Locke’s Plea for Toleration is widely recognized as the deciding influence, on the literary side, which secured the passage of the Toleration Act in 1689. Deferring for the moment further allusion to the position created by this Act, we must at once observe the scope of one of Locke’s works which is not so popularly known. This is his Reasonableness of Christianity, which with his rejoinders to critics makes a considerable bulk in his writings. In pursuance of the aim to ‘reduce the number of essentials’ and to discover that in the Christian religion which is available for simple people—the majority of mankind—Locke examines the historical portion of the New Testament, and presents the result. Practically, this amounts to the verdict that it is sufficient for the Christian to accept the Messiahship of Christ and to submit to his rule of conduct. The orthodox critics complained that he had omitted the epistles in his summary of doctrine; his retort is obvious: if the gospels lead to the conclusion just stated, the epistles cannot be allowed, however weighty, to establish a contrary one. Of course, Locke was called a ‘Socinian’; but the effect of his work remained, and we should remark that if it looked on the one hand toward the orthodox, on the other it looked toward the sceptics and freethinkers who began at that time a long and not ineffectual criticism of the miraculous claims of Christianity. Locke endeavoured to convince such minds that Christianity was in reality not an irrational code of doctrines, but a truly practical scheme of life. In this endeavour he was preceded by Richard Baxter, who had written on the ’Unreasonableness of Infidelity,’ and was followed during the eighteenth century by many who in the old Dissenting chapels were leading the way towards an overt Unitarianism.
III. THE OLD NONCONFORMISTS
The reader must be reminded here of a few salient facts in the religious history of the seventeenth century. All these undercurrents of heterodox thought, with but few and soon repressed public manifestations of its presence, were obscured by the massive movement in Church and State. During the Commonwealth the episcopal system was abolished, and a presbyterian system substituted, though with difficulty and at best imperfectly. After the Restoration of Charles II the Act of Uniformity re-established episcopacy in a form made of set purpose as unacceptable to the Puritans as possible. Thereupon arose the rivalry of Conformist and Nonconformist which has ever since existed in England. Severely repressive measures were tried, but failed to extinguish Nonconformity; it stood irreconcilable outside the establishment. There were distinct varieties in its ranks. The Presbyterians, once largely dominant, were gradually overtaken numerically by the Independents. Perhaps it is better to say that, in the circumstances of exclusion in which both were situated, and the impossibility