The Rational Religion of Deism
The Rational Religion of Deism
Enlightenment Religion . A few Americans pursued more-radical roads in the early national period. The deists were perhaps the most extreme of these people, and certainly the most notorious. While there were never many American deists, they were an important group because of their elite social status, high levels of education, and prominence in the political leadership of the new nation. Deists tended to be deeply identified with the thinking of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century intellectual movement that stressed rationality, natural order, and an openness to scientific inquiry. Despite their distance from Europe, many Americans were part of this movement, as the well-known example of Benjamin Franklin’s freethinking and scientific experiments show. Religiously, many Enlightenment thinkers came to reject biblically based Christianity in favor of a more general belief in a “divinity” or a “creator,” often visualized as a being who had set up the universe to run on orderly principles, like a machine. Deism stressed religion as a moral system, and most deists rejected the idea of revelation, that is, that God had made himself known to humans through Jesus and the Bible. Deists rejected more-traditional views of God as part of a trinity, or as intervening in human history (either in the past or the present), or as being interested in punishing or rewarding people in the afterlife. These were deeply challenging views, even in Revolutionary America. Although the citizens of the new nation were exploring new kinds of freedoms, the social order was still deeply connected to a view of the universe as being created by a God for a purpose, and the Bible was still by far the most authoritative text in American culture. As a result most Americans were deeply suspicious of deism, and despite their social prominence many deists kept their views to themselves.
Priestley and Vol-ney . The close association of deists with Europeans only served to heighten these suspicions in the 1790s. The English Unitarian Joseph Priestley’s materialist writings were very influential on Thomas Jefferson’s thinking, and although Priestley had strongly supported the American Revolution, even moving to Philadelphia in 1794, his extreme anticlericalism set him apart from most Americans. Even more troubling was the connection to the French Enlightenment. Aside from the anticlericalism and materialism of earlier French thinkers such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot, the radical ideas of the French Revolution also found an American audience. Most significant among the French influences was Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Comte de Vol-ney, who fled France for America. His book Ruins: Or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (1791) was one of the most widely read works of the late eighteenth century. Vol-ney explained the successive revolutions of the past (something of an obsession among American political thinkers of this time) as caused by the tyranny of priests, and thus as a function of revealed religion, which he then rejected fully. As the
French Revolution moved through increasingly radical—and bloody—stages, Americans were alarmed at the social disorder that seemed to come from radical thinking such as deism.
Homegrown Deists . More-homegrown versions of deism fared little better as Americans continued to see them as attacks on order and so fundamentally against the direction of the postrevolutionary period. In 1784 Ethan Allen, a hero of the American Revolution, published Reason the Only Oracle of Man, developing a distinctly American version of deism rooted in a reaction against the revivals of the 1740s and in the revolutionary politics of the war years. Its engagement with the American scene did not make the book acceptable, however. Most copies of this infamous book were burned at the printer’s shop, and after Allen’s death the president of Yale College remarked that “in Hell he lifts up his eyes, being in torments,” apparently sure that God would damn the infidel. A similar fate met Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense (1776) probably did as much as the Declaration of Independence to fuel revolutionary fervor in America. Paine had followed up with similarly spirited defenses of the French Revolution, even in the face of its increasing unpopularity in America. Again radical politics led to radical religion. Paine’s deist tract, The Age of Reason (1794–1795), attacked revelation and the Bible. Paine endured a wave of venomous attacks and died a social outcast. American deism itself largely succumbed to these attacks and to the overwhelming growth of evangelical Protestantism after 1800. Elihu Palmer founded the Deistical Society in New York in 1794 and issued some publications over the following decade, but deism never developed a significant presence in the early 1800s. American Christianity met the threat of deism, and the limits of revolutionary thought in religion were clearly drawn.
Jefferson. Americans wrestled seriously with religious issues in the context of their revolutionary experience. One good example of this process is Thomas Jefferson. In appealing to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson earned for himself a reputation as the leading example of early American deism. The phrase seems to capture perfectly a deist image of a rational and impersonal god, governing the universe through the mechanical operation of the laws of nature. Jefferson did share this sense, at least in 1776, when he wrote these words. And the label of deist haunted him throughout his public career. This was most clearly the case during the presidential election of 1800 when he was repeatedly and viciously attacked as little more than an immoral atheist. But despite this, to call Jefferson a deist does a disservice to the complexity of his religious beliefs and to the importance of these beliefs in his life. Jefferson was deeply engaged with traditional religion and even produced his own version of the Bible. He tried to isolate the ethical teachings of Jesus, which he thought should be as important to good citizens as to godly churchgoers. At the heart of Jefferson’s religion was rationality. Like many Americans, Jefferson was caught up in the European Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason as a path to a better world. He and other Americans thought enough of their powers of reason to want to judge truth for themselves, with open minds, using all the tools at their disposal. Many turned to nature for truth, while others continued to look in the Bible for themselves. They cared more about moral rules than about theological niceties. In a sense Jefferson practiced a unique religion of reason. But it was a highly adaptable religion, one deeply engaged with some important trends in American culture. Over time, reason would help many American Protestants realize the full potential of the Revolution in their religious beliefs and practices.
Paul K. Conkin, “The Religious Pilgrimage of Thomas Jefferson,” in Jeffersonian Legacies, edited by Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993);
Kerry S. Walters, The American Deists (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992);
Walters, Rational Infidels: The American Deists (Durango, Colo.: Long-wood Academic, 1992).