He knew immediately that he’d struck historical gold—a completely unknown manuscript in John Locke’s own hand entitled Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others.
It was a unique find; in the world of Locke scholarship, there is a fairly definitive online bibliography of more than 8,000 of the philosopher’s works, from books and treatises to notes and letters. The Reasons for tolerateing Papists manuscript was not among them.
“It was amazing because it was obviously a Locke manuscript. There was no mistake about that. St. John’s was in possession of a very rare item even by the standards of major U.S. libraries,” he recalls. “And the content was really, really interesting.”
According to Walmsley and Waldmann, this was the first major discovery of new work by Locke in a generation. While there are occasionally unseen letters or signed documents found, something this “substantial in content” is incredibly rare—particularly because it represented a previously unknown perspective held by Locke.
The manuscript essentially consists of two lists: the first, a set of reasons for tolerating Catholics, which at the time simply meant not actively persecuting the group, and the second a list of reasons not to (which is his much wider-known opinion).
According to Walmsley, the manuscript is directly connected to Locke’s Essay concerning Toleration, and, he says “was most likely its immediate antecedent and inspiration.”
“The early drafts of the Essay read like successively more elaborate treatments of questions raised in the Reasons, and parts of the Reasons re-appear in later drafts of the Essay. The Essay was Locke’s first mature formulation of the views that would be immensely important,” Walmsley adds. “When repeated in the Letters on Toleration, these arguments would indelibly inform Western liberal thinking in general and the U.S. Constitution in particular.”
“Today we would call it brainstorming,” says Cole Simmons (A09), a St. John’s alumnus and lecturer at Baylor University who wrote his PhD dissertation on Locke and toleration. “Everyone kind of has down that Locke doesn’t and isn’t willing to tolerate Catholics, so the surprising thing is that he entertained tolerating Catholics for some time. ...