Thomas Morgan believed in immutable laws but still also believed in miracles. In one of his later works, Thomas Morgan said that God does not break the general laws he has made by doing miracles. Morgan said that God governs the World, and directs all Affairs, not by particular and occasional, but by general, uniform and established Laws; and the Reason why he does not miraculously interpose, as they would have him, by suspending or setting aside the general, established Laws of Nature and Providence, is, because this would subvert the whole Order of the Universe, and destroy all the Wisdom and Contrivance of the first Plan. One would think this insistence on immutable laws leaves no room for miracles. Yet in the same book he asserted there was particular providences or divine caring for people through miracles– it is just these miracles are done in accordance with the general, established laws of nature by angels. Morgan sought to explain angelic miracles by a comparison to animal husbandry. He said that humans care for animals and control their lives without breaking general laws, and from the animals’ point of view our work must seem miraculous or “all particular Interposition, and supernatural Agency.” But when humans care for animals, they do not break any laws of nature and do “not, hereby, alter the Order of Nature, suspend it Laws, or change his [God’s] Measures at every Turn.” In the same way, Morgan asserted, the angels can do what seem like miracles to us without breaking the uniform laws of nature. He said that if we could but see the “other intelligent free Agents above us, who have the same natural establish’d Authority and Command over us, as we have with regard to the inferior Ranks and Classes of Creatures, the Business of Providence, moral Government, and particular Interpositions by general Laws of Nature would be plain enough.” So Morgan believed in immutable laws, but still allowed for miracles through angelic interventions in the normal course of affairs. From our vantage point, these miracles seemed like they were breaking the laws of nature, but that is only because we cannot perceive how the angels do the extraordinary things they do. In the same way animals perceive our care and ministry of them to be miraculous even though we break no natural laws in caring for them. Morgan finished off this section by arguing that we should pray to these angels as well as to God for miraculous assistance. He said that “I cannot conceive what has given some Philosophers, if I may call them so, such an Antipathy to divine Assistance, as if God, or other superior Beings above us by the Constitution and Laws of their Natures, might might not assist us as well, or better, than we can one another. If we should suppose some little contemptible Worms or Insects below us to reason after this Manner, we might, perhaps, despise them, and thank God for giving us better Understandings” Morgan’s affirmation of God’s “continued Presence, Agency and Concurrence in all human Affairs” belies the conception of the deist God as a detached watchmaker God. While not many deists agreed with Morgan that we should pray to the angels for divine assistance, many agreed with him on the importance of prayer and our total dependence on God. Morgan was not the only British deist who believed in immutable natural laws while having angelic miracles.
William Wollaston also thought there were miracles wrought by angels in accord with immutable laws beyond our limited understanding. In regards to angels, Wollaston said that there “most probably are beings invisible, and superior in nature to us, who may by other means be in many respects ministers of God’s providence, and authors under Him of many events to particular men, without altering the laws of nature.” Through the agency of such angels, God can minister to us without breaking the laws of nature, just as we can be instruments of God’s care for animals or other humans. Wollaston said these these angels were better ministers to humans than we were to the animals or to each other because the angels had much more extensive knowledge and purer intellect than we had. He was sure that there were such providences, saying that “I conclude then, that it is as certain that there is a particular providence, as that God is a being of perfect reason.”
Thomas Chubb believed that good and bad creatures were able to do miracles. From this, he drew a common conclusion among the deists that “miracles prove nothing with respect to the divinity of a revelation,” or that we cannot prove Jesus was divine just because he did miracles. Chubb had rules for discerning whether it was a good or evil angel doing a miracle, but he thought the best way to guard against delusion was to not trust in any miracles and to instead only believe in a revelation if it was in accord with the highest standards of moral goodness. While he said we should not trust miracles to prove someone was divine, he believed that Jesus and the apostles had performed miracles and that God continues to do miracles on extraordinary occasions for good purposes.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury made it clear that he thought that God performed miracles. He said that “I acknowledge indeed and believe most firmly that God can do miracles, and which is more, that he hath done them.” He was so sure that God did miracles he thought that this doctrine and the related notion that God answered our prayers was an idea God put into every human. He said that “every religion believes that the Deity can hear and answer prayers; and we are bound to assume a special Providence—to omit other sources of proof—from the universal testimony of the sense of divine assistance in times of distress.” For Herbert, this universal testimony of divine assistance to our prayers meant that it was a common notion, or something engraved in our breast by God.
Anthony Collins praised Jesus’ miracles, saying how extraordinary they were: “The multitude of Miracles CHRIST had already done (some of the most stupendous, that can be well imagined, contrary to all those Laws of Nature Providence has established)… Those Miracles, I say, were such evident Testimonials, such emphatical Proofs of a divine Mission, that it was unnecessary to offer any more.” In another work, Collins stated that Jesus did “numerous and wonderful Miracles”  and even Judas did some miracles “by Christ’s commission.” Collins also believed that Moses’ brother Aaron and the Egyptian magicians could do miracles. Among modern scholars there is a debate about whether Collins is sincere in stating he believed in miracles and was a good Christian. James O’Higgins believes that Collins was sincere in his belief in miracles. In his book on Collins, O’Higgins states that Collins saw himself as a Christian and that he hated being called hypocritical for criticizing the church in his books while still being a member of good standing in his local parish. David Berman, on the other hand, said asserted that Collins lied when he said that he openly subscribed to such Christian beliefs as the Athanasian doctrine of the trinity and the authority of scriptures. Because he was lying about these beliefs, Berman believes that Collins was also lying about his acceptance of miracles. Berman said that “a deist, it is agreed, must minimally, reject Christian mysteries and the authority of the Scripture. Hence those scholars who see Collins as a deist must also accept that he was a liar—that is he did not mean what he said.” Berman’s key assumption is that no deists accepted the mysteries or scriptural authority and so Collins must be lying when he said he accepted those positions or miracles. Similar to many commentators who assume that all deists were against miracles, Berman seems to just take it for granted that all deists were against mysteries and the authority of the scripture. While I have not done a survey of the deists’ attitude on these points, in a very quick check I found that Mandeville, Chubb, Trenchard, and Gordon accepted some of the points that Berman said no deist accepted. Berman does not prove his point that Collins was lying, and I agree with the view that the scholar James O’Higgins presents in his book on Collins: he is a sincere Christian who believed in miracles.
Thomas Gordon stated that the apostles did miracles and Jesus proved his mission was divine by doing them.
Matthew Tindal said that Judas, like the other apostles, had the power of performing miracles, even to the extent of raising the dead. Tindal also thought that because evil beings as well as good ones could do miracles, this meant that internal marks of a revelation like goodness of its doctrines were more important than miracles.
John Trenchard defended the traditional Protestant position that miracles had happened in biblical times but “none have been performed since the first ages of Christianity, and that they can be proof of nothing which is against virtue and the good of mankind.”
Charles Blount had an inconsistent position on miracles. In an early pamphlet entitled “Miracles, No Violations of the Laws of Nature,” Blount said quite categorically that there were no such things as miracles because nature was governed by immutable laws. In one passage he said that a miracle was “contrary to the Laws of Nature, or which cannot possibly follow from her fixt and immutable Order: then I dare not believe that any such Miracle hath ever happen’d in Nature, lest I oppose God to God, that is, admit that God changes his own Decrees, which from the Perfection of the divine Nature I know to be impossible.” Blount defended his position by saying that immutable natural laws revealed God more clearly than miracles; miracles only revealed a power that was greater than ours, while immutable laws led us to see God’s infinity and eternity. If this was Blount’s only view of miracles, then he would have had a clear and consistent position against them. But ten years later in a work published posthumously, Blount talked about biblical miracles in a different way. He said most readers made a great error in reading scripture “in relation to Divine Miracles.” He said that we misunderstand the scriptural description of miracles because we interpret miraculous acts in a general sense while they were meant in a more particular sense. So when scripture talked of the darkness over the face of the whole earth when “our Savior” died, it meant darkness only over all of Palestine. Likewise the star which led the wise men to Jesus was not a heavenly star but one more localized that marched before the wise men like a torch. He then mentioned several more miracles which should be interpreted in a more restricted sense than they are commonly interpreted. Blount ended this section with an endorsement of miracles and a critique of those who are so arrogantly confident in their reason that they questioned God’s power to do miracles: “God seldom alters or perverts the Course of Nature, however Miracles may be necessary sometimes to acquaint the World with his Prerogative, least the Arrogance of our Reason should question his Power; a Crime no wise Man can ever be guilty of: Who climbing up from Cause to Cause, shall ever find the highest Link of Nature’s Chain to be tyed at the Foot of Jupiter’s Chair.” In this work, Blount is less concerned with immutable laws and more interested in the power of God to control all things. While the common view of the Enlightenment is that people gradually became more secular as the Enlightenment went on, that is not the case with Blount. His early work was heavily influenced by Spinoza’s writings against miracles and he moved to a more positive attitude towards them as he got older. This is consistent with the British Enlightenment in general which was more conservative and religious than the French version and did not share the later French Enlightenment’s virulent anti-Christianism. Some may think that Blount was covering up his real beliefs in his later work, but two points argue against that interpretation. First, his publisher, good friend, and co-writer Charles Gildon was a firm believer in miracles, so it is quite possible that Blount could have been influenced by him. Second, social acceptance was not a primary concern for Blount at this time. Blount had incurred tremendous social opprobrium by falling in love with his dead wife’s sister, unsuccessfully arguing for a change in the marriage laws so he could marry her, and then committing suicide over the situation. Thus it is far from clear that he had anything at all to gain socially by changing his position on miracles. In the final analysis, I agree with the modern scholars Hefelbower and Merrill that Blount did accept miracles, although he did not accept them in the uncritical way orthodox Christians do.
Shaftesbury said that while he was incredulous of modern miracles, he believed in scriptural ones: “I have a right faith in those of former times by paying the deference due to sacred writ.” He also said that he was “satisfied of the truth of our religion by past miracles.” The scholar Owen Aldridge has argued that Shaftesbury is only making these short statements and others like them to protect his social position and he probably does not really believe in scriptural miracles. Shaftesbury, as an earl, did have a high social position to protect and if these were his only statements on miracles I would agree with Aldridge that he does probably not really believe in them. Shaftesbury discussed miracles most clearly in a section of his book Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. He said that miracles do not tell us much about the miracle-doer. He asserted that all a miracle can show is that there is some power greater than man, not that this power is an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God who is worthy of worship. He said that a miracle showed power, “but ‘what powers, whether one or more, whether superior or subaltern, mortal or immortal, wise or foolish, just or unjust, good or bad’; this would still remain a mystery …’Power can never serve as a proof for goodness, and goodness is the only pledge of truth’.” Shaftesbury thought we can only know the theist God by contemplating the laws governing the universe. In particular, he thought we had to realize these laws were just and unchanging: “The contemplation of the universe, its laws and government, was I averred, the only means which could establish the sound belief of a Deity …To whom therefore the laws of this universe and its government appear just and uniform, to him they speak the government of one Just One; to him they reveal and witness a God.” For Shaftesbury, only these just and uniform laws led to knowledge of a theist God, while miracles only showed that some being had greater power than humans. If this were all that Shaftesbury had to say about miracles, I would agree with Aldridge that he did not really believe in them and his occasional very short statements about the scriptural miracles were just socially adept lies. But immediately after his statement about uniform laws leading to knowledge of God, he said that once people knew the just, eternal God they can receive a revelation or a miracle. He said that while contemplating uniform laws gave a person “the foundation of this first faith, they fit him for a subsequent one. He can then hearken to historical revelation, and is then fitted (and not till then) for the reception of any message or miraculous notice from above, where he knows beforehand all is just and true. But this no power of miracles, nor any power besides his reason can make him know or apprehend.” This allowance for miracles is at the climax of his only important writing on miracles. So his position is that miracles are secondary, but he still allows for them once we have a prior knowledge of the goodness and justness of God. This interpretation is reinforced by another passage in his book Ten Letters where he again said that miracles were secondary to a better knowledge of God. He said that, which to the Vulgar is only knowable by Miracles, and teachable by positive Precepts and Commands, to the wise and virtuous, is demonstrable by the Nature of the Thing. So that how can we forbear to give our Assent to those doctrines, and that Revelation, which is deliver’d to us, and enforced by Miracles and Wonders? But to us, the very Test and Proof of the Divineness and Truth of that Revelation, is from the Excellence of the Things reveal’d: Otherwise the Wonders themselves would have little Effect or Power. While Shaftesbury thought the ultimate test of a revelation was the moral goodness of the doctrine revealed, he still allowed for miracles. Shaftesbury had no animus against miracles. His central belief was that we had to get knowledge of a just and good God in another way besides miracles. But once we had that knowledge, he seemed to allow a place for subsequent miracles. I am inclined to think he probably did believe in miracles although I admit this is not a very strong case.
One thought on “Miracles”
Great information here, but the formatting is rough … no paragraph breaks. Still, thanks for all your study. It’s extremely informative. It contradicts the common notion that a person can’t use the name “deist” without swearing off a belief in the miraculous (or even the possibility of the miraculous). I’m not bold enough to declare that I so thoroughly understand the nature of reality as to rule out such things.