The English Deists

Peter Annet (1693-1769) was a schoolmaster who lost his job because of his harsh attacks on the writings of English theologians.  When he was sixty, he was jailed and made to do hard labor for his attacks on Moses.  By his unorthodox definition of Christianity, which identified Christ with reason, he was a Christian deist.  A good introduction to his ideas is the beginning nineteen pages of Deism Fairly Stated (London, 1746).  

Charles Blount (1654-1693) had a wealthy father who was an unorthodox thinker.  Charles Blount committed suicide after his wife died because he desired to marry her sister, an action that was considered immoral as well as being illegal. He was a natural religion deist who was not hostile to Christianity. The best introduction to his ideas is “A Summary Account of the Deists [sic] Religion” which is pages 88-91 of The Miscellaneous Works of Charles Blount (London, 1695).  This is available through Early English Books Online.   Another good introduction is pages 47-73 of Religio Laici Written in a Letter to John Dryden (London, 1683).

Bolingbroke, or Henry St John, (1678-1751) was a wealthy politician.  He was a leader of the conservative Tories and went into exile for supporting the Jacobite rebellion against George I.  He was a Christian-centered deist with a profound interest in natural religion.  A good introduction to his ideas is “A Letter to Mr. Pope,” in A Letter to Sir William Windham (London, 1753).  The letter starts at page 425 of the Google online book version.

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was a poet best known for the Rowley series of poems which he forged and passed off as medieval poems.  He often suffered from gloomy melancholy and killed himself when he was seventeen.  He was a natural religion deist.  The best statement of his ideas is the poem “The Defence” which is on page 439 of the 1842 edition of his Poetical Works.

Thomas Chubb (1679-1747) came from a working class background and was a glovers’ apprentice and a candle maker when he was younger.  Because of the quality of his pamphlets, he was helped financially by Sir Joseph Jekyll. He was a Christian deist.  A good introduction to his ideas is   A Discourse of Miracles (London, 1742).

Anthony Collins (1676-1729) was a wealthy country squire and a local governmental official.  He was influenced by John Locke and continental thinkers. He was a Christian-centered deist. An introduction to his ideas is Section 1, pages 5-18,  of A Discourse of Free-Thinking.

Thomas Gordon (d. 1750) was a writer whose patron and co-writer was John Trenchard.  His political works were very influential among the American colonists.  He was a Christian-centered deist. The best introduction to his ideas is the essay “In what only true religion consists” in the Independent Whig  (pages 454-468).  This essay has different dates and numbers assigned to it in different editions of the book.  It is usually thought to have been written in January of 1721 and given numbered as essay LIII or LIV.

Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) fought in European wars and was English ambassador to the French court.  He was the first English deist.  His ideas were influenced by Stoicism and he was a natural religion deist sympathetic to Christianity.  The best introduction to his ideas is chapter nine, “Common Notions Concerning Religion” in De Veritate or On Truth.  It is not available online.

Jacob Ilive (1705-1763) was a printer who was jailed for blasphemy.  In his early works, he defended Christianity, but in his final theological work he took the position of a natural religion deist.  The best introduction to his final thoughts is p. 49-65 of Modest Remarks on the Bishop of London’s Several Discourses (London, 1755) which he published under the name of “Philotheos.” (It is available only through Eighteenth Century Collections Online.)

Conyers Middleton (1683-1750) was a professor at Cambridge University who caused a major controversy in the late 1740s over when Christian miracles ceased.  He was a Christian-centered deist. The best introduction to his ideas is the beginning twenty pages in “A Letter to Dr. Waterland” in The miscellaneous works of the late reverend and learned Conyers Middleton, vol. 2.  The letter starts on page 181.

Thomas Morgan (d. 1743) was an independent minister who was dismissed for his unorthodox ideas.  He then became a doctor to support himself.  He described himself as a Christian deist.  A good introduction to his ideas is the lasting 35 pages (pages 416-450) of his most important book, The Moral Philosopher.

Shaftesbury (1671-1713) was an earl who was involved with politics but had to withdraw to private life for health reasons.  He was tutored by John Locke, but his works were deeply influenced by Stoicism and Platonism.  He was a natural religion deist who was sympathetic to Christianity.  The best introduction to his ideas is section 3 (pages 256-280) of “The Moralists” in vol. 2 of his book Characteristicks.  

Matthew Tindal (1653?-1733) was a fellow at Oxford University who converted to Catholicism for a short period. He was a natural religion deist who was sympathetic to Christianity. The classic statement of his ideas is Christianity as Old as the Creation.  The first three chapters (pages 1-35) give a good summary of his views.

John Toland (1670-1722) was one of the best-known freethinkers of his day.  He made his living as a writer and edited volumes of classic English political writers.  He was a Christian-centered deist.  A good introduction to his ideas is the preface (pages iii-xxxi) to Christianity not Mysterious.

John Trenchard (1662-1723) was a lawyer and in Ireland a commissioner of forfeited estates.  He often wrote in partnership with Thomas Gordon.  His political writings were very influential amongst the American colonists. He was a Christian-centered deist. The best introduction to his ideas is the essay “In what only true religion consists” in the Independent Whig  (pages 454-468).  This essay has different dates and numbers assigned to it in different editions of the book.  It is usually thought to have been written in January of 1721 and given numbered as essay LIII or LIV.

John Wilkes  (1727-1797) was a radical  member of parliament who was later elected lord mayor of London. The best introduction to his Christian-centered deism is in chapter four (pages 131-174), a chapter on Wilkes’ religious views with much material from his unpublished letters,  written by John Sainsbury, John Wilkes: The Lives of a Libertine (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006).
David Williams  (1738-1816) founded the Royal Literary Fund.  He was a minister until he lost his job on account of his unorthodox ideas.  He was a natural religion deist sympathetic to Christianity.  The best introduction to his ideas is An apology for professing the religion of nature (London, 1789). (It is available only through Eighteenth Century Collections Online).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s