Locke’s Tracts and the anarchy of the religious Conscience (Copy)

Locke’s Tracts and the anarchy of the religious Conscience

Paul Bou-Habib, University of Essex, UK


This article reconstructs the main arguments in John Locke’s first political writings, the highly rhetorical, and often obscure, Two Tracts on Government (1660–1662). The Tracts support the government’s right to impose religious ceremonies on its people, an astonishing fact given Locke’s famous defense of toleration in his later works. The reconstruction of the Tracts developed here allows us to see that rather than a pessimistic view of the prospects for peace under religious diversity, what mainly animates the young Locke is a desire to defend the rule of law against an anarchical conception of religious freedom. The article also argues that the evolution of Locke’s thinking on religious freedom was in large part governed by Locke’s attempt to interpret religious freedom in a way that avoids its having anarchical implications.


Locke, religious freedom, anarchy, Two Tracts on Government


In 1656, when Locke was still a young man, he wrote a letter from London to his father in which he recounted ‘the most remarkable thing I have met with since I came hither’. Locke had witnessed a Quaker seeking redress in the law courts in Westminster Hall for having had his hat struck off his head, some months earlier, when he had been brought in to give testimony in court. On that earlier occasion, the man had refused to remove his hat in court, as was the custom of many

Quakers who believed that all persons are equal under Christ. Locke observed to his father how, in protest against his earlier treatment, the man now no longer wore his hat. Locke continued: ‘The rest of his brethren may do well to imitate him, the keeping of the head too hot being dangerous for mad folks’1.

Locke’s attitude toward the Quakers may well reflect the prejudices of an unworldly young man when confronted with people from a different religious background to his own. But it might also reflect anxiety about the anarchy that is threatened by religious groups who defer to their own religious consciences without, as Locke might have thought, the restraint of reason. Locke might have seen the Quakers as not only mad, but dangerously mad. This article proposes that it is this anxiety about the anarchy of the religious conscience that animates Locke’s first political writings, composed four years after his aforementioned letter to his father, entitled Two Tracts on Government (1660–1662). Locke wrote the Tracts in response to The Great Question Concerning Things Indifferent (1660), a pamphlet by one of his student colleagues at Oxford, Edward Bagshaw2.

Bagshaw maintains in his pamphlet that the government has no right to impose religious worship on people. The imposition of religious worship at issue consisted of the government’s enforcing the form that particular religious ceremonies should take within the church, the garments that should be worn by the clergy and other circumstantial features of religious worship. Although Locke would famously come to reject the government’s right to impose religious worship in his later works, in the Tracts, he defends that right3.

In proposing this reading of the Tracts, the article aims to make three distinct contributions to our understanding of Locke’s political thought. The first is to extract clear arguments from what is, in many places, a highly rhetorical, fragmentary and obscure text. The approach of this article is thus different from, though complementary to, a more historical approach to the interpretation of a political text, where the aim is to reconstruct the intentions of its author through careful contextual elucidation of the text’s meaning. The emphasis in this article is to fill the gaps in Locke’s own presentation of his arguments by supplying the missing premises in a way that enables us to see the precise nature of those arguments.

Secondly, the article affirms a more categorical attribution of one of two closely related arguments one might interpret Locke as making in the Tracts. One might read the Tracts as reflecting a distinctively politique position, one that defends the government’s right to impose religious uniformity because it assumes that religious uniformity is necessary for public order. While this interpretation of the Tracts is sometimes suggested in works by Robert Kraynak, Kirstie McClure and David Wootton, these rich accounts of Locke’s developing views on religious toleration do also suggest the contrasting interpretation of the Tracts proposed in this article4.

According to this latter interpretation, Locke is mainly preoccupied by what he believes Bagshaw implies when he rejects the government’s right to impose religious worship, namely that the conscience of the religious dissenter stands above the authority of the sovereign. Locke wants to defend the government’s right to impose, in other words, not because he favors  imposition as such, but because he denies that the religious conscience of individual dissenters could have authority to limit the authority of the sovereign. The second aim of this article is to encourage the secondary literature to push this latter argument, which is focused on the need to preserve sovereign authority, to the forefront of Locke’s concerns in the Tracts. Finally, in proposing that we shift the emphasis in how we interpret Locke’s first writings on religious freedom, this article also supports a particular view of the overall trajectory of Locke’s thinking on the subject. If Locke’s early work is Hobbesian in character, emphasizing the need for sovereign authority, then a key turning point in his route to the famously anti-Hobbesian political thought of his later works must have been the following: he must, in his later works, have developed a different conception of religious freedom from Bagshaw’s, one that is not anarchical but that allows a religiously diverse society to be regulated by the rule of law. The article concludes with a brief proposal about the nature of Locke’s alternative conception of religious freedom.

The great question


To properly understand Locke’s argument in favor of the government’s right to impose religious worship, we must begin by clarifying the question addressed by his and Bagshaw’s texts. The question Locke places as a heading to his Tracts is identical to the one Bagshaw raises in the pamphlet to which Locke responds:

Whether the civil magistrate may lawfully impose and determine the use of indifferent things in reference to religious worship. Indifferent things are those actions that God has left to human discretion. Whether the magistrate may lawfully impose and determine such actions is a question about whether he may require, prohibit or otherwise regulate them without breaching his political mandate5.

The question at issue between Locke and Bagshaw, then, is whether the government acts consistently with its mandate when it requires, prohibits or otherwise regulates actions in religious worship that God has not already regulated in some way. For the sake of  exposition, let us call this the question of whether the government has a right to impose. Locke’s defense of the view that the government has the right to impose comes in two parts. First, he holds that public order requires that individuals transfer all of their liberty within the sphere of indifferent action to the authority of the sovereign. Since indifferent actions in religious worship are no less indifferent for being performed in religious worship, these fall under the sovereign’s authority as much as do indifferent actions performed outside of religious worship. Hence the government may lawfully, that is, it has the authority to, regulate indifferent actions in religious worship.

The second part of Locke’s defense is a series of rebuttals of various arguments for the contrary view put forward by Bagshaw. All of Bagshaw’s arguments aim to show that, while individuals may not have a right to be free from the government’s regulation of indifferent actions in the civil sphere, they do have a right to be free of such regulation within the religious sphere. Locke rejects this attempt at drawing a line between civil and religious indifferent action.

We can distinguish two possible readings of Locke’s affirmative answer to the question he poses in the Tracts. Both readings agree that the ultimate foundation of Locke’s argument is that individuals have a duty to maintain public order. As he writes, ‘God wished there to be order, society and government among men’6, and we can assume that Locke believes God’s wishes are duties for all individuals to fulfill.

Where the two readings differ, is over the intermediate idea that connects this foundational duty to maintain public order with the conclusion that individuals have no right against religious imposition. According to one reading, the reason Locke believes that the duty to maintain public order entails that the sovereign has a right to impose is that he believes public order requires that individuals practice a uniform mode of religious worship. On this reading, the Tracts rely heavily on a sociological thesis about the social consequences of religious diversity, specifically, that religious diversity necessarily produces social conflict.

According to a second reading, Locke believes public order justifies the sovereign’s right to impose because public order requires sovereign authority, and sovereign authority is not possible if individuals have a right against religious imposition, at least as Bagshaw understands that right. A full statement of the second reading is provided later, once Bagshaw’s understanding of the right against religious imposition has been made clear. For now, we should note that what is essential to the second reading of the Tracts is that it attributes to Locke an insistence on rejecting a particular conception of religious freedom in the name of preserving sovereign authority.

These two readings thus discern different routes from the foundational duty to preserve public order to the sovereign’s right of imposition, the first via the need for religious uniformity, the second via the need for sovereign authority. Those two routes are plainly distinct: it is one thing for the Tracts to argue that individuals ought to establish religious uniformity, and quite another for them to argue that individuals ought to establish sovereign authority. The next two sections discuss the plausibility of each reading of the Tracts.

The argument from uniformity

There is a tendency in the secondary literature to present’s Locke’s concern in the Tracts as focused on the need for religious uniformity. The interpretative idea is that Locke believes that religious diversity in public life must be prevented since it is bound to spark off violent confrontations between different religious groups. I shall refer to this as the argument from uniformity as summarized in the following schema:

  1. God commands that there be public order;
  2. Public order requires religious uniformity;
  3. Therefore, the sovereign must have a right to impose.

That Locke is propounding this argument from uniformity is a view that is put forward sometimes more, sometimes less explicitly in the secondary literature on the Tracts. Robert Kraynak, for example, defends the thesis that Locke ‘takes a definite practical position in favor of absolutist imposition’. By ‘absolutist imposition’, Kraynak means the policy whereby the state ‘imposes an arbitrary uniformity on warring sectarians for the sake of peace’7.

David Wootton, who rejects other parts of Kraynak’s analysis of the Tracts, concurs with him on this point: ‘One had to disappoint either those who wanted religious freedom and diversity, or those who wanted religious uniformity’, and for Locke, Wootton continues, ‘a sensible magistrate would opt for uniformity’8.

Kirstie McClure points out that there is a difference between religious imposition as an exercise of ‘rightful civil power’ and as ‘one policy option among others’. She then argues that Locke considered imposition ‘prudent as a matter of policy’9.

Although the argument from uniformity is attributed to Locke in a good deal of the secondary literature, the difficulty facing this interpretation is that Locke does not make any explicit statements in the Tracts in favor of the second step in the above schema, which distinguishes the argument form uniformity from the argument from authority, namely, that public order requires religious uniformity.  Furthermore, the evidence that has been adduced in favor of his endorsing that second step is inconclusive.

One set of statements that might suggest such an endorsement on Locke’s part all point out, in various ways, that there ought to exist in society a supreme authority over indifferent action, an authority, that is, that decides which of the actions God has left to human discretion ought to be regulated and how they ought to be regulated.

Robert Kraynak finds statements of this sort supportive of the reading that Locke endorses an argument from uniformity. He cites the following passage, for example:

‘the disadvantages of government’, Locke says, ‘[are] far less than are to be found in its absence, as no peace, no security, no enjoyments, enmity with all men and safe possession of nothing’. By ‘absolutism’ Kraynak means the doctrine where by the government ‘imposes an arbitrary uniformity on warring sectarians’.

In the passage just quoted, Locke does indeed seem to be endorsing the view that there ought to be in society a sovereign authority – but that he endorses this view does not imply that he endorses the further view that the sovereign ought to impose religious uniformity.

A second set of suggestive statements in the Tracts say that we ought not to recognize a ‘liberty of conscience’ or ‘right to toleration’ since these privileges are likely to have dangerous social consequences. Locke writes, for instance, that a liberty to perform one’s own actions in religious worship will prove to be a ‘liberty for contention, censure and persecution and will turn us loose to the tyranny of a religious rage’10.

One’s immediate reaction to such statements is puzzlement: it is difficult to see why Locke should think that religious liberty will inevitably lead to religious tyranny. Why exactly does Locke think such consequences would transpire if the government were to grant individuals a freedom to worship as they please? According to Kraynak, Locke’s reason for this view is that sectarian leaders appeal to liberty of conscience in order to incite their followers to attack religious rivals and to reform the state religion. Even if we assume that Kraynak is right about this, these statements by Locke would still not conclusively support the reading that Locke endorses the argument from uniformity. If Locke were worried that a liberty of conscience would prove to be a liberty of sectarian warfare, this need not imply that he endorses religious uniformity as an alternative to the liberty of conscience. It might instead imply that he endorses sovereign authority as the alternative.

Finally, Locke makes statements to the effect that whichever way the magistrate decides – whether he imposes or tolerates – he is bound to offend someone. He writes that the magistrate ‘will find it impossible not to…burden a great part, some being as conscientiously earnest for conformity as others for liberty’11. According to McClure, this is a point Locke makes out a spirit of despair. She explains that, for Locke, ‘the neutrality of law was quite impossible’12.

This explanation may be misleading, however, to the extent that it suggests that Locke opts for imposition because he deems it to be, in principle, as justifiable as toleration, and in the present circumstances, more prudent. There is an alternative way one could interpret Locke’s statement. His point might instead be the following: since the magistrate is always bound to offend someone’s conscience, we should not judge the legitimacy of the magistrate’s laws in terms of whether they offend people’s consciences, for, in that case, no law would ever be legitimate. In other words, the fact Locke might be lamenting is not that there is no possibility for neutral law, but that people insist upon determining the legitimacy of laws in terms of whether these agree with their consciences.

In summary, there is a lack of direct evidence in favor of the interpretation that Locke supports the argument from uniformity. Given the absence of conclusive evidence in its favor, one might wonder why there has been a tendency in the secondary literature to attribute the argument from uniformity to the Tracts. It may be the case that it has been too readily assumed that there is no other way of accounting for the suggestive statements we have seen Locke make. The following section questions that assumption.

The argument from authority

An alternative reading of the Tracts, and one that can be seen to be suggested by the statements from Locke just quoted, is a reading according to which Locke is making an argument from authority. This argument holds that public order requires that there be a sovereign authority that determines the mode of religious worship in society. The argument from authority adopts the same foundational premise and conclusion as the argument from uniformity. However, it connects that premise and conclusion with a different intermediate idea:

  1. God commands that there be public order;

2a. Public order requires sovereign authority;

  1. Therefore, there is no right against religious imposition.

A ‘sovereign authority’ is an authority whose laws no other person or institution can overturn as illegitimate, and that are, in that sense, final. The bearer of sovereign authority can be one person or an assembly of persons, and is in either case termed the ‘sovereign’.

Now, Locke is explicit that public order requires that there be sovereign authority. He writes: “it is clear that no union could occur among men, that no common way of life would be possible, no law, nor any constitution by which men could, as it were unite themselves into a singly body unless each one first divests himself of that native liberty…and transfers it to some other…in whom a supreme power must necessarily reside13.

As summarized above, the argument from authority is not entirely clear. The question that needs answering is why Locke believes that public order requires that there be sovereign authority. We need to understand, in other words, what it is that justifies the second key step in the argument for authority. Locke does not explicitly tell us this, evidently believing that the answer to this question should be obvious (the above quotation begins with ‘it is clear that’). If we wish to unfold the argument from authority, we thus need to reconstruct the assumption Locke takes for granted from other materials in the Tracts.

The most plausible suggestion is that Locke follows the line adopted by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famously maintains that sovereign authority is necessary for public order because without the presence in society of a final arbiter over the limits of human action, people will endlessly fight with each other over this matter.

That the Tracts adopt a view of this sort is suggested by Locke’s many comments about the tendency of disputes over religious worship to turn violent. We can see Locke imagining, in other words, that people will always be prepared to fight over the issue of how God is to be properly worshipped, and that public order therefore depends upon individuals surrendering their authority to decide upon the proper mode of religious worship to the sovereign. In summary, then, we might unfold Locke’s argument from authority as follows:

2a. Public order requires sovereign authority, because

(I) People disagree about the limits to action and are prepared to fight over this matter.

(II) To avoid war, they must therefore transfer their individual authority to decide the limits of their action to one person or persons, whose judgment on this matter will be final.

A question now arises as to what evidence we have for endorsing the interpretation that Locke holds to this argument from authority, rather than to the argument from uniformity. Just as was the case with the argument from uniformity, there is no single passage in the Tracts that can be deemed to favor conclusively the interpretation that Locke is only concerned to make the argument from authority. All of the passages from Locke we considered in the previous section, when examining the evidence for the argument from uniformity, while compatible with attributing to him the argument from authority, do not settle the issue in favor of our doing so.

For example, when Locke warns of the nasty consequences of recognizing a liberty of conscience, he may well be saying that he believes that the magistrate, as sovereign, and not the individual’s conscience, ought to be final judge of the laws we should have. But, on the other hand, it is also possible that Locke might be maintaining that it is unwise to allow people to practice different forms of religious worship in circumstances where their doing so is bound to spark off civil unrest. If we wish to find conclusive evidence as to the nature of Locke’s argument in the Tracts, we must consider the second part of his case in favor of the government’s right to impose religious worship, namely, the series of rebuttals he makes to Bagshaw’s various arguments.

The Locke–Bagshaw exchange

Bagshaw’s case against the government’s right to impose rests upon the claim that God commands individuals to give a sincere worship. By ‘sincere worship’, Bagshaw means not only the possession of sincere beliefs about God, but also the performance of only those outward actions one judges to be necessary for worship. He believes that if individuals have a duty of sincere worship, so understood, then it must be true that the government cannot have the right to impose worship upon them. Bagshaw’s main claim has a worrying implication, however, which Bagshaw himself overlooks. If individuals have a duty of sincere religious action, then they may not transfer their individual authority to decide the limits of their action to the sovereign. Bagshaw’s claim, then, has the implication that there can be no sovereign authority.

That this implication is what concerns Locke becomes apparent when we consider some of his disputes with Bagshaw. Consider first Bagshaw’s interpretation of a particular passage from scripture that supposedly supports the prohibition of the imposition of religious worship. The passage, which is from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, commands Christians to, ‘stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made you free and be not again entangled with the yoke of bondage’ (Galatians 5:1).

Bagshaw says that Paul’s reason for rejecting the imposition of ceremonies is also a reason for our rejecting the imposition of Christian ceremonies, namely, that individuals must enjoy a ‘Christian liberty’ to perform those ceremonies which they themselves believe to be necessary. It is thus a mistake, Bagshaw insists, to think that since ‘the yoke of bondage’ Paul here speaks of refers specifically to Jewish ceremonies, that he is urging freedom only from Jewish, and not Christian ceremonies. Paul is urging a freedom from all ceremonies.

Locke levels a subtle objection to Bagshaw’s  interpretation of Paul’s words. The ‘Christian liberty’ that Paul insists upon is, according to Locke, merely a ‘liberty of judgment’ and not, as Bagshaw thinks, a ‘liberty of action’. Contrary to what Bagshaw says, then, Paul’s words should not be taken to prohibit the imposition of all ceremonies, but only of those ceremonies that are imposed for the sake of making people judge in a certain way. When the government imposes ceremonies merely in order to get people to act in a certain way, it is not commanding people to endorse these ceremonies as necessary in themselves, and each person’s liberty to judge that question thus remains intact. In short, Locke believes that Bagshaw infers far too much religious liberty from Paul’s words.

A second dispute with Bagshaw that reflects Locke’s worries about Bagshaw’s insistence upon a duty of sincere religious action, concerns the ‘Golden Rule’, which commands that one ‘not do to others what one would not wish them to do to oneself’. Employing the Golden Rule, Bagshaw asks: ‘Who would have his conscience imposed upon?’. No one would, he answers, and therefore no one should impose on the consciences of others.

We must notice what Bagshaw is assuming as he makes this argument. In order for his appeal to the Golden Rule to succeed as an argument against the imposition of religious ceremonies, he must be assuming that to impose a ceremony on someone is to impose on that person’s conscience – that is, that in order for a person’s conscience to be free, that person must be able to outwardly worship in a way he inwardly endorses.  Only then will Bagshaw be correct to conclude that our desire not to have our conscience imposed upon commits us, via the Golden Rule, to refrain from imposing ceremonies on others. In short, Bagshaw must be assuming that a free conscience requires a liberty of sincere religious action14.

Locke replies to Bagshaw’s appeal to the Golden Rule with the following remark: ‘If private men’s judgments were the moulds where laws were to be cast’tis a question whether we should have any at all’15.

At first sight, it may seem unclear how Locke’s reply amounts to a refutation of Bagshaw’s Golden Rule argument, let alone how it is relevant. Why does Locke believe that Bagshaw’s appeal to the liberty of conscience necessarily commits Bagshaw to endorsing a limitless liberty to act on one’s own private judgment?

It may seem more natural to interpret Bagshaw’s point to be that individuals ought to enjoy a freedom from interference within a fixed space of religious conduct. Once we remember, however, that Bagshaw assumes that a free conscience implies a liberty of sincere religious action then Locke’s answer becomes clear. For once the liberty of conscience is interpreted in that way it effectively amounts to an extra-legal power, or, in other words, a personal prerogative to limit the law according to one’s own conscience. If laws could indeed be limited in this way, Locke would be correct to wonder ‘whether we should have any at all’.

This point is repeated throughout the Tracts. Locke’s favorite illustration of it, which he uses more than once, is that of the Quaker. The Tracts thus return to the very issue that he had mentioned in the letter to his father some four years earlier, the Quaker’s refusal to remove his hat in front social superiors: if the [act of] determining any indifferent outward action contrary to a man’s persuasion…be imposing on conscience and so unlawful, I know not how a Quaker should be compelled by hat or leg to pay a due respect to the magistrate16.

Only by endorsing the view that Locke embraces the argument from authority in the Tracts, can we make sense of this otherwise puzzling passage. Agreeing with Locke that Quakers should not be guaranteed a  freedom to pursue just any religiously motivated conduct, one might initially be puzzled as to why Locke also refuses to allow Quakers the freedom to pursue religiously motivated conduct within the sphere of their religious worship. Matters become clear, however, once we understand that Locke is attempting to show in this passage what the implication is of assuming, as Bagshaw does, that the liberty of conscience includes liberty of sincere religious action. The implication would be that any legal restriction upon actions that the Quaker deems to be religious in nature is ipso facto an infringement on his liberty of conscience and that the Quaker would thus effectively be entitled to set the boundaries between then civil and the religious sphere.

To insist upon the liberty of conscience, so understood, would in that case make it impossible for the government to lay a legal obligation upon an individual to act in ways prohibited by that individual’s conscience, and ultimately, then, to undermine the government’s sovereign authority. This point is reflected in Locke’s ‘if-then’ reasoning in the passage above.

If we define the liberty of conscience as Bagshaw defines it, then it will be impossible to legally compel the Quaker to pay, as Locke says, a ‘due respect to the magistrate’. Indeed, it will be impossible to legally compel him to do anything with which he does not in conscience agree.

Locke’s exchange with Bagshaw, then, is fundamentally concerned with the consequences for public order of including sincere action under the duty of sincere worship. Once sincere action is so included, religious liberty becomes an extra-legal power. If the subject must enjoy a ‘liberty of conscience’, in the sense that he must be free to act in accordance with his religious beliefs, then, no one sets limits to his rights but himself. In that case, religious liberty, as an extra-legal power, undermines sovereign authority, which requires that only one person or assembly of persons, and not every person, should set the limits to human action. And in the absence of sovereign authority, public order is impossible.

Two key implications

One significant implication of the fact that the Tracts make an argument from authority is that this places Locke’s early thinking on religious freedom in a far more flattering and interesting light than the one in which we would see it were we to attribute to it the argument from uniformity. This becomes evident if we consider two different reasons for why an individual ought not to insist upon retaining a right to religious freedom – each corresponding to the two different readings of the Tracts. The first reason is that retaining this right would provoke others to act violently.

One might suppose, for example, that members of a powerful religion are likely to act violently if an individual dissenter openly expresses his dissent from their religion. The second reason an individual ought not to insist upon retaining a right to religious freedom is that this right undermines the possibility of a common legal framework for regulating his social interaction with others.

Now, that there is a difference between these two reasons is relevant for understanding Locke’s concerns in the Tracts. If we attribute the first reason to Locke, then Locke is in effect asking religious dissenters to accept that they have a duty to forego their right to worship according to their own consciences in order to avoid more powerful groups disturbing the peace. This would appear to be an unjust concession on Locke’s part to the prejudices of the powerful at the expense of the rights of the powerless.

On the other hand, if we interpret Locke to be providing the second reason, then his conclusion in the Tracts appears more just. In effect, Locke would be asking dissenters to accept that they  bear a duty that everyone else bears, namely, to forego rights that stand in the way of the establishment of a common legal framework with which to regulate their social life.

Apart from presenting Locke’s thinking on religious freedom in a more flattering light, a second implication of the reading defended here is that it opens up a new perspective on the trajectory of Locke’s thinking on religious freedom after the Tracts. The new perspective is best introduced by way of contrast. Consider, first, what the trajectory of Locke’s thinking would look like if we assume Locke endorses the argument from uniformity in the Tracts.  If indeed it is the case that Locke is concerned to reject a right to religious freedom because it stands in the way of religious uniformity, then the question becomes why Locke would come to embrace a right to practice deviant worship just five years later, in a short piece entitled An Essay on Toleration (1667)17. Two answers have been given to this question. First, it has been proposed that Locke must have undergone a ‘radical break’ by the time of the An Essay on Toleration, a break that can be explained only by appeal to biographical evidence.

For example, it is suggested that a trip to Holland in 1665 helped Locke see the possibility of peace in a context of religious diversity, or it is suggested that Locke’s employment in the service of the liberal Earl of Shaftesbury in 1667 put pressure on him to alter his early views18. The problem with such biographical evidence, however, is that it is necessarily rather speculative in character and it may seem insufficient to explain a break as radical as one in which an author moves, in just a few years, from favoring a right of religious imposition to defending a right to toleration19.

In light of this problem, a second possibility has been defended, according to which An Essay on Toleration actually continues to reflect the underlying goals of the Tracts. Locke, it is claimed, has come to defend a right of toleration in the Essay for the same reason that he (supposedly) defended a policy of enforced religious uniformity in the Tracts.

Underlying both the earlier and later view is Locke’s commitment to peace at all costs: he defends the right to toleration in An Essay on Toleration, in other words, only because he now believes it is toleration, rather than imposition, that is most conducive to civil peace20.

The problem with this second account of the Locke’s development is that it implies that his eventual endorsement of a right to religious freedom is a rather shallow endorsement. For if indeed Locke is prepared to endorse this right only when its deviant exercise is unlikely to spark off civil unrest, or only when such an endorsement is in other ways conducive to peace, then he does not have the kind of concern that one would normally associate with someone who takes rights seriously, namely a concern to protect the interests of the individual rights-bearer against more powerful groups in society.

This assumption about Locke’s fundamental views on religious freedom is questionable because it cannot be reconciled with Locke’s language in his later writings, which reveals a deep concern on his part about the interests of the individual religious dissenter. In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), for example, Locke includes a passage that bears a striking resemblance to Bagshaw’s original arguments for religious freedom.

To impose [outward worship]…upon any people, contrary to their own judgment, is, in effect to command them to offend God; which, considering that the end of all religion is to please him and, that liberty is essentially necessary to that end, appears to be absurd beyond expression21.

People have a duty to God to perform that worship which they, in their own judgment, believe to be the proper one, and liberty, Locke says, ‘is essentially necessary to that end’. Locke thus ends up grounding the right to religious freedom in the interests of every individual to perform a sincere worship.

In light of the fact that Locke takes the right to religious freedom seriously in his later work, and indeed comes to ground it in the very same concern with sincere religious worship that animated Bagshaw’s pamphlet, we have good reason for exploring alternative accounts of his developing views on religious freedom.

Let us consider the picture that emerges once we  attribute the argument form authority to the Tracts. If we assume that Locke’s first thoughts on this question revolved around the argument from authority, then, while his later writings on religious freedom might still be governed by a concern on his part to balance public order with the interests of religious dissenters, these writings would not necessarily reflect a tendency on Locke’s part to grant or withhold the right to religious freedom on the contingent basis of whether doing so would spark off sectarian violence.

Rather, by attributing the argument from authority to Locke – and so by viewing his initial posture as one in which he is troubled by a conception of religious freedom that is anarchical – his subsequent maneuvering can be presented as a search for an alternative conception of this right that would allow religious diversity without implying anarchy.

Religious freedom without anarchy

Locke may have come to embrace the right to religious freedom a few years after the Tracts, in the Essay, because he found, by that time, a way in which to include sincere religious action under that right without its becoming an anarchical right.

We have already noted how Locke’s main objection to Bagshaw is that Bagshaw’s inclusion of sincere action under the umbrella of the right to religious freedom renders that right anarchical – that is, it implies that the scope of this right will be authoritatively settled by the rights-bearer alone. While Locke objects to this particular conception of religious freedom, it seems evident, however, that he is already sympathetic in the Tracts to at least some conception of religious freedom.

If we revisit the passage in which he worries about Quakers refusing to remove their hats, this point is reflected in its opening statement:

grant all agree that conscience is tenderly to be dealt with, and not to be imposed on, but if the determining any indifferent outward action contrary to a man’s persuasion … be imposing on conscience and so unlawful, I know not how a Quaker should be compelled by hat or leg to pay due respect to the magistrate.

If religious freedom cannot include sincere action, Locke goes on to conclude, then we are forced to interpret religious freedom as a liberty of judgment alone. It seems plausible to see Locke’s opening statement in the above passage as reflecting a sense of regret on his part about this result.

By the time of his Essay, a few years later, Locke has found a way in which to include religious action under the right to religious freedom, without this right’s becoming an anarchical right. This turning point in Locke’s thinking after the Tracts, and before An Essay on Toleration, occurs in his 1663–1664 Essays on the Law of Nature in which he reconstitutes his political thought in natural law. In appealing to natural law as the bounds to human action, Locke is able to improve upon his argument in the Tracts in two different ways.

First, he is able to hold that no person can sincerely believe that his religion should include actions that transgress natural law, since natural law is something all persons can apprehend by means of their natural reason alone23.

Locke is thus able to insist in An Essay on Toleration that religious freedom includes the liberty of action in worship, as well as the liberty of judgment. An Essay on Toleration puts this point rather emphatically: ‘purely speculative opinions and divine worship’ – a category that includes action as well as judgment –deserves ‘an absolute and universal right to toleration’24.

Locke is able to include actions within the right to perform sincere religious worship because he assumes that sincere religious action is necessarily compliant with natural law.

There is a second way in which the appeal to natural law enables Locke to improve upon his argument in the Tracts: it enables him to set bounds to the exercise of political authority. If political power exists in order to help individuals fulfill the duties they have in natural law, then its authority is always conditional upon its being effective to this end. Political authority may not, in that case, take the form of sovereignty: it may not be an unconditional authority.

We see this line of argument most forcefully presented in Locke’s famous Letter. In a passage where Locke discusses a case in which the magistrate imposes a law ‘concerning things that lie not within the verge of the magistrate’s authority’, he asks, rhetorically, ‘what if the magistrate believe such a law as this to be for the public good?’.

He answers:

As the private judgment of any particular person, if erroneous, does not exempt him from the obligation of law, so the private judgment, as I may call it, of the magistrate, does not give him any new right of imposing laws upon his subjects25.

The reply suggests that by the time of the Letter,  sovereignty has fallen out of the picture of Locke’s political thought. Locke now believes that the legitimacy of all action – actions commanded by the dissenting conscience as well as by the magistrate – must be measured solely against the bounds and directives of natural law.

No person gains a right to impose by the authority of his own private judgment alone; no person, in other words, is sovereign. The trajectory of Locke’s thinking on religious freedom is one in which he searches for, and eventually finds, in the appeal to natural law, a settlement of the contending claims of religious freedom and political authority that is more appealing to him, philosophically and morally, than the settlement he had been able to conceive of in the Tracts.

Having reconstituted his political philosophy in natural law, Locke is able to conclude that the claims to ‘religious freedom’ and to ‘political authority’, properly understood, are always in harmony. Political authority, which exists in order to prevent actions that transgress natural law, never needs to regulate an action that is protected by the right to religious freedom, because this right never includes an action that transgresses natural law26.


Where Locke ends up in the Letter, the place at which he insists that no person gains a right to act on the authority of his private judgment alone, brings us back, some thirty earlier, to the young Locke in Westminster Hall. It may seem that in the Letter Locke ends up catching himself in the tail, as it were: his later work appears sympathetic to the idea he had repudiated as a young man.

If Locke believes in his later work that no person is sovereign, if he believes that every individual stands as an equal to others in retaining an ultimate authority to enforce natural law, then, in a fundamental sense, it seems that he believes there are no political superiors to whom Quakers ought to remove their hats.

But, in fact, Locke has not caught himself in the tail. As a young man, Locke was unsympathetic with Quakers, not because he was against political equality, but because he was against the anarchy of the religious conscience. This is a constant in his thinking on religious freedom throughout this life. Locke never ceased in his hostility toward individuals who believed that their authority to act ultimately derived from a part of their soul that was inaccessible to others.

In 1700, he would thus express the view about religious ‘enthusiasts’ that may have led to his feeling bemused and disturbed by the Quakers he observed in court in 1656: whatsoever odd action they find in themselves a strong inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call or direction from heaven, and must be obeyed…This I take to be properly enthusiasm, which, though founded neither on reason nor divine revelation, but rising from the conceits of a warmed or over-weening brain, works yet, where it once gets footing, more powerfully on the persuasions and actions of men…and freed from all restraint of reason, and check of reflection, it is heightened into a divine authority, in concurrence with our own temper and inclination27.

One sees not bigotry in such a passage, but weariness. The view on the basis of which Quakers refused to remove their hats may have been the egalitarian one that all are equal under Christ. But their insistence that this view gains its authority from their own conscience was, for Locke, ultimately anarchical.


  1. John Locke, ‘Locke to Locke Sen., Westminster, 25 October 1656’ in M. Goldie (ed) (2002) Correspondence of John Locke, p. 5. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. I shall refer to these early texts by Locke as the Tracts and use the editions reprinted in M. Goldie (ed) (1997) Locke: Political Essays, pp. 3–78. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. I shall refer to Bagshaw’s pamphlet as The Great Question. This pamphlet is available at Early English Books Online. http://eebo.chadwyck.com/ (25 July 2010).
  3. As Locke later insists in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689): ‘the magistrate has no power to enforce by law, either in his own church, or much less in another, the use of any rites or ceremonies whatsoever in the worship of God’, reprinted in D. Wootton (ed) (1993) Political Writings of John Locke, p. 411. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  4. See Robert Kraynak (1980) ‘John Locke: From Absolutism to Toleration’, American Political Science Review 74: 53–69; Kirstie McClure (1990) ‘Difference, Diversity, and the Limits of Toleration’, Political Theory 18: 361–91 and David Wootton, ‘Introduction’ in D. Wootton (ed) (1993) Political Writings of John Locke, pp. 7–122. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  5. There is no significant disagreement over terminology between Locke and Bagshaw. Bagshaw writes that indifferent things are ‘those outward circumstances of our actions which the law of God has left free and arbitrary, giving us only general precepts for the use of them either way’. In Locke (n. 2), p. 62, Locke defines ‘indifferent things’ as ‘all things which are morally neither good nor evil’. Since Locke’s convention is to use ‘moral law’ and ‘divine law’ interchangeably, his definition of indifferent things chimes with Bagshaw’s.
  6. Locke (n. 2), p. 71.
  7. Kraynak (n. 4), p. 56.
  8. Wootton (n. 4), p. 36.
  9. McClure (n. 4), p. 368.
  10. Locke (n. 2), p. 7.
  11. Locke (n. 2), p. 24.
  12. McClure (n. 4) p. 374.
  13. Locke (n. 2), p. 70.
  14. The terms ‘liberty of conscience’ and ‘religious liberty’ are used interchangeably in this paragraph. This usage is justified in the rendering of Bagshaw’s (and indeed Locke’s) views, since the two authors viewed the pronouncements of conscience as a person’s internal religious pronouncements, i.e. as pronouncements regarding God’s will.
  15. Locke (n. 2). p. 21.
  16. As Mark Goldie, editor of Locke’s Political Essays, explains, ‘making a leg’ is a formal bow, which, along with removing one’s hat, was an act Quakers refused to undertake on religious grounds. See Locke (n. 2), p. 22.
  17. This text shall be referred to as the Essay.
  18. For a good account of the biographical evidence, see John Marshall (1994) John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  19. For the view that there is a radical break between the early and later Locke see Maurice Cranston (1957) John Locke: A Biography. London: Longmans, and Philip Abrams, ‘Introduction’ in P. Abrams (ed) (1967) Two Tracts on Government, pp. 1–114. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  20. For the view that A Letter Concerning Toleration shares the same underlying goal with Locke’s Tracts, namely that of managing religion for the sake of civil peace, see Kraynak (n. 4).
  21. Locke (n. 3), p. 411.
  22. Locke (n. 2), p. 22, italics added.
  23. For a similar line of interpretation see Ian Harris (1994) The Mind of John Locke. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  24. See John Locke ‘An Essay on Toleration’, reprinted in M. Goldie (ed) (1997) Locke: Political Essays, pp. 134–59. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  25. Locke (n. 3), p. 424.
  26. The claim I defend here, that natural law is for Locke the guide and limit to both political authority and religious freedom may show how the disagreement between Tim Stanton and John William Tate in a recent debate on the character of Locke’s mature political philosophy may be less stark than it appears to be. Stanton and Tate disagree about whether Locke removed God from the center of his political philosophy. In one sense of that contention, Stanton is right: God is always at the center of Locke’s political philosophy, namely in the sense that God’s wishes for mankind always ground and limit political authority when these wishes are identified by our natural reason as natural law. In another sense of that contention, however, Tate is right: Locke did indeed wish to remove God’s wishes from political philosophy as these wishes might allegedly be identified by means other than natural reason. See John William Tate (2012) ‘Locke, God, and Civil Society: Reply to Stanton’, Political Theory 40: 222–8 and Tim Stanton (2012) ‘Reply to Tate’, Political Theory 40: 229–36.
  27. John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, P. Nidditch (ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press. This passage is from the 1700 edition. The first edition was published in 1689.

Corresponding author:

Paul Bou-Habib, Department of Government, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3


Email: pbou@essex.ac.uk

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