Introduction to Deism

These writings are by Dr. Joseph Waligore who has published three articles on deism

The Enlightenment deists are thought to have believed in a cold, distant deity who was uninvolved with the world.  One scholar, Gerald Cragg, called the deist deity “abstract and remote” because their God built the world machine and then left it totally alone.  Cragg said their God “built the machine, and set it in motion, but the machine now runs its predetermined course in complete independence of its maker.”[i]  Because the deist deity transcended the world, many scholars say their deity supposedly could not have been an object of devotion or love.  A nineteenth century scholar, Leslie Stephen, said the deist “metaphysical deity was too cold and abstract a conception to excite much zeal in his worshippers.”[ii]  One contemporary scholar went even further, saying their God was “psychologically distressing.”  This scholar, Kerry Walters, said “such an abstract deity might meet the religious and emotional needs of a disembodied intellect, but it is scarcely sufficient for most flesh-and-blood humans, who long for and require a more personal relationship with the divine.”[iii]

While almost all scholars continually assert that the God of the Enlightenment deists was a remote, uninvolved, watchmaker God that generated no love or warmth in people, none of these assertions are true.   A majority of the deists thought God or the angels performed miracles; many of them prayed fervently to a God they adored; some even went into raptures of ecstasy at God’s wonderful benevolence.  Some of them believed God or the angels protected people from danger by putting thoughts into people’s minds warning them of danger.  Many believed the devil might perform miracles, and so any possible revelation backed by miracles had to be examined to be sure it was not done by the devil.   A significant number of them viewed themselves as sincere Christians who spent their lives explaining where and why orthodox Christianity had strayed from Jesus’ simple message.   A few were more interesting or featherbrained (depending on your perspective): one believed an angel had given him the key to interpreting prophecy, another said he received a sign from God to publish his first book, and another believed in reincarnation.  Enlightenment deism was not modern secularism, or even a halfway house to it; the deists were preaching a religious alternative to orthodox Christianity that they hoped the world would embrace.  Their piety and theology has been neglected, but it is due to our misunderstanding of it and not their theology’s lack of interest or influence on our culture’s intellectual history.

The Enlightenment deists often stated their belief in an active God concerned and involved with people and the world, but almost no one is aware of this.  Instead scholars mistakenly say they had a remote, cold God.  There seem to be four main reasons we misunderstand their deity: the first is the misleading, secular-sounding way they often wrote; the second is how they were misrepresented by their contemporary Christian opponents; the third is that a vast number of modern scholars have a vested interest in seeing them as modern secularists; and the fourth is that many people believe they were insincere when they made pious statements.

The first reason the deists are misunderstood is that many deists make statements that sound like modern secularism, and unless their works are read carefully, it is easy to miss later qualifications that clearly change the meaning of the secular-sounding statement.  For example, one deist, the eighteenth century English physician Thomas Morgan, said quite emphatically that God never broke immutable natural laws by performing miracles.  If you did not continue to read the same book carefully, it would be easy to miss his assertion twenty pages later that angels performed miracles without breaking any natural laws.  He even went on to say that these angels influenced everyone’s thoughts through planting motives and ideas in our minds.[iv]  Morgan was not unusual among the deists in believing in angels, or in believing divine beings put thoughts in our minds.  A significant number (if not the majority) of Enlightenment deists believed not only that angels existed, but that the angels also had an important role in one’s thoughts.[v]  A surprising number also believed divine beings put thoughts in our minds.  The pattern of making a secular-sounding assertion that is later quite significantly qualified to clearly become a non-secular statement is a pattern that happens very frequently with the Enlightenment deists.  This pattern means that we have to be very careful in taking any secular-sounding statement as the final word about what a deist believes.

The second reason is that their contemporary orthodox Christian opponents were successful in framing how deism was understood.  The deists were presenting an alternative way of being religious to traditional, Christian orthodoxy.  Or, as the scholar Justin Champion says, they were attempting to dissolve the common assumption of the religious establishment that “Christianity hegemonized the value of the word ‘religion.’”[vi] But the orthodox Christians framed the debate as a person is either orthodox Christian or irreligious.  While the deists were very pious, the simple framework of “they attacked Christianity, so they must be irreligious,” still determined how they were perceived.

The third reason the deists are misunderstood is that the deists were major figures in the Enlightenment, and many modern scholars have a vested interest in  potraying both deism and the Enlightenment as far more secular and irreligious than they actually were.  The Enlightenment is often considered the beginning of modernity, or modern secularism, which is thought to have little or no place for God or the supernatural.  It is commonly claimed that modernity is based on people using reason to create their own values without reference to God.  Those who like this secularism often want to see the Enlightenment thinkers and the deists as their forerunners, and thus they want to see deism as similar to modern secularism.  So Peter Gay, who wrote an influential book championing the Enlightenment as secular, said that deism was part of “a critical transition” in which humanity stopped being religious and said “the secular Enlightenment . . .  is the deists’ rightful heir.”[vii]  On the other hand, those who disapprove of what they consider the values of modernity and the Enlightenment also do not approve of deism.  The locus classicus for the attack on these values was Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s book Dialectic of Enlightenment.   Horkheimer and Adorno said the Enlightenment thinkers reduced everything in a totalitarian way to what could be computed and what was useful.  They said “for the Enlightenment, whatever does not conform to the rule of computation and utility is suspect. . . .  Enlightenment is totalitarian.”[viii]  As deism was often seen as the religion of the Enlightenment, it too was seen in a negative way.  Charles Taylor, a well-known philosopher with influential writings on the history of secularism, gives Enlightenment deism a crucial role in the rise of modern secularism.  Taylor says that Enlightenment deism was a crucial part of the “anthropocentric shift” to “exclusive humanism” which led to “an ‘economistic’ view” of Providence in which God put no demands on humans besides our doing well in this world.  God did not care if we loved and worshipped him or recognized our dependence on him; all this “fades in the spiritual climate I’m calling ‘Deist’.”[ix]  Both those who celebrate the secularity of the Enlightenment, and those who see it in a more problematical way, have a motive to see the Enlightenment and deism as secular and modern.  It tremendously complicates all of these scholars’ views of the rise of the modern world if the Enlightenment deists were pious thinkers.

The fourth reason is that some of their contemporaries, and some modern scholars, do not believe the deists’ pious statements were meant seriously.  These people think the deists were just pretending to be pious in order to attack Christianity without being jailed for blasphemy or losing their social status.  Many of their Christian contemporaries, and some modern scholars, even think the deists were actually atheists.  Nowadays David Berman is the most influential advocate of the charge that some of the important deists were atheists.  Berman argues that to avoid persecution, they engaged in “theological lying,” and if we read the deists correctly, we realize they were using coded words and phrases to signal that they were actually atheists.[x]

Chapter two is devoted to demonstrating the Enlightenment deists were not modern secularists by showing many of them believed in miracles, revelation, divine inspiration, and angels.  But if a reader thinks the deists were lying about their beliefs, quoting the deists’ works serves no purpose and the main thesis of my book will be unconvincing.  So it is necessary to spend some time now dealing with the concern that many deists dissimulated to avoid persecution.

Scholars have shown that many thinkers dissimulated during the early modern age in order to avoid persecution.[i]  Certainly some deists might sometimes dissimulate to protect themselves (and one even admitted to it),[ii] but Berman’s arguments that many English deists were actually atheists are unconvincing.  To begin with, he often bases his arguments on extremely unreliable gossip the deists’ Christian opponents supposedly heard about them.  One of his pieces of evidence, that the English deist Anthony Collins was an atheist, was that one Christian adversary said he heard a friend say that he had a friend who heard Collins say he was an atheist.[iii]  Second, according to Berman, the English deist Matthew Tindal was actually an atheist.[iv]  But if he was really an atheist, how do we explain Tindal going into ecstatic rapture about God’s great love and care for us?  Tindal said that

from the Considerations of these Perfections [of God’s] we cannot but have the highest Veneration, nay, the greatest Adoration and Love for this supreme Being . . . These Reflections . . . give us a wonderful and surprizing Sense of the divine goodness, fill us with Admiration, Transport and Extacy. . . .[and] Raptures of the highest Praise and Thanksgiving.[v]

This kind of adoring praise of God was common among Enlightenment deists; it is not common among atheists.  So why would Tindal say it if he was an atheist?

Third, Berman advances poor arguments for why the writings of individual deists reveal they are atheists.  For example, Anthony Collins said he believed in Christian mysteries such as the Trinity, even though they could not be understood by reason.  Berman said Collins had to be lying because “a deist, it is agreed, must minimally reject Christian mysteries.”[vi]  Berman is assuming that all deists “must” reject Christian mysteries instead of actually doing historical research to make sure this is true.  Many English deists accepted Christian mysteries, including Bolingbroke, Mandeville, Chubb, Woolston, Shaftesbury, and Dodwell.[vii]  For example, Bolingbroke said that once a revelation had been established by reason as divine, it was “impertinent” to question the aspects of the revelation our minds did not comprehend.[viii]

Finally, Berman declares that there is no way of explaining why the deists’ books were greeted with so much hostility other than the deists were signaling they believed God did not exist.[ix]  But there are many other reasons that better explain why most orthodox Christians were angry with the deists.  For example, many orthodox Christian theologians felt they were entitled to deference as ministers of the true word of God.  The deists did not give them this deference, and instead mercilessly mocked them as “hireling priests” who were perverting true Christianity.  This kind of personal attack would be much more likely to generate hostility from orthodox Christians than a few people subtly signaling they were atheists.  Especially as the ministers did not take atheists’ arguments seriously as they assumed the only reason a person fell into atheism was so he could engage in immoral actions without worrying about eternal damnation.  The deists were greeted with hostility not because they were atheists, but because they were questioning key religious beliefs of the day, or even worse, showing that one treasured belief did not fit with another treasured belief.

Berman’s main point that many deists were actually atheists can only gain traction in a person’s mind if she assumes the deists had a watchmaker deity, and thus the deists were already almost atheists or modern secularists.  Chapter two will demonstrate that the deists in general did not believe in this kind of absent deity.  Thus there is no good reason to follow Berman and have a hermeneutic of suspicion towards all of the pious statements by the deists.

This book focuses on the deists’ piety and theology.  It highlights their view of God, particularly the deists’ view of the nature of God’s relationship with people.   The thesis of this book is that the Enlightenment deists were very pious thinkers and much of their worldview was shaped by the fact they thought God had to treat us fairly, lovingly, and kindly.  But before discussing this thesis, in a book about Enlightenment deism, the meaning of two words needs to be made clear:  the “Enlightenment” and “deism.”

Many scholars used to say the Enlightenment period started in 1687 when Isaac Newton published the Principia Mathematica, his book on gravity.  But starting the Enlightenment with Newton tremendously inflates the importance of that work, and overemphasizes the Enlightenment being a purely intellectual movement focused on applying reason and science to worldly matters.   Rather than marking the beginning of the period with one intellectual achievement, contemporary scholars now mostly start the period with something more pervasive, something that touched everyone’s daily life in a more meaningful way.  The scholarly consensus now sees the Enlightenment as a response to the religious wars between various groups of Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[x]  These religious wars ravaged Europe for a century as one religious sect or another tried to force their religion onto their heretical enemies.  These wars included the Spanish Armada attacking England, the English Civil War, and the Thirty Years War in Central Europe.  In the middle of the seventeenth century, after a century of fighting, the Catholics and the Protestants came to the realization that no side was likely to win, and they mostly decided to tolerate each other.  Thus the Enlightenment can be seen as starting around 1650 when these religious wars were ending, although there were glimmerings of the Enlightenment way of thinking earlier in the first half of the seventeenth century.

There are various possible ending times for the Enlightenment, such as the French Revolution, the end of the eighteenth century, or a little later in the nineteenth century.  This book, however, is just concerned with Enlightenment deism, and it experienced a significant decrease in cultural importance around the end of the eighteenth century.   The barbaric Terror of the French Revolution in 1794 is one significant cause of its demise because deism and allied ways of thinking were often blamed for the Terror.  Another significant cause of its decline was the death of Thomas Paine, the last well-known deist writer, in 1809.  (Thomas Jefferson lived till 1826, but he did not publish his thoughts on religion.) Deism continued on after the end of the eighteenth century, but it no longer had the cultural influence it once had.  So for the purposes of a book on deism, the Enlightenment started around 1650 with peace between various groups of Christian factions, and Enlightenment deism ended around 1800 when deism’s cultural influence significantly decreased.

The word deist comes from deus, the Latin word for God.  So deists are “Godists,” or people who believe in God.  (The Greek word for God is theos and so theists are the Greek version of “Godists.”)  Deism did not start in the Enlightenment period.  Many of the important philosophical sects of the ancient Greeks and Romans were deists.  The Enlightenment deists borrowed many ideas and concepts from these groups, especially from the Stoics, the Platonists, and the Epicureans.  The Enlightenment deists did not see deism as a Western phenomenon.  In fact, many Enlightenment deists praised Chinese society as being founded on deist principles viewing Confucianism as a rational religion based on morality.  So Voltaire said that because Confucianism did not have superstitious elements in it, “never was the adoration of God so pure and holy as at China.”[xi]

There were two main kinds of deists in the Enlightenment period: those whose writings were focused on natural religion and those whose writings were focused on Christianity.  It is important to realize that the natural religion deists could either be hostile to Christianity or friendly to it.  The natural religion deists hostile to Christianity saw it as a conglomeration of fables made up by power hungry priests.  The natural religion deists friendly to Christianity saw it as a republication of natural religion or a supplement to it.  Those friendly to Christianity could even go to church and consider themselves Christian.  But I put them in the natural religion category if their writings were focused on natural religion, not Christianity.  On the other hand, the writings of the Christian focused deists were centered on how orthodox Christianity had been perverted from Jesus’ real message.   The Christian-focused deists wanted to restore what they saw as pure Christianity, and their writings were centered on this task.  These deists did not agree when or how Christianity lost Jesus’ original message, but each individual deist pointed to a specific time and reason it had happened.  These deists had an unorthodox Christianity by the standards of their time, but they were seriously focused on Christianity, unlike the natural religion deists who might be Christians, but whose writings were not focused on it.


Natural Religion Deism

The first kind of deism to arise in the Enlightenment is natural religion deism.  It is easiest to understand if it is first contrasted to revealed religion.  A revealed religion is one revealed by the divine at a particular time and place to a particular person or to a group of people.  An example would be Jesus appearing in Palestine around the beginning of the Common Era, or the angel Gabriel revealing the Koran to Muhammad in the seventh century.  Natural religion does not involve the divine revealing himself or herself to a particular person or group of people; instead, it is made clear to everyone at all times in a natural way.  There were two different ways natural religion could be made clear to people.  Many deists said natural religion had been imprinted onto everyone’s mind or heart by God.  Other deists said every person could use her reason to observe the wonderful orderliness of nature, and then she must conclude there was a God.  Either way it was discovered, natural religion stressed loving God and treating your neighbor well; the other aspects of traditional religion, such as ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices, observances, or doctrines, were all extraneous.  God did not care about these extraneous matters; God only wanted us to be like him: spreading benevolence and kindness to other humans.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was interminable, savage fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants over which was the one, true religion.  During this time, some people concluded that neither Catholicism nor Protestantism was the ultimately correct religionThese people were very well educated in the classics of Greece and Rome, and were influenced by these classics’ non-Christian religious beliefs, especially Stoic and Platonic philosophy.[xii]  As later chapters will show, many Enlightenment deists were influenced by both Stoicism and Platonism’s emphasis on a direct connection with the divine.  Plato, in many dialogues such as the Symposium and Phaedrus, praised being filled with the divine spirit, and the goal of his philosophy is to become aware of the divine and be influenced by it.[xiii]  For the Stoics, our reason was a portion of God’s reason in a human body.[xiv] Stoicism also emphasized that God providentially cared for us through inspiration, prophecies, omens, and dreams.[xv]   If we carefully study the Enlightenment deists who emphasized natural religion, we can realize that rather than marching towards modern secularism, most of them were looking back at classical thought and its deism.

Lord Herbert of Cherbury was the first important deist of the Enlightenment era and an excellent example of a natural religion deist.  In the beginning decades of the seventeenth century, Herbert was a soldier and the English ambassador to France for several years.  In his book, De Veritate, or On Truth, he said he searched through many philosophy books and religious traditions, but he did not find truth.  He then prayed to God to help him find it.  He said, “I sought no other hold but that of God.  To this I turned, and with sincere faith, with prayer, and with all the powers at my disposal by which I could invoke His Grace and Special Providence I besought His saving help.”[xvi]  He felt led by God to see that the essence of every religion was five basic truths God had imprinted on everyone’s mind.  He called these basic truths the common notions, a concept he borrowed from classical Stoic philosophy.  He said all religions had as their common essence these five common notions, and this universality showed that these notions were true.  The first common notion was that there is a Supreme God.  The second was this God should be worshipped.  The third was that virtue is the most important part of religious practice.  If we sin, the fourth says, then we should sincerely repent.  The last common notion was that there was an afterlife where the good were rewarded and the evil were punished.[xvii]  These common notions were the true Catholic church, and only through them was salvation possible.  He said, “this Church alone reveals the Divine Universal Providence, or the Wisdom of Nature.”[xviii]

As was discussed earlier, there were two kinds of natural religion deists: those who were hostile to Christianity and those who were not.  Herbert was one of the natural religion deists who respected Christianity.  Herbert said of the Bible, “Why should we not humbly believe it to be inspired throughout, and accept it as the work of God?”  He said Scripture was a “surer source of consolation and support” than anything else, and by reading it “the whole inner man” was brought to life.[xix]  Two more examples of natural religion deists who had a very positive attitude towards Christianity were the English writer Shaftesbury and the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Shaftesbury’s writings emphasized natural religion and were deeply influenced by the philosophy of the Stoics and the Platonists.  But far from vilifying or castigating Christianity, he said deism and Christian revelation coexisted.  In fact, he said he would not want to be called a deist if the word meant someone who was against revelation.[xx]  He also said the vulgar needed miracles to know the Christian revelation was true, but the wise could tell it was true by its excellent moral doctrine.  He said, “the very test and proof of the Divineness and truth of that [Christian] revelation is from the Excellence of the Things revealed.”[xxi]  Rousseau stressed that our conscience and reason tell us the essential religious truths.  But he also said “I am a Christian, a sincere Christian . . . not as a disciple of Priests, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ.”  He said he was “firmly convinced of the essential truths of Christianity, which are the foundation of all good morality, I endeavour to nourish my heart with the spirit of the Gospel.”[xxii]  There were many other deists who primarily emphasized natural religion, but also praised and loved Christianity or expressed no animus towards it.

Herbert, Shaftesbury, and Rousseau represented only one kind of natural religion deist; many other natural religion deists despised Christianity.  Thomas Paine, a leader in the fight for liberty in both the American and French Revolutions, was an excellent example of a natural religion deist who despised Christianity.  Paine blasted the Bible for being full of immoral fables and teaching “rapine, cruelty, and murder.”[xxiii]  He even went so far as to say the Bible was so full of wickedness that “it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God.  It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my part, I sincerely detest it.”[xxiv]  Paine believed God had revealed himself in the wonderfulness of Creation, saying, “The creation is the Bible of the Deist.  He there reads, in the handwriting of the Creator himself, the certainty of His existence and the immutability of His power, and all other Bibles and Testaments are to him forgeries.”[xxv]

Paine knew that many people believed he was irreligious, but he was explicit that his attacks on Christianity were part of a “sincere and religious belief” and not one of “infidelity.”[xxvi]  He went further, saying he wrote his book The Age of Reason to stop France from falling into atheism because the book “inculcates this reverential fear and love of the deity.”[xxvii]  He also said the reason why he wrote all his religious works was to inspire in people “a spirit of trust, confidence, and consolation in his Creator.”[xxviii]

Paine’s combination of anti-Christian tirades with a piety towards God was the norm among natural religion deists who disliked Christianity.  These deists, though, were not attacking Christianity to become modern secularists.  They were advocating a religious path different from established Christianity, but a religious path nonetheless.  Our culture has not followed their alternative religious way, but it is foolish to be so naïve as to think people were either religious in the Christian-approved way or totally anti-religious.  Christians of that time period wanted people to believe those were the only two choices, but hopefully we are now too sophisticated to fall for this false dilemma.


Christian-focused deism

Nowadays, when most people think of deism, they think of natural religion deism.  But during the Enlightenment, the Christian-focused deists were equally important and influential.  The Christian-focused deists were not irreligious thinkers poking holes in Christian orthodoxy for the sport of it.  The most important of them were serious Protestants who saw themselves as dedicated to restoring Christianity to its original simplicity.  Their arguments and concerns were situated in the Protestantism of their day, and to understand them a person needs to understand that Protestant milieu.  They saw themselves as following the principles of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, as well as the principles of the seventeenth century Protestant movement variously called Arminianism or reasonable religion.

Many of the arguments of the Christian-focused deists were consciously based on three central principles of the Protestant Reformation: sola scriptura or only Scripture, each individual’s right to interpret Scripture based on his own conscience, and stamping out clerical corruption.

One central principle of Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers was that the Catholic Church had perverted the true teachings of the Bible by adding many false doctrines, practices, and observances.  In response to these additions, the Protestants’ guiding call was sola scriptura, or basing Christianity only on Scripture.  While the Reformers had abolished many non-biblical practices, such as the adoration of the mother of Jesus and selling indulgences, many Christian-focused deists said the Reformers had not gone far enough.  These deists often said the early Church Fathers were corrupt and had added things to the Bible that true Protestants needed to reject. Many deists said that in the fourth century, Christians had extremely bitter conflicts over the nature of Jesus.  One clergyman, Arius, said Jesus was not divine in the same way God the Father was.  Arius had many followers among the clergy, but his view (Arianism) was declared heretical and many of his followers were persecuted.  Many deists said Jesus’ simple message was perverted by the mysterious, metaphysical principle of the Trinity.  The deists said the corrupt Catholic priests added these abstract doctrines because they increased their own status and power.  Other deists said the Church Fathers, who were highly educated in Greek philosophy, had earlier added other elements of Greek philosophy to the simple teachings of Jesus.

The second Protestant principle many deists followed was the right of each individual to use his own judgment in interpreting the Bible.  The Catholics said many parts of the Bible were hard to understand and only the learned Catholic hierarchy could understand them.  The Catholic hierarchy also forced everyone else to agree with their interpretation.  The Protestant Reformers thought that individuals did not need learned people to explain the Bible as any individual with a pure heart could understand it through the Holy Spirit’s help.

Many deists said the Protestant clergy had fallen into the same pattern of believing their interpretation was the one, true reading of the Bible.  Instead of letting each individual decide for himself what the Bible said, many deists said the Protestant clergy had allied with the secular powers to force people to accept their interpretation.   If someone interpreted the Bible in a way the Protestant clergy did not approve of, the clergy called them blasphemers and persecuted them.  The deists said this behavior was exactly like the behavior of the authoritarian Catholic priests.

The third Protestant principle many deists followed was the curbing of clerical corruption.  Martin Luther started the Reformation over the sale of indulgences, which was a way for the priests to raise money to increase the grandeur of Rome.  But after the Reformation, the Protestant churches had become state churches, and the ministers were paid by the government.  If the ministers taught doctrines the government wanted them to teach, the government would reward them with much better-paying and prestigious positions.  In this way, many deists said the Protestant clergy had become “hireling priests,” doing a job for money.  The hireling priests were not ministering to others out of the love of Christ, as had the early Christian ministers.  Instead, many deists said the Protestant clergy had been corrupted by the quest for money and status just as the Catholic priests had been corrupted by it.

Concern for all three of these Protestant principles is illustrated in the attacks on Protestant orthodoxy by the English deists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.   Trenchard and Gordon together wrote political and religious tracts in the 1720s.  The political tracts, called Cato’s Letters, were in many more American private libraries than John Locke’s works,[i] and they were probably more influential than Locke in laying the philosophical groundwork of the American Revolution.  The religious tracts were published as the Independent Whig and were also extremely influential.  Trenchard and Gordon said mankind was lost in the darkness caused by Original Sin until God revealed himself in Jesus.[ii]  The message of Jesus was extremely simple: it consisted of the morality of natural religion and just one other thing, the need “to believe that Jesus Christ was the only Son of God.”[iii]  Believing in Jesus was easy and reasonable “since our Saviour proved his Mission and Omnipotence, by Miracles that were undeniable and convincing.”[iv]  The Gospel quickly gained thousands of followers because its early teachers were not concerned about personal advantage or money, and they did not desire any authority over other people’s hearts and minds. [v]

Trenchard and Gordon said that priests corrupted the simplicity of Jesus’ message when they established the Nicene Creed and other important orthodox doctrines at Church Councils in the fourth century.  Unlike a more reverential view, which said the participants in the Councils were inspired by God, Trenchard and Gordon said the Councils were dominated by ambitious and power hungry priests.  Trenchard and Gordon said the creeds and doctrines were decided on by a vote, and the priests “who were most aspiring, factious, or crafty” made sure their side won the most votes.  So these orthodox creeds and doctrines were not inspired by God, but “were the Result of Revenge, Pride, or Avarice.”[vi]  The priests banished the meek and merciful spirit of Christianity, and by declaring some people heretics and persecuting them, they “perverted Religion into Rage, and Zeal into Cruelty.  They made the peaceable Doctrine of Jesus a Doctrine of Blood.”[vii]

Trenchard and Gordon said the Protestant Reformation leaders did not really believe in sola scriptura as they had not thrown out these perverted creeds and doctrines.  They also said the Reformers did not believe in real reform of clerical corruption; instead, the Reformers allowed the clergy to still have the power to force other people to agree with their interpretation of Scripture and to profit monetarily through preaching Christianity.[viii]  Trenchard and Gordon saw themselves as continuing the Protestant Reformation by endeavoring “to restore Christianity to its Primitive Innocence, and Native Simplicity.”[ix]  Unsurprisingly the clergy did not appreciate their endeavors.  Instead Trenchard and Gordon said they were attacked by the orthodox, saying, “we are pursued with hard Names and Curses.  Doubting is Infidelity, and Reason is Atheism.”[x]

Trenchard and Gordon are good examples of how Christian-centered deism  which saw itself as arising from three important principles of the Protestant Reformation.  Another movement within early modern Protestantism, which started as Arminianism and then developed more fully into what its adherents called reasonable religion, influenced many other deist arguments.  Reasonable religion is not as well known as the Protestant Reformation, but it is probably just as influential in forming the modern world.  Responding to developments internal to Protestant theology, and also to worldly events such as the rise of science, the beginning of reasonable religion first appeared in the Netherlands as a response to John Calvin’s belief in strict predestination.  The Swiss theologian John Calvin said the Bible taught that some people were predestined to hell by God before the beginning of time, and this predestination was not due to anything a person did or was going to do.  Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian, and his followers softened this harsh and unfair-sounding view; the Arminians said human actions played a part in our salvation and no one was predestined to hell.   The Arminians soon developed other views that were more reasonable than strict Calvinism.

In mid-seventeenth century England, the Puritans, who were followers of Calvin’s theology and who wanted a pure religious nation, helped plunge England into a Civil War.   In this Civil War, many prophets arose who claimed to be directly inspired by God.  These people were called religious enthusiasts and often disrupted society.  In response to the Puritans and the religious enthusiasts, the Arminian-influenced English theologians extolled Christianity as a reasonable religion.   These English theologians were called the Latitudinarians because they gave latitude to people to have a wide range of religious views.  The Latitudinarians said Christianity was a reasonable religion that could withstand critical examination because there were arguments (from Jesus’ miracles and fulfillment of Jewish prophecy) which any reasonable person would find convincing.   Part of harmonizing Christianity with reason was asserting that natural religion, the religion which humans could arrive at just with the use of their reason, was not contrary to Christianity but in harmony with it.   Christianity was the fulfillment of natural religion and based on it, and thus reason and revelation were in harmony.[xi]

The idea of a reasonable religion spread to other countries besides England.  David Sorkin in his book The Religious Enlightenment shows that these religious thinkers were major figures in the Enlightenment, and they saw themselves allied in spreading rationality with all but the most radical anti-religious thinkers of the time.[xii]  Sorkin says that what used to be seen as the norm for the period, the irreligious French Enlightenment of Voltaire and Diderot, was actually anomalous and was only due to conditions in France.[xiii]

One of the most important goals of reasonable religion was showing that belief in Jesus and Christianity was reasonable because it was backed up by reasonable arguments.  Many English theologians argued that Jesus’ miracles were totally clear and convincing proof that Jesus was God because only God, or someone sent by him, could do such great miracles.  Edward Stillingfleet, one of the leaders of the Latitudinarians, said the only reason someone would not believe Jesus was God after the apostles’ “infallible Testimony” to Jesus’ many great miracles[xiv] was because she was “peevish, wilful, obstinate, malicious.”[xv]

The English theologians advocating reasonable religion were not obscure thinkers; they were among the most prominent and established English theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  From a modern perspective they seem naïve in thinking Christian revelation and reason were always totally harmonious with reason, and thus reason would always support the Christian worldviewFrom a modern perspective they were also, in effect, issuing a challenge, daring anyone to show that reason and aspects of the Christian revelation were not harmonious; the deists were the boldest ones who dared to show that many aspects of the Christian revelation did not fit so comfortably with reason, or at least with the way deists understood reason.

The question of whether or not the Christian revelation was proven by miracles was the most important battleground in the larger war over whether reason was harmonious with all aspects of the orthodox understanding of the Christian revelation.   The deist most infamous or celebrated for saying critical reason and the orthodox interpretation of the Christian revelation were not harmonious was the English deist Thomas Woolston.  Woolston was not a modern secularist trying to destroy religion and replace it with secularism; he said God called him to attack false Christianity (with its literal interpretation of the Bible) in order to restore true Christianity (with its allegorical and symbolic interpretation of the Bible).  In chapter four, I show how deeply committed Woolston was to Christianity, or at least his interpretation of it.  Woolston used critical reason to attack the biblical accounts of Jesus’ miracles, saying they were “full of Absurditys, Improbabilities and Incredibilitys.”[xvi]  Woolston had two main attacks on Jesus’ miracles: first, if one carefully examined the circumstances surrounding the miracles, it becomes very clear there was insufficient evidence to prove Jesus had ever actually done any miracles; and second, Jesus could not have done some miracles ascribed to him because they were immoral.

The first type of attacks were based on using reason to examine the circumstances surrounding a miracle and then show how these circumstances did not conclusively reveal an actual miracle had taken place.  For example, Woolston said the circumstances around Jesus healing many lame people in the Bible were not described in detail: there was no account of the nature of the lameness, its degree, or if a doctor could have cured it.  Woolston said if these miracles were meant to be a convincing argument for Jesus’ divinity, then the illness would have been described in detail, and it would have been made clear that a doctor could not have cured the lameness.  He said it would have been even better if Jesus had made someone with a missing leg grow back the missing leg, then “here would have been stupendous Miracles indeed, which no Skepticism, nor Infidelity itself could have cavill’d at.”[xvii]  But Woolston said there was no such clear and obvious miracle recorded about Jesus.  Instead, all his miracles were so “blindly, and lamely, and imperfectly reported . . . they may be dwindled away, and reduced to no Wonders.”[xviii]

Woolston’s second line of attack was saying that Jesus could not have done some miracles ascribed to him because they were immoral actions.  Woolston said it was not moral for a fig tree to be cursed by Jesus for not bearing fruit out of season; nor was it moral for Jesus to cast demons into two hundred pigs causing them to run over a cliff to their deaths.  Not only were the innocent pigs hurt, so also were their innocent owners.  As these actions were not moral, Jesus could not have done them.  Woolston said of the swine story, “It is commonly said of our Saviour, and I believe it, that his Life was entirely innocent, that his Miracles were all useful and beneficial to Mankind, and that he did no Wrong to any one.  But how can this be rightfully said of him, if this Story be literally true?”[xix]  Woolston said these immoral aspects of the biblical accounts “are enough to turn our Stomachs against such a Prophet; and enough to make us take him for Conjurer, a Sorcerer, and a Wizard.”[xx]  He also said that if these stories were told of Muhammed, Muhammed would have been seen as “nothing less than a Wizard, an Enchanter, a Dealer with familiar Spirits, a sworn Slave to the Devil.”[xxi]  Woolston said that if Jesus, instead of cursing a fig tree, had made a dead and withered tree immediately revive and bring forth fruit, “Such an Instance of his Power had been an indisputable Miracle” as it would have goodness in it.[xxii]

Many people have not believed Woolston’s assertions that if the circumstances of a miracle were sufficient and it was moral, he would have believed in the miracle.  But in many of Woolston’s later books he clearly states that Jesus performed miracles; however, not the ones ascribed to him in the Bible or anywhere else in recorded history.  Woolston developed his own idiosyncratic view of what miracles Jesus performed.  He started with the assumption that God was completely good and wise and so would always accomplish things in the wisest way.  Woolston then deduced Jesus performed miracles in the presence of Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, not in the obscure province of Palestine.  In this way Christianity would have been able to quickly spread as the Emperor could support it instead of suppressing it.[xxiii]  Woolston actually believed in more miracles than some orthodox Christians: he thought the Roman Empire was used by Providence to spread Christianity, and God protected the Empire through miracles as long as the Empire served this purpose.[xxiv]

The Christian-focused deists have to be understood in terms of the principles of both the Protestant Reformation and the later Protestant movement of reasonable religion, which saw reason and revelation as harmonious.  They legitimately saw themselves as continuing the spirit of these movements.   However, they were willing to push these principles much farther than orthodox thinkers were willing to do.  Thus many of them strayed past the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy and incurred the hostility of their more orthodox contemporaries.


Outline of the book

This first chapter has introduced some of the most basic points about Enlightenment deism.  It has shown that there were two main kinds of deism: one centered on natural religion and one focused on Christianity.  Despite what many people now believe, only some of the deists despised Christianity; most of them had a positive regard for it.

The second chapter will show that the traditional view of the deist God as remote, cold, and uninvolved with our daily lives is wrong.  Through a close reading of deists’ books and pamphlets, it will show that many of the Enlightenment deists believed in a God who performed miracles.  A significant number also believed the Christian revelation was a real, divine revelation.  Many deists fervently prayed to God and some even wrote rapturous odes to him.  A significant number thought God or angels planted ideas in our minds to guide us.  Thus the usual way of distinguishing deists from other religious people by saying the deists had a watchmaker God is inaccurate.

The third chapter will discuss the major distinguishing characteristics of the deists.  It will discuss the major positions most deists had in common, which Enlightenment figures could be considered deists, and the deists’ relationship to other unorthodox religious groups of the time.

The  fourth chapter focuses on how and why orthodox Christianity had strayed from Jesus’ teachings according to Christian-centered deists.  Each individual deist had an analysis of when, how, and why Christianity had been perverted.  Many thought the problem was in the fourth century when mysterious doctrines were established and dissenters were killed and persecuted.  Some thought the problem was Greek metaphysical doctrines being added to the simple message of Jesus.  A few located the problem much earlier and said the early apostles, such as Paul or Peter, did not properly understand Jesus’ message and added unreasonable doctrines like predestination to Jesus’ teachings.  The fourth chapter will discuss the most interesting analyses about why orthodox Christianity strayed from Jesus’ true teachings.

The last chapter will discuss why deism declined around the end of the eighteenth century.  It will discuss such causes as the rise of materialistic science, the barbarism of the French Revolution, and the rise of popular religious groups like the Methodists whose ministers were not paid by the government.

[i] Leonard W Levy, foreword, in David L. Jacobson, ed., The English Libertarian Heritage: From the Writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in the Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merril Company, Inc., 1965), xvii.

[ii] Trenchard and Gordon, The independent Whig (London, 1721) 59-61.  Number IX.  March 16, 1720. NEW CHECKED

[iii] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 62-3.  Number IX.  March 16, 1720.  See also Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 431-2.  Number LIII.  January 4, 1720.  ALL new checked.

[iv] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 63.  Number IX.  March 16, 1720.  All new checked.

[v] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 10. Number II.  January 27, 1720.  ALL new Checked

[vi] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 40. Number VI.  February 24, 1720.  AllNEW CHECKED

[vii] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 11.  Number II.  January 27, 1720. ALL NEW CHECKED

[viii] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 85-86.  Number XII.  April 6, 1720.  See also 132-5, Number XVIII.  May 18, 1720. ALL NEW CHECKED

[ix] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 51.  Number VIII.  March 9, 1720.  ALL NEW CHECKED

[x] Trenchard and Gordon, Independent Whig, 133.  Number XVIII.  May 18, 1720. ALL NEW CHECKED

[xi] Gerard Reedy, The Bible and Reason: Anglicans and Scripture in Late Seventeenth-Century England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985); Frederick C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 84-133.

[xii] David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 3-17.  checked

[xiii] Sorkin, Religious Enlightenment, 10.  checked

[xiv] Edward Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae (London, 1709), 146, 151.  CARRIED OVER

[xv] Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, 157.   CARRIED OVER

[xvi] Thomas Woolston, A Discourse on the Miracles of Our Saviour, 2nd ed. (London, 1727), 4.

[xvii] Woolston, Discourse Miracles, 5.  This is the Second Discourse on Miracles and the second page 5 in the book.

[xviii] Woolston, Discourse Miracles, 5.  This is the Second Discourse on Miracles and the second page 5 in the book.

[xix] Woolston, Discourse Miracles, 34.  This is the first page 34 in the book. NEW CHECKED

[xx] Woolston, Discourse Miracles, 15.   Carried over

[xxi] Woolston, Discourse Miracles, 38.  This is the first page 38 in the book.  NEW CHECKED

[xxii] Woolston, Discourse Miracles, 10.  This is the Third Discourse and the third page 10 in the book.

[xxiii] Thomas Woolston, The Old Apology for the Truth of the Christian Religion (London, 1705), 3-7, 27-30, 34-6.

[xxiv] Woolston, Old Apology, 32-3, 317-324.

[i] Perez Zagorin, Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution, and Conformity in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 14.

[ii] John Toland, Clidophorus, in Tetradymus (London, 1720), 68.

[iii] David Berman, “Anthony Collins and the Question of Atheism in the Early Part of the Eighteenth-Century,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 75, 1975, 85-102, 89.

[iv] Berman, ‘Deism, Immortality,’ 77.

[v] Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation (London, 1730), 15.  There is another 1730 edition with different pagination. This copy has 442 pages.

[vi] Berman, ‘Deism, Immortality,’ 61.

[vii] Bernard Mandeville, Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness (London: 1720), 67; Thomas Chubb,  A collection of tracts on various subjects, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London: 1754), 1:257-60;  Thomas Woolston, The exact fitness of time (London, 1722), 1-3, 25-6; Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3 vols. (London, 1711), 3:315; Henry Dodwell, Christianity not Founded on Argument (London: 1741),  69-70, 83-5.

[viii] Bolingbroke, Philosophical Works, 5 vols. (London, 1754), 2:371, 346.

[ix] David Berman, Berkeley and Irish Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2005), 164.   See also J. A. Leo Lemay in the introduction to Lemay, Deism, Masonry, 11.

[x] J. G. A. Pocock, “Enthusiasm: The Antiself of Enlightenment,” in Enthusiasm and Enlightenment in Europe, 1650-1850, ed. Lawrence E. Klein and Anthony J. La Vopa (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1998), 7-9.

[xi] Voltaire, The Ignorant Philosopher, XLI “Of Confucius.”

[xii] Justin Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and its Enemies, 1660-1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 184-194, 210-212.

[xiii] Plato, Phaedrus, 244a-250e; Symposium, 206c-212b.

[xiv] Epictetus, The Discourses, 2.8.

[xv] Cicero, De Divinatione, I. xxvii-xxxiii, I. xxxviii-xxix, I. vi-vii, II.xiv-xvii; De Natura Deorum, II.lxv-lxvi, II.ii-iii.

[xvi] Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, 3rd ed., trans. Meyrick H. Carre (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1937), 77.

[xvii] Herbert, De Veritate, 291-300.

[xviii] Herbert, De Veritate, 303.

[xix] Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, 3rd ed., trans. Meyrick H. Carre (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1937), 316.  CHECKED

[xx] Shaftesbury, Characteristicks, 3 vols. (London, 1711), 2:209.NEW CHECKED

[xxi] Shaftesbury, Ten Letters Written by . . .  3rd ed. (London, 1746), 35.  This is letter VI, Feb. 8, 1709.

[xxii] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, An expostulatory letter . . . Beaumont (London, 1758), 12.  This is the second page 12 in the book. All new checked

[xxiii] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974), 183.  This is part 2, chapter 3.  All new checked.

[xxiv] Paine, Age Reason, 60. This is part 1, under subject heading “Examination of the Old Testament.”  All new checked.

[xxv] Paine, Age Reason, 185. This is part 2, chapter 3.  All new checked.

[xxvi] Thomas Paine, Letter to Mr. Erskine, in The Great Works of Thomas Paine (New York: D. M. Bennett, n. d.), 253.  This is the second page numbered 253 in this book

[xxvii] Thomas Paine, Letter to Samuel Adams, in Paine, Great Works, 304, 306.

[xxviii] Thomas Paine, “An Examination of the Passages . . . Prophecies, in Paine, Great Works, 157.  This is the second page numbered 157 in this book.


[i] Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason: 1648-1789 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962), 237.

[ii] Sir Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (New York: Peter Smith, 1902), 1:169.

[iii] Kerry Walters, Rational Infidels: The American Deists (Durango, Colorado: Longwood Academic, 1992), 287.






[iv] Morgan’s belief in angelic miracles and angels influencing our thoughts, along with another deist’s similar belief, is discussed in chapter two.

[v] Joseph Waligore, “The Importance of Angels and the Devil to the English Deists,” submitted to the Journal of British Studies, July 10, 2011.


[vi] Justin Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and its Enemies, 1660-1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 10.


[vii] Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, Inc., 1968), 10.

[viii] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1991), 6.  NEW CHECKED

[ix] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 221-2. NEW checked.

[x] David Berman, ‘Deism, Immortality, and the Art of Theological Lying,’ in Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment: Essays Honoring Alfred Own Aldridge, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 61-78.

2 Responses to Introduction to Deism

  1. Nicholas Deates says:

    well done. beautifully written,informative. loved it. cant wait for more.


  2. Paul Frederick, the Writer says:

    As a modern, warm Deist I appreciate the elucidation on natural religion. These caused me to publish a book that has stood the test of time since 2007. I only add that we don’t obviate God’s easy capability in reaching everyone as His special onus.


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