John Toland (Seán Eoghain of the books) – the Inishowen founder of western Pantheism

This week marks the 352nd anniversary of the birth of John Toland, the Inishowen-born philosopher who was a founding father of western Deism and Pantheism.

Toland – also known as Seán Ó Tuathaláin and Seán Eoghain na leabhar (John of the Books) – was born at Ardagh, Ballyliffin, at the foot of Binnion on November 30, 1670.

His most famous book Christianity not Mysterious is a seminal text of deist theology – the view God can only be known and understood through rational thought.

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Seán converted to Protestantism when he was in his teens and was educated at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leiden and Oxford.

A portrait of John Toland.

He suffered the dubious honour of having Christianity – published in 1696 – burned on the streets of Dublin.

The book’s frontispiece proclaimed that it was a ‘treatise shewing that there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to reason, nor above it, and that no Christian doctrine can be properly called a mystery’. In its preface Toland states that ‘a wise and good man...knows no difference between Popish Infallibility and being olig’d blindly to acquiesce in the Decision of fallible Protestants’.

This was not popular in Dublin where Toland was suspected of being a closet Jesuit.

A preface to a 1997 reprint of Christianity edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison and Richard Kearney, notes: “When he put his name to the second edition he was forced to leave Ireland on pain of arrest, with his book being burned by the common hangman on the order of the Irish House of Commons.”

Ballyliffin, where John Toland was born.
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The Inishowen-man is one of the founding fathers of western Pantheism – the idea proposed by Baruch Spinoza that God is in everything and that God is the natural world.

One can imagine how proto-pantheist notions might have developed in Seán Óg’s formative mind as he clambered up Binnion as a youth and took in otherworldly views of Tullagh, Dunaff, Urris and Fanad to the west and Pollan, Doagh and Malin to the north and east.

At any rate, he is said to have been the first person to have used the term ‘pantheist’ in English.

The frontispiece of 'Christianity not mysterious'.
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David Berman, in ‘The Irish Freethinker’, an essay accompanying the 1997 edition of Christianity, notes: “In Socrinianism Truly Stated, a pamphlet printed in 1705, Toland signs himself ‘a Pantheist’ (the first recorded use of the term – at least in English).”

In Pantheisticon (1720), written in Latin and translated into English (1751), Toland openly professes pantheism, according to Berman.

Ann Talbot, in an essay published last year, describes Toland as ‘A Man of Inishowen and Citizen of the World’.

She points out how Pierre des Maizeaux, Toland’s first biographer, confirmed he was born on November 30, 1670.

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Talbot writes: “Toland claimed that he was christened Janus Junius. Janus after the two-headed Roman god and Junius in honour of Lucius Junius Brutus founder of the Roman Republic. Later historians have suggested that Seán Eoghain was a more likely baptismal name.”

Des Maizeaux claimed a schoolmaster changed Toland’s name to John because the other boys made fun of him, writes Talbot, but rejected a claim that he was the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest.

According to Talbot his French biographer gave credence to the testimony of a community of Irish Franciscan friars in Prague.

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“Toland, they wrote, was descended from an ancient and noble family recorded in Irish history over many centuries. The friars were part of the diaspora of Irish aristocrats that followed the English conquest and settlement of Ireland in the previous century. Toland did not become part of that diaspora.

"He took the alternative route and wholeheartedly embraced the new regime. At the age of 15, he rejected Catholicism and became a Protestant.

"If this was an opportunistic conversion it was ill-timed. In 1685 an openly Catholic king James II had just succeeded to the throne.

"Toland’s conversion to Protestantism made him all the more suspect once his radical views became known.”

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Alan Harrison, in another essay published alongside the 1997 edition of Christianity, explains how Toland would have had knowledge of a Gaelic bardic tradition that had survived down almost until the time of his birth.

"Toland was born in a remote part of Ireland, the Inishowen Peninsula, at a time when the country would have been 90 per cent or more Irish-speaking. In the History of the Druids, which was published in 1726, he asserted that he had a special advantage in understanding the origins and rituals of the druids because he was raised in a part of the country where he had not only spoken the language from childhood, but also had managed to learn to read the older forms of it,” notes Harrison.

Remember that nearly two centuries after Toland’s birth John O'Donovan, while conducting his Ordnance Survey, wrote that ‘Clonmany is the most Irish parish I have yet visited; the men, only who go to markets and fairs, speak a little English, the women and children speak Irish only’.

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The influence of Seán Eoghain, who died 300 years ago this year, has extended far beyond his native shore, as Talbot states:

“Toland signed his last book Janus Junius Eoganesius Cosmopoli that is to say Janus Junius a man of Inishowen, Citizen of the World. There is nothing inherently unlikely about the claim that Toland was born in Gaelic-speaking Inishowen.

“A peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, cut off from the mainland by the River Foyle, Inish Eoghain, the island of Owen is a region pockmarked with ancient stone circles, hill forts, burial mounds, and the relics of early Christianity. Irish paganism and Christianity were a ruling passion with Toland. He attempted to place them at the centre of European and even global culture.”