The American Deists

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        American Deists  Ethan Allen (1738-1789) was a Revolutionary War hero who captured the vital Fort Ticonderoga from the British.  He was a natural religion deist who was not very hostile to Christianity in his writings.  A good introduction to his ideas is chapter 1, sections 1-3 of Reason, the only oracle of man. Joel Barlow (1754-1812) was a well-known poet and important diplomat from America to Algiers and France.  Sometimes he was a natural religion deist who denigrated Christianity.  In his long pamphlet, Strictures on Bishop Watson’s “Apology for the Bible,” he defends Tom Paine and excoriates Christianity.   Other times, like in his letter to Henri Gregoire, he asserts he has never denigrated Christianity.   William Carver (1756-1840) was a New York surgeon who took care of Thomas Paine when Paine was old and ailing.   He was a natural religion deist.  He did not write much, but a letter of his can be found on p. 124-126 of Richard Carlile’s deist publication, The Republican, vol. 8.  James Cheetham (1772-1810) was an Irish hat maker who was a missionary for both republicanism and deism in Ireland.  He was arrested for treason and immigrated to America where he was a newspaper editor.  He was a member of the Theist Society. Denis Driscol (1762-1810) was born in Ireland to Catholic parents and studied for the priesthood.  He converted to the Anglican Church.  Later he became an Irish republican activist who immigrated to America where he was a newspaper editor.  He edited the deist periodical The Temple of Reason for a couple of years.  He was a Christian deist. Colonel John Fellows (1761-1844) was a Revolutionary War veteran and bookseller.  He was a personal friend of Thomas Paine, and aided Elihu Palmer in spreading deism.  He helped establish the Tom Paine birthday celebrations in America, which were important means of spreading deism.   We do not know much about his deist views. John Fitch (1744-1798) was an inventor of a steamboat in Philadelphia in the early 1790s.   During this time he organized a group promoting deism called “The Society of Deist Natural Philosophers.”  We do not know much about his deist ideas or the society but he discussed them on pages 120-124, 129-133, & 138-140 of his autobiography: The Autobiography of John Fitch, ed. Frank D. Prager (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1976). Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a printer, writer, inventor, philanthropist, and scientist.  He was the American ambassador to France in the Revolutionary War.  A good introduction to his ideas can be found in his “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion,”  Letter to Ezra Stiles of March 9, 1790, and “A New Version of the Lord’s Prayer.Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) gets much of the credit for writing the American Declaration of Independence.  He was the minister to France in the 1780s and was the third American president.  He studied many of the English deists and was influenced by their ideas.  He was a Christian-centered deist.  He wrote of his ideas in his letters to various people.  A good introduction to his ideas is his letters to his “adoptive son” William Short, written October 31, 1819 and April 13, 1820.      Natural Man was the pseudonym of the otherwise unknown author of  A Sermon on Natural Religion (Boston, 1771).  He was a natural religion deist and some scholars consider his short work as the first deist writing in America.  (The short work is available only through Eighteenth Century Collections Online.) Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was born in England to Quaker parents.  He moved to America and was instrumental in helping the Americans win the Revolutionary War.  He was imprisoned in the French Revolution before finally dying in America.  He was a natural religion deist who despised Christianity.   A good introduction to his ideas is the conclusion to part 2 of The Age of Reason.  Edmund Randolph was the governor of Virginia, the first Attorney General of the United States, and a Secretary of State.  In a letter to his children, he said he had been a deist for some years, until he was converted to Christianity by the example of his wife.  We do not have enough information to know what kind of deist he was.   Elihu Hubbard Smith (1771-1798) was a doctor and playwright who died young.  He was a natural religion deist.  He converted to deism because of what he saw as the immorality of the Bible.  A good introduction to his ideas is the Nov. 22, 1796 letter to Theodore Dwight, where he describes his mental odyssey from Christianity to deism.  (This is pages 258-264 of Elihu Hubbard Smith, The Diary of Elihu Hubbard Smith (1771-1798), ed. James E. Cronin (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society). Henry Voight (fl. Late 18th century) was a clockmaker and mechanic who helped John Fitch invent a steamboat in Philadelphia.  He was involved with Fitch in setting up a group promoting deism called “The Society of Deist Natural Philosophers.”  We do not know what kind of deist ideas he had.   The Society of Deist Natural Philosophers (also called the Universal Society) was set up in Philadelphia in the early 1790s by John Fitch and Henry Voight.  It lasted only a few years.  It had about thirty members, including Isaac Hough, Robert Scott, and Mr. Parrish.  It survived for three or four years.  John Fitch discussed the organization on pages 120-124, 129-133, & 138-140 of his autobiography: The Autobiography of John Fitch, ed. Frank D. Prager (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1976).

Theistical Society of New York or Theist Society was formed in 1802 and brought together some of New York’s most committed deists including Elihu Palmer, William Carver, and members of the politically active Clinton family.  Emigrants who joined the society included James Cheetham, John Binns, James Mitchell, and Denis Driscoll.  The group called themselves Theophilanthropists.

  Theophilanthropic Society organized by Philadephian deists at the end of the 1790s.  It was based on the Theophilanthropy ideas of the French Revolutionists.  It had enough members to think about organizing a school.  Another one started in Baltimore a few years later.

Elihu Palmer   Thomas Young   Comments on The  Founding Fathers George Washington was most likely a deist, but there is not enough information to be sure. James Madison was probably a deist, but there is not enough information to know. James Monroe might have been a deist, but there is not enough information. John Adams was influenced by deist writers when he was younger, but his beliefs are better characterized as Unitarianism. David Rittenhouse was more likely a dissenting Christian. Dewitt Clinton probably was a deist up until around 1800 as he was so closely involved with other prominent deists, but there is not enough information to be sure.

 

One Response to The American Deists

  1. Lewis Loflin says:

    I think Jefferson was more a Unitarian and was greatly influenced by Joseph Priestly. But it could go either way depending on what definition of deism one uses.

    Like

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