“The Piety of the English Deists”

This article was published in the June 2012 issue of the Intellectual History Review   (Volume 22, Issue 2, pages 181-197).   Click here to read a pdf of the article: pietyenglishdeismarrticle 

Here is the first paragraph of the article:      

Most scholars think that the English deists believed in a cold, distant deity uninvolved with his creation.  Gerald R. Cragg expressed the common view when he said the God of the English deists was abstract and remote; . . . Such a God stood entirely outside the drama of human history; he could not be connected with anything that happens on this insignificant planet.  He built the machine, and set it in motion, but the machine now runs its predetermined course in complete independence of its maker.[1] This paper challenges the current consensus about the religious views of the English deists and will argue that they had a pious and personal relationship with a deity who repeatedly intervened in human affairs.  My argument contributes to recent efforts that question whether the Enlightenment should be seen as an inevitable march towards secularization, in which the atheism of Parisian radicals like Baron d’Holbach and Diderot are taken as exemplary for defining the period.[2]  My thesis is in line with the findings of B. W. Young, Roy Porter, and others that the English Enlightenment was not secular.[3]  While most other scholars who situate the English deists in a more pious Enlightenment see them as an outgrowth of Anglican rationalism,[4] I agree with Justin Champion that the early deists were heavily influenced by the piety of the classical thinkers, especially Cicero and the Stoics.[5] 


[1] Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason: 1648-1789 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962), 237.
[2] A good review of the literature is Jonathan Sheehan, ‘Enlightenment, Religion, and the Enigma of Secularization: A Review Essay,’ The American Historical Review 108 (Oct 2003), 1061-1080.
[3] B. W. Young, Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century England: Theological Debate from Locke to Burke (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1998), 3, 14-15; Roy Porter, ‘The Enlightenment in England’ in The Enlightenment in National Context, eds. Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 5-6.
[4] James O’Higgins, Anthony Collins: The Man and His Works (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 43-50; Robert Sullivan, John Toland and the Deist Controversy: A Study in Adaptions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 272-6.
[5] 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.

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