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Palmer, Elihu (1764–1806)


Elihu Palmer was a radical spokesman for the Age of Reason and Revolution in America, who along with Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen gave expression to the ideals of deism and republicanism. Born in Canterbury, Connecticut, Palmer was graduated from Dartmouth in 1787. Originally a minister, he was persecuted for his extreme religious views and forced to flee the pulpit. In 1793 he was admitted to the bar. Blinded by disease, he spent the last years of his life defending deism. He edited the deistic weekly journal Prospect, or View of the Moral World and helped to organize the Deistical Society in New York.

Palmer's religious radicalism stemmed from his reaction to Calvinism. He rejected the doctrine of original sin as well as the idea of a punitive and arbitrary divine being. This reaction developed into a militant anti-Christianity and anticlericalism. Palmer rejected the claims of divine revelation, miracles, and prophesies, and he accused the Bible of inconsistency, contradiction, and vagueness. Not only did he deny the divinity of Christ, but he considered Jesus, Moses, and Muammad indecent and immoral and Christian salvation absurd and irrational. He attacked organized and institutionalized religion for its hypocrisy and self-interest.

Like other deists, Palmer defended a religion of nature, in which the order and harmony of the universe is believed to proclaim the existence of one supreme being, the divine creator. Palmer maintained that evil is not inherent in man or in nature but is due to corrupt social institutions and to defective human knowledge, which can both be corrected. He had boundless faith and optimism in reason, science, and education, believing that man possesses the capacities for intellectual and moral progress. In place of the traditional religious depreciation of human ability and dignity, he proposed a humanistic ethics. With others of this period, he held an empiricist epistemology, locating the source of all knowledge in sensation, and he was sympathetic to scientific and materialistic philosophy. Palmer was an ardent supporter of liberty and republicanism and saw in the American Revolution the inception of a new era for humanity.

See also Deism; Paine, Thomas; Progress, The Idea of; Republicanism.


Palmer's works include Political Miscellany (New York, 1793); The Examiners Examined: Being a Defence of the Age of Reason (New York: Printed for the author and sold by L. Wayland and J. Fellows, 1794); An Enquiry Relative to the Moral and Political Improvement of the Human Species (New York: John Crookes, 1797); The Political Happiness of Nations: An Oration (New York: n.p., 1800); Principles of Nature: Or, a Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species (New York, 1801); Prospect, or View of the Moral World for the Year 1804 (New York: E. Palmer, 18031805), which he edited; and Posthumous Pieces (London, 1826).

For literature on Palmer, see G. Adolf Koch, Republican Religion: The American Revolution and the Cult of Reason (New York: Holt, 1933).

Paul Kurtz (1967)

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