable consequences which would have ensued had he published them. Like his friend Locke, he never left the communion of the Church of England, but his posthumous work on Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture and some papers amongst the Portland Manuscripts leave no doubt about his opinions.   (pp. 329-30)

4   Cf. B. Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (1934), p. 267.

5   Brief History of Unitarians, p. 173.

[page 330]   1   In Holland Locke's closest friends were the Remonstrants, Philip van Limborch and Jean Le Clerc ; in England, Firmin, Hedworth, Nye, and William Popple, the translator into English (1689) of the Epistola de Tolerantia—all Unitarians—were amongst his friends. In the Locke papers recently acquired by the Bodleian is a friendly critique of Nye's Discourse concerning Natural and Revealed Religion (1696).

Oxford 1951.


From JOHN LOCKE, 1994 by John Marshall

'By as early as April 1684 Locke had purchased the leading Socinian Johann Crell's Ethics and De Spiritu Sancto and his pseudonymous De Trinitate, (etc). In 1685 . . . he bought Johann Volkel's De Vera Religione, a synopsis of Socinus's thought by his amanuensis, and Johann Crell's De Uno Deo Patre, (etc). In a short manuscript entitle 'Volkeli Hypothesis De Vera religione', Locke started a synopsis of Volkel's work (etc).21  

      21 [A score or so, of references to Locke's Manuscripts (Bodleian) ; and :'Johnson, Locke on Freedom, 160n. 7.'   (WPT)]

(p. 342)


'A Greek New Testament, probably the one that Locke purchased in 1685, . . includes . . . many lengthy notes from Crell's De Uno Deo Patre and from Volkel's De Vera Religione.   (page 342)


' . . . among Locke's notes there is an undated note from Verse's work which identifies Jonas Schlichting's Confession and his work Contra Meisneorum as containing 'the sum of Socinianism'. Locke appears to have purchased Schlichting's Confession Fidei in 1686.'   (page 343)

JOHN LOCKE     Resistance, Religion and Responsibility
Cambridge University Press 1994.


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Last updated 28 December 2003


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