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Deism (Lat. deus, god) is etymologically cognate to theism (Gr. theos, god), both words denoting belief in the existence of a god or gods and, therefore, the antithesis of atheism. However, as is customary in the case of synonyms, the words drifted apart in meaning; theism retained an air of religious orthodoxy, while deism acquired a connotation of religious unorthodoxy and ultimately reached the pejorative. Curiously, however, the earliest known use of the term deist (1564) already had this latter intent, although it was by no means consistently retained thereafter. The situation is complicated by a late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century technical metaphysical interpretation of deism, in which the meaning is restricted to belief in a God, or First Cause, who created the world and instituted immutable and universal laws that preclude any alteration as well as divine immanencein short, the concept of an "absentee God." A further complication has been the acceptance of natural religion (religion universally achievable by human reason) by many eminent Christian theologians throughout the course of many centuries. Such theologians also believed in revelation and in personal divine intervention in the life of man, a position that had been made clear and authoritative by St. Thomas Aquinas. No sharp line can be drawn between the doctrines of such rationalistic theologians and those of deists, especially those who termed themselves "Christian deists." Nor is it accurate to maintain that the historical deists (mainly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), like the philosophical deists, altogether denied the immanence of God, even though they did tend to become more and more critical of the necessity of any revelation and of the Hebraic-Christian revelation in particular. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between the two types of deists. The remainder of this entry will be devoted to a survey of historical deism.

Early History of Deism

To attempt to disentangle the antecedents of historical deismintertwined as they are with rationalistic natural religion on the one hand, and with skepticism on the otherwould indeed be foolhardy. Skepticism itself might end in Pyrrhonism or atheism or fideism. It is safe to generalize, however, that any tendency away from religious dogmatism, implicit faith and the mysterious, and in the direction of freedom of thought on religious matters, was in some measure a premonitory symptom of deism.

The earliest known use of the word deist was by Pierre Viret, a disciple of John Calvin, in his Instruction chrétienne (Geneva, 1564), Vol. II, "Epistre" (signed, Lyons, December 12, 1563). Viret regarded it as an entirely new word that (he claimed) the deists wished to oppose to atheist: According to him, the deist professes belief in God as the creator of heaven and earth but rejects Jesus Christ and his doctrines. Although those unidentified deists were learned men of letters and philosophy, they were bitterly attacked by Viret as monsters and atheists. This definition and commentary was given wide circulation through Pierre Bayle's citation in his article on Viret in the Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; English translation, 1710). The word deist remained unknown in England until 1621, when it appeared in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (III. iv. II. i). After discussing atheists and near-atheists, Burton continues: "Cousin-germans to these men are many of our great Philosophers and Deists," who, although good and moral, are yet themselves atheists. These "great Philosophers and Deists" likewise remain unidentified. A century and a half later, David Hume (17111776), in his History of England, ventured to name James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and Sir John Wildman, among others, as the reputed leaders of the deists under the Commonwealth. The first interpretation of deist in both French and English as a euphemism for atheist was not followed by Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, in his Dictionary (1755), defined deist as "a man who follows no particular religion but only acknowledges the existence of God, without any other article of faith."

The first appearance of deism seems to have been in John Dryden's preface to his poem Religio Laici of 1682, where he equated it with natural religion. Dr. Johnson agreed: "The opinion of those that only acknowledge one God, without the reception of any revealed religion." Neither Dryden nor Johnson, evidently, regarded deism as disguised atheism. The notion of deism, however, if not the word itself, is to be found in one form or another throughout the Renaissance until, in the late seventeenth century, the Englishman Charles Blount openly acknowledged that he was a deist.

Beginning in the early sixteenth century, general contributions to the development of deism include such broad movements as anti-Trinitarianism, Unitarianism, secularism, anticlericalism, Erastianism, Arminianism, and Socinianism, the rise of the sects, and the general revolt against authority. It may be argued that all of these currents and undercurrents were united in the increasing trend away from religious persecution and toward religious toleration, the glorification of the natural powers of man, and the endorsement of the right to think and to publish freely on all religious and political subjects.

Deism in Britain

The British deists constituted no conspiracy and formed no school of thought; they were highly individualistic, frequently unknown to one another, and sometimes at odds with one another. They were less systematic philosophers than thoughtful writers on practical moral, religious, and political issues. In 1704 the rationalist Anglican theologian Samuel Clarke distinguished four varieties of deists: those who denied providence; those who acknowledged providence in natural religion but not in morality; those who, while denying a future life, admitted the moral role of the deity; and finally, those who acknowledged a future life and the other doctrines of natural religion. The following summary of the leading deists will testify to the general truth of Clarke's subtle distinctions.

leading british deists and the rise of deism

Lord Herbert of Cherbury

Lord Herbert (15831648) never called himself a deist and had but a single acknowledged disciple, Charles Blount; nevertheless, he exerted considerable influence and deserves the title of "the father of English deism" bestowed on him in 1714 by Thomas Halyburton in Natural Religion Insufficient. Lord Herbert's De Veritate, Prout Distinguitur a Revelatione, a Verisimili, a Possibili, et a Falso was published in Paris in 1624, in London in 1633, and again in 1645. The first edition, therefore, postdated Burton's avowal of the existence of many deists by three years. In the expanded London edition of 1645, Herbert laid down the religious Common Notions that constitute the rationalistic basis of deism and that were to be assumed, if not always acknowledged, by virtually all succeeding deists. These principles are (1) that there is one supreme God; (2) that he ought to be worshiped; (3) that virtue and piety are the chief parts of divine worship; (4) that man ought to be sorry for his sins and repent of them; (5) that divine goodness dispenses rewards and punishments both in this life and after it. These truths, he argued, are universal, and may be apprehended by reason. Revelation is not openly repudiated, but by implication is rendered supererogatory. (Somewhat incongruously, however, Herbert prayed for a sign from Heaven that would grant permission to publish De Veritate, and was satisfied that he had received it.) Herbert treated Scripture as ordinary history, ridiculed bibliolatry, and overtly attacked priestcraft, and disavowed faith as a basis for religion. His De Religione Gentilium (1663) is one of the earliest studies of comparative religion.

Propagation of Deism

Although precise documentation is not available, deism was ripening between the time of Herbert and Blount, through such various and overlapping influences as humanism in general, the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, the idealism of Harrington, the naturalistic biblical exegesis of Benedict de Spinoza and others, the corruption of the clergy, the widespread religious rationalism of the Cambridge Platonists and other Latitudinarians, the "sweet reasonableness" of John Locke, and the scientific approach of Isaac Newtonall of which were contributing to religious and political toleration. By the close of the seventeenth century, a new and memorable influence was addedthe pervasive presence of the skepticism of Bayle. The first direct attack on British deism, Bishop Stillingfleet's Letter to a Deist (1677), acknowledges that owning to the being and providence of God but expressing "a mean esteem" of the Scriptures and the Christian religion had become a common theme.

Charles Blount

Beginning in 1679, Blount (16541693) was an indefatigable propagandist who, in the battle for freedom on all fronts, learned to resort to indirect methods in order to keep clear of the law. His Summary Account of the Deist's Religion (1693), which appeared posthumously during the same year in which he committed suicide, is his most outspoken work.

The year 1610 marks the last burning of heretics in England. Yet the matter of legal suppression of heterodox works is of vital importance in understanding and assessing the writings of the deists. The strict Press Licensing Act of 1662 was allowed to drop by 1695, but the blasphemy laws were still in effect. The ecclesiastical courts had the power to imprison heretics for a period of six months; in 1676 Lord Chief Justice Hale ruled that through common law the Court of King's Bench had jurisdiction over blasphemy, because Christianity is "parcel of the laws of England"; and finally, in 1698 a vicious statute was enacted under which any acknowledged Christian who made any accusation whatsoever against the Christian religion could be rendered incapable of holding office, of taking legal action, of purchasing land, and, if the blasphemy was repeated, would be made to suffer three years' imprisonment without bail. Such repressive measures drove the heterodox into various evasive techniques. Irony, innuendo, ridicule, raillery, allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, fictitious analogies, frequent use of the dialogue and epistolary forms, the claim to be "Christian deists," pseudonymity, and anonymity not only successfully hampered legal prosecution but also made it difficult for modern historians to ascertain the genuine beliefs of the writers.

After Herbert and Blount, the foremost British deists were John Toland, Anthony Collins, and Matthew Tindal, and of somewhat less consequence, William Wollaston, Thomas Woolston, Thomas Chubb, Thomas Morgan, Henry St. John Bolingbroke, and Peter Annet. Others, such as the earl of Shaftesbury and Bernard Mandeville, have been labeled deists with some justification, and many others without justification, even including orthodox clergymen who emphasized natural religion, expressed scruples about specific biblical passages or voiced doubts about specific biblical miracles.

John Toland

Toland (16701722) produced in 1696 his most famous deistical work, the very title of which spells out its major thesis: Christianity not Mysterious: Or a treatise Shewing That there is nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor above it: And that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call'd a Mystery. The treatise is basically rationalistic and is reminiscent of Herbert's De Veritate. It opposes not only biblical mysteries, but also challenges the validity of the biblical canon and points out corruptions in biblical texts. It mocks the implicit faith of the Puritans and their bibliolatry, and severely censures the vested interests of priests of all denominations. Philosophically, Toland was in the tradition of Giordano Bruno, René Descartes, Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and, to a lesser extent, of Locke. Eclectic and somewhat inconsistent in his opinions, he was a freethinker and a deist, a materialist and a pantheist (the first use of the word pantheist is found in 1705 in his Socinianism truly stated ). With his great learning, Toland became a figure of international renown, for the first time bringing deism to a wide reading public through a profusion of bold controversial publications.

Anthony Collins

Collins (16761729) was a well-to-do and well-educated gentleman and magistrate. At the age of twenty-seven he earned the respect and friendship of Locke. Two early works, An Essay concerning the Use of Reason (1707) and Priestcraft in Perfection (1709), prepared the way for the more famous Discourse of Free-Thinking (1713), in which the right to think and publish freely is examined chiefly as it pertains to religion. Enthusiasm and superstition are considered more evil than atheism; modern science and the Protestant Reformation are presented as examples of courageous freethinking that have relieved many from age-old errors, including witchcraft; and priests are blamed for trivial quarreling among themselves over biblical interpretations and are held responsible for many corrupt texts. An impressive list of freethinkers is furnished from the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews; from the Church Fathers; and from the moderns, ranging from Michel Eyquem de Montaigne to John Tillotson and Locke.

Collins defended his style of writing in A Discourse concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing (1727); his philosophical doctrine of necessitarianism (wherein he differs from the doctrine of free will espoused by most deists) is developed in a Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1715) and a Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity (1729); and his biblical criticism, mainly of the supposed fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the New Testament, in the Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724) and the Scheme of Literal Prophecy Considered (1725). Collins is unquestionably the most readable and urbane of the British deists.

Matthew Tindal

A law fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and advocate at Doctors' Commons, Tindal (1657?1733) was the most learned of the British deists, as well as the most significant historically. His Christianity as Old as the Creation: Or, The Gospel A Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730), composed in dialogue form, was at once recognized as "The Deist's Bible," and elicited over 150 replies, the most famous of which is Bishop Joseph Butler's The Analogy of Religion (1736). Although a declared admirer of Locke, Tindal deduces the being and attributes of God by a priori reason. As man reasons downward from the knowledge of the attributes of God to knowledge of himself, the religion of nature, including all the moral precepts requisite for leading the life of virtue and achieving ultimate salvation, then follows. Scripture, replete with ambiguities, is not only unnecessary but is actually confusing to men of reason; and according to Tindal, all men of whatever education or status in life are capable of Right Reason. Some Old Testament heroes are inspected in detail and are found wanting in virtue; even some New Testament parables are subjected to critical comment. Tradition is repudiated as a basis for Christianity, since it can be used equally as the basis for any and all religions. The customary deistical castigation of priestcraft is combined with this repudiation of tradition. Tindal, a rationalist, always maintained the title of "Christian deist."

lesser english deists

The remaining British deists, already named, each made some personal contribution to the movement, however small.

William Wollaston

A graduate of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Wollaston (16601724) took holy orders, but through the unexpected inheritance of a large fortune he was able to devote himself to moral philosophy and general learning. His The Religion of Nature Delineated (1724) was well received by Queen Caroline the Illustrious, as well as by the public at large. It was attacked, however, by the American deist Benjamin Franklin and was subjected to ridicule by Lord Bolingbroke, the British deist. Unlike most deistical treatises, it contains no biblical criticism of any sort. Almost purely rationalistic, it has obvious affinities, in a simplified form, with Herbert of Cherbury's religious Common Notions. Man knows truth (that is, things as they are) by means of reason; vice, or the denial of things as they are, is a lie. To seek happiness is man's duty, because happiness, or the excess of pleasure over pain, is part of man's approach to truth. Man is by nature not fundamentally selfish; his search for truth must take into account the happiness of others. It is altogether likely that Bishop Butler, in The Analogy of Religion, had Wollaston at least partly in mind when he reproved extreme religious rationalism as "that idle and not very innocent employment of forming imaginary models of a world, and schemes of governing it."

Thomas Woolston

Woolston (16701731), fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and Christian divine, was a deist of another stamp. A disciple of Anthony Collins, who had spearheaded the assault on biblical prophecies, Woolston extended the assault to biblical miracles. Influenced by the writings of the Greek Church Father Origen, he interpreted Scripture allegorically, was subsequently deemed out of his mind by his adversaries and, as a result, in 1720 was deprived of his fellowship. In 1705 he first employed the allegorical method in The Old Apology for the Truth of the Christian Religion against the Jews and Gentiles Revived, and later published a series of anticlerical tracts against those who spurned it. But it was a series of six Discourses On the Miracles of our Saviour, In View of the Present Contest between Infidels and Apostates (17271729) that brought prosecution by the government, ending in 1729 with a conviction of blasphemy. Sentenced to a fine of £100, imprisonment for one year, and security for good behavior during life, he died in jail in 1731, unable to pay the fine. A fighter for freedom of thought and publication for all, Woolston ironically fell the victim of his own principles. The six Discourses take a colloquial and frequently witty dialogue form, with a fictitious learned Jewish rabbi presenting Woolston's queries concerning fifteen New Testament miracles. Woolston's madness may possibly have been real (in which case his sentence was truly infamous), but his tracts read more like the strong convictions of a strong mind. He was one of two of the leading British deists (the other being Annet) to suffer punishment by the government.

Thomas Chubb

An Arian and "Christian deist," Chubb (16791746) was a self-educated and humble artisan. Writing for the common people, Chubb was also able to hold his own with the educated upper classes, divines, and scholars. He mastered the widespread rationalism of the early eighteenth century and propagated its basic ideas through prolific publication, as is observable in such works as A Discourse concerning Reason, With Regard to Religion and Divine Revelation (1731) and An Enquiry Into the Ground and Foundation of Religion. Wherein is shewn, that Religion is founded in Nature (1740). Another approach is taken in A Discourse on Miracles, Considered as evidence to prove the Divine Original of a Revelation (1741), a work influenced by Toland and Woolston. Although he is skeptical of the Hebrew revelation, Chubb is never skeptical of the Christian, as is manifested in The True Gospel of Jesus Christ asserted (1732) and The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Vindicated (1739). In these two tracts, Chubb employs natural religion as proof of Christian religion. He defends the miraculous propagation of primitive Christianity against the aspersions of the deist Tindal. A believer in free will, Chubb was answered at considerable length by the eighteenth-century American theologian Jonathan Edwards in A Careful and Strict Enquiry into The modern prevailing Notions of the Freedom of Will (1754).

Thomas Morgan

A Welsh "Christian deist," divine, and medical doctor, Morgan (d. 1743) came from a poor family (as did Chubb and Annet). Morgan combined the religious Common Notions of Lord Herbert with some of the principles of historical biblical criticism found in the writings of Toland and Chubb. He opposed Chubb, however, on the question of free will. Morgan's chief contributions to the deistical controversy are to be found in The Moral Philosopher, in a Dialogue between Philalethes, a Christian Deist, and Theophanes, a Christian Jew (1737), and its two sequels. His general historical criticism of Scripture stresses the many ambiguities that permit many different interpretations of biblical texts by believers who truly attempt to understand their significance. All history, therefore, is simply probability, and infallibility is fostered by priestcraft for selfish purposes. Toleration, reasonableness, and freedom are necessary to combat superstition and persecution.

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke

Tory statesman, historian, deist, and wit, Bolingbroke (16781751) left his philosophical and religious compositions to be published posthumously in 1754 by David Mallet. Regarded by Dr. Johnson as a "blunderbuss" against religion and morality, Bolingbroke's Works were regarded by Hume as unoriginal and feeble. In the twentieth century, Voltaire's long-alleged great indebtedness to Bolingbroke has been discredited, and the claim that Alexander Pope's Essay on Man was founded on Bolingbroke's Fragments or Minutes of Essays has been vigorously challenged. As a philosopher Bolingbroke is a rationalist, but a curiously inconsistent one. In one passage he states that only Right Reason can demonstrate the Being of Deity, yet in another, that only empiricism can prove the Being of Deity. Paradoxes abound: No universal revelation has ever been made, but modern religion can benefit by the study of primitive religionsfor example, of China and Egypt. Like all the deists, Bolingbroke regarded the baneful influence of priestcraft as a major cause of the corruption of religious texts and religious traditions. With Bolingbroke, the course of British rationalistic deism, stemming from that of Lord Herbert in the middle of the seventeenth century, up to the middle of the eighteenth century, had been pretty well played out, but there was always opportunity for remorseless repetition and intensified publicity.

Peter Annet

Schoolmaster Annet (16931769) may be regarded as the last of the old-line deists. An outspoken freethinker, Annet advocated the freedom to divorce and, in a long series of tracts, attacked the Resurrection of Jesus and the character and conversion of St. Paul. His truculent assault on the credibility of all miracles in general, and those of the Old Testament in particular, carried on in The Free Enquirer of 1761, brought a governmental charge of blasphemous libel to which Annet pleaded guilty. The inhumane sentence against a man aged seventy included imprisonment for a month, two pilloryings, hard labor for a year, a fine, and bonds of security for good behavior during life. Annet survived this flagrant miscarriage of justice with its attendant humiliation and returned to schoolmastering until his death. The ascription to him of the authorship of the notorious History of the Man after God's own Heart (1761) has been disproved by modern scholarship. Although he contributed little fresh to the deistical movement, Annet, like Chubb, wrote directly to the people in their own language.

the rationalistic climate of opinion

Little has been said so far about the rationalistic "orthodox" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, those Latitudinarians, who were closely akin to the deists, except on the one crucial point of raising objections against Christian revelation. Nevertheless, both groups were united in a contemptuous rejection of Tertullian's dictum, credo quia impossibile est ; in this respect, there was no warfare between reason and religion. In a 1670 defense of the orthodox rationalists, a Latitudinarian was succinctly defined as "a gentleman of a wide swallow."

Ralph Cudworth

Cudworth (16171688) may be taken as representative of the small but important band of Cambridge Platonists who sought to synthesize the spirit of Christianity with that of Greek philosophy by affirming that reason is spiritual as well as intellectual. Cudworth distinguishes between fundamental and nonfundamental religious doctrines: "I perswade myself, that no man shall ever be kept out of heaven, for not comprehending mysteries that were beyond the reach of his shallow understanding; if he had but an honest and good heart, that was ready to comply with Christ's commandments" (A Sermon before the House of Commons, March 31, 1647. ) In The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), Cudworth argues cogently against fatalism. His posthumous Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (1731) derives morality from natural law rather than from the positive precepts of revelation. Another member of the group, Benjamin Whichcote, states their position admirably: "If you would be religious, be rational in your religion." In short, the Cambridge Platonists stood for reason and moderation.

John Tillotson

Tillotson (16301694), archbishop of Canterbury and great champion of Anglicanism, employed rationalistic arguments against the Catholic use of tradition and authority. Observing that these same arguments could be turned against Christianity itself, the deists frequently seized upon Tillotson's authority and quoted his arguments in this new context. Collins went so far as to name him the man "whom all English free-thinkers own as their head."

the new science

It might be expected that the New Science, which had made such great strides from Nicolas Copernicus to Newton, would have precipitated warfare between science and religion as it did in the nineteenth century, following Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). But insofar as Britain was concerned, such was not the case, for Francis Bacon had enunciated the principle of a rigid dichotomy between science and religion that, on the whole, was adhered to during the seventeenth century. Indeed, science was more generally used as a bulwark for Christianity than the reversenotably, in the case of the Latitudinarians. Newton himself was a student of Old Testament prophecies and believed in the Scriptures as inerrant guides.

The "skeptical chemist" Robert Boyle wrote orthodox religious tracts, one of which had the ancillary purpose of proving that by being "addicted" to experimental philosophy, a man is assisted rather than indisposed to being a good Christian. In 1691 Boyle endowed a lectureship for the proof of the Christian religion against the attacks of infidels. Great efforts were made to replace a priori reasoning with the argument from design. Richard Bentley, the first Boyle Lecturer, corresponded with Newton in preparing The Folly of Atheism and what is now called Deism (1692). William Derham's two lectures, Physico-Theology (1713) and Astro-Theology (1715), continued the effort. Nevertheless, the bulk of the Boyle Lectures, from the beginning to 1732, are almost purely rationalistic, as, for example, Clarke's Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1704) and Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion, and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Religion (1705). Collins gibed that until Clarke's "demonstration" of the existence of God, nobody had doubted the fact; and Franklin, in his autobiography, acknowledged that he became a deist after reading some of the Boyle Lectures. The New Science, in effect, had relatively little influence on the course of the deistical controversy, since neither side squarely faced the problem of the relationship of science to religion.

the decline and fall of reason

Rationalistic refutations of deism were prolific and formidable but achieved relatively little because they had so much in common with those of deism. Tindal had forced upon the apologists acceptance of the natural sufficiency of reason in theology. Thus, if deism was to be defeated, it had to be from a citadel other than that of an infallible and universal reason. One of the infrequent replies to Tindal's direct challenge, "Dare any say that God is an Arbitrary Being, and His laws not founded on the eternal reason of things?" (Christianity as Old as the Creation ) was The Case of Reason, Or Natural Religion Fairly and Fully Stated (1731). Its pietistic author, William Law (16861761), better remembered for his A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729) and as a forerunner of John Wesley (17031791), totally disavowed Right Reason in the areas of morality and religion, and argued for historical evidence and implicit faith.

Bishop Joseph Butler (16921752) offered in the Rolls Sermons (1726) an important revaluation of the authority of conscience and in the Analogy of Religion (1736) a matter-of-fact defense of Christianity; he sought to prove by analogy that all deistical objections against revelation were equally applicable to natural religion. The danger of this argument (which employed some of the methods of science and of Lockean empiricism) was that it might conceivably drive readers to become skeptical of both kinds of religion, to espouse atheism, or to retreat into implicit faith.

Bishop George Berkeley's (16851753) Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher (1732), with its subtitle "Containing an Apology for the Christian religion against those who are called Freethinkers," is a brilliant series of polemical dialogues, but it contains little of his highly controversial and much misunderstood philosophical denial of abstract ideas and of "matter," for which Berkeley was frequently accused of being a skeptic. His The Analyst (1734), addressed to an "infidel mathematician" (presumably Edmund Halley), adopts the hazardous method of defending orthodoxy by asserting that the axioms of mathematics are as irrational and incomprehensible as the mysteries of Christianity.

Law and Butler had paved the way for antirationalistic assaults on deism, the former through faith, the latter through matter of fact. The argument for faith was implemented in Christianity Not Founded on Argument (1742) by Henry Dodwell ("the younger"), who had as little use for historical proofs as for intellectual proofs. According to Dodwell, the Boyle Lectures, like all rationalistic efforts, had only succeeded in spreading infidelity; external proofs have no real evidential value; probability reigns; so in the final analysis, there is no other way to approach religion, than to believe because you wish to believe. With Dodwell's appeal to emotionalism, the "enthusiasm" of Wesley was just around the corner.

Conyers Middleton (16831750), Anglican clergyman, and equally antirationalistic, pressed the historical argument against external proof of the validity of religious claims in his Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church from the Earliest Ages through several successive Centuries (1749). Professedly denying the supernatural powers associated with the growth of Catholicism, Middleton could scarcely have been unaware that the same arguments could also be used to attack Gospel miracles, and that there is in actuality no breach between sacred and profane history.

Fatal blows to the Age of Reason (as differentiated from the Age of Enlightenment) came simultaneously on two levelsintellectually, from Hume and emotionally, from Wesley. What might be termed the deistical side of Hume can most readily be seen in "Of Miracles" and "Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State" (1748), "The Natural History of Religion (1757), and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779), the last of which comes to the purposefully lame conclusion "that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence." Natural religion, whether of the rationalistic or matter-of-fact variety, can lead only to doubt, uncertainty, and suspension of judgment. In reality, of course, Hume was no deist, but rather an antideist, a skeptic who destroyed the vulnerable a priori basis of deism.

At about the same time, Wesley attacked deism through "enthusiasm," the doctrine of continuous personal inspiration and inner conversion of the soul: "By grace are ye saved through faith." The fatal blows had been delivered; the Age of Reason had fallen and deism was dead. Or was it? The question will be taken up after brief considerations of deism in France, Germany, and America.

Deism on the Continent

The term Enlightenment was unknown in Britain during the eighteenth century, although its spirit was plainly manifest. When it did appear in the nineteenth century, it was employed in the derogatory sense of shallow and pretentious intellectualism coupled with unreasonable contempt for tradition and authority. In eighteenth-century France and Germany, on the contrary, full-fledged movements of Éclaircissement and Aufklärung were under way and were winning important intellectual and political victories. The present section will confine itself, insofar as possible, to religion and will deal with only a few predominant thinkers.


Without stopping to investigate such sixteenth-century precursors as Jean Bodin, Rabelais, Pierre Charron, and Montaigne, or such seventeenth-century precursors as Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and Bayle, it is well to proceed directly to François-Marie Arouet, universally known as Voltaire (16941778), the greatest of the French deists. Banishment to England (17261729) by order of the ancien régime put the already widely known poet, playwright, philosophe (and later, historian and novelist) into the scientific atmosphere of Newton, the philosophical and religious atmosphere of Locke and some of the earlier deists (Voltaire had already known Bolingbroke in France), and the literary neoclassical atmosphere of Jonathan Swift and Pope. Much impressed by the relatively tolerant attitudes of the English as compared to the rigid censorship of the ancien régime, Voltaire published in London in 1733 Letters concerning the English Nation. A surreptitiously arranged French version of 1734, Lettres philosophiques, speedily burned by the common hangman, was Voltaire's first bombshell against governmental and church tyranny. Thereafter, his remorseless battle cry of Écrasez l'infâme! was to be heard throughout a long life of polemic.

Although he consistently used the word theist in reference to himself, Voltaire was a deist in the tradition of the British deists, never attacking the existence of Deity but always the corruptions of church and priestcraft. As late as 1770, in a letter to Frederick the Great voicing strong disapproval of the avowed atheism of many of the philosophes, Voltaire repeated his conviction that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. The Lettres philosophiques eulogizes the Quakers as ideal deists for their freedom of thought and their freedom from dogmatism and clericism; attacks Blaise Pascal's Pyrrhonism, which leaves man only the alternative of implicit faith; praises the philosophical empiricism and religious reasonableness of Locke; and seeks to convert the scientists of France to the Newtonian system. Other writings on religion and morality, Poème sur la loi naturelle and Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, both of 1756, as well as the famous novel Candide (1759), assail the doctrine of philosophical optimism and, indeed, of divine benevolence. Believing as he did in a natural religion based on reason, Voltaire's chief onslaughts were upon dogmatism, superstition, fanaticism, and tyranny. His Traité sur la tolérance (1763), a classic denunciation of oppression, occasioned by the infamous Calas affaire of 1762, was followed in 1764 by the witty and effective Dictionnaire philosophique. Like most of the so-called deists, Voltaire was fundamentally a humanist seeking to better the condition of humankind.

jean-jacques rousseau

Novelist, political writer, deist, philosophe and anti-philosophe, Rousseau (17121778) remains one of the most inscrutable literary and philosophical geniuses of all timea supreme individualist doting upon his own uniqueness. Born a Protestant, he became a Catholic, and finally a deist. His Confessions reveals that it was the reading of Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques that first incited him to study, to think, and to become a dedicated man of letters.

In touching solely upon Rousseau's role as a deist, it is fitting to examine the "Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar," part of the fourth book of Émile, ou de l'éducation (1762). The first book had opened with the affirmation that everything is good as it comes from the Author of all things, but that everything degenerates in the hands of man. The fourth book seeks to develop and clarify this thesis, using, for prudential purposes, a vicar as spokesman. Jettisoning metaphysical proofs of God and subscribing to no strict system, the vicar simply feels God within himself, as a world governor of will, intelligence, power, and goodness. This beneficent deity is to be worshiped from the heart, and not through artificial forms. Yet it is paradoxically evident that while mere animals are happy, superior man is miserable. Why? asks the vicar. He replies to his own question that far from being a simple uncompounded creature, man is actually a being of contradictions. Self-love is natural to him, but a sense of justice or conscience or inner light is innate; he has the power to will things, but does not always exert this power to enforce his will.

Man, therefore, is the author of evil: Born good, he acquires vice. God, infinitely powerful, is infinitely good and supremely just. To emulate God in seeking justice is man's only source of happiness. In this respect, natural religion, learned through conscience, is sufficient. Christian revelation, on the one hand, is fraught with difficulty, mystery, obscurity, and dogma. Its majesty, sublimity, and beauty, on the other hand, bear witness to its divinity: It is not a manmade invention; indeed, it remained Rousseau's "pillow-book" throughout life. Rousseau, in brief, is a sentimental and primitivistic, rather than a "hard," rationalistic deist. Yet, in substance, his "soft" sentimental deism is actually not far removed from the religious Common Notions of Lord Herbert or even from Spinoza's Doctrines of Universal Faith.

Rousseau's device of using the Savoyard vicar as spokesman for his own deism was unsuccessful; Émile was publicly burned and an order was issued for the arrest of the author, who was forced to flee the country. Except for his much later autobiographical writings, Émile was Rousseau's last major work.


Aside from Voltaire, who subscribed to "hard" deism, and Rousseau, who dispensed the "soft" variety, the philosophes were not deists at all. To them, deism was but the starting point on the road to atheism. Their militant atheism, as well as their dogmatic belief in constant and inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man, shocked Gibbon and Hume, and greatly disturbed both Voltaire and Rousseau. The names of Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot (editors of the Encyclopédie ), Baron d'Holbach (and his "atheistical club"), Claude-Adrien Helvétius, F. M. Grimm, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, and Marquis de Condorcet can hardly be excluded from the list of atheistical philosophes or, at least, those well on the road to atheism. Deism in France, although considerably influenced by deism in England, was much more extreme both religiously and politically, simply because England had already made considerable social progress. In France, deism was part and parcel of the general move toward materialism, freedom of thought and publication, freedom from the tyranny of the ancien régime in the affairs of state and church, that ultimately exploded in the Revolution.

deism in germany

The course of the Aufklärung differed in major respects from the analogous movements in Britain and France, and developed later. Under the domination of the earlier Leibniz-Wolff philosophy, rational supernaturalism generally prevailed. After 1740 (the year of the accession of Frederick the Great, the first modern freethinking king), numerous translations of the British deists and of their orthodox refuters (as indicated in G. W. Alberti's Briefe betreffend den allerneusten Zustand der Religion und der Wissenschaften in Gross-Brittannien of 17521754, J. A. Trinius's Freydenker-Lexicon of 1759, and U. G. Thorschmid's Freidenker-Bibliothek of 17651767) introduced a new influence. Although the German philosophes were widely read, there was little of French radicalism in either their religious or political thinking. Among out-and-out deists (called Freidenkers, or Freethinkers), the names of Karl Bahrdt, Johann Eberhard, Johann Edelmann, and Hermann Samuel Reimarus must be mentioned.

Hermann Samuel Reimarus

The apology of Reimarus (16941768) for natural religion as opposed to atheism and materialism, written in 1755, was Englished in 1766 as The Principal Truths of Natural Religion Defended and Illustrated. His direct attacks on Christianity, through a painstaking study of New Testament texts, included "On the Object of Jesus and His Apostles" and "On the Story of the Resurrection," and were published posthumously (17741778) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as Fragments of an Anonymous Work found at Wolfenbüttel.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Lessing (17291781), distinguished man of letters and author of the Laokoon (1766) and Nathan the Wise (1779), was a freethinker in the nonabusive sense of the term. He should probably not be classified as a typical deist, since he professed belief in natural revelation in his last publication, The Education of the Human Race (1780), and at the close of his life he is said to have privately acknowledged pantheistic beliefs. Lessing's lifelong friend Moses Mendelssohn (17291786), a Jewish freethinker, is customarily classified as a deist in the loose usage of the term.

Immanuel Kant

The case of Immanuel Kant (17241804), the greatest of the German philosophers, is highly instructive. Born and educated as a religious Pietist, he came under the influence of Newtonian physics and always remained interested in science. In theology his three most famous critiques, stimulated by the "mitigated scepticism" of Hume, agree with Hume in principle. The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) presses beyond Hume in criticizing proofs of the existence of God; the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) is concerned with moral experience in natural religion; and the Critique of Judgement (1790), in a sense, mediates between the first two. Kant's position as a "Christian deist," however, is best expressed in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (17921794). The limits of religion, basically naturalistic, are set in conscience or practical religion. Christianity is stripped of mystery and tradition and is treated as a purely moral religionin fact, the only purely moral one; God is the moral Creator of the world, and it is the duty of the good man to worship him. Kant's transcendental philosophy is beyond the scope of this entry, but it is relevant to say that Kant was the leader of the Aufklärung, which he defined as the freeing of man from the self-imposed bondage of the mind, and proclaimed as its motto sapere aude ("dare to know").

Deism in the United States

The works of the British deists, as well as those of the defenders of the faith, were well known in American intellectual circles, commencing with the second quarter of the eighteenth century. In the latter half of the century, Voltaire's "hard" deism and, especially, Rousseau's "soft" deism were widely disseminated; but the atheism of the philosophes made little headway. The Great Awakening, triggered by the preaching of Edwards in 1734 and bolstered by the preaching of the English Methodist George Whitefield, militated against orthodox Puritanism and in favor of republicanism both in religion and politics, but the atmosphere of rationalism still prevailed. Before the Revolution, however, deism made relatively little progress. Among the intelligentsia at Harvard, nevertheless, the Dudleian Lectures were established in 1755 for the purpose of explicating natural religion. Alarms sounded by the orthodox that deism was sweeping the country were unjustified. However, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and the French alliance at the time of the Revolution undeniably quickened the spread of radical Gallic ideas.

major american deists

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin (17061790), man of letters, scientist, and diplomatist, as early as 1723 acknowledged himself a deist to intimate friends but circumspectly continued church attendance throughout life, thereby setting the conservative pattern followed by most of the leaders of the colonial and Revolutionary periods. In London in 1725 Franklin published his Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain in opposition to the free-will doctrine of the British deist Wollaston. However, Franklin shortly repudiated and suppressed this juvenile work. When he was about twenty-two, he drafted "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion," a creed not unlike Lord Herbert of Cherbury's religious Common Notions and one that sustained him for life. Prudence and practicality characterize all of Franklin's publications and actions. Poor Richard's Almanack (17321757) is the essence of common sense, or how to get along in the world without unduly disturbing society; his list of virtues by no means coincides with the Christian virtues.

Thomas Jefferson

Framer of the Declaration of Independence, diplomatist, vice president and twice president of the United States, and member of the Episcopal Church, Jefferson (17431826) was in reality a deist, rationalist, and, above all, a humanitarian. He compiled but never published what later came to be known as The Jefferson Bible, being The Life and Morals of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. This little work, a cento of clippings from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John pasted in a blankbook, extols Jesus as a man for his moral teachings, omits ambiguous and controversial passages, and, while rejecting many of the supernatural elements, presents the core of Christian morality and is genuinely religious in tone. Religion, for Jefferson as well as for Franklin, was essentially a utilitarian moral code.

George Washington

Washington (17321799), general and first president of the United States, was a deist of a similar stripe. Although he always maintained a church pew, he was one of the leading statesmen who advocated total separation of state and church and who saw to it that no reference to Christianity or even to Deity was made in the Constitution. In answer to a direct question from a Muslim potentate in Tripoli, Washington acquiesced in the declaration of Joel Barlow, then American consul in Algiers, that "the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Thomas Paine

Born in England, Paine (17371809) arrived in America in 1774, bearing a letter of introduction from Franklin. A political theorist, diplomatist, and man of letters, Paine was a deist, but not overtly until the publication in Paris of his The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (17941796). The first of its two books, intended to rescue deism from the reigning French atheism, is a more or less scientific assault upon revealed religion in general as being supererogatory to natural religion. The second book carries the attack directly to both the Old and New Testaments, arguing that the Bible is not the word of God and depicting Christianity as a species of atheism. Paine wrote vigorously and extensively and was outspoken in carrying his message to the common people, whose battles he had fought on the political, social, and economic fronts as well. In The Age of Reason the battleground was not new but was considerably enlarged from that of any earlier British deist. The work offended readers in France and shocked many in England and America who were laboring under the delusion that the deistical controversy was over and that orthodoxy had triumphed. Paine was rewarded for his efforts by banishment from England and by social obloquy in America. The patriot who throughout a long and turbulent career had accomplished so much for the new country, the man who had so vigorously combated atheism, was held to be an atheist, infidel, radical, and drunkard.

lesser american deists

Paine was not the first acknowledged American deist, for the year 1784 produced Reason the Only Oracle of Man, or a Compendious System of Natural Religion. Its author, Ethan Allen (17381789), Revolutionary hero and leader of the Green Mountain Boys, had acquired his deism through early reading of the British deists. His book is flagrantly anticlerical and anti-Christian; he argues that a rationalistic universal religion of nature that provides the fundamentals of morality is all-sufficient and needs no supplementation. Both the Hebraic and the Christian testaments are subjected to ridicule. Like Paine, Allen was not so much an original thinker as a fearless propagandist.

Beginning in 1793, the blind ex-Baptist preacher Elihu Palmer (17641806) led a fiery deistical campaign from the lecture platform and by publication against the divine authority of the Bible. In 1794 he rushed to the defense of Paine's Age of Reason and in 18011802 published Principles of Nature; or, a Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species. From 1803 to 1805 he edited a weekly deistical paper, Prospect; or, View of the Moral World. Palmer also organized the Deistical Society of New York. With his many speeches and tracts designed to disseminate deism among the lower classes, Palmer was a most unusual deist, in that he was deliberately leading a popular crusade.

Philip Freneau (17521832), writer of patriotic verse, was also the American poet of the religion of nature and humanity, and his ideas were close to those of Paine. The very titles of such poems as "Belief and Unbelief: Humbly recommended to the serious consideration of creed makers," "On the Uniformity and Perfection of Nature," "On the Religion of Nature," tell their own story, without need of commentary.

decline of deism

During the eighteenth century, Puritanism in America had begun to crumble under the combined attacks of the Great Awakening, Methodism, and deism. "The Triumph of Infidelity" (1788), the poem by Timothy Dwight, orthodox president of Yale University, bears weak witness to the strength of deism. Shortly after 1800 deism became submerged in a revival of enthusiastic evangelism, particularly in the frontier areas, where intellectual attainments were hardly predominant. In New England, Unitarianism began making headway under the influence of Joseph Priestley, who in 1794 had immigrated from England. But elsewhere emotionalism, conservatism, reaction, and fideism were triumphant.

The Legacy of Deism

Historical deism, a term of many connotations, was essentially rationalism applied to religion, and as such was the counterpart to literary neoclassicism. Deism and neoclassicism flourished at approximately the same time, both stressing universality and shying away from particularity. In deism, this cardinal point meant that from the very beginning the Hebraic and Christian revelations were suspect, if not invariably attacked. Deism primarily put forth the view that the aim of religion is morality and that anything traditionally taught beyond morality is superfluous. The widely accepted distinction between constructive deism and critical deism, or, as it has also been put, deism before Locke and deism after Locke, or humanistic deism as opposed to scientific deism, will not survive the careful scrutiny and evaluation of leading deistical texts. Yet the prime position of Right Reason in deism did not prevent empiricism, in the form of scholarly examination of Scriptural texts and historicism, from assuming increasingly important roles. Edward Gibbon's purely naturalistic investigation into the early progress and establishment of the Christian religion in the famous (or infamous) fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Vol. I, 1776) was manifestly influenced, not only by the philosophical skepticism of Hume, but also by the somewhat crude historical investigations of a number of the deists themselves.

One general development of the deistical movement, therefore, was the rise of "the higher criticism": The Bible was no longer deemed sacrosanct, and its verbal inspiration no longer dogmatically assumed. A second development was the greatly intensified study of comparative religion. A third development was the rise of "the philosophy of religion," spurred on by Hume's demonstration that no matter of fact, including the existence of God, can be proved a priori.

In actuality, deism did not die; it did not even fade away, and it still exists in fact, though perhaps not in name, for those who say (with Voltaire) that there must be a God and those who say (with Rousseau) that they know there is a God. Nor was deism vanquished, as has so often been asserted, by the superior talents of its orthodox opponents, by the exhaustion of the subject, or by the incapacities of its protagonists: Certainly, among the English, at least, Toland, Collins, and Tindal were the intellectual equals of most of their adversaries. By and large, both orthodox and heterodox alike were rational theists of a somewhat naive variety. Charles Leslie's Short and Easy Method with the Deists of 1696 proved, in actuality, neither short nor easy. The deists were long subjected to the odium theologicum, and the historians of the movement have almost without exception downgraded or slandered them socially as well as intellectually since the time of John Leland in the mid-eighteenth century. Even the foremost rationalists of the nineteenth century, Mark Pattison and Leslie Stephen (the latter produced the most complete and erudite history to date) are condescending. Rarely have the achievements of deism been acknowledged and appreciated, and then only in passing, in brief comments from specialized monographs, articles, and encyclopedia entries. No really satisfactory, complete, impartial, and scholarly account of the significance of the movement has as yet appeared.

Deism had somewhat different effects in different countries, depending on the different national cultural situations. By the close of the eighteenth century in England, it seemed, superficially at least, to have disappeared or gone underground. Yet in 1790, when Burke triumphantly asked, "Who born within the last forty years has read one word of Collins and Toland, and Tindal, and Chubb, and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers? Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through?" he was historically mistaken and premature in his inference. For in the nineteenth century, radical publishers such as William Benbow, William Hone, and, most notably, Richard Carlile (17901843), all of whom were political as well as religious reformers, flooded the popular market with periodicals (for example, The Deist; or Moral Philosopher, 18191820), pamphlets, and cheap reprints and excerpts from freethinkers of all ages, including the whole range of the British deists, the skeptical Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau of France, and Paine and Palmer of America. The campaign was continued by others throughout the nineteenth century and survives in the present century on a higher intellectual level by affiliations with Unitarianism, Fabian socialism, and rationalist and humanistic societies, among others.

In France, the true deism of Voltaire and Rousseau was overwhelmed by the atheism of most of the philosophes, a doctrine which inevitably contributed to the upheaval of the French Revolution. The course of these eighteenth-century developments may be said to be paralleled today, on the one hand, by widespread atheism and, on the other, by the militant anticlericism of even many of the devout. In Germany, early intellectual deism was followed by both the fideism of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and a new post-Humean variety of rationalism which began with Kant and the romanticists of the following century.

In America, deism was long submerged by evangelism among the semiliterate masses and by Unitarianism among the well educated. An aggressive antireligionism resurged in the 1870s with Robert Ingersoll, "the great agnostic," and a host of followers, such as William Brann in Texas in the 1890s with his world-famous newspaper Brann's Iconoclast. Today, rationalist and humanistic societies and Unitarianism are omnipresent.

With few exceptions, deists in all countries have been interested in political and social reform, and with the passage of time it has become virtually impossible to isolate the purely religious aspects. Deism remains a symptom of revolt against orthodoxy and dogmatism.

By way of summary and possible oversimplification, deism is the individual's affirmation of his right to think for himself on all subjects and to communicate his thoughts to others for the general welfare. It is the affirmation of the principle of the oneness of humanity. It marks the rise of secularism and the beginning of modernity in theology. In this sense it is still viable, and although freethinking today claims a philosophical substratum different from the simple rationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is akin in spirit to historical deism. The early rise of deism in all countries was strongly abetted by the growth of the spirit of toleration, and deism, in its turn, has strongly contributed to the continued growth and acceptance of toleration of other views. Perhaps, in the most universal sense, this is the major legacy of historical deism to the modern world.


useful anthologies

Berlin, Isaiah, ed. The Age of Enlightenment. New York: New American Library, 1956.

Brinton, Crane, ed. The Portable Age of Reason Reader. New York: Viking Press, 1956.

Creed, John M., and John S. Boys Smith, eds. Religious Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1934.

Fellows, Otis E., and Norman L. Torrey, eds. The Age of Enlightenment. New York: Crofts, 1942.

Gay, Peter, ed. Deism: An Anthology. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1968.

Hampshire, Stuart, ed. The Age of Reason: The 17th Century Philosophers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.

Torrey, Norman L., ed. Les philosophes. New York: Capricorn, 1960.

general histories

Betts, C. J. Early Deism in France: From the So-Called "Déistes" of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire's "Lettres Philosophiques." (1734). Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1984.

Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: The Legacy of Deism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Herrick, James. The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 16801750. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Lechler, Gotthard V. Geschichte des englischen Deism. Stuttgart, 1841.

Leland, John. A View of the Principal Deistical Writers that have appeared in England in the last and present Century. 3rd ed. 3 vols. London, 17541756. Early, voluminous, and vituperative apologetics.

Orr, John. English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1934. Discursive, not too sound.

Sayous, Edouard. Les déistes anglais et le christianisme, 16961738. Paris, 1882.

Stephen, Leslie. English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. 2 vols. London, 1876; revised, 1902; paperback, New York, 1963. Vol. I is most scholarly study available but with a curious personal animus.

Walters, Kerry. The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992.

general historical background

Abbey, C. J., and J. H. Overton. The English Church in the Eighteenth Century. 2 vols. London, 1878.

Becker, Carl L. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1932. Becker's brilliant paradox has dimmed over the years.

Bury, J. B. A History of Freedom of Thought. New York: Holt, 1913.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951, and Boston, 1955.

Colie, R. L. Light and Enlightenment: A Study of the Cambridge Platonists and the Dutch Arminians. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Cragg, G. R. From Puritanism to the Age of Reason. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

Farrar, A. S. Critical History of Free Thought. London: Murray, 1862.

Hall, Thomas C. The Religious Background of American Culture. Boston: Little Brown, 1930.

Havens, George R. The Age of Ideas. New York: Holt, 1955.

Hazard, Paul. La crise de la conscience européenne. 3 vols. Paris: Boivin, 1935.

Hazard, Paul. La pensée européenne au XVIIIe siècle. 3 vols. Paris, 1946. Both of Hazard's works are brilliantly comprehensive.

Humphreys, A. R. The Augustan World. London: Methuen, 1954. Useful survey.

Hunt, John. Religious Thought in England from the Reformation to the End of the Last Century. 3 vols. London: Strahan, 18701873.

Jordan, Wilbur K. Development of Religious Toleration in England, 4 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 19321940. Highly important.

Lecky, W. E. M. History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe. 2 vols. in one. London, 1910. Valuable.

Martin, Kingsley. French Liberal Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Boston, 1929.

M'Giffert, Arthur C. Protestant Thought before Kant. London, 1919.

Parrington, Vernon L. Main Currents in American Thought. 3 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace, 19271930.

Popkin, Richard, and Argo Vanderjagt, eds. Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1993.

Robertson, J. M. A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century. 2 vols. London: Watts, 1929.

Robertson, J. M. A Short History of Freethought Ancient and Modern. 3rd ed. 2 vols. London, 1915. Both works are indispensable.

Smith, Preserved. A History of Modern Culture. 2 vols. New York, 19301934. Wide coverage.

Tulloch, John. Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1872.

Urwin, Kenneth. A Century for Freedom. London: Watts, 1946.

Willey, Basil. The Eighteenth Century Background. London: Chatto and Windus, 1940. Somewhat superficial.

specialized studies

Aldridge, Alfred O. "Shaftesbury and the Deist Manifesto." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 41 (2) (1951): 297385.

Biddle, John. "Locke's Critique of Innate Principles and Toland's Deism." Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 411422.

Boller, Paul F., Jr. George Washington & Religion. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963.

Bushell, Thomas. The Sage of Salisbury: Thomas Chubb, 16791747. New York: Philosophical Library, 1967.

Cole, G. D. H. Richard Carlile. London: Gollancz, 1943.

Courtines, Leo P. Bayle's Relations with England and the English. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.

Cunliffe, Christopher, ed. Joseph Butler's Moral and Religious Thought: Tercentenary Essays. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Daniel, Stephen. John Toland: His Methods, Manners and Mind. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984.

Fruchtman, Jack. Thomas Paine and the Religion of Nature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Harkness, Douglas. Bolingbroke: The Man and his Career. London: Staples Press, 1957.

Hefelbower, S. G. The Relation of John Locke to English Deism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918.

Koch, G. Adolf. Republican Religion: The American Revolution and the Cult of Reason. New York: Holt, 1933. Indispensable.

Lovejoy, A. O. "The Parallel of Deism and Classicism." Modern Philology 29 (1932): 281299. Important.

Luke, Hugh J., Jr. Drams for the Vulgar: A Study of Some Radical Publishers and Publications of Early Nineteenth-Century London. Unpublished PhD dissertation. University of Texas, 1963.

Merrill, Walter. From Statesman to Philosopher: A Study in Bolingbroke's Deism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.

Morais, Herbert M. Deism in Eighteenth Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.

Mossner, Ernest C. Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

Noack, Ludwig. Die Freidenker in der Religion. 3 vols. Bern, 18531855.

Pattison, Mark. "Tendencies of Religious Thought in England." In Essays and Reviews. London, 1860.

Popkin, Richard H. "Scepticism in the Enlightenment." Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Geneva, xxiv/xxvii (1963): 13211345.

Redwood, J. "Charles Blount (165493), Deism, and English Free Thought." Journal of the History of Ideas 35 (1974): 490498.

Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, edited by Paul Edwards. London: Allen and Unwin, 1957.

Salvatorelli, Luigi. From Locke to Reitzenstein: The Historical Investigation of the Origins of Christianity. Cambridge, MA, 1930.

Stromberg, Roland N. Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Oxford University Press, 1954. Sound survey.

Sullivan, Robert E. John Toland and the Deist Controversy: A Study in Adaptations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Tennant, F. R. Miracle & Its Philosophical Presuppositions. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1925.

Torrey, Norman L. Voltaire and the English Deists. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930. Indispensable.

Webb, Clement C. J. Studies in the History of Natural Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1915.

Winnett, A. R. "Were the Deists 'Deists'?" Church Quarterly Review 161 (1960): 7077. Makes distinction between philosophical and historical deists.

Yolton, John W. John Locke and the Way of Ideas. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Ernest Campbell Mossner (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)


views updated May 11 2018


Deism holds more meanings than one word should be asked to bear. Generally, to the point of almost being meaningless, it refers to the notion that reason plays an important role in determining religious knowledge. By this definition the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Cicero, Lucretius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all qualify to varying degrees as Deists. With more historical precision the term embraces the religious philosophy of the Enlightenment. But there is a wide range of meanings here too. To religious traditionalists, Deists were effectively atheists. To atheists and materialists, Deism represented a half-realized understanding of the universe. For those who would not have balked had the word been applied to themhardly anyone in the eighteenth century self-identifies as a "Deist"it signified belief in a God who could be known by naturally given reason rather than solely by revelation.

But even among this last group the word contained many antinomies. Some Deists upheld the authority of the church; others aggressively criticized customary religious thought and practice. Some used reason to develop more rigorous methods of biblical criticism; others argued that rather than texts, reason in nature offers the proper route to religious truth. Almost all Deists denied God's providence; but a few retained the vestiges of providentialism by virtue of their reasoned belief that God maintained an active, judging presence in the universe. Deism held positive meaning both for moderate Enlightenment figures and those who belong more properly in what the historian Margaret Jacob twenty years ago called the "Radical Enlightenment"; it held negative meanings for traditionalists as well as nonbelievers. The object of this entry will therefore be to explain this word's various meanings more fully by looking closely at how and in whose hands those meanings changed over time.

Early History

The word déiste carried a negative valence in its first appearance in the Lausanne reformer Pierre Viret's (15111571) Instruction chrestienne (1564). Viret recognized a difference between Deism and atheism, if only in seeing the latter as the superlative of the former, but by déiste he was likely referring to a group of Lyonnaise anti-Trinitarians rather than those who would later be identified by their rejection of Christian revelation. The word's emergence in the mid-sixteenth century was, whatever its precise referent, not accidental. Much like early modern skepticism, Deistic ideas were fueled by four major changes associated with the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: the ongoing recovery of works from antiquity; European encounters with non-European cultures; the confessional conflicts, both conceptual and material, that followed the Protestant and Catholic Reformations; and the spread of experimental science. All had the effect of destabilizing certainties and encouraging some men and women to recover fundamental truths from doubt. And all contributed to the context in which cultural conservatives hurled "Deist" as a term of abuse in their various attempts to confute heterodox ideas and restore unsettled epistemological foundations.

The effects of these four destabilizing changes shaped the earliest expression of arguments that prefigure Enlightenment Deism, which were published in De veritate (1624) by the English ambassador to France, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (15831648). Herbert argued that "common notions" would ultimately lead men and women of any religious upbringing to worship God piously, avoid sin, and intuit divine justice. Reason given to us by nature, in other words, could rescue belief from skepticism. The argument seemed flimsy to René Descartes (15961650) and Pierre Gassendi (15921655), much as in a later form it would strike Hume as entirely empty. But the notion that we all have the capacity to understand religious truth regardless of culture and tradition became a compelling central assumption of later Deists.

British Deism

The high point of Deism began in Britain in the wake of the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. The conflicts of the 1640s and the republican experiment of the 1650s opened up a social and cultural space in which the nature of government, God, gender, and virtually every other worthwhile topic under the sun were called into question. Countless tracts printed after church and state censorship collapsed in the early 1640s assailed religious authority and gave primacy over religion to reason. When this period of kingless rule ended in 1660 with the return of Charles II (16301685), the religious experimentalism and enthusiasm of the 1640s and 1650s came to be associated by many with social and political instability. But Deistic ideas were nevertheless out of the bag. The splintering that would later be evident within the ranks of Deistic thinkers reflects this ambivalence about the midcentury crisis and its larger meaning. On the one hand, moderate Deists, who borrowed conservatively from the various radicalisms of the 1640s and 1650s, sought to maintain a balance between reason and religion in order to make religion less intense, more sociable, and more conducive to social and political stability. On the other hand, radical Deists with more undiluted intellectual links to the midcentury's most extreme ideasatheism and materialismwere less bothered by the religious consequences of the rigorous application of reason to revelation.

The paragons of moderate Deistic arguments were the Enlightenment's two discursive founders: Isaac Newton (16421727), born the year civil war broke out, and John Locke (16321704), the intellectual product of the nexus of puritan selfhood, parliamentary government, and experimental science. Newton ascribed supreme importance to his investigations into natural phenomena because they brought him closer to the God who set the universe in motion; how active God was in his creation would continue to be a divisive issue for Newtonians. Locke captured in the title of his The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695) his basic idea that rational interpretations of our perceptions can lead to the fundamental truths expressed in the Bible. Those same changes we noted with respect to skepticism were also at work here. Both men embraced experimental science and had a stake in securing the stability of the nation after the revolutions of 1688 to 1691, which, like the conflict four decades earlier, also stemmed from religious divisions. And if the influence of ancient ideas was showing early signs of waning, Locke was intensely interested in cultural variation, which led him to seek basic truths about the human mind that held in varied cultural conditions.

Almost as soon as Newton and Locke defined their moderate brand of Deism, radicals began to apply reason to religion more strenuously. A "Deist controversy" in printed tracts and sermonic literature erupted with the publication of Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) by the Irish-born Protestant convert and likely son of a Catholic priest, John Toland (16701722). His work appeared not accidentally a year after censorship became a nonissue after the lapsing of the Licensing Act of 1695. Toland drew from radical thinkers such as Spinoza, Gerrard Winstanley, Epicurus, and Giordano Bruno (none of whom should be classified as a Deist), but he was also the logically extreme product of Newton and Locke. Newton and Locke had argued that by reason we come to a closer understanding of the fundamental truths of Christianity; Toland deduced that if a religion's reasonableness could not be established, one had license to explore bettermore reasonablereligious or even nonreligious options.

More than anyone, Toland gave Deism a deconstructive edge. He questioned the authenticity of the New Testament and argued that the Jews were originally Egyptians, while also controverting Britain's legally institutionalized anti-Semitism. Toland himself became, by his own neologism, a "pantheist," but his ideas were picked up by others who shared his Whig politics, animosity for priestcraft, and gifts for persuasive writing. Another son of a cleric, Matthew Tindal, undercut biblical authority when he wrote that "it's an odd jumble to prove the truth of a book by the truth of the doctrines it contains, and at the same time conclude those doctrines to be true because contained in that book" (p. 49). William Wollaston used Lockean logic to solve the conundrum of whether or not God can create a mountain he cannot destroy"God cannot be unjust or unreasonable in any one instance"while another Lockean, Anthony Collins (16761729), reasoned that Christianity was a mere sect, a self-fulfilling Old Testament prophecy that the passage of time gave global prominence (Wollaston, p. 205). Even the pious skeptic Thomas Woolston claimed in the spirit of radical Deism that the supposed miracles of Jesus were, if actually anything other than pure fiction, the products of wizardry rather than divinity.

These authors and utterances did not go unchecked or un-challenged. The moderate Deists who more closely followed Newton's and Locke's intentions, particularly the late-Stuart "latitudinarians" Richard Bentley (16621742), Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761), John Tillotson (16301694), and Samuel Clarke (16751729), upheld religious belief through a combination of rationality (directed against religious enthusiasm more than the Bible), faith, and reliance on textual authority. High-and low-church traditionalists alike more critically saw Deism as one of many heterodox ideas that threatened the fundamental meaning of the church, if not religion itself, while from a very different point of view the diehard skeptic David Hume (17111776) viewed it as a "license of fancy and hypothesis" in a realm of philosophical thinking he thought should be devoid of religious belief (1779, 94).

Around the time the minister John Leland (16911766) published his four-volume Principal Deistical Writers that Have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century (17541756), an antagonistic work that nevertheless largely determined the canon of Deists, the controversy had cooledbut not before Deism "cross-examined religion naturalistically, socially and psychologically" (Porter, p. 122). "If Mankind had never Sinn'd, Reason would always have been obeyed, there would have been no Struggle for Dominion, and Brutal Power would not have prevail'd," wrote the protofeminist Mary Astell (16661731), longing for the world's return to a more reasonable state (Astell, p. 97). Edmund Burke may have rhetorically asked, Who reads Toland, Tindal, Collins, and so on? But William Wollaston's Religion of Nature Delineated (1724) sold 10,000 copies while radicalizing the already Deistic religious outlook of the printer who set the type for its third edition, Benjamin Franklin. Equally important, Deism became, via Newton, Locke, and their followers, the de facto religion of science, which encouraged the rationalization of religion among scientific practitioners in the British Isles, North America, and Europe's learned academies.

Deism in Europe

British Deists widely and intensively read European authors such as Spinoza, Balthasar Bekker, Descartes, Gassendi, Pierre Bayle, Faustus Socinius, and Bruno. European Deists of the next generation in turn bought clandestine French translations of British Deistic works that circulated among European texts in the underground book trade. Many of those trade networks originated in the liberal and tolerant Dutch Republic, a refuge for freethinkers that, along with Britain, forged the early Enlightenment. Journals like De Haegse Mercurius (16971698) defended Toland's Deism in the late seventeenth century; French-language presses, safe from the French censors, spread Newtonian science and theology to readers all over Europe; and later in the century Masonic lodges and other voluntary organizations disseminated Deistic thinking throughout civil society. The epitome of Dutch (radical) Deism was the Traité des trois imposteurs (1719; The Treatise of the Three Impostors), authored, in the international language of the time, most likely by the lawyer Jan Vroese. On the basis of textual criticism, inquiry into first causes inspired by scientific thinking, and attention to cultural variety across the globe, the Traité made the case that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were ordinary men who exploited common ignorance in order to legitimate their prophecies: "Christianity like all other Religions is no more than a crudely woven imposture, whose success & progress would astonish even its inventors if they came back to the world" (quoted in Jacob, 2001, p. 109).

Less iconoclastically, Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 16941778), the agent and nonpareil of the Anglomania that swept Europe in the 1730s and 1740s, virtually propagandized moderate British Deism as he strove to find the laws governing nature as well as God, the unity behind cultural variety, the right balance between enthusiasm and unbelief, and the compelling evidence that a God existed who could terrify the high and mighty. Deism via Voltaire in turn spread as far as Poland by way of the poetry of the satirist Bishop Ignacy Krasicki and the libertine Stanislaw Trembecki. Denis Diderot (17131784) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783) assimilated British Deism in their Encyclopédie (17511772) and made an impressionabout more than just Deismon Russia's Catherine II. Even Rousseau's idiosyncratic and deeply influential deification of nature is unthinkable without Lockean Deism, notwithstanding Rousseau's cynicism about what society does to nature in the long term.

More radical French Deism also had influences more diverse than Newton and Locke. Henri de Boulainvilliers (16581722) came slowly to a Deistic position mainly by way of Baruch Spinoza (16321677). The Marquis d'Argens (17031771) drew from Spinoza, as did the Huguenot champion of religious toleration, Pierre Bayle (16471706). The shadowy, anti-Voltairean Themisuel de Saint-Hyacinthe (16841746) read Spinoza but lived in religious exile in the Dutch Republic amid Anglophiles such as Albert-Henri de Sallengre, a Dutch citizen of Huguenot origins with English connections through whom Saint-Hyacinthe would have come to know both British Deism and science. It is inaccurate to label the idiosyncratic Spinoza a "Deist" according to contemporary conceptions of the word. The same holds true for the atheist-atomists Epicurus and his Roman mouthpiece Lucretius. But Spinozist and Epicurean writings nevertheless simmered along with British Deism in a stew of heterodox ideas that European free-thinkers consumed with various appetites that were themselves determined by a complex mix of personality, cultural dispositions, and social and political conditions.

Deistic ideas also pervaded the German Enlightenment. The Prussian "philosopher-king" Frederick II may have ultimately been a disappointment to Voltaire, but he nonetheless facilitated the spread of heterodox religious thinking by making the Berlin Academy of Sciences an entrepôt for French, British, and Dutch thought as well as the homegrown Deistic ideas of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) and Christian Wolff (16791754). What Kant would later call onto-, cosmo-, and physicotheology were all indebted to the writings of Deists, even if later "neologians"rational theologians who upheld the possibility of truth in revelationdeliberately distanced themselves from radical Deism. But that should not obscure the fact that later eighteenth-century theologians such as Johann Salomo Semler (17251791) were as unrelenting in their textual criticism of the Bible as Woolston and others had been decades earlier.

In the more radical tradition, Hermann Samuel Reimarus's posthumously published Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes (17741777; Apology or Defense of the Rational Worshipers of God) dispelled revelation as unreliable, miracles and mystery as fictional, and the New Testament as fraudulent. But like the British Deists by whom he was influenced, he also made as strong a case against atheism. Gotthold Lessing (17291781), who among other things published Reimarus's Apologie, took the small step from Deism to religious toleration in his dramatic poem Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the Wise), which gave equal treatment to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But the case was made more forcefully by the inspiration for Lessing's Nathan, the German-Jewish freethinker Moses Mendelssohn (17291786), who, instead of arguing for the dissolution of the distinctions among the Mosaic religions, made the case that all were equal but still meaningful and should be accommodated by an enlightened state. Meanwhile, the primacy of reason over revelation was underscored by Immanuel Kant (17241804). Kant started out maintaining the neologian position on revelation, but in later life he argued that the Bible should be judged rather than judge, that churches had value only insofar as their ends accorded with a rationally derived course for human progress, and that claims to have experienced divine revelation could never be admitted by reasonable people.

The Legacy of Deism

What also makes Deism the unofficial religious philosophy of the Enlightenment is its expiration at the close of the eighteenth century as the French Revolution turned from the apparent culmination of Deism to reaction against heterodoxy. In fact the word and concept were already showing signs of waning among British and European elites by the time the century had reached its fourth quarter. Hume wrote unsparingly in his posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) that belief cannot in any way be rationally defended. Even that stark judgment of the French materialists that matter in motion in a godless universe was a sufficient foundational principle for both science and morality became less repulsive to many philosophers and scientists.

We know less about Deism as a popularly held belief. Bookstore inventories and detailed wills reveal that Deistic ideas could penetrate all levels of European and North American society. There were no Deists churchesalthough Deism was briefly institutionalized in revolutionary Franceand therefore we have no attendance sheets on which we can count rank-and-file adherents; but many of the ideas associated with Deism also made their way into popular forms of religious thought and practice. Eighteenth-century British dissenters academiesschools for non-Anglicansencouraged the spread of heterodox ideas alongside critical thinking and prominently featured Newton and Locke in their curricula. John Jebb's church in late-eighteenth-century London was Deist in all but name. Some religious denominations, such as Presbyterianism, became Unitarian under the pressures of, among other things, the biblical criticism pioneered by Deists. But Deism in Britain, North America, and Germany was also targeted as early as the mid-1700s on the popular level alongside other forms of intellectualized religion by much more numerous Methodists, traditionalist Anglicans, and Pietists, who stressed God's active role in our earthly lives.

In America a prominent handful of elites in the later 1700s identified themselves as Deists. Benjamin Franklin proudly and publicly recollected reading the Boyle lectures as a youth, in which "the arguments of the Deists which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutation" (p. 63). Thomas Jefferson put Deism into practice when he took a cue from Tindal and wrote the separation of church and state into the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty (1786), which sounded an echo the next year in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. If the final lines of the Declaration of Independence invoke an un-Deistic "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence," "the laws of nature and of nature's God" in that document's more memorable opening paragraph get to the corein a telling sequenceof a definition of Deism. But the late embrace of these ideas in America did not forestall their antagonistic reception. The British-born American patriot Thomas Paine was the target of deep animosity when in The Age of Reason (17941795) he trivialized the personal experience of divine revelation. As early nineteenth-century America witnessed a return to traditional Christianity, even onetime Deists like George Tucker of Virginia, in contrast to Jefferson, came to view religion as a form of social control that the state should subsidize.

Since Deism has no defining textual or customary point of reference, its legacy is as difficult to follow with precision as its meaning. Its most direct descendent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may be the scholarly study of religion, but here the parentage is mixed. F. Max Mueller (18231900) and E. B. Tylor (18321917), for example, both owe their scientization of religious studies to the rationalism of the atheistic Hume and Spinoza as much as to Newton and Locke. Its legacy is more widely dispersed in modern variants of all three Mosaic religionsReformed Judaism, Unitarianism, and the Baha'i faith, for exampleas well as in hybrid forms of intellectualized religiosity that borrow more consciously from Buddha and Confucius than from Tindal and Toland. One recent study has even connected Deism to the rise of Philippine nationalism by way of José Protasio Rizal's Enlightenment education at the University of Madrid in the 1880s and later attacks on the Catholic Church.

Deism's greatest legacy may be the principle of religious toleration written into the constitutions of the world's democracies. A survey of the early-twenty-first-century political landscape might suggest a disjunction between constitutional theory and practice. But that makes these ideas and their legacy more interesting than they have been since before the beginning of the nineteenth century, as religious conflict and toleration have become as culturally significant as they were during the destructive confessional struggles that defined early modern Europe.

See also Agnosticism ; Atheism ; Enlightenment ; Religion .



Astell, Mary. Reflections upon Marriage: To Which Is Added a Preface in Answer to Some Objections. London: Wilkin, 1706. Originally published in 1700, with an appendix added to this later edition.

Bentley, Richard. Remarks upon a Late Discourse of Free Thinking. Cambridge, U.K.: Printed for C. Crownfield, 1725.

Blount, Charles. The Oracles of Reason In Several Letters to Mr. Hobbs and Other Persons of Eminent Quality and Learning. London, 1693.

Chubb, Thomas. A Discourse concerning Reason with Regard to Religion and Divine Reason. London, 1731.

Clarke, Samuel. A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. London: James Knapton, 1705.

Collins, Anthony. A Discourse of Free Thinking. London, 1713.

. A Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion. London, 1724.

Diderot, Denis, and d'Alembert, Jean Le Rond. The Encyclopedia: Selections. Edited and translated by Stephen J. Gendzier. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Other Writings. Edited and with an introduction by Kenneth Silverman. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Hume, David. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. London, 1779.

Leland, John. A View of the Principal Deistical Writers that Have Appeared in England in the Last and Present Century. London: B. Dod, 17541756.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Nathan the Wise. Translated by Edward Kemp. London: Nick Hern, 2003.

Locke, John. The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures. London, 1695.

Paine, Thomas. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. Collected and edited by Philip S. Foner, 2 vols. New York: Citadel Press, 1945.

Reimarus, Hermann Samuel. Reimarus, Fragments. Edited by Charles H. Talbert, translated by Ralph S. Fraser. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985.

Samuel, Moses. Moses Mendelssohn: The First English Biography and Translations. Introduction by James Schmidt. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 2002.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. The Collected Works of Spinoza. Edited and translated by Edwin M. Curley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Tindal, Matthew. Christianity as Old as the Creation; or The Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature. London, 1732.

Toland, John. Christianity Not Mysterious; or, A Treatise Showing, That There Is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor Above It, and That No Christian Doctrine Can Be Properly Call'd a Mystery. London, 1696.

. Letters to Serena. London: Bernard Lintot, 1704.

. Reasons for Naturalising the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland. London, 1714.

Voltaire, F. M. Letters concerning the English Nation. Translated by John Lockman. Dublin: George Faulkner, 1733.

Wollaston, William. The Religion of Nature Delineated. London, 1724.

Woolston, Thomas. Six Discourses on the Miracles of our Savior and Defences of His Discourses. New York: Garland, 1979.


Bedford, R. D. The Defence of Truth: Herbert of Cherbury and the Seventeenth Century. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1979. Comprehensive work on the "first English Deist."

Betts, C. J. Early Deism in France: From the So-called "Déistes" of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire's "Lettres philosophiques" (1734). Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1984. The most detailed English study of French Deism; deals well with the complexities of the word's definition.

Bonoan, Raul. "The Enlightenment, Deism, and Rizal." Philippine Studies 40 (1992): 5367.

Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: The Legacy of Deism. London and New York: Routledge, 1989. Maintains that Deistic ideas about natural religion laid the groundwork for modern religious studies.

Champion, J. A. I. The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and Its Enemies, 16601730. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Deals mainly with anti-clericalism but shows, among other things, that even the most radical Deists had a religious impulse, which was filtered through notions of civil society.

Clark, William. "The Death of Metaphysics in Enlightened Prussia." In The Sciences in Enlightened Europe. Edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Simon Schaffer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Dzwigala, Wanda. "Voltaire and the Polish Enlightenment: Religious Responses." Slavonic and East European Review 81 (2003): 7087.

Hazard, Paul. The European Mind, 16801715. Translated by J. Lewis May. London: Hollis and Carter, 1953. A still-essential study of European intellectual history, with a chapter dedicated to Deism.

Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 16501750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Should be called "Spinoza's Enlightenment." But in following Spinoza's influence of major and minor European freethinkers, this work is important.

Jacob, Margaret C. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 2001. Excellent collection of documents on Enlightenment religion, prefaced by a clear and concise introduction.

. The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 16891720. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1990. Puts forward an important and compelling argument about Newton's as well as Locke's concerns with social and political instability and therefore deals at length with rational religion.

. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans. London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1981. The original and still essential work that situates Deism among the ideas of the "radical Enlightenment"; excellent coverage of Toland and Freemasonry.

Lund, Roger D., ed. The Margins of Orthodoxy: Heterodox Writing and Cultural Response, 16601750. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Important collection of essays related to Deism.

Marshall, John. John Locke: Resistance, Religion and Responsibility. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. The most engaging and rigorously contextualized recent work on Locke's politics and religion.

May, Henry Farnham. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Still the standard work on this subject and good for further exploration of Deism in America.

Page, Anthony. John Jeeb and the Enlightenment Origins of British Radicalism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Interesting study of the Cambridge cleric and London reformer.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Continues to be the standard work on Skepticism; frames well the causes of the skeptical crisis and contains a useful section on Herbert.

Porter, Roy. The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2000. Will be the unrivaled synthetic study of the British Enlightenment for years to come; brilliantly written with an excellent chapter on rational religion.

Roche, Daniel. France in the Enlightenment. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Provides essential background for understanding Deism in France.

Sullivan, Robert. John Toland and the Deist Controversy: A Study in Adaptations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. Good on the slipperiness of the definition of "Deism."

Sullivan, Roger J. Immanuel Kant's Moral Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A lucid interpretive guide through Kant's theories of religion.

Matthew Kadane


views updated Jun 27 2018


DEISM. A form of religious nonconformity upholding the view that human beings can know the truths of theology by rational methods, deism excludes any appeal to supernatural or revealed experience. Although some scholars have found anticipations of deism in various Greek and Roman schools of philosophy, deist ideas strictly speaking originated in early modern Europe. Coined as a term of derision in a Calvinist tract published in 1564, deist lost its pejorative sense over the course of the seventeenth century and was embraced by a wide range of thinkers before and during the Enlightenment. At the same time, deism encountered severe criticism both from defenders of conventional faith and from more skeptical and rigorously rational schools of thought.

The prehistory of deism is perhaps best encapsulated in the writings of the Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 b.c.e.43 b.c.e.). In various philosophical dialogues, including De natura deorum and De legibus, Cicero emphasized that divinity and its works can be known through the application of reason and, indeed, that reason itself constitutes the true divine spark or seed within humanity. Drawing heavily on an eclectic Romanized stoicism, Cicero articulated a coherent account of a rational religion, leading at least some scholars to proclaim him the "father of deism." Moreover, because Cicero's writings (including De natura deorum ) enjoyed a large audience in later antiquity as well as medieval and Renaissance Europe, they may have inspired some thinkers associated with a more self-consciously constructed school of deist thought during early modern times.

The origins of deism properly speaking, especially in England, cannot be separated from a range of other nonconformist movements during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Unitarianism, anticlericalism, Erastianism, Arminianism, and Socinianism. Generally speaking, the early thinkers associated with deism were engaged in a broad revolt against authority. Among the leading figureswho did not, however, consistently identify themselves as deistswere Edward Herbert of Cherbury (15831648), Charles Blount (16541693), and John Toland (16701722), all of whom were at the forefront of European religious nonconformity and freethinking. In their wake came a number of lesser deists whose commitments to the doctrine varied widely. The deists shared in the British trend toward nonconformism by challenging central premises of enforced unity of belief, by doubting the rational demonstrability of major tenets of Christian theology, by asserting the distortion and perversion of religious faith by clerics and ecclesiastical institutions, and by establishing the complicity between church authorities and secular rulers in maintaining religious conformity in the interests of the powerful.

Deists starting with Lord Herbert had argued for a set of natural and universal principles common to all religions; to the extent that any system of belief embodied these tenets, it had a presumptive claim to validity. They praised expressions of religiosity that reflected those elements consonant with natural human worship of divinity. The common principles (laid down in Lord Herbert's 1624 treatise De Veritate ) embraced acceptance of a single supreme God; insistence upon the worship of that God, achieved in particular by virtuous and pious deeds; expectation of remorse and contrition for one's sins; and acknowledgment of both temporal and extra-temporal divine dispensation of rewards and penalties. Such precepts are universally accessible by human reason, rendering revelation of secondary or derivative significance. Consequently, deists also subscribed to the principle that human nature was the same and inalterable throughout the world.

One of the favorite themes of the seventeenth-century deists was the postulation of a sort of urreligion, a primitive piety that had been erased by the introduction of formal religious worship. In his De Religione Gentilium (1663; Religion of the Gentiles), Herbert declared that before religious rites, ceremonies, scripture, and so on were created, the worship of God occurred in an entirely rational manner. For Herbert and his successors, religion as practiced by contemporary human beings, burdened with unnecessary accretions, departed greatly from original, natural belief. Superstition and idolatry, complex systems of guilt and its expiation, and the creation of a professional priesthood all marked religion's distance from true reverence for the divine.

Thus, deism did not merely defend the authority of human reason in religious matters, but it also proposed a brief against the system of power that conventionally supported institutionalized religion. Two important claims made by the deist case against religion should be highlighted: that priests manipulate superstition and ritual to implant a fear of God in human beings, and that the authority of churches rests upon a spurious claim that priests are uniquely competent to interpose themselves between human beings and divinity and to dictate to people (against their natural inclination and reason) how they shall live. Deists thereby equate religion with the creation of human misery, conflict, and immorality.

The British deists explained the course of institutional religion (modern as well as ancient) in terms of "priestcraft," that is, the erection and dissemination of false ideas, practices, and superstitions in order to enhance the interests of priests themselves. Blount asserted that theological doctrines were propagated in the most mysterious and obscure manner not because truths about divinity were complex, but in order to confuse and therefore control the laity. Toland went so far as to say that the distinction between religions resulted from the machinations of priests, designed to serve their baser worldly ambitions. Much of the substance of deistic anticlericalism was directed toward debunking the trappings of priestly superiority that cloaked less esteemed motives.

In the place of organized and ritualized religious practices, the deists recommended natural worship, best performed by sound moral action. Herbert and Toland both maintained that the means of salvation might be sought in the rational practice of virtue, piety, and faithfulness. Subsequent deists regarded this position as a defense of the purity of "heathen vertue" as distinct from the idolatry of more recent times. In the deist view, heathens were perhaps less encumbered by the cheats of religion than latter-day Christiansand certainly no more so. Hence, the practice of natural worship might be guided more by "heathen vertue" than by the more recent teachings of Christian (or Islamic or Judaic) religion.

Scholars have commonly ascribed a connection between religious nonconformity in England and republican political conviction. To what extent the bond between the two is judged necessary or inextricable remains an open question. Some authors with openly deist sympathies also subscribed to Toryism and royalism. Hence, it may be the case that the connection between deism and republicanism was in fact looser than scholarship often claims.

Although England may perhaps be regarded as the cradle of deism, the writings and ideas of the early deists spread to the Continent and infected some of the leading figures of the early Enlightenment. While France, for instance, had its share of nonconforming thinkers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuriesPierre Charron, Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes, and Pierre Bayle among themdeism received perhaps its most visible and influential statement there from Voltaire (16941778). Both in France and during an exile to England, Voltaire encountered deist thinkers and began to propound their views. Voltaire himself used the term theist, but the nomenclature is inconsequential. He advocated a notion of natural religion based on reason, defending the existence of a single God but assailing priestcraft and ecclesiastical corruption.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), who was profoundly influenced by Voltaire's important statement of deism, the Lettres philosophiques (1734; Philosophical letters), seems to have adapted deist views in his own Émile (1762). But Rousseau's version of deism was less rationalistic, and less politically charged, than Voltaire's. Rousseau postulated a divine goodness that degenerated in human hands when artificially represented through rites and ceremonies. He called on his readers to adopt a natural religion by finding God in their own hearts and imitating the pure justice that the deity instills in every member of humankind. Conscience, according to Rousseau, was the greatest teacher of religious truths and the most faithful way of honoring God.

During the reign of Frederick II the Great of Prussia (ruled 17401786), the work of the British deists was imported into Germany through more widely circulated translations and editions. Several thinkers identified themselves with the deist cause, perhaps most prominently Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768). His defense of deism, composed in 1754, was directed with equal force against the materialist and atheistic claims of the most extreme proponents of Enlightenment and against narrow interpretations of Christianity. Indeed, Reimarus's work embodied the intellectual problem of deism throughout Europe: the orthodox suspected that deists were secretly atheists, while the more extreme critics of deism regarded it to be insufficiently critical of religious superstition. Other German thinkers grazed on the edges of deism. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (17291781) did not fit the mold of a typical deist, but he and his friend Moses Mendelssohn (17291786) maintained views that echoed important deist themes. More significantly, Immanuel Kant (17241804) advocated a vision of Christian deism, most notably in his work Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft (1793; Religion within the limits of reason alone), that cannot be understood apart from the deist doctrines of earlier times. Kant's overriding project for the liberation of the human mind from "tutelage" through the exercise of reason coincides neatly with the deist cause.

The deists also enjoyed a substantial following in North America among some of the leading intellectual lights of the colonial and Revolutionary eras. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the cosmopolitan Thomas Paine all identified in writings or public pronouncements with key deistic doctrines. When he was just twentytwo years old, Franklin (17061790) composed a statement of "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion" (1728), which formed a virtual manifesto of deism and to which he apparently subscribed for the rest of his life. Likewise, Jefferson (17431826) created his own carefully expurgated version of the Bible out of snippets of the New Testament Gospels, his selections overtly informed by deistic beliefs. The quality of American deism was, however, far different from its European counterpart. The virulent attacks on priestcraft and clerical corruption so common among British and continental deists were largely absent from the American scene. Indeed, figures such as Washington and Jefferson were in public conventionally pious churchgoers even as they maintained unorthodox beliefs in private. Thus, American deism lacked overtones of anticlericalism. On the other hand, the imputed connection between republican political convictions and deist doctrines was sustained by the American wing of deism.

Ironically, evenasdeismwasspreading throughout continental Europe and North America in the later half of the eighteenth century, it was coming under serious scrutiny in its cradle, the British Isles. On one side, the form of religious enthusiasm preached by John Wesley (17031791) was directed explicitly against the rationalism of deistic thought. Wesley emphasized the personal, inward-dwelling, and supernatural aspects of religious experience that deism had consciously sought to expel. On the other side, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (17111776) ridiculed deistic teachings for their intellectual bankruptcy. Hume produced a series of tracts, culminating in the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779), which demonstrated how skepticism was the inescapable consequence of subscribing to deism, given the fundamental unsoundness of its logical, epistemological, and metaphysical assumptions. In England, Hume's basic stance was seconded by authors such as George Berkeley and Joseph Butler.

Deism also received a challenge in France from the even more extreme camp of atheistic materialists who constituted a large share of the philosophes and their Enlightenment fellow travelers. Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot, É tienne Bonnot de Condillac and Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, and most others in the leading circles of the French Enlightenment found deism to be intellectually disreputable or simply disingenuousa faint-hearted attempt to preserve the hope of salvation while dispensing with the more overtly superstitious or corrupt features of organized religion. Yet nowhere did deism completely die out. Edmund Burke's declaration of the passing of deism in 1790 was premature, as the school of thought enjoyed both intellectual support and a popular following (especially in America) well into the nineteenth century.

See also Anticlericalism ; Atheism ; Enlightenment ; Hume, David ; Kant, Immanuel ; Reason ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Skepticism: Academic and Pyrrhonian ; Voltaire .


Primary Sources

Gay, Peter. Deism: An Anthology. Princeton, 1968.

Herbert of Cherbury. De Veritate. Translated by Meyrick H. Carré. Bristol, 1937.

Waring, E. Graham, ed. Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book. New York, 1967.

Secondary Sources

Bedford, R. D. The Defence of Truth: Herbert of Cherbury and the Seventeenth Century. Manchester, U.K., 1979.

Betts, C. J. Early Deism in France: The So-Called "Déistes" of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques (1734). The Hague and Boston, 1984.

Champion, J. A. I. The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and Its Enemies, 16601730. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Herrick, James A. The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 16801750. Columbia, S.C., 1997.

Sullivan, Robert E. John Toland and the Deist Controversy: A Study of Adaptation. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

Walters, Kerry S. The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic. Lawrence, Kans., 1992.

Cary J. Nederman


views updated Jun 11 2018


DEISM . The term deism was originally equivalent to theism, differing only in etymology: theism based on the Greek word for god (theos ), and deism on the Latin (deus ). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, deism came to signify one or another form of rationalistic theological unorthodoxy. Often used pejoratively, it was also sometimes worn as a badge of honor. The first known use of the term occurs in the Instruction chrétienne (1564) of the Calvinist theologian Pierre Viret: "I have heard he is of that band who call themselves 'Deists,' a wholly new word which they would oppose to 'Atheist.'"

In its principal meaning, deism signifies the belief in a single God and in a religious practice founded solely on natural reason rather than on supernatural revelation. Thus Viret characterizes deists as "those who profess belief in God as creator of heaven and earth, but reject Jesus Christ and his doctrines." John Dryden's preface to his poem Religio Laici (1682) defines deism as "the opinion of those that acknowledge one God, without the reception of any revealed religion." The currency of the term in the eighteenth century was undoubtedly enhanced by the article on Viret in Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697).

Like most epithets of controversy, deism was used in a number of senses other than its principal one. It was often used as a vague term of abuse with no determinate meaning at all. Among the chief subordinate or deviant senses of the term are (1) belief in a supreme being lacking in all attributes of personality (such as intellect and will); (2) belief in a God, but denial of any divine providential care for the world; (3) belief in a God, but denial of any future life; (4) belief in a God, but rejection of all other articles of religious faith (so defined by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary, 1755).

Some Deists completely rejected all revealed and ecclesiastical religion, adopted anticlerical attitudes, challenged the scriptural canon, questioned the credibility of miracle narratives, or even rejected the New Testament as fabrication and imposture. Thus Edward Stillingfleet, bishop of Worcester, described the addressee of his polemical Letter to a Deist (1677) as "a particular person who owned the Being and Providence of God, but expressed mean esteem of the Scriptures and the Christian Religion." Yet a number of influential seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British thinkers described themselves as "Christian Deists" on the grounds that they accepted both the Christian religion based on supernatural revelation and a Deistic religion based solely on natural reason, consistent with Christianity but independent of any revealed authority.

Thus, even the principal sense of deism, which refers to belief in God without belief in supernatural revelation, is inherently imprecise. No sharp dividing line can be drawn between Christian or revelationist Deists and Deists who recognized no revelation. The former often accepted Christian revelation precisely because it accords with natural or rational religion and sometimes advocated allegorical readings of scripture in order to secure this agreement, while the latter often disavowed any "mean esteem" of Christian scriptures and expressed admiration for the inspiring way in which the truths of natural religion were presented in them. Further, there is no sharp line separating Christian Deists and orthodox Christian theologians (such as Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus) who maintain that some parts of Christian doctrine can be known by natural reason.

Deism was most prominent in England, the only place where it approached the status of a movement. Among its best-known representatives were Lord Herbert of Cherbury (15831648), author of De veritate (1624); his disciple Charles Blount (16541693); John Toland (16701722), author of Christianity not Mysterious (1696); Anthony Collins (16761729); and Matthew Tindal (16571733), author of Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), often described as "the Deist's Bible." The powerful influence of English Deism is attested by the sizable number of attacks on it by the orthodox, including not only Stillingfleet, but also Richard Bentley, Charles Leslie, Samuel Clarke, and (most famously) Joseph Butler in his Analogy of Religion (1736). Deism also met with vicious persecution in England, where blasphemy was punishable by forfeiture of civil rights, fines, and even imprisonment. At least two prominent Deists were imprisoned for expressing their blasphemous opinions: Thomas Woolston (16701733) was sent to prison in 1729 and died there; Peter Annet was fined, pilloried, and imprisoned to hard labor in 1764 at age seventy.

Deism is generally associated with British religious thought. However, a number of major continental religious thinkers of the late sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries clearly qualify as Deists under the principal meaning of the term. They include Giordano Bruno (15481600) and Lucilio Vanini (15841619), both burned as heretics for rejecting ecclesiastical authority and scriptural revelation; Barukh Spinoza (16321677); François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire; 16941778); Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778); Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768); Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (17291781); Moses Mendelssohn (17291786); and Immanuel Kant (17241804). (Both Voltaire and Kant, however, repudiated the label "Deist" and always described themselves as "Theists.") There were outspoken Deists among the founding fathers of the United States of America, notably Benjamin Franklin (17061790), Thomas Paine (17371809), and Thomas Jefferson (17431826).

Deism appears to be exclusively a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century phenomenon, but this is partly an illusion. There are special reasons why the term deism attained currency then but did not survive longer. The rise of modern science did not immediately initiate warfare of science with religion, but it did initiate warfare within religion, between the orthodox who held fast to tradition, authority, and the supernatural, and the freethinkers, who sought a religion that harmonized with nature and reason. A term was needed by the orthodox to distinguish the freethinkers from themselves, and by the religious freethinkers to distinguish themselves from mere atheists. Deism served both needs. The term has fallen into disuse in the past two centuries, however, perhaps chiefly because in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophical and religious thought the distinctions between reason and tradition, nature and supernature, have lost the sharpness they had for thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Greater tolerance of diversity of opinion within Christian society has also lessened the need for an epithet whose principal function was to scourge independent thinkers. Deism itself has also become a less popular position, owing to the increasing tendency of rationalists to become simple unbelievers rather than to settle for compromises and half-measures. Yet deismin fact, if not in namestill survives in all religious communities and individuals whose convictions arise from autonomous thinking rather than from the submission of reason to ecclesiastical or scriptural authorities.

See Also

Bruno, Giordano; Doubt and Belief; Enlightenment, The; Kant, Immanuel; Lessing, G.E.; Mendelssohn, Moses; Reimarus, Hermann Samuel; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Spinoza, Barukh; Theism.


An excellent nineteenth-century account of British Deism is to be found in Leslie Stephen's History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, vol. 1 (1876; reprint, New York, 1963). A detailed account of Deistic thinkers is presented by J. M. Robertson in A History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, vol. 2, To the Period of the French Revolution, 4th ed. (London, 1936). For the social background of Deism, see W. K. Jordan's Development of Religious Toleration in England, 4 vols. (19321940; reprint, Gloucester, Mass., 1965). Two very good studies of aspects of Deism are Norman L. Torrey's Voltaire and the English Deists (1930; reprint, Hamden, Conn., 1967) and Ernest C. Mossner's Bishop Butler and the Age of Reason (New York, 1936). Perhaps the two most classic works on religion by thinkers identified above as Deists are Barukh Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), translated by R. H. M. Elwes in Chief Works, vol. 1 (1883; reprint, New York, 1955), and Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), translated by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (LaSalle, Ill., 1960).

Allen W. Wood (1987)


views updated May 23 2018


Until the 19th century the terms "deism" and "theism," one with a Latin root (deus) and the other with a Greek root (θεóς), were used interchangeably. Since that

time, however, the custom has been to use the words in a mutually exclusive sense. A number of quite divergent theological and philosophical positions are now indicated by the term "deism," but they resemble one another in that all reject one or more of the traditional Christian theses concerning the relationship that exists between God and the universe.

Kinds of Deism. One form of deism holds that God created this universe, either ex nihilo or from a preexisting "chaos"; that all things in the universe, including man, are directed by divine providence; and that there is a life-after-death in which God will reward the good and punish the wicked. Divine revelation is rejected, however, and it is maintained that man must depend upon his reason alone to give him some knowledge of the existence and nature of God and of man's moral duties.

A second form of deism differs from the first only by asserting that there is no future life, that man is rewarded or punished in this life. A third and more radical form claims that divine providence does not extend to the moral actions of man, but only to nature. It asserts that whatever happiness or sorrow man experiences before his final annihilation in death has no relation to divine judgments; virtue is its own reward.

The most extreme form of deism retains from Christianity only the notions that an intelligent and powerful God brought this world into being, though by imposing order on preexisting matter, and that He devised the natural laws according to which the universe functions; however, this God does not intervene at all in the functioning of the universe. There are no exceptions to natural laws; there are no miracles; and God is not concerned at all with the individual human being. Nevertheless, man's own happiness requires that he recognize and admire the Creator and that he deal justly with his fellow men. But experience led certain deists, notably voltaire, to maintain that such a view of the universe is suitable only for the well educated. Ordinary men, if they are to be kept in order, must be told that an eternity of damnation awaits them if they do not conform to the traditional standards of truth and honesty.

Besides this division of deism into types characterized by the degree to which Christian doctrine is rejected, deists can be classified according to the general trend of their writings. Deism that concentrates on attacking Christianity (the historicity of Scripture, the possibility of miracles, the efficacy of the Sacraments, etc.) is termed "critical," while deism that concerns itself principally with attaining to a knowledge of the existence and nature of God and to an understanding of natural morality is called "constructive." In many deistic writings, of course, there are both "critical" and "constructive" elements. In general, the arguments of critical deists would be thought naïve today, for they are directed against a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture, an uncritical taste for the miraculous and quite a mechanical view of the Sacraments. That is, they are opposed to a caricature of Christianity, though Christians who resembled the caricature were all too numerous, among both the laity and the clergy, when such deism was developing.

Historical origins. A number of important factors contributed to the rise of deism in the 17th century. The Protestant view that Scripture interpreted in isolation from ecclesiastical tradition is the ultimate guide to faith had by this time presented Englishmen with innumerable scriptural problems that seemed incapable of reasonable solution. It appeared that men of a critical turn of mind could no longer accept the notion that God had truly revealed Himself in the Old and New Testaments. These books, it seemed, were simply compilations of ancient literary works bearing the scientific inaccuracies, cultural oddities, and sapient insights characteristic of other classical writings. The conclusion drawn was that man must depend upon himself, his experience and reason, to attain to a knowledge of God. The popularity of the doctrine of John Locke, that ideas are not prenatally impressed upon the mind by God (a repudiation of Descartes's widely accepted innatism), but have their origin in sense experience, served to weaken further the notion of any special bond existing between God and human knowledge.

Scientific Revolution. Perhaps the strongest element contributing to the development of deistic thought was the rise of the new sciences. Discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries made it imperative for Europeans to change their basic ideas of the universe; and since traditional theology had made extensive use of the old thought patterns, theological revisions were needed. However, it was extremely difficult for most theologians to separate the many layers of centuries-old scientific accretions from the deposit of faith. The result was that large numbers of intellectuals were needlessly presented with the necessity of repudiating either the new sciences or the old religion.

This was particularly the case where theology and physics had become intertwined. The old Christianized Aristotelian physics had supposed a certain relationship of the universe to God that was completely overthrown by the physics of Galileo and Newton. According to the Aristotelian conception, celestial bodies traveling about the earth in perfect circles were directly dependent upon a First Unmoved Mover to conserve them in motion. Gradually, through the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, the view became prevalent that two forces, gravitational attraction and inertia, were adequate to account for their movement and its mathematical regularity. Thus it was no longer necessary to posit the existence of God on this account. Although Newton thought divine intervention was still periodically necessary to set things aright after planets had strayed slightly from their orbits, later calculations showed that more refined laws of mechanics could account for the seeming perturbations, without God's special causality. It became, in fact, common to assert that a perfect workman, as God was taken to be, would produce a world machine so perfectly balanced that no adjustments need ever be made. All of this encouraged the form of deism that assigned to God only the role of original architect and initial mover; it seemed that traditional notions of divine providence could not be reconciled with a universe whose actions were all determined by physical laws.

Travel and non-Christian cultures. A less important factor contributing to the development of deism was the impact of the many written accounts of travels to hitherto unknown lands. Explorers and travelers had come upon peoples who had had no contact with Christianity, but who seemed nonetheless to have highly developed systems of morality and admirable religious principles. The deists argued from this that human reason was sufficient to establish religion and morality; man did not need God's revelation of a "divine positive law." Moreover, some deists asserted, recently discovered non-Christian cultures often exhibited a morality superior to that practiced in Christian Europe. It must be noted, however, that much of this travel literature contained gross exaggerations and exhibited none of the cautious scholarship characteristic of present-day anthropology.

The net result of this religious, scientific, and cultural ferment in Europe was that large numbers of educated men were inclined to reject traditional religious principles as guides to life; instead, they turned to the new sciences, to human reason, to the spirit of the enlightenment.

British Deists. In England the first important deistic work, the De Veritate, prout distinguitur a Revelatione, a Verisimili, Possibili, et a Falso, by Lord herbert of cherbury, was published in 1624. It won Cherbury the title of Father of Deism, and was followed in 1696 by John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious, or, a treatise shewing, That there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it: and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call'd a Mystery. Toland attempted to demonstrate that true religion and natural morality are synonymous. Notions that transcend reason, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation and grace, ought to be set aside as superstitions. In 1713, Anthony Collins' Discourse of Free-Thinking, occasion'd by the rise and growth of a sect call'd Free-Thinkers called for a rejection of the Christian doctrines of divine judgment and future retribution. Collins asserted that men would be more truly moral if they were presented with a purely natural system of ethics. In 1724 Collins published, in his Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion, an extensive criticism of the prophecies of the Old Testament and the miracles of the New.

Another attack on tradition was made by Matthew Tindal in his Christianity as old as the Creation: or, the Gospel a republication of the Religion of Nature (1730), which came to be called "the deists' Bible." As the title indicates, Tindal claimed that the Gospels, if interpreted correctly, taught only a natural religion, a natural ethics. His conclusion was:

Nothing can be requisite to discover true Christianity and to preserve it in its native purity free from all superstition, but after a strict scrutiny to admit nothing to belong to it except what our reason tells us is worthy of having God for its author. And if it be evident that we cannot discern whether any instituted religion contains everything worthy, and nothing unworthy, of a Divine original, except we can antecedently by our reason discern what is or is not worthy of having God for its author, it necessarily follows that natural and revealed religion can't differ, because what reason shows to be worthy of having God for its author must belong to natural religion, and whatever reason tells us is unworthy of having God for its author can never belong to the true revealed religion.

It would be difficult to state more clearly what is essential to all the various forms of deism.

Deism on the Continent. In France, early in the 18th century, a number of deistic works circulated clandestinely in manuscript form. One of them, first published about 1750, was the anonymous Pensées sur la religion dont on cherche de bonne foy l'éclaircissement, also known as Doutes sur la religion and Examen de la religion. The deism found in this work is principally of the critical type, with attacks on the historicity of Scripture and such doctrines as the Trinity, original sin and redemption. It maintained that true religion is founded on reason and on the "golden rule." A similar work, Analyse de la religion chrétienne, attributed to Dumarsais, was also passed about secretly during the same period. However, French deism attained its full growth only with the encyclopedists, notably Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

In France deism took on some characteristics that are not to be found to the same extent in the English variety; that is, French deism was bound up with an intense anti-clericalism and a strong opposition to the royal government. Moreover, in France the introduction of deistic thought led more quickly and more often to a full-fledged atheism, as exemplified in the later writings of Denis di derot, the principal author and the editor of the Encyclopédie ; in the Système de la Nature of holbach; and in L'homme machine of La Mettrie.

In Germany, the growth of deistic thought enjoyed the patronage of Frederick II, the "philosopher king," at whose court several of the French Encyclopedists lived for various periods of time. Gotthold Ephraim lessing popularized the deists' opposition to revealed dogma, particularly in his Nathan der Weise (1779) and Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (1780). Moses Mendelssohn, a lifelong friend of Lessing and the inspiration for Nathan der Weise, was influential in the Jewish "enlightenment," the haskalah. Reform Judaism stems in large part from Mendelssohn's work.

American Deists. While German deism had little or no effect on American thought in the 18th century, British and French enunciations of deistic ideas had echoes in writings of several Americans, notably in Reason, the only Oracle of Man, or a compenduous system of natural religion by Ethan Allen (1784), and The Age of Reason by Thomas paine (1794), the latter work unjustly called "the atheists' Bible." Many passages in the works of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson indicate that these men also were deists. For Americans the attraction toward deism was largely what it had been for their British and French predecessors, namely, that in the spirit of the Enlightenment it favored science and reason over revealed religion and faith. Also, it was simpler to maintain that whatever happens in this universe results exclusively from empirically verifiable physical and psychological laws than to be faced with the problem of how to reconcile these laws with the Christian doctrine of divine providence.

In America, moreover, still another factor favored the growth of deistic ideas. The widespread Calvinistic doctrine of predestination was scarcely compatible with the developing optimistic temper of the American people. One obvious alternative was the deistic system, which assured man that his efforts toward a better life would not be frustrated by any arbitrary divine decree of reprobation. However, in America, as in England and France, deism was never a position consciously assumed by the masses; its appeal was restricted in large part to those with some degree of scientific learning. Deism survives today principally as a theory in certain branches of freemasonry and as the point of view of some members of the Unitarian and Universalist Churches (see unitari ans; universalists).

See Also: theism; freethinkers; agnosticism.

Bibliography: c. l. becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (New Haven 1932). c. m. crist, The Dictionnaire philosophique portatif and the Early French Deists (Brooklyn 1934). p. hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century: From Montesquieu to Lessing, tr., j. l. may (New Haven 1954). r. z. lauer, The Mind of Voltaire: A Study in His 'Constructive Deism' (Westminster, Md. 1961). f. r. manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (Cambridge, Mass. 1954). h. m. morais, Deism in Eighteenth Century America (New York 1960). r. r. palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers in Eighteenth Century France (Princeton 1939).

[r. z. lauer]


views updated May 11 2018


Many members of the founding generation of 1776 would have understood the reference to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" as the source of their rights not in terms of orthodox Christianity but in the context of the Enlightenment's discourse of Deism. Deism originated more than a century earlier in England as a somewhat loosely defined pattern of beliefs that had evolved from liberal Christianity, the Newtonian description of a material universe apparently ruled by rational law, and the empirical description by John Locke (1632–1704) of human reason. Deists came in a variety of shades of opinion and belief, from believers in a rational Deity who were content to remain within the confines of a traditional denomination to anticlerical skeptics. There was no Deist church, although the Unitarianism that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century was imbued with much of the Deist spirit, and when Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) came to define "Deist" in his Dictionary (1755), he could only offer the highly generalized description of "a man who follows no particular religion but only acknowledges the existence of God, without any other article of faith."

deistic beliefs

There was rather more to Deism than that, however, and Deists shared to one extent or another several central beliefs. Common to all Deists was the belief in a rational creator of a rational, orderly universe governed by laws that could be understood by reasoning human beings. The laws of motion of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) suggested for his contemporaries the reality of a universe that operated in predictable, mechanical fashion, like a clock as some saw it, and that consequently seemed to be the work of God as the Supreme Artificer. Christian thinkers were quick to integrate the new science into an older theological worldview by insisting that biblical revealed truth was independent of the truth of the so-called book of nature, which complemented and confirmed it. Thus, Cotton Mather could publish his Christian Philosopher (1720), which praised the rational design of the natural world and at the same time maintained belief in God's direct providential intrusion into the events of the natural world. Deists departed from exponents of natural religion, however, by rejecting the possibility of miracles and other supernatural interventions into the natural, created world. The title of English Deist John Toland's famous work, Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), suggested as much from the very first page and went on to call into question the authority of many parts of the Bible itself. Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation: or, the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730), a book often referred to as "the Deist's bible," seemed to obviate the need for the Bible at all.

deism and religious toleration

Deists followed up on these ideas by asserting that the God of the Creation was the deity worshipped by all religions regardless of sect or denomination. They also insisted, as Anthony Collins did in his Discourse of Free-Thinking (1713), on the right of individuals to think for themselves on matters of religion and to publish their opinions freely. Deists followed Locke in calling for religious toleration, the notion that since religious opinion is a private matter the state, while possibly authorizing an official church, ought to tolerate at least all shades of Christian opinion. In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), Thomas Jefferson and James Madison extended this idea to its logical conclusion by demanding that the state separate itself entirely from supporting religion, either by raising taxes to support churches or by compelling people "to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever." If Jefferson and Madison were in advance of many of their fellow citizens about the separation of church and state, they were not alone in defending religious toleration. A large number of Virginians, like George Washington and many other members of the gentry, shared liberal notions of a deistical sort. Jefferson had remarked in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), "it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" (Writings, p. 285). He advised his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787, to "Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus…. You must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because other persons or descriptions of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given to you by heaven" (Writings, p. 902). Jefferson may here have been echoing the words of another American Deist, Ethan Allen, whose Reason the Only Oracle of Man had appeared in 1784.

american deists

Jefferson's comment in Notes on the State of Virginia about his hypothetical neighbor's faith caused him to be attacked by Federalist ministers in the election of 1800 as an atheist, and the ideas of Deists were often conflated by their critics with those of atheists, as in Richard Bentley's 1692 Boyle lecture, The Folly of Atheism and (What Is Now Called) Deism. Deists could find themselves being led by the oracle of reason into socially inconvenient situations. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the first notable American Deist, was already questioning his youthful indoctrination into New England orthodoxy when as a typesetter in London he worked on an edition of William Wollaston's The Religion of Nature Delineated (1724). Franklin used Wollaston's own assumptions about an orderly nature as the work of a rational creator to overturn Wollaston's arguments about human agency and ethical responsibility. Franklin's A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain (1725) denied human free will and ethical responsibility and argued that "since there is no such Thing as Free-Will in Creatures, there can be neither Merit nor Demerit in Creatures" (Writings, p. 62). At the conclusion of the Dissertation, Franklin admitted that "the Doctrine here advanc'd, if it were to be publish'd, would meet with but an indifferent Reception" (Writings, p. 71). Franklin did publish the dissertation; later, in his Autobiography he admitted that this was one of his youthful "errata."

If Franklin was indeed serious about the ideas in the Dissertation, he backed away from them in later years. However, he did not ally himself to any particular church in Philadelphia but contributed to ministers and congregations of various denominations on the grounds that they all could exert a good influence on public morals and that each paid tribute to the same deity. Deists before the American Revolution did not tend to publicly criticize orthodox forms of Christianity but held their beliefs as a private matter. Jefferson refused to respond to the attacks on his presumed atheism, although he sought to reassure friends that he was indeed, by his own lights at least, a Christian. He sent to a few close friends, including Benjamin Rush (not himself a Deist), the Unitarian Joseph Priestley, and John Adams, who shared Jefferson's Deist inclinations, copies of his "Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus" (1803), which praised Jesus as a moral philosopher, but he also asked these friends to keep the "Syllabus" to themselves. Earlier Deists in England and America had, as a consequence of their belief in reason as an adequate guide to religious belief, frequently expressed criticism of the Bible, at least in its accounts of miracles that defied the ordinary workings of nature. Jefferson's "Syllabus" and his later scissors edit of the Gospels, "The Life and Morals of Jesus," attempted to build upon this critique of the Bible by presenting Christ as a rational moralist, eliminating the miracles and foregrounding the Sermon on the Mount. Published in the twentieth century as The Jefferson Bible, this text was for his private use during his life or for a few friends who understood and sympathized with his beliefs. He could express his hostility to "priestcraft" in private letters, accusing the "priests" of abusing "the pure and holy doctrines of their master," but like his rational reading of the Bible, he confined his anticlerical comments to private letters.

Other Deists in the years after the Revolution were not so shy about expressing their criticism of the Bible and their anticlerical sentiments. Ethan Allen, the former Green Mountain Boy, interpreted the Bible with the aid only of his own reason and a dictionary. His Reason the Only Oracle of Man found it to be a book full of scientific absurdities, superstitious fancies, and "arbitrary impositions upon the tribes of Israel." More heated controversy resulted from the publication of the two parts of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1794–1795). Paine's text received a much wider circulation than Allen's. It was much more aggressively polemical than Allen's text, and, more important, Paine was a notorious radical closely associated with the French Revolution. The earlier Deists had found their inspiration in the less politically engaged English writers, but critics of Deism in the 1790s saw in Allen and Paine the specter of the French atheism that threatened traditional faith, moral order, and political stability. The most active radical Deist in 1790s America is probably the least familiar. Elihu Palmer, a onetime Presbyterian minister, espoused increasingly liberal interpretations of the Bible and eventually became a sort of Deist circuit rider. He traveled through the eastern seaboard states preaching the Deist message, founding what were called Deistical Societies and editing Deistic newspapers such as The Temple of Reason. Unlike earlier Deists who shrouded their opinions in gentlemanly privacy, Paine and Palmer appealed to artisans and workers, further outraging orthodox Federalist ministers.

Palmer's masterwork, Principles of Nature, or a Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species (1801), appeared five years before his death. Deism as an active force lasted hardly longer. Jefferson had prophesied that within a generation all Americans would become Unitarians, but rational Christianity had little appeal in the face of the emotional force of the Second Great Awakening, and Palmer's Deistical Societies aside, Deism never found an adequate institutional form. Liberal denominations like the Unitarians and the Universalists adopted some Deist principles, but after Allen, Paine, and Palmer put their stamp on Deism, no religious body would admit to being Deist. The liberal traditions of Deism left their mark on American culture, however, in the form of the principle of separation of church and state and the phenomenon of a pluralistic religious culture.

See alsoFranklin, Benjamin; Jefferson, Thomas; Paine, Thomas; Rationalism; Religion: The Founders and Religion; Unitarianism and Universalism .


Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. New York: Library of America, 1987.

Jefferson, Thomas. Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels: "The Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus." Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

——. Writings. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Koch, G. Adolf. Republican Religion: The American Revolution and the Cult of Reason. New York: Holt, 1933.

Walters, Kerry S. The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Frank Shuffelton


views updated May 18 2018


DEISM, a philosophy often termed "Enlightenment religion," was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, France, Germany, and America. Unlike atheism, which denies the existence of God; polytheism, which recognizes the existence of many gods; and pantheism, which sees God in everything; deism recognizes the existence of a supreme being or God as revealed in Nature and perceived by human reason. While deism can be traced to the Stoics of ancient Greece, modern deism is generally traced to the writings of Faustus Socinus and other sixteenth-century Unitarian thinkers.

Deism, derived from the Latin "deus," or "God," differs from conventional Christianity, Judaism, and Eastern religions in that deism denies the necessity of any special revelation of the existence of God; likewise, it denies the sacred nature of any given text. Instead, deism requires only that the human mind apply logic and reason to come to a recognition and understanding of God, because God is innately logical and reasonable. Consequently, deism also denies the importance of sacred ritual and church tradition and the possibility of miracles, all of which it deems beyond the scope of reason and empirical possibility. Faith, according to deism, is the suspension or abandonment of reason and is therefore incompatible with a God who has created man to be a thinking, reasonable creature. Furthermore, while many deists acknowledge the wisdom and goodness of various traditional religious figures such as Jesus and the Buddha, deism denies the sacred or divine nature of these figures; for such persons to somehow share in God's divine nature would imply a favoritism or special dispensation on the part of God which deists deny as a possibility for a just and logical Creator. Man can exercise his free and rational will, according to deism; sin, defined as the failure to love others and to do good toward the furtherance of the human condition, is therefore possible. Perhaps the most pervasive image of the God of deism is that of God as "the cosmic watchmaker," one who created the universe and peopled it with thinking human beings, and then dissociated himself from his creation.

Early deism grew from the increased interest in natural science exhibited in the works of Copernicus, Galileo, Sir Francis Bacon, and others. Early deist thinkers sought to apply the same principles of the rational study of nature to the study of religion. In his De Veritate (1624; "On Truth"), Lord Herbert of Cherbury set forth Five Articles of English Deists:

  1. There exists only one supreme God.
  2. Mankind's duty is to revere this God.
  3. Adoring worship of God must be practiced in conjunction with applied principles of morality.
  4. If man repents his sins and improves his behavior, God will forgive.
  5. Good works are rewarded both before and after death.

Anthony Collins (1676–1729) and Matthew Tindal (1657–1733) were prominent English deists; in France the philosophy was taken up and expanded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Voltaire (1694–1778). By the late 1700s, deist philosophy came to include the belief that religious authority could only be derived by the application of reason to Scripture, not by an unquestioning reliance on the inerrancy of that Scripture; the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity; the belief that the teachings of Jesus, not the writings of St. Paul, were foundational; the idea that the importance of the resurrection was in its demonstration of the possibility of immortality, not as Christ's atonement for mankind's sins; the argument against the doctrines of Calvin (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints); a faith in the innate goodness and reasonableness of humans; and the belief that all religious thought should be free rather than coerced either by fear of threats or by the promise of rewards.

Deism in America

The influence of French and English deists on America's founders was immense. The vast majority of American leaders at the time of the Revolutionary War had read the works of Tindal, Rousseau, and Voltaire, and most of these founders considered themselves deists. John Quincy Adams, Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson were among this group, as was Thomas Paine, who wrote extensively on the topic. Paine's Age of Reason (1794, 1796) has often been singled out as one of the most eloquent statements of advanced deist philosophy, although his blunt attacks on the orthodoxy caused him to be considered a heretic by many of his own day.

In addition to the principles they inherited from the Greeks and their European forebears, American deists re-fined and added to the list of beliefs they shared. One of the Americans' major refinements included a practical disavowal of any group being God's "chosen" people: they espoused a direct denial of American Puritans' notion of the new nation as the setting for a jeremiadic mission. Americans held a strong yet somewhat modified denial of the occurrence of miracles, although many did recognize and appreciate what they felt were occasional but inexplicable interventions of "Providence." The founders of the United States demonstrated a strengthened and identifiably democratic insistence on the need for practical morality and an increased belief in the obligation to prayerfully adore and offer thanks for the goodness shown by the beneficent Creator. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine were especially critical of the emphasis traditionally accorded the writings of Saint Paul of Tarsus. They also strongly disavowed the subsequent traditional Trinitarian theology concerning the substitutionary theory of atonement which states that Christ as part of the Godhead was required to die in payment of the death penalty of sin borne by all mankind as a direct result of their kinship to Adam. While Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine all recognized the necessity of doing good works, none saw this as a way to purchase salvation; however, neither did they accept the idea of original sin or the proxy of Jesus's death as substitution for man's own individual sins. Rather, they believed that each man must exercise his own thought and will to act appropriately toward others and that salvation could be gained by simply seeking God's forgiveness and forgiving others in turn. Such a concept of self-responsibility and independence rang true to many of the early American inhabitants.

In a similar fashion, American deists devoutly denied the necessity of any intercessory priesthood to mediate between God and man, not only in terms of receiving salvation, but also in terms of coming to an intellectual understanding of God and the universe he created. Rather than relying on church tradition, polity, or pronouncements, deists instead averred that God's true nature was obscured by what they saw as the pretensions of a traditional clergy or canonical hierarchy. By employing the gift of reason and examining the wonders of nature in the new land in which they had settled, American deists precluded their own dependence on traditional faith, preferring instead to question the workings of the world around them. They often referred to traditional constructions of faith as "superstition" or "magic" or as a reliance on "divine revelation" and saw this as being directly in opposition to the notion of all they believed about God. According to deism, it made no sense to posit a Creator who would have given man a mind with which to think and reason but who later would have arbitrarily punished man simply for not suspending that reason in the name of faith. By extension, not only the individual deist should exercise his own will and reason in making decisions, but every man should also do likewise. Each person, then, should depend on his own reason and free will, and should also take into consideration the fact that his fellow man was doing the same. As a result, the democratic ideals of the young nation were espoused in common with deist philosophy. That is, deists expressed virtually no preference for or prejudice against any organized religion, preferring instead to live in tolerance of all faiths and to give full play to each individual's decisions and actions.

America's founders had been raised in a Christian society, generally in orthodox Christian or Calvinist families; as a result, they came to deism with a strong knowledge of Christian ideology and of the practical workings of church polity. While deism does not advocate wholesale rejection of tradition, often these men's primary departure from Christian teaching was based in their studious consideration and subsequent rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity and of traditional Calvinist dogma. The deist commitments to social justice and individual responsibility were also attractive to the leaders of the young nation, as was the concept of religious tolerance. These ideals are most clearly illustrated in the First Amendment's insistence on the free exercise of religion, but the overarching concern of deism with man's exercise of reason as a free and thinking being is foundational to most of American legal, social, and cultural experience.

Deism's major attraction was to the well-read American intellectual of the late eighteenth century. While deism certainly never replaced orthodox Christianity as Americans' majority religion, it is telling that many of the nation's founders did indeed subscribe to this philosophy and incorporated it into the framework of the young republic. By the early-to mid-nineteenth century, deism in Europe and in America had become colored by skepticism, perhaps most notably as a result of the rapid spread of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. It has also been argued that Romanticism was a reaction to deism and was a possible cause for its decline by the 1830s. In the late twentieth century, deism appeared to undergo something of a revival, although the lack of an organized polity or structure renders precise measurements of the number of practitioners impossible. Many contemporary deists label themselves "practitioners of no religion" or align themselves with liberal Unitarian or Universalist congregations.


Davidson, Edward H., and William J. Scheick. Paine, Scripture, and Authority: The Age of Reason As Religious and Political Idea. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1994.

Koch, G. Adolf. Religion of the American Enlightenment. New York: Crowell, 1968.

May, Henry Farnham. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

McDermott, Gerald R. Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Design Philip Sheldon Foner. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1989 [rprt. 1792 ed].

Rinaldo, Peter M. Atheists, Agnostics, and Deists in America: A Brief History. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Dor Pete Press, 2000.

Walters, Kerry S. The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

———. Rational Infidels: The American Deists. Durango, Colo.: Longwood Academic, 1992.

Barbara SchwarzWachal


views updated Jun 08 2018


DEISTS , adherents of a rationalist movement that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries as an attempt to explain the Bible and create a theology based on the rules of logic and the sciences. Deism arose in the middle of the 17th century out of the rationalist criticism of the past, and especially the religious past, which had been one element of the thinking of the Renaissance and the Reformation. It was also a result of the inevitable de-emphasis on the uniqueness of Christian Europe and its special revelation, as corollary to increasing scientific and geographical discovery, which emphasized the multiplicity of cultures and man's reason and power. The Englishman who founded Deism, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648), made the fundamental distinction between "natural religion" and the various positive faiths, which were judged by its standards (De Religione Gentilium, 1663). In 1670 Baruch *Spinoza published in Amsterdam his Tractatus theologico-politicus… (Treatise on Religious and Political Philosophy) which subjected the Bible and even the New Testament to criticism in the name of universal principles of reason and morality available to any man by his very nature. In this debate about the Bible, others and especially Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), in articles such as his famous Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (Rotterdam, 1697), helped establish as a first principle of the European Enlightenment not only that the Bible was not unique but that indeed it was morally and culturally inferior and obnoxious.

In England the immediate followers of Lord Herbert argued on the grounds of comparative religion, a discipline of which they were the founders, that the basic customs of Judaism had been taken over from the Egyptians. This question, whether the Jews had taught the Egyptians or the Egyptians had taught the Jews, had been at issue in antiquity between Hellenistic Jewish writers and such of their detractors as *Manetho. Learned men such as John Spencer (1630–1693) argued against the originality of the Jews and used all the remarks in the sacred literature of both Jews and Christians that attacked the "stiff-neckedness" of the biblical Jews to paint them in the most negative colors and to suggest that their laws were a punishment visited upon them (De legibus Hebraeorum ritualibus et earum rationibus, Cambridge, 1685). The sources in classic antiquity of this negative estimate of the biblical Jews are even more pronounced in the work of Charles Blount (1654–1693), who renewed the ancient charge of Greco-Roman antisemites that the Jews had been expelled from Egypt as lepers. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), declared that the Jews "were naturally a very cloudy people" (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 1 (London, 1711), 29); "they had certainly in Religion, as in everything else, the least Good Humor of any People in the world" (ibid., 3 (1711), 116).

The attack on the credibility of the Bible and the character of the Jews was continued in England in the 18th century by such figures as Anthony Collins (1676–1729), who, in his Discourse of Free-Thinking (1713), devastated the belief in biblical prophecy and repeated that the Jews were "such an illiterate, barbarous, and ridiculous people," "crossgrained brutes," in dealing with whom God had to "use craft rather than reason" (ibid., 157). Such opinions were held by most of the other spokesmen of Deism in England, including Thomas Chubb (1679–1747), Thomas Morgan (d. 1743), and Peter Annet (1693–1769). They were repeated by Henry St. John, first Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751), the English Deist by whom *Voltaire pretended to be most influenced. The judgment of this whole school of thought was given by its most redoubtable figure in the 18th century, Matthew Tindal (c. 1655–1733). In his Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730) the Jews are no longer depicted as being merely ignorant and barbaric; he suggests that human sacrifice was part of their religion and that the immorality of utterly destroying the Canaanites was indicative of their true character.

All of these attacks were leveled at the biblical Jews, and their function was primarily to discredit Christianity, but this Deistic criticism of the Bible had important effects on enlightened thinking about the estate of the contemporary Jew. The century of Enlightenment, and especially the Deistic believers in universal laws of nature, held that human character was continuous, and the Jews of today were therefore as their ancestors were held to have been. English Deistic thinking had substantial influence on the most important intellectual figure of the 18th century, Voltaire, and on such other figures as Nicolas Freret (1688–1749) and Baron Paul d'*Holbach. A post-Christian seemingly rational and historical outlook in the name of which Jews could be despised was thus defined. Even on Deistic foundations anti-Jewish conclusions were not the only possible ones. John Locke was not a Deist, but he was close to such figures as Bayle, he was the tutor of Bolingbroke in his youth, and Anthony Collins regarded himself as Locke's disciple. As early as 1689 Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, had announced that no one, not even a Jew, "ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion." Locke was followed in these pro-Jewish views by his Deistic disciple John *Toland, who accepted the opinion that Mosaic legislation was borrowed from the Egyptians, but that did not prevent him from arguing that the Code of Moses was the ideal civil constitution and that because of it the Jews had withstood their long exile to the present. Toland knew Jews personally, and as early as 1714 he published a work entitled Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland on the same foot with all other Nations, Containing also a Defence of the Jews against all vulgar Prejudices in all Countries. Five years later, in Nazarenus (London, 1718, Appendix 1), he suggested, in one of the early "Zionist" statements, that the powers of the world ought to help restore the Jews to their own land. It was thus possible to see virtue in the ancient Jews and regard what was wrong with the modern ones as created by the persecution which had been visited upon them and hence to suggest that a change in their conditions would uncover the same universal human nature which is common to all men. This was the view of men such as Gotthold Ephraim *Lessing, the leading German Deist and man of letters in his time, and of a wide variety of people such as Comte de *Mirabeau the Younger, who helped create the atmosphere for the *emancipation of the Jews in France by the *French Revolution. The other opinion, that the character of the Jews was lasting and incorrigible, was the legacy of Deistic biblical criticism, especially in its recension by Voltaire, to modern secular antisemitism. With few exceptions, notably that of Toland, no one who followed Deism, or was seriously influenced by 17th–18th century rationalistic and critical currents, had any doubt that the Jews as they had been molded needed to be freed of their characteristics and traditions in order to join universal culture (which, despite its universalist self-image, was then really a Western classicizing paganism).


S. Ettinger, in: Zion, 29 (1964), 182–207; L. Poliakov, Histoire de l'antisémitisme, 3 (1968), 73–85; A. Hertzberg, French Enlightenment and the Jews (1968); N.L. Torrey (ed. and tr.), Voltaire and the Enlightenment (1931); L. Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (1876, 19624).

[Arthur Hertzberg]


views updated May 29 2018

deism. A term derived from Latin deus, meaning belief in a Supreme Being and used to describe the system of natural religion first developed in the late 17th and 18th cents. The classical exposition of deism was John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696), which argued against revelation and the supernatural. Deists asserted the supremacy of reason and denied the validity of miracles, prophecy, and a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. They usually coupled this religious unorthodoxy with political radicalism and were condemned as ‘infidels’ and dangerous subversives. Paine's Age of Reason (1794) spread deism to radical working men, reinforced in the 1820s by Richard Carlile's publications. In the 1830s and 1840s popular deism was represented by Robert Owen and the Owenites; and the Owenite legacy was inherited by the secularist movement, led by G. J. Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh. The term deism was not much used after the 18th cent., and those who adopted its tenets in the 19th cent. were known as free thinkers or believers in rational religion. When Victorian liberals felt that they could no longer accept the teachings of Christianity or the institutions of the church, but were nevertheless reluctant to deny the existence of God altogether, they became in effect deists. But deism never had the influence in Britain that it had in France and Germany.

John F. C. Harrison


views updated May 23 2018

deism System of natural religion, first developed in England in the late 17th century. It affirmed belief in one God, but held that He detached himself from the universe after its creation and made no revelation. Reason was man's only guide. The deists opposed revealed religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Deist writings include John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696) and Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730). Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot were the main deists of the Enlightenment period.