Rise of Deism

August 8, 2021

Look back to the early history of philosophy and see thinkers like Aristotle. Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived 384-322 BCE. Aristotle was a student of Plato and the tutor of Alexander the Great. He believed God was the ultimate being that exists as an awareness that contemplates Its own awareness.

According to Aristotle, God is an uncaused cause. There are four ways Aristotle thought God could express cause in the world: - the material cause, that out of which an object is made; - the formal cause, which is the idea, plan, or theory of the object; - the efficient cause or agent by which an object is made (for instance the painter of a portrait); and - the final cause, the purpose for which the object is made.

In his book The Physics, Aristotle also advanced a form of the teleological argument, saying, "Whatever exists for a useful purpose must be the work of an intelligence." In the same work, Aristotle also argues that motion is eternal, but there cannot be an infinite series of movers and of things moved and that, therefore, there must be one, the first in the series, which is unmoved, and that was God. Although not a Deist himself, Aristotle is important because his ideas influenced later religious philosophers such as St. Anselm of Canterbury and St. Thomas Aquinas whose own arguments were accepted by Deists like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen.

In the latter half of the 1600s (the 17th century), a number of Anglican ministers and other writers began to question Trinitarian doctrines that appeared to be contrary to nature and reason. These writings continued through the 1700s, and the name "deism" was given to the views expressed by these writers.

Deism was not an organized religious movement. It was an effort by individual writers to reform Christian theology by ridding the church of certain doctrines that were inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. Deists also rejected the concept of "supernatural revelation."

Deists opposed the doctrines of original sin, the divinity of Jesus, and substitutionary atonement through the death of Jesus. Deists also rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of "predestination" that claimed that individuals are either "saved" or "lost" (condemned to "hell") before they are born. This gloomy doctrine made God appear to be a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

In contrast to Trinitarian doctrines, the English deists wrote that (1) the existence of a Creator (God) is known through nature and reasoning, (2) individuals should worship (honor) God by virtuous behavior (love for others), (3) individuals are accountable for their behavior, and (4) repentance is the means for obtaining God's forgiveness for wrong-doing.

The writings of the English deists occurred mostly in the 1600s and 1700s. Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648) was an early proponent of natural and universal religion based on human reason.

Charles Blount (1654-1693) wrote a book called Religio Laici ("Layman's Religion") in 1683 based on Edward Herbert's book De Religione Laici ("A Layman's Religion") which was published in 1645. Blount also published a book entitled, Oracles of Reason, in 1693, containing an article "A Summary Account of the Deists Religion," the earliest known published statement of deist beliefs. Blount rejected the doctrines of the "Trinity of God" and "substitutionary atonement" through the death of Jesus. Blount questioned the stories of "miracles" in the Bible, and he believed that much of traditional Christianity had been invented by priests and other religious leaders.

The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) wrote On the Reasonableness of Christianity in 1695. Locke was not a deist and viewed Jesus as the "messiah" or "Son of God" whom God sent to confirm the truths that could be known through human reasoning. Locke did not deny the idea of "supernatural revelation," but he believed that any alleged revelation had to be reasonable. Locke was also willing to accept some church doctrines that were "mysteries," or beyond human comprehension, if such doctrines were not contrary to reason. Locke considered himself an Anglican Christian, but he admitted that human reason could discover the same truths that were taught by Jesus. Locke wrote this book in an effort to support what Locke considered to be "orthodox" Christianity, in opposition to deism, but his book unintentionally gave support to deist beliefs and led Trinitarian clergy to accuse Locke of being an Antitrinitarian.

John Toland (1670-1722) published Christianity Not Mysterious in 1696 (one year after Locke's book mentioned above) in which Toland wrote that any doctrine that was "mysterious," or beyond human comprehension, was not essential in Christianity. Toland believed that God would not expect anyone to believe something that was beyond human comprehension or that was contrary to reason. The Trinitarian clergy recognized that Toland was questioning the doctrine of the "Trinity of God." Toland's book was burned in Ireland, and the Church of England brought charges against Toland.

Thomas Woolston (1669-1733) was an Anglican minister who believed that the events recorded in the Old and New Testaments should not be taken literally and historically, but interpreted allegorically. These included the stories of the virgin birth and miracles of Jesus. Woolston was imprisoned for "blasphemy," which was considered a religious and civil offense.

Matthew Tindal (1657?-1733) was an Anglican lawyer and writer who wrote Christianity as Old as Creation in 1730. Tindal believed that God's revelation came through nature as understood through human reasoning. Tindal rejected the doctrine of "original sin." Tindal believed that God's truth cannot be limited to a particular place or time, as it is as old as creation.

Thomas Morgan (169?-1743) was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1717 and later became a medical doctor. He wrote The Moral Philosopher in 1737, in which he identified himself as a "Christian Deist." Morgan agreed with Matthew Tindal that Christianity is essentially a republication of truths found in "natural religion," which is known as "deism."

Henry St. John (1672-1751), also known as Viscount Bolingbroke, was a prominent politician who served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War at various times in the government of England. When his political party was out of power, St. John began studying philosophy and became a deist. He was personally acquainted with Voltaire, who had a high regard for St. John as a philosopher. St. John was also acquainted with the poet Alexander Pope, whose poetry was influenced by St. John's Deism. St. John's belief in the existence of God was based on "intelligent design" seen in nature. He wrote, "When we contemplate the works of God… they give us very clear and determined ideas of wisdom and power, which we call infinite…"

Thomas Chubb (1679-1747) was a humble candle-maker and brilliant writer. His writings brought him to the attention of some Unitarians with whom he associated in London for a few years, but he later returned home to his life as a candle-maker and writer. In 1739, he published The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted. Chubb considered himself to be a Christian Deist, and his writings brought Deism to ordinary people.

Peter Annet (1693-1769) was a schoolmaster and prolific writer. In Deism Fairly Stated, in 1744, Annet wrote that "Deism… is not other than the Religion essential to Man, the true, original religion of Reason and Nature; such as was believed and practiced by Socrates, and others of old…" Annet questioned the validity of miracles and held a very low opinion of the "apostle Paul." Annet also questioned the records of the "resurrection of Jesus." Annet was the editor/publisher of a periodical called Free Enquirer in which he questioned Old Testament history. For this he was imprisoned for one month and had to stand in pillory. Later, in his sixties, Annet was arrested again for "blasphemous libel" and was sentenced to one year of hard labor in prison. After his release, he returned to school teaching in a grammar school until his death.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a deist, emigrated from England to America in 1774 and became famous for his writings, which inspired Americans to seek independence from England. Paine was active in the American Revolutionary War, and his writings were credited by George Washington for rallying financial and moral support for the American Army when it appeared that America was losing the War for Independence. Paine wrote his deistic book, Age of Reason, in 1794, opposing both traditional Christianity and Atheism.

Religious and political conditions in England prepared the way for the development of deism in the 17th century. Anglican ministers and university professors were familiar with rationalism since the days of Richard Hooker (1554- 1600), an Anglican theologian. The English revolution of 1688 brought changes in civil government and eventually some freedom of the press. The Protestant Reformation gave rise to various Christian denominations in England.

The Protestant Reformation was not aimed at reforming Trinitarian theology. The deists undertook this task by trying to remove the doctrines that had been developed by the church after the time of Jesus. Deists saw themselves as carrying the Protestant Reformation to its logical conclusion by reforming the theology of the church.

In England, deism was never an organized movement. It existed in the writings of individuals who expressed their personal religious beliefs. Occasionally, there were private meetings of small groups for discussion. In France, during the French revolution, an effort was made to replace the Roman Catholic Church with a form of deism. The Catholic Church and the French monarchy were viewed as allies in suppressing the French people so the church and the monarchy were attacked simultaneously. During the revolution, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was renamed "The Temple of Reason." But the effort to replace the Catholic Church with the "Cult of the Supreme Being" did not succeed. French deism was too abstract to attract the devotion of the people.

In the United States, English deism did have some influence in the 18th and 19th centuries. English philosophy and religion came to the United States through books and personal communications between individuals in both countries.

Ethan Allen (1737-1788), a hero in the American Revolution, was the first well-known deist in America when it was under British rule. In 1762, Allen moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, where he became a deist after becoming acquainted with Dr. Thomas Young, a physician and deist, who lived just north of Salisbury in New York. Allen and Young began to write a book on deism, but Young moved to Albany, New York, in 1764 and took the manuscript with him. In 1781, Allen acquired the manuscript from Dr. Young's widow and completed the book, Reason: the Only Oracle of Man or a Compendious System of Natural Religion, in 1782. The book was not published until 1784 because Allen had difficulty in finding money for the printer. Since Allen claimed to have never read any writing by a deist, the deistic content of the book apparently came from Dr. Thomas Young.

Dr. Thomas Young (1731-1777) was a prominent physician who practiced medicine in western New York, Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Young was a patriot in the American independence movement and a leader in the "Boston Tea Party," one of the events that led to the start of the American Revolution. Young was a frequent writer of medical and political articles in newspapers and a magazine. His religious views were well-known, and his deistic creed was published as a letter in a newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, in 1772. This is the earliest published creed by an identifiable deist in America. Also, Young was apparently the primary author of a manuscript on which Ethan Allen based his book.

Deism is clearly present in the personal beliefs of Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826). When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he referred to "the laws of nature and nature's God." Although he was raised in the Episcopal Church and participated in the parish, Jefferson held deistic views. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, "I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general and particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, of consummate skill, indefinite power in every atom of composition…it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is…"a fabricator of all things." Jefferson believed that the teachings of Jesus had "been disfigured by the corruptions of schematizing followers," but he believed that Jesus taught "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man." Jefferson made his own "Bible" by extracting what he found to be valid in the life and teachings of Jesus. This "cut and paste" version is now called "The Jefferson Bible." It omits the "miracles" of Jesus and makes no reference to the "resurrection" of Jesus. To Jefferson, religion was a private matter. He wrote, "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between God and our consciences for which we are accountable to him, and not to priests."

Elihu Palmer (1764-1806), an ex-Presbyterian minister, was a deist who was active in preaching deism and organizing Deistical Societies in New York and Pennsylvania. He also edited and published deistic newspapers and wrote the Principles of Nature (1801) as follows:

  • The universe proclaims the existence of one supreme Deity, worthy of the adoration of intelligent beings.
  • Man is possessed of moral and intellectual faculties sufficient for improvement of nature, and the acquisition of happiness.
  • The religion of nature is the only universal religion; that it grows out of the moral relations of intelligent beings, and it stands connected with the progressive improvement and common welfare of the human race.
  • It is essential to the true interest of man, that he love truth and practice virtue.
  • Vice is everywhere ruinous and destructive to the happiness of the individual and of society.
  • A benevolent disposition, and beneficent actions, are fundamental duties of rational beings.
  • A religion mingled with persecution and malice cannot be of divine origin.
  • Education and science are essential to the happiness of man.
  • Civil and religious liberty is essential to his interests.

There can be no human authority to which man ought to be amenable for his religious opinions.

Science and truth, virtue and happiness, are the great objects to which the activity and energy of human faculties ought to be directed.

Elihu Palmer's statement of "Principles" would certainly gain approval from many intelligent and civilized individuals today, but the "Deistical Society of New York" thought it was a mistaken effort to organize "deism" apart from its Christian foundation in the teachings of Jesus.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was raised in the Calvinism of the Presbyterian Church but, as a youth working in his brother's print shop, he saw some anti-deist literature which had the opposite effect on Franklin. Franklin said that he briefly became a "thorough deist," but, at age 19, he adopted a materialistic philosophy. Franklin then returned to the Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia, but he ceased attending this church when Franklin was 22 years of age. Then Franklin wrote his own Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion returning to his deistic views of religion. Near the end of his life, Franklin wrote, "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion… " Franklin's deism is apparent in this statement, but there is no agreement among deists that the soul is immortal. Deists do agree that God's power to give life is not limited.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson kept their deism very private because both were prominent political leaders, and they wanted to avoid controversy over religion. Ethan Allen published his (and Dr. Thomas Young's) book, The Oracle of Reason, only after Young's death and shortly before Allen's death so this book had little or no influence on the deist movement in the United States at that time. Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer both opposed the irrationality of Trinitarian theology but failed to accept the English deists' view of Jesus as a teacher of the natural religion of deism. The deaths of Paine and Palmer ended their efforts to organize local non-Christian deistical societies.

Although deism began in Europe and had many champions there such as Montaigne, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu it began to decline after the French revolution when the despotic Maximilien Robespierre tried to impose deism by force and make what he called the "Cult of the Supreme Being" the state religion.

Belief in a rational God was further advanced in the writings of such great thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza with their rejection of supernaturalism in theology. They tended to think of God as logical and discoverable within the mathematical laws of nature itself.

These new deists based their belief in God on arguments like the cosmological argument or argument from "first cause" and the teleological or design argument. The most renowned of these philosophers being William Paley who presented his version of the design argument (called the Watchmaker Analogy) in the book Natural Theology published in 1802. Paley himself was a Christian but because he based his beliefs on reason, he is also considered a deist by some. Paley applied his watchmaker argument to life itself saying if something as complicated as a watch implies a watchmaker how much more so does something as intricate as a living organism imply a designer? That argument was considered so powerful at the time it was thought by many to be irrefutable. But Charles Darwin did refute him with the publication of the book Origin of Species in which he showed how living things could evolve over time by the mechanism of natural selection. However a modern version of the design argument has been put forth by the physicists John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler in the book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, in which they argue that the physical parameters of the universe itself are so finely tuned it is as if the universe were designed for life.

The English philosopher David Hume cast doubt on the cosmological argument, which is based on the notion of cause and effect, because he held that we have no ability to perceive causes, though we are naturally compelled to believe in them. Instead he maintained that just because we always see "A" follow "B" there is not a basis to conclude "A" caused "B". All we can say is they seem to be associated. And if cause and effect were in doubt anything, including the existence of God was also in doubt. Besides if God required no cause there was no reason to conclude the universe did either. It is important to note here that Hume did not disprove cause and effect, but only called it into question. The ability of science to use cause and effect to predict the outcomes of certain situations is powerful evidence in its favor and for that reason almost all scholars still accept it.

Hume's ideas led some philosophers to speculate that perhaps the universe has always existed. If that were the case then there would be no need for a creator because there was no creation. However, the advent of Albert Einstein's relativity theory brought evidence that the universe did have a beginning in the form of the big bang, which has breathed new life into the cosmological argument.

Deism began to decline in America, the victim of attacks on two fronts. The first assault was perpetrated by fundamentalist theists (mostly Christian) who equated deism with atheism because of its rejection of divine revelation and because they were angered by the attacks on organized religion by Paine and others.

The other reason for deism's decline was the rise of science. The same type of free inquiry that led to the rise of deism now threatened to bring it down. Because scholars were able to explain so much without resorting to God, many began to question whether God was necessary at all. Instead they embraced materialism, which is the theory that physical matter is the only reality.

Unlike other religions that have weathered such storms, deism had no organization to hold it together. The very nature of deism as a freethinking philosophy precluded the establishment of any church, although many have attempted it. The closest thing to a "Church of Deism" is probably Unitarianism.

The first Unitarian churches were established in Transylvania and Poland (by the Socinians) in the second half of the 16th Century. Unlike the "Trinitarians" who believed in the "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" Unitarians believed in the unity of God and therefore rejected the idea of Jesus as God incarnate on Earth. Likewise, they were also skeptical of miracle stories and were thus naturally attractive to deists, especially in America.

In the 19th century Unitarianism became increasingly inclusive. Ministers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson were becoming more prominent. Most of these men held to a belief called "Transcendentalism." They believed in an ideal spiritual state that "transcends" the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition. Naturally, this conflicted with the deistic emphasis on reason so it began to fade in relation to Transcendentalist beliefs.

So the conclusion is that today's deism draws upon both its post-Reformation roots, and it relies on principles that came from natural theology, which existed long before anyone used the term "deist."

Works Cited

Champion Justin A.I., Popkin, R.H., ed. Deism, pp. 437-445. The Columbia History of Western Philosophy. 1998. (New York Royal Holloway College, University of London. http://eprints.rhul.ac.uk/143/ .)

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2 comments on “Rise of Deism”

  1. This is an absolutely brilliant article that gives a great rundown of Deism through time. Plenty to get you started and then you can delve into the areas of interest.

    A fantastic piece that is jam packed with information at a level we can all understand. Thank you for writing this Dave!

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