ENGLISH 9111A ~ Religious Toleration: the Philosophical and Cultural History of an Idea

Professor Alison Conway

Fall Half Course.

Religious toleration was central to Enlightenment debates, and this course will trace the evolution of English ideas on the subject. We will begin with Milton’s engagement with humanist and Puritan understandings of toleration in Areopagetica before turning to John Locke’s influential Letter Concerning Toleration. We will then move forward through Shaftesbury’s Letter Concerning Enthusiasm and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to the middle of the eighteenth century, when questions of toleration expanded to include more general concerns regarding difference and the limits of sympathy. Developments in the colonies presented authors such as Frances Brooke with new opportunities to consider the question of nation and faiths. The Gordon Riots of 1780 revealed the persistence of English anti-Catholic xenophobia, even as novels such as Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker demonstrated an easing of tensions between Methodism and Anglican orthodoxy. We will consider the disjunction between the skeptical toleration that emerged in the work of Hume and the Dissenting discourse advanced by Joseph Priestley before concluding with Maria Edgeworth’s 1817 novel, Harrington—a novel that returns us both to the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 and the Gordon Riots.

Alongside our reading in eighteenth-century philosophy and literature, we will read recent considerations of toleration and its limits.

View the course syllabus here: English 9111A.