Divine Inspiration

The Deists’ Belief in Direct Divine Inspiration

Many English deists believed that God or the angels were so actively involved in our lives they directly inspired us and guided us through thoughts planted in our minds.  Seven of these deists thought these inspirations happened continually or frequently.

Charles Blount declared that God planted thoughts into our minds all the time.  In his book Religio Laici, Blount described how God guided our behavior by influencing our thoughts.  He told of a man who was traveling to London when God implanted the impression into his mind that the road was too dirty for him.  So the man left the road he was on and took another to London.  Under God’s guidance, the man then avoided some trouble on the first road or encountered some harm God meant for him on the second road.  Blount said, ‘here is God’s conduct of him, either to his Good or Harm, leading him by that Idea of avoiding Dirt. . . . For thus God doth ever manage us by the Temper of our Body, with his inoperating Spirit therein.’[1]

Blount generalized from this point, saying that God guided all our thoughts and actions in this way.  He said that God guided us by ‘such Idea’s as he thereby sets before our Fancies.  ‘Tis apparent that he does thereby lead and guide all our Thoughts, Words, and Actions.’[2]

William Wollaston thought divine beings frequently influenced us through direct impressions planted into our minds or through other kinds of suggestion.  He said that God or the angels could influence us ‘by means of secret and sometimes sudden influences on our minds,’ or by ‘suggestion, and impulse, or other silent communications of some spiritual being.’[3]  He said these direct influences caused a person to want to avoid a street where a building was about to fall or where a dangerous enemy was lying in wait for him.  Through such divine communications, God or the angels care for us without altering any laws of nature.  Wollaston thought these influences happened ‘so frequently’ that anyone who closely observed his thoughts and actions could observe them.[4]  He also thought that these divine influences had important consequences in world history: he cryptically suggested that God planted the idea into Hannibal’s mind to never directly attack Rome, and thus Hannibal lost his chance to destroy Rome.[5]

Thomas Morgan went even further than Wollaston in discussing the impact of angelic inspiration on human history.  Morgan said the angels often influenced world affairs by planting ideas in people’s minds.   Just as people can greatly influence each other, superior intelligence or angels ‘have the same power and influence over us’ to change our motives and thoughts.   Morgan thought these angels influenced people so much  ‘there is scarce any great Discovery made, any great Turn in a Man’s Sentiments, Thoughts, and Views, or any of the great momentous Changes and Revolutions of the World, and human Affairs’ that was not influenced by angels planting impressions in people’s minds.[6]

Morgan also thought people could take steps to receive divine inspiration.  To be receptive to inspirations, Morgan said a person must rein in his personal desires and abandon all concern for wealth, power, ambition, or physical gratifications.  By abandoning worldly desires, a person might then enter into what he called the ‘silent Solitude of his own Mind.’  This ‘silent Solitude’ opens the way for divine inspiration.

When a man does this, he converses with God, he derives Communication of Light and Knowledge from the eternal Father and Fountain of it; he receives Intelligence and Information from eternal Wisdom, and hears the clear intelligible Voice of his Maker and Former speaking to his silent, undisturb’d attentive Reason.[7]

 

Herbert of Cherbury agreed with Morgan that we could receive divine inspiration if we prepared ourselves for it.  To begin with, said Herbert, ‘we must employ prayers, vows, faith and every faculty which can be used to invoke’ the divine.  Then ‘the breath of the Divine Spirit must be immediately felt’ and the recommended course of action must be good.  When these conditions were met ‘and we feel the Divine guidance in our activities, we must recognise with reverence the good will of God.’[8]

Like Herbert and Morgan, Thomas Chubb thought people could take actions to cause God to give us inspirations.  Chubb said that ‘God does sometimes kindly interpose and by a supernatural operation bring . . . such motives to men’s minds are as necessary to excite to good actions.’[9] According to Chubb, God is not the only supernatural being that can plant thoughts into our mind: the devil can too.[10]  While the devil tempts us, Chubb said that if we make ‘most solemn addresses and applications to God’ in prayer, God will help us resist these temptations by presenting more positive motives to our minds.[11]

Throughout his writings, Thomas Gordon was motivated by the desire to restore Christianity to its original simplicity, as it was before priests corrupted it.  In one pamphlet, he praised the Quakers as the sect closest to original Christianity.  He said ‘that if the Providence of God had not raised them up, we should have no living Transcript of the pure, primitive, Christian religion left in the World.’[12]  The main reason he praised the Quakers was that they thought God was still actively inspiring people.   He said they did not

EXPLAIN AWAY the Spirit of God, by setting up Distinctions between the Spirit in the Apostles, and the Spirit of in a good Men at all Times; between Inspiration and Illumination; extraordinary Assistances of the Spirit, and common Assistances: Distinctions, which have no Foundation in the Bible or in Reason.[13]

So he thought both the Bible and reason showed that God still inspired people.

 

While the  deists already mentioned thought divine beings frequently inspired us or planted ideas in our minds, some other deists thought it happened much less frequently.

 

Matthew Tindal also affirmed the reality of direct revelation, at least with respect to biblical figures.  For example, he said Solomon was ‘inspir’d with Wisdom from Above, had Conferences with God himself.’[20]  Tindal, however, did not think this meant that we could now totally trust their inspirations because these inspirations were distorted by human passions.  Worst, it was possible that ‘evil Beings can impress Notions in Mens Minds’ in order to mislead inspired people.[21]  Thus, while Tindal believed some people received inspiration, he continually insisted that without natural religion, which carried its own marks of truth with it, there was no way to discern true inspirations from false ones.[22]

Conyers Middleton thought God inspired people during biblical times.[23]  While he ignited a considerable controversy when he said that miracles did not continue past the time of the apostles, he said that for at least fifty years after the death of the apostles, the Apostolic Fathers may have continued to receive divine impressions, visions, and extraordinary illuminations from God.  The important thing for him was that these divine interventions were only meant to comfort the person receiving them; they were not meant for the Church in general.[24]  Although he does not make his beliefs on this point clear, if Middleton thought these inspirations might have continued past the time of the apostles, he also might have thought they were still happening now to a small number of pious Christians.

John Trenchard believed that God in earlier times sometimes impressed thoughts into people’s minds and might still do it.   He said, ‘it is not to be denied but Almighty God has sometimes communicated himself to particular persons by secret impressions upon their senses and understandings, so I dare not affirm, that he may not and does not do so still.’[25]

Shaftesbury wrote a long ‘Letter on Enthusiasm’ in which he first defined enthusiasm as a mistaken feeling that one was divinely inspired.  But rather than ruling out inspiration, he said authentic revelations from God did occur; the challenge for people was to discern a divine inspiration from a false one.  ‘Nor can Divine Inspiration,’ he said, ‘by its outward Marks, be easily distinguished from it [enthusiasm].  For Inspiration is a real feeling of the Divine Presence, and Enthusiasm a false one.’[26]  To see if we have been inspired by God or not, we need to ‘judge the spirits’ by taking stock of ourselves to see that we are of sound sense, sedate and cool, and free of biasing passions and vapors.[27]

Bolingbroke had a twenty-page discussion of divine inspiration in which he argued that it did occur, but it was mistaken to think God did it directly.  Rather, inspiration came from lesser spirits such as angels.  Bolingbroke was informed by Plato’s analysis of how Socrates received divine inspiration; Bolingbroke celebrated this Platonic model as superior to the Christian model of inspiration because it made a distinction between the ethereal and elementary bodies.  The elementary body was involved with inspirations from God, but our ethereal body was involved with other inspirations such as from guardian angels.  It was the ethereal body that was the medium for Socrates’ voices and visions.  Bolingbroke said:

it was by this medium [the ethereal body] that SOCRATES was inspired by his demon, or guardian angel.  He saw visions, and he heard voices: but how? Not by his elementary, but by his ethereal, senses.  Thus an inferior spirit, and not the Supreme Being, is the immediate actor; and inspiration is no longer an unmeaning figure of speech.[28]

For Bolingbroke, those who insisted it was God instead of angels who directly inspired people were arrogant; they raised humanity too high and debased God.[29]  Thus, Bolingbroke was occupied with the question of the source and medium for divine inspirations; that they did occur was assumed.

Many English deists  believed in a deity or angels that actively implanted thoughts in people’s minds or inspired them.   Clearly scholars have mischaracterized the English deists when they see them as having a remote deity who never intervened in people’s lives.

[1] Charles Blount, Religio Laici Written in a Letter to John Dryden (London, 1683), 63-4.

[2] Blount, Religio Laici, 60.

[3] William Wollaston, The Religion of Nature Delineated (London, 1724), 105-6.

[4] Wollaston, Religion of Nature, 106-7.

[5] Wollaston, Religion of Nature, 107.

[6] Thomas Morgan, Physico-Theology (London: 1741), 318-9.

[7] Thomas Morgan, The Moral Philosopher, 2nd ed., corrected, 3 vols. (London, 1738), 1:429-430.

[8] Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, 3rd ed., trans. Meyrick H. Carre (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1937), 308.

[9] Chubb, collection tracts, 2:152.

[10] Chubb, collection tracts, 2:195.

[11] Chubb, collection tracts, 2:168.

[12] Thomas Gordon, A Vindication of the Quakers (London, 1732), 31.

[13] Gordon, Vindication Quakers, 30.

[14] Dodwell, Christianity Argument, 112.

[15] Dodwell, Christianity Argument, 56.

[16] Thomas Chubb, Enquiry Concerning Redemption (London, 1743), 11-15, 15.

[17] Thomas Woolston,  A Second Letter to the Reverend Dr. Bennet  (London, 1721), 16-7.

[18] Thomas Woolston, A Second Free-Gift to the Clergy (London, 1723), 76.

[19] Thomas Woolston, A Free-Gift to the Clergy (London, 1722), 72.

[20] Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old, 244.

[21] Tindal, Christianity as Old, 243.

[22] Tindal, Christianity as Old, 243.

[23] Conyers Middleton, Miscellaneous Works, 4 vols. (London, 1752), 2:17, 80-2.

[24] Middleton, Miscellaneous Works, 1: 8.

[25] John Trenchard, Cato’s Letters, 2 vols., ed. Ronald Hamowy (Indianopolis: Liberty Fund, 1995), 2:863. This is letter 124, April 13, 1723.

[26] Shaftesbury, Characteristicks, 1:52-3.

[27] Shaftesbury, Characteristicks, 1:54.

[28] Bolingbroke, Philosophical Works, 1:157.

[29] Bolingbroke, Philosophical Works, 1:157.

[30] Anthony Collins, A Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (London, 1741), 26.  There is more than one page 26 in this book.  In the online version of this book in Eighteenth Century Collections Online, this is image 349.


[i] Charles Blount, Religio Laici Written in a Letter to John Dryden (London, 1683), 63-4.
[ii] Blount, Religio, 59-60.

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