Main Point: The Deists often prayed to God. They did pray not for specific things such as asking God to heal their mother. Instead, they saw prayer as a way to develop a closer relationship to God. On this page, I discuss the prayers of some deists.
Enlightenment deism began with God answering the prayer of the author of the first influential book of Enlightenment deism, Herbert of Cherbury. In his autobiography, Herbert described how God gave him a sign to publish this book, which is entitled De Veritate or On Truth. Herbert said he had finished writing the manuscript of the book, but he was not sure if he should publish it. Herbert loved God deeply, and he sincerely wanted to obey God’s will. So he got down on his knees, and prayed; he asked for a sign whether he should publish his manuscript or not. Herbert described his prayer and the divine sign he received: Being thus doubtfull in my Chamber, one fair day in the Summer, my Casement being opened towards the South, the Sun shining clear and no Wind stirring, I took my book, De Veritate, in my hand, and, kneeling on my Knees, devoutly said these words: ‘O Thou Eternal God, Author of the Light which now shines upon me, and Giver of all inward Illuminations, I do beseech Thee, of Thy infinite Goodness, to pardon a greater Request than a Sinner ought to make; I am not satisfied enough whether I shall publish This Book, De Veritate; if it be for thy Glory, I beseech Thee give me some Sign from Heaven, if not, I shall suppress it.’ I had no sooner spoken these words, but a loud ‘tho yet gentle Noise came from the Heavens (for it was like nothing on Earth) which did so comfort and cheer me, that I took my Petition as granted, and that I had the Sign I demanded, whereupon also I resolved to print my Book. After praying for a sign, Herbert said he heard a gentle noise in the clear sky which so comforted and cheered him that he was sure it was a sign from God to publish his manuscript.
This book was the most important book of early deism, and so, according to Herbert, Enlightenment deism began under God’s direct guidance. Herbert was writing at the very beginning of Enlightenment deism, but deists still believed God was actively blessing their causes at the very end of the Enlightenment. For example, in 1787, Benjamin Franklin chided the American Constitutional Convention for no longer praying to God after all the miracles God had performed for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Franklin moved that the convention pray every day for God’s assistance because a good constitution could not be written without God’s help. Franklin said: How has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard; — and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engaged in the struggle, must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. To that kind of providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend, or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance? I have lived, sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? . . . I also believe that, without his concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; . . . I therefore beg leave to move, That henceforth prayers, imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business.
When scholars read about two of the most important Enlightenment deists praying for divine guidance, they often assume these deists were unusual. So in the early twentieth century, the scholar Charles Lyttle labeled Herbert an atypical deist due to his devout piety. He said deists writing later would have been scandalized by this prayer: “it is perhaps superfluous to point out that such devoutness, such high moral seriousness of inward life, are not customarily associated with the name of Deist. Indeed, it is likely that most of the Deists of the eighteenth century would have felt scandalized.” More recently, the scholar David A. Pailin argued that Herbert was not a deist because unlike the other deists, his deity was not a “remote, uninvolved First Cause,” and “his remarks about God generally present the deity as an active Providence that is continually involved in the processes of reality.” In the same vein, Kerry S. Walters contended that Franklin’s belief in miracles was not part of deism, but a holdover from his Calvinist upbringing. The assumption here is that any real deist had a remote, inactive deity, and any deist who believed otherwise was deviating from true deism. But this assumption is wrong: many deists fervently prayed to a deity who often intervened in people’s daily affairs through giving them divine inspirations, performing miracles, and promulgating the Christian revelation. The deists’ concern for prayer highlights how they related to God. They did not have a cold, distant relationship suitable only for bloodless intellectuals; many of them felt deep gratitude, admiration, and amazement at God’s wonderful benevolence. Herbert of Cherbury thought his deist activities were guided by God, but many other deists prayed with fervent devotion to God.
Here is a prayer, written by the English deist Thomas Morgan, in which he petitions God to constantly care for and protect him: O thou eternal Reason, Father of Light, and immense Fountain of all Truth and Goodness; suffer me, with the deepest Humility and Awe to apply to, and petition thee. . . . I own, therefore, O Father of Spirits, this natural, necessary Dependence upon thy constant, universal Presence, Power and Agency. Take me under the constant, uninterrupted Protection and Care of thy Divine Wisdom, . . . if I should err from the Way of Truth, and wander in the Dark, instruct me by a fatherly Correction; let Pains and Sorrows fetch me home, and teach me Wisdom; . . . for ever bless me with the enlightening, felicitating Influence of thy benign Presence, Power and Love.
The English deist William Wollaston also published a prayer in which he affirmed his dependence on God: “Almighty being, upon whom depends the existence of the world, and by whose providence I have been preserved to this moment and injoyed many undeserved advantages, that he would graciously accept my grateful sense and acknowledgement of all His beneficence towards me; that he would deliver me from the evil consequences of all my transgressions and follies. . . . and may inable me upon all occasion to behave myself conformable to the laws of reason, piously, and wisely…that he would vouchsafe me clear and distinct perceptions of things.”
Voltaire, when he railed against Christianity, can seem very irreligious, but he was not anti-religious (he thought “religion is the secret voice of God speaking to men”); rather, he was particularly anti-Christian because he thought Christianity encouraged people to hate and kill each other. One prayer he wrote started: “God of all the globes and stars, the one prayer that it is meet to offer to you is submission. How can we ask anything of him who arranged and enchained all things from the beginning? Yet if it is permitted to expose our needs to a father, preserve in our hearts this feeling of submission and a pure religion. Keep from us all superstition.”
This is what Matthew Tindal had to say about prayer: “…Prayer itself, God knowing beforehand what we will ask, chiefly becomes a duty, as it raises in us a due contemplation of the divine Attributes, & an acknowledgement of his great & constant goodness, and serves to keep up a constant sense of our dependance on him; and as it disposes us to imitate those perfections we adore in him, in being kind & beneficent to one another. There are few so gross as to imagine, we can direct infinite Wisdom in the dispensation of Providence, or persuade him to alter those Laws he contriv’d before the Foundation of the World for putting things in a regular course.” (Matthew Tindal, Christianity as old as the Creation London, 1731. 38. This is the beginning of chapter five. It is p. 44 of the 1730 version available online at google books.)
Here is Thomas Chubb’s prayer to God: To the Supreme God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom are all Things. ALmighty and most Gracious Father, because Thou art the first Supreme Cause; and the last, and final End of all things ; and because Thou art the Original Fountain of all Truth and Goodness, and hast in thy self an infinity of Power and Wisdom; and so art most fit to Patronize all sincere Endeavours, to Promote Truth, Righteousness, and Peace: Therefore, we Humbly Dedicate these our labours to Thee; Humbly Beseeching Thee mercifully to Accept our weak Endeavours, for the maintaining of thy Honour,And the Truth of thy Holy Word. May it please Thee O Lord, to give thy Blessing upon this Performance, by disposing the Minds of Men To an humble and faithful Examination thereof, And to a ready and kind Acceptance of that Measure of Truth which is contained in it. May it please Thee to Vouchsafe to us, and All Mankind such a Measure of the Illuminating and Sanctifying Grace of thy Holy Spirit, as may effectually Purge us from all That Error and Corruption which may yet Cleave to any, or to every Soul of us; that so Thy Kingdom may come, and the Will may be done in Earth as it is in Heaven. And because Thou art most perfectly Able to do whatsoever shall seem Good in thy Sight; therefore we Humbly beseech Thee to Protect and Deliver us, (and all other thy Servants that do or shall at any Time appear in behalf of thy Name and Truth) from all the evil that is, or may be Practised against us; and that Thou wouldst Be pleas’d to Enable us patiently and contentedly To Submit to thy Will, in all thy providential Dealings with us. And as Thou art the Original Supreme Fountain of all the Good that we and All other Creatures do at all times Enjoy; thereFor unto Thee, O Father, be ascribed by us, and All People, all Honour and Glory, Thanks-giving And Praise, for Ever and Ever, thro’ Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, Amen, Amen.” (Thomas Chubb, The Supremacy of the Father Asserted (London, 1715), first two unnumbered pages after the title page)
Here is a prayer of Peter Annet: That the Public may judge of the author’s Sensations, the following daily and universal Prayer is offered to their Consideration. O Father of Heaven, Creator and Governor of the universe, praised be thy name! Endue me, O Lord, with the goodness of heart, which will enable me to act in this life with that honest sincerity, and uprightness of conduct, as is agreeable to thy sight. Giv [sic] me this day, I beseech thee, such a portions of thy benefits, as may be needful and necessary, an [sic] grant whatever the lot may be, I may receive an [sic] enjoy it with true gratitude and content. Grant that those little frailties that my nature is subject to, upon proper contrition, may by thy mercy be forgiven. Suffer me not to retain malice, but to live in brotherly love, and charity to all men; and to the utmost of my abilities, exercise a benevolence to assist my fellow creature, and in every respect behave myself, so that at the dissolution of this mortal body, I may be made a partaker of that bliss hereafter, that thou hast allotted for the just. Grant this, O heavenly Father, to whom alone belongeth all honour and praise, for ever and ever. Amen.
Other deists prayed too, but rather than continuing with more examples of prayers, I will go on to a related point: other deists’ long discussions about prayer. Two discussions were particularly noteworthy: Thomas Chubb’s discussion of the theory of prayer, and William Wollaston’s discussion of more practical matters such as what physical postures we should assume in prayer and how loud we should pray. Thomas Chubb wrote a thirty-page tract entitled “An Enquiry concerning Prayer,”where he defined prayer as “an address or application of a dependant being to his supreme governour, and original benefactor.” He said prayer makes our soul feel deep trust, love, and delight in God as well creating in us a desire to please him. Prayer, he said, “naturally draws forth our souls in filial fear, in hope and trust, in love, delight, and joy in God; and creates in us a just concern to please him, and to approve ourselves in his sight; and consequently to put on that purity and piety, humility and charity which is the spirit and practice of true christianity.” Chubb said God wanted us to pray as it brought us into a deeper relationship with him, and it rendered us “a suitable and proper object of God’s special care and love.” When we do not pray, because “God is not in all our thoughts,” then “our minds and lives are corrupted and defiled.” Like traditional Christians, Chubb believed all our prayers were heard by God. Chubb thought God only answered some of our prayers, and these had to be moral requests, in which the person was earnestly praying “with a modest resignation to God’s will.” Interestingly, Chubb thought that God sometimes gave us harmful things we prayed for, but then God acted “in displeasure.” In another tract, he was more pessimistic about God’s positive response rate to our prayers. His evidence that God did not often answer our prayers, however, is telling: he said that over the last two hundred years, millions of sincere, fervent prayers have petitioned God for the defeat of the Antichrist, but the Roman Catholic hierarchy or other interests bent on defeating God’s kingdom still existed. Chubb also earnestly discussed whom we should pray to. First, he said we should not pray to dead human souls, as we have no reason to think they hear our prayers or have any power to help us. Then he discussed whether we should pray to angels or not, and decided we probably should not pray to them. He said, even though they are “ministering spirits,” we cannot be sure they hear our prayers, and they might not be at liberty to help us without God’s direct guidance. He finally spent ten pages wondering whether we should pray to Jesus or just to God the Father. He concluded that we should pray to God the Father “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While Chubb spent many pages discussing the theory of prayer, William Wollaston spent ten pages discussing the minute details of the physical aspects of praying. The first thing he concerned himself with was the times and places which were best for prayer. He said the best times were those when we would not be interrupted, and the best places were ones distant from the bustle and noise of other people. He then considered how loud we should pray. He decided if we were alone, our words needed to be no louder “than just to make it audible to our selves.” After this, he considered what kinds of words to use in our prayers. He decided we should use “the best and properest we can. This cannot be done in extemporaneous, effusions and therefore must be forms premeditated.” He then considered the physical posture we should be in when we pray. He said the best posture expressed an attitude of humility and earnest reverence. Finally, he concluded by considering what kind of mental state we should be in while we were praying. He decided that we needed to be humble, intent, and earnest. He concluded his long discussion of the practical details of praying by writing, “I am not insensible how much I may expose my self by these things to the laughter of some, who are utter strangers to all this language. What a stir is here, say they, about praying.” While Wollaston knew he would be mocked for spending ten pages discussing the physical details of praying, he did it anyways because being grateful to God and getting close to him in prayer was such an important matter that it called for earnest attention to little details. Some deists thought prayer could influence God’s action, but most deists asserted God’s will was not changed by it. Matthew Tindal, Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard, Peter Annet, and Bolingbroke all thought prayer was not effective in altering God’s will. Nevertheless, all five said prayer was a duty that we owed to God: they said God constantly cared for us and protected us, and so we had a duty to acknowledge his benevolence through prayer. Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard wrote that reason shows “prayer itself becomes chiefly a Duty, as it raises our Minds, by a Contemplation of the Divine Wisdom, Power and Goodness, to an Acknowledgement of his repeated Bounties to Mankind.” Peter Annet said we should pray with a fervent and sincere attitude that was suffused with the spirit of obedience, humility, and adoration. Prayer, wrote Annet, “keeps up a Dependence on Deity in the Minds of the People, and so may be a Means to help subdue the Mind to Virtue, and Submission to God’s Will .. [and] Resignation to the All-wise director.” Immanuel Kant’s view on prayer was similar to these English deists. Kant said that everything that happened in the world, whether it happened by the regular order of nature or in an extraordinary way, was “fundamentally a consequence of God’s government and direction.” He thought we should never use prayer “as a means of getting something”  because that turns prayer into “a superstitious delusion (a fetish making).” Instead, we should pray to submit to God’s will for us and realize that the purpose of prayer is to help us develop our sense of gratitude towards God and our sense of following his will. Kant said, “we ought to offer it [prayer] both with a trust in God’s wisdom and with submission to this wisdom. The greatest utility of prayer is indisputably a moral one, because through prayer both thankfulness and resignation toward God become effective in us.” Far from Herbert and Franklin being unusual in piously praying to God, many other deists did too. This emphasis on prayer reveals the close relationship many deists felt with a deity who excited their gratitude and deep love.