Dr. Thomas Young, Early American Deist

Dr. Thomas Young (1731-1777), a prominent physician and patriot during the American Revolution, was an early Deist in America. Thomas Young was the son of John Young who emigrated from Ireland to America with a group of relatives led by Colonel Charles Clinton, a cousin of John Young’s mother, Jane.

John Young and his relatives left Ireland in May 1729 and their ship landed at Cape Cod in the Massachusetts colony in October 1729. In the spring of 1730, John Young and other relatives sailed to Ulster County in the New York colony. In August 1730, John Young and Colonel Charles Clinton bought adjoining farms in Ulster County (Little Britain community).

In 1729 or 1730, John Young married Mary Crawford and they had seven children, including Thomas Young, born February 19, 1731, in Ulster County. As a child, Thomas Young’s intelligence was noticeable and neighbors viewed him as a genius. His paternal grandmother, Jane Young Armstrong, taught him to read and his father, John Young, taught him arithmetic. Thomas’ learning was so rapid that he began teaching himself arithmetic and he asked for books to teach himself Latin.

Colonel Charles Clinton urged John Young to obtain formal education for Thomas Young. Thomas was enrolled in a school operated by John Wilson, a mathematician, and later studied with a minister who was known as a linguist. Thomas learned to read Latin and French. Colonel Charles Clinton loaned books to Thomas who had an interest in botany and reading Classics. At age 17, Thomas began a two-year medical education as an apprentice to a physician, Dr. John Kitterman. During this time, Thomas learned to speak Dutch. About 1750, after his medical apprenticeship, Thomas moved to Sharon, Connecticut (adjoining Amenia, New York) to begin his professional practice as a physician.

Thomas Young met Ethan Allen who moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, in 1762. Salisbury was adjacent to Sharon, Connecticut, and Amenia, New York, where Dr. Thomas Young practiced medicine. Young and Allen became close friends. Allen, age 25, was six years younger than Young. Young, a deist, introduced Allen to deism and they began writing a book on the subject. In October 1764, Thomas Young took the manuscript with him when Young moved to Albany, New York, to practice medicine.

In 1765, the British parliament passed the Stamp Act imposing direct taxes on British colonies in America to pay the British debt from the war with France (known as the “French and Indian War” in America). The colonists opposed the taxes, with the cry, “No taxation without representation” (in the British parliament). In Albany, Thomas Young joined the Sons of Liberty, a group supporting the colonists’ rights and advocating independence for the colonies from Britain.

In the fall of 1766, Young moved to Boston, Massachusetts, a center for American patriots such as John Adams, Samuel Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, and others. In Boston, Young became a prominent physician, a leader in public affairs, and a member of the Sons of Liberty. He was a frequent writer of medical and political articles in newspapers and a magazine.

In November 1772, at a town meeting, Young was appointed to a Committee of Correspondence to discuss actions to be taken against the Massachusetts governor who was enforcing unacceptable British decrees in the colony. A local merchant objected to the proposals by Young and the patriots, and attacked Young for his unorthodox religious beliefs. In response, Young published his religious beliefs in a letter printed in a newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy. This letter was the first known publication of a deist creed from an identifiable deist in America.

Thomas Young wrote:

“My creed is this.

“I believe in one eternal God, whose being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice and beneficence are altogether inconceivable to such atoms of animated matter as are yourself and I.

“2dly. I believe that this God possessing infinite space with all its amazing furniture of habitable mansions, created forth beings as we are, that they might enjoy the bounties of his grace which must otherwise have run to waste or at least have existed for no purpose.

“3dly. I believe that the happiness of his creatures being the concern of the supreme God himself, might in consequence be the concern of every intelligent (being?) under his government.

“4thly. I believe, that in order of nature and providence, the man who most assiduously endeavors to promote the will of God in the good of his fellow creatures, receives the most simple reward of his virtue, the peace of mind and silent applause of a good conscience, which administers more solid satisfaction than all of the other enjoyments of life put together.

“5thly. On the other hand I believe, that the man who endeavors to build up his fortune or fame on the ruin of the estate or character of his neighbor, acts contrary to the rule of right, and in consequence must fall short of that approbation from God and his own conscience, which the performance of his known duty would have ensured him of.

“6thly. I, most explicitly believe that all men shall be rewarded for deeds done in the body, whether they be good or evil, according to the eternal rule of right, by which the sovereign judge of the universe squares all decrees.”

Young added that his religion was based on two major principles:

“1st. To believe that God is, and the rewarder of all those that diligently seek him. 2d. To do justly, and to love mercy among us being, As ye would that others do unto you do also unto them in like manner.”

Young was a member of the North End Caucus, a Boston organization concerned with public affairs. In November 1773, the North End Caucus met to decide how to respond to a tax matter. Britain had required the colonists to buy tea from the East India Company that was taxed by Britain. The colonists boycotted the East India Company and bought tea from American merchants. Britain responded by allowing the East India Company to sell tea without tax to the colonists, thus undercutting the price of tea offered by American merchants. When a ship anchored in the Boston harbor was about to unload its cargo of East India Company tea, Young proposed that the colonists dump the tea into the harbor. Samuel Adams and other patriots supported this plan that produced the “Boston Tea Party,” on December 16, 1773, one of the events that led to the beginning of the American Revolution.

In September 1774, Young led a crowd in a public protest that forced a British judge to resign. Consequently, Young had to flee to Newport, Road Island, to avoid arrest. After a few months in Newport, Young learned that British officers had been ordered to capture him, so he fled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Beginning in 1775, Young continued his medical practice and interest in public affairs in Philadelphia. In 1776, he participated in designing the Pennsylvania constitution. He also encouraged Ethan Allen’s efforts to create a new state in the Green Mountains area which had declared its independence from the New Hampshire and New York colonies. Young suggested the name “Vermont” (meaning “green mountain”) for the new state.

On December 14, 1776, Young was appointed Senior Surgeon at the Continental hospital in Philadelphia. Young caught yellow fever while working at the hospital and died on June 24, 1777.

In 1781, Ethan Allen retrieved from Young’s widow the manuscript for the book that Allen and Young had begun about 1762. In 1782, Allen completed the book entitled Reason the Only Oracle of Man or a Compendious System of Natural Religion, based on Young’s manuscript. The book contains well-known views and arguments published by deists in England. Since Allen wrote that he had never read any deist writings, the primary author of the book was apparently Young, although Allen failed to give Young any credit for the book. Allen had difficulty raising money to pay the printer so the book was not published until 1784. This was the first book on deism written in America.

Brother John

February 17, 2009

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