An examination of John Locke's A letter concerning toleration



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John Locke, English philosopher of the 17th century, devoted considerable effort to the discussion of religious matters. This paper focuses on the specific matter of toleration. Locke is commonly assumed to be the most articulate champion of toleration in religious matters. However, this contention is not supported in A Letter Concerning Toleration. By more carefully reading the text of the letter, it can be shown that while Locke appears to guard the individual's right to his own way of salvation, his proposal actually has the effect of reducing the individual's liberty in matters of religion, and increasing the magistrate's powers of supervision over these matters. This conclusion urges us to inquire further as to what type of society Locke is advocating. It is not impossible that Locke's desire for toleration and his support of 'absolute liberty' are less confined to religious matters, and more directed to economic ones, upon which he bases his foundation of society.