Early Modern Philosophy

John Locke

Why were Locke’s views on religion influential?

Locke advised that the temperament of the child should be observed so that “having once established your authority and the ascendant over him, the next thing must be to bend the crooks the other way if he have any in him.” But he counseled a light touch concerning physical discipline, which was an innovation, and he suggested that shame was a better tool than corporeal punishment.

Locke’s system for bringing up male children to become men of property and affairs involved an austere diet, trained bowels, hard beds, early rising, and plenty of exercise outdoors with bare heads and wet feet in all kinds of weather. The fondness of mothers and superstitions of servants were to be minimized. Locke assumed that self-discipline in childhood would result in strong adults. Locke thought children should be educated at home, by sober tutors, with an emphasis on learning languages. He had no use for poetry or abstract, speculative learning, but advised that astronomy, geography, anatomy, history, and geometry be part of the home curriculum. He also advised that a gentleman’s son acquire skill in at least one manual trade, such as painting, woodworking, gardening, or metalworking.

Locke held a common sense view of religion and advised toleration of competing sects within Protestantism. His toleration did not extend to Catholicism, however, although that did not diminish its force within the Protestant community. In The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) he allowed for the validity of revelation, but only insofar as it did not violate previously accepted facts or beliefs. He suggested that the Church of England could be reformed to attract dissenters by diminishing the power of its bishops, eliminating all mysteries, rituals, and superstitions in belief, and reducing its creed to simply an acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

In his Letter on Toleration (1689) Locke argued against religious persecution of all kinds or any laws that interfered with those religious practices that would be lawful if they were not specifically religious. Part of his argument was the pragmatic one that suppression of religious beliefs unnecessarily breeds rebellion. His overall endorsement of toleration, particularly on the part of government, was to have a later influence on the separation between church and state in the U.S. Constitution.


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