Locke Studies has just released a new article in vol 19, Jacob Donald Chatterjee’s “Between Hobbes and Locke: John Humfrey, Nonconformity, and Restoration Theories of Political Obligation”.

Chatterjee is exploring the details behind the toleration debates during the Restoration period. He believes that our understanding of the Hobbesian influence on the debate, and also our understanding of the development of Locke’s thought, is flawed because it overlooks the role that nonconformists’ arguments for toleration impacted the reception of Hobbist ideas during the 1660s and 70s. Chatterjee seeks to recover the dynamic nature of the reactions to Hobbes’s ideas as Samuel Parker presented them in A Discourse on Ecclesiastical Politie (1670). John Humfrey is Chatterjee’s focus because Humfrey’s works, he argues, “are the best examples of nonconformist adaptation to Parker’s arguments” (3), better than the frequently studied works of John Owen and Robert Ferguson.

Samuel Parker had welded a rationalist conception of the reason and the natural law onto a Hobbesian framework for the authority of the magistrate, which forced defenders of conscience into the position of undermining the magistrate’s authority on the basis of their subjective whims and passions. It was easy to see how that combination would lead directly to chaos and strife, which would require the magistrate to intervene on the basis of keeping the peace. What Parker’s argument required of defenders of toleration was a “theoretical justification for how an expansive sphere of conscience could operate without undermining the authority of the magistrate” (14).

It was Humfrey, according to Chatterjee, who moved to provide such a theoretical justification, and Humfrey’s central insight was to develop “a view of natural law that centered around obligation deriving from the direct will of God” (13). Contrary to the long-standing, scholastic conception of reason as intrinsically morally obligating, Humfrey argued that the precepts of reason required the support of a superior to be morally obliging to someone. But not just any superior would do—the support had to come from the will of God alone (17). This undercut Parker’s appeal to the natural law by entailing that the magistrate’s authority is not morally binding. And this in turn “justified Humfrey’s distinction between subjection and obedience and allowed him to present an alternative system for the workings of conscience” (18). People are subjected to human authority and have a divinely sanctioned obligation not to resist such subjection, but such subjection is not binding in conscience; only the commands of the divine will are so binding.

Defenders of Parker were quick, however, to point out the obvious problem with Humfrey’s account of conscience—how could individuals know whether a precept was divinely willed?In Chatterjee’s presentation, it was Locke who stepped forward to resolve the fundamental problem with Humfrey’s account of conscience. Chatterjee notes several similarities between Humfrey’s works and Locke’s 1667 Essay concerning Toleration (25-26), which he uses to explain why Locke developed the account of toleration that he did. Chatterjee argues that the ideological shifts Locke made in order to block Parker’s move equating nonconformity with rebellion. Locke began by identifying religious persecution as a cause of rebellion and started moving toward a more voluntaristic conception of the natural law that supported an individualistic ecclesiology (27-28), like Humfrey’s. This precipitated the epistemological move that our moral duties were knowable with mathematical certainty, which Locke was developing in the early drafts of the Essay concerning Human Understanding.

What this shows, claims Chatterjee, is that the idea that the Restoration debates about toleration were muddled and unfocused is wrong and that recovering the epistemological trajectory of those debates helps to bring Locke’s development of his own account of toleration into clearer focus (29).

You can read and download Chatterjee’s paper here. Locke Studies is still looking for more submissions for the 2019 volume. Please consult our Author Guidelines and submit your original research for publication here.