Sunday, 25 April 2010

Early Modern Hebraism as an Antecedent for Religious Toleration? Jeremy Taylor, John Locke, and Benjamin Franklin

Over forty years before Locke published his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Jeremy Taylor's A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying (1646) was a pioneering Protestant work on the subject of religious liberty. Interestingly, Taylor ends this treatise with a story he found in the 'Jews' books'; a story of Abraham being chastened by God for not being tolerant enough to an idolator! Below is Taylor's rendering of the story:

About a century later, Ben Franklin would paraphrase Taylor's story in order to argue in favour of religious toleration.

But from which of the 'Jews' books' did this story come? Surprisingly, from none; not the Talmud, Midrash, or any other mifarshim (commentators). Richard J. Newman, identifies the source of Taylor's story as Saadi's Bustan-a work which he has translated-in this post (header beginning with 'Benjamin Franklin').

But why did Taylor think that a medieval Persian poet was a 'Jewish doctor'? And what does a German Hebraist named Georg Gentze have to do with it? Stay tuned...


  1. Hi Naomi,

    Thanks for the link. I am curious to read what you find out about Gentze and why people think he might have been Taylor's source. My own understanding is that Taylor, they say, found Saadi's story--attributed to "Sadus" (without any further identification)--in an epistolary dedication to a book Gentz wrote or translated (don't remember which), the purpose of which was to convince the leaders of his town/village to be more tolerant of the Jews. I have somewhere in my notes titles and dates that I can't look up now. I will be curious to see how much what you find matches what I've found.

    Best of luck with your PhD!

  2. See "Abraham's Lesson in Tolerance" by George Alexander Kohut in JQR 15 pp 104-111, about Krochmal's Hebrew translation of Franklin, which you can read here in Moreh Nevuchei Ha-zeman under the title Mashal Mussari. Kohut also identified the source as Bustan; I don't want to take away your second part of the post, but he gives a plausible explanation of how it came to be regarded as from a Jewish source. :-)

  3. Thanks for the comments. Sorry about the moderation--i have been getting a lot of weird spam, lately. Kohut's article is actually the source for this post--i was going over my notes and i thought it would make a cool blog post. S--don't worry about giving it away! Totally fine! I am honoured that you read my post--i love your blog (as you can see from the sidebar). I'm going to post the article, as well. Richard, thanks very much, and i will also post some more info on Gentius, as well.

  4. I also have the article by Kohut, which is quite fascinating. What I've been having a hard time finding is what Franklin had to say about the plagiarism scandal, which apparently--from what I have been able to gather--caused him a not small headache, and which people were discussing long after his death.

  5. Likely you've seen his letter to Vaughan date November 2, 1789, but if not you can read it here (the relevant part is on pg. 53). As far as I can tell, this was his only reaction.