In the 17th century CE (Christian Era or Common Era), in England, some individuals began to openly oppose church doctrines that appeared unfair or unreasonable. These individuals, who were called “deists,” were opposed to such doctrines as “original sin” which claims that human nature is inherently corrupt or evil because of the “original sin” of “Adam,” the so-called “first” human being according to the story in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.
The doctrine of “original sin” provided a foundation for the entire structure of trinitarian theology which was eventually adopted by the Christian church after several centuries. According to trinitarian theology, the corruption of human nature leads all persons to sin (disobey God) which is punishable by death in “hell,” a place of everlasting torment. The church claimed that human beings can only be saved from this punishment by believing that God’s divine son became a human being, Jesus, whose death was a “sacrificial atonement” to pay the death penalty as a “substitute” for humankind. The Deists rejected the church doctrine that belief in Jesus’ death provides “salvation” from sin because most human beings have never heard of Jesus during the history of the world. Deists believe that God would not treat people so unequally and unfairly. With its claim to holding the “keys to heaven and hell,” the church exerted a tremendous influence after Christianity became an institutional religion officially recognized by the Roman empire in the 4th century.
In the 5th century, the Roman empire began to crumble. Germanic tribes (barbarians) invaded from the north and conquered the city of Rome. The Roman emperor in Constantinople abandoned the western part of the empire (Italy, France, etc.). The Christian church filled the leadership vacuum in the west as Christian clergy performed civil administrative duties in addition to church duties.
Beginning in the sixth century (about 500 CE), Europe entered a period known as the “dark ages.” Life for most people was depressing and tenuous because of poverty, disease, and war. The promise of a better life in the “hereafter” had great appeal, and the threat of “hell” for those who refused the offer of “salvation” gave the church power over the illiterate masses of people. The church also used the threat of “excommunication” to exercise power over government leaders. With its growing power, the church gained wealth, especially in land.
In western Europe, where the nations of Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany developed, the Christian church was a dominating force, politically and intellectually. The church insisted that the Bible (Old and New Testaments), as interpreted by the church, was the final authority in all matters–religious, scientific, or otherwise.
Beginning about 1300 C.E., the Renaissance came. There was renewed interest in the culture of the ancient Romans and Greeks, including literature, law, architecture, philosophy, and art. Interest in what the ancient Roman and Greek writers said in their original texts led to the development of textual criticism which could also be applied to the Bible. Questions began to be raised about the text of the Vulgate (Latin) Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church.
The literature of ancient Rome and Greece offered a positive view of human nature and human potential. It did not have the negative and depressing view of human nature which is found in the church doctrine of “original sin.” Roman and Greek culture emphasized the good and beauty in the world, and the responsibility of individuals for their own behavior.
Trade with the Far East (China and Japan) led to the discovery of cultures that existed continuously from before the time of “Noah” when the Bible claimed that the world had been destroyed by a flood. This raised questions about the reliability of the Bible.
Discovery and exploration of the “New World” (America) brought new wealth to European countries. Scientific discoveries in astronomy discredited the belief that the earth was the center of the universe as taught by the church. The invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, about 1450, enabled the printing of thousands of religious tracts in the 1500s and later.
The Protestant Reformation began in the 1500s, leading to the development of Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinistic) churches. The Protestant reformers opposed the authority of the Roman Catholic pope but made no effort to reform trinitarian theology.
The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation brought religious, philosophical, and political changes to Europe and England. The 1600s brought scientific advances in medicine, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Isaac Newton’s theories about the universe and gravity presented new ways of looking at the world.
In the latter half of the 1600s (the seventeenth century), a number of Anglican ministers and other writers began to question trinitarian doctrines that appeared to be contrary to nature and reason. These writings continued through the 1700s, and the name “deism” was given to the views expressed by these writers.
Deism was not an organized religious movement. It was an effort by individual writers to reform Christian theology by ridding the church of certain doctrines that were inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. Deists also rejected the concept of “supernatural revelation” of truth, and belief in “miracles” contrary to nature.
Deists opposed the doctrines of original sin, divinity of Jesus, and substitutionary atonement through the death of Jesus. Deists also rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of “predestination” that claimed that individuals were either “saved” or “lost” (condemned to “hell”) before they are born. This gloomy doctrine made God appear to be a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.
In contrast to trinitarian doctrines, the English deists wrote that (1) the existence of a Creator (God) is known through nature and reasoning, (2) individuals should worship (honor) God by virtuous behavior (love for others), (3) individuals are accountable for their behavior, and (4) repentance is the means for obtaining God’s forgiveness for wrong-doing. The writings of the English deists occurred mostly in the 1600s and 1700s. Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648) was an early proponent of natural and universal religion based on human reason. Although Herbert was not a deist, some of his ideas were adopted later by deists.
Charles Blount (1654-1693) was the earliest identifiable deist in England. He wrote a book Religio Laici (“Layman’s Religion”) in 1683, based on Edward Herbert’s book De Religione Laici (“A Layman’s Religion”) which was published in 1645.
Blount also published a book, entitled Oracles of Reason, in 1693, containing an article “A Summary Account of the Deists Religion,” the earliest known published statement of deist beliefs. Blount rejected the doctrines of the “Trinity of God” and “substitutionary atonement” through the death of Jesus. Blount questioned the stories of “miracles” in the Bible, and he believed that much of traditional Christianity has been invented by priests and other religious leaders.
The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was not a deist, but he wrote a book On the Reasonableness of Christianity, in 1695. Locke viewed Jesus as the “messiah” or “Son of God” whom God sent to confirm the truths that could be known through human reasoning. Locke did not deny the idea of “supernatural revelation” but he believed that any alleged revelation had to be reasonable. Locke also was willing to accept some church doctrines that were “mysteries,” or beyond human comprehension, if such doctrines were not contrary to reason. Locke considered himself an Anglican Christian but he admitted that human reason could discover the same truths that were taught by Jesus. Locke wrote this book in an effort to support what Locke considered to be “orthodox” Christianity, in opposition to deism, but his book unintentionally gave support to deist beliefs, and led trinitarian clergy to accuse Locke of being an anti-trinitarian.
John Toland (1670-1722) published a book Christianity Not Mysterious, in 1696 (one year after Locke’s book mentioned above), in which Toland wrote that any doctrine that was “mysterious,” or beyond human comprehension, was not essential in Christianity. Toland believed that God would not expect anyone to believe something that was beyond human comprehension or was contrary to reason. The trinitarian clergy recognized that Toland was questioning the doctrine of the “Trinity of God.” Toland’s book was burned in Ireland, and the Church of England brought charges against Toland.
Thomas Woolston (1669-1733) was an Anglican minister who believed that the events recorded in the Old and New Testaments should not be taken literally and historically, but had to be interpreted allegorically. These included the stories of the virgin birth and miracles of Jesus. Woolston was imprisoned for “blasphemy” which was considered a religious and civil offense.
Matthew Tindal (1657?-1733) was an Anglican lawyer and writer who wrote Christianity As Old as Creation, or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature, in 1730. Tindal believed that God’s revelation came through nature as understood through human reasoning. Tindal rejected the doctrine of “original sin.” Tindal believed that God’s truth cannot be limited to a particular place or time, as it is as old as creation.
Thomas Morgan (169?-1743) was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1717 and later became a medical doctor. He wrote a book The Moral Philosopher, in 1737, in which he identified himself as a “Christian Deist.” Morgan agreed with Matthew Tindal that Christianity is essentially a republication of truths found in “natural religion” which is known as “deism.”
Henry St. John (1672-1751), also known as Viscount Bolingbroke, was a prominent politician who served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War at various times in the government of England. When his political party was out of power, St. John began studying philosophy and became a deist in his religious philosophy. He was personally acquainted with Voltaire who had a high regard for St. John as a philosopher. St. John was also aquainted with the poet Alexander Pope whose poetry was influenced by St. John’s deism. St. John’s belief in the existence of God was based on “intelligent design” seen in nature. He wrote, “When we contemplate the works of God . . . they give us very clear and determined ideas of wisdom and power, which we call infinite . . . ”
Thomas Chubb (1679-1747) was a humble candle-maker and brilliant writer. His writings brought him to the attention of some Unitarians with whom he associated in London for a few years but he later returned home to his life as a candle-maker and writer. In 1739, he published The True Gospel of Jesus Christ Asserted. Chubb considered himself to be a Christian Deist, and his writings brought deism to ordinary people.
Peter Annet (1693-1769) was a schoolmaster and prolific writer. In Deism Fairly Stated, in 1744, Annet wrote that “Deism . . . is not other than the Religion essential to Man, the true, original religion of Reason and Nature; such as was believed and practised by Socrates, and others of old . . .” Annet questioned the validity of miracles and held a very low opinion of the “apostle Paul.” Annet also questioned the records of the “resurrection of Jesus.”
Annet was the editor/publisher of a periodical called Free Enquirer in which he questioned Old Testament history. For this he was imprisoned for one month and had to stand in pillory. Later, in his sixties, Annet was arrested again for “blasphemous libel” and was sentenced to one year of hard labor in prison. After his release, he returned to school teaching in a grammar school until his death.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a deist, emigrated from England to America in 1774, and became famous for his writings which inspired Americans to seek independence from England. Paine was active in the American Revolutionary War, and his writings were credited by George Washington for rallying financial and moral support for the American army when it appeared that America was losing the war for independence. Paine wrote his deistic book The Age of Reason, in 1794, opposing both traditional Christianity and atheism. Paine would not call himself a “Christian” because the only “Christianity” he knew was trinitarian Christianity.
Religious and political conditions in England prepared the way for the development of deism in the 17th century. Anglican ministers and university professors were familiar with rationalism since the days of Richard Hooker (1554-1600), an Anglican theologian. The English revolution of 1688 brought changes in civil government, and eventually some freedom of the press. The Protestant Reformation gave rise to various Christian denominations in England.
But the Protestant Reformation was not aimed at reforming trinitarian theology. The deists undertook this task by trying to remove the doctrines that had been developed by the church after the time of Jesus. Deists saw themselves as carrying the Protestant Reformation to its logical conclusion by reforming the theology of the church.
In England, deism was never an organized movement. It existed in the writings of individuals who expressed their personal religious beliefs. Occasionally, there were private meetings of small groups for discussion. In France, during the French revolution, an effort was made to replace the Roman Catholic Church with a form of non-Christian deism. The Catholic Church and the French monarchy were viewed as allies in suppressing the French people, so the church and the monarchy were attacked simultaneously. During the revolution, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was renamed “The Temple of Reason.” But the effort to replace the Catholic Church with the “Cult of the Supreme Being” did not succeed. Non-Christian deism was too abstract to attract the devotion of the people.
In the United States, English deism did have some influence in the 18th and 19th centuries. English philosophy and religion came to the United States through books and personal communications between individuals in both countries.
Ethan Allen (1737-1788), a hero in the American Revolution, was the first well-known deist in America when it was under British rule. In 1762, Allen moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, where he became a deist after becoming acquainted with Dr. Thomas Young, a physician and deist, who lived just north of Salisbury in New York. Allen and Young began to write a book on deism but Young moved to Albany, New York, in 1764, and took the manuscript with him. In 1781, Allen acquired the manuscript from Dr. Young’s widow and completed the book, “Reason the Only Oracle of Man or a Compendious System of Natural Religion,” in 1782. The book was not published until 1784 because Allen had difficulty in finding money for the printer. Since Allen claimed to have never read any writing by a deist, the deistic content of the book apparently came from Dr. Thomas Young.
Dr. Thomas Young (1731-1777) was a prominent physician who practiced medicine in western New York, Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsysvania. Young was a patriot in the American independence movement, and a leader in the “Boston Tea Party,” one of the events that led to the start of the American Revolution. Young was a frequent writer of medical and political articles in newspapers and a magazine. His religious views were well-known, and his deistic creed was published as a letter in a newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, in 1772. This is the earliest published creed by an identifiable deist in America. Also, Young was apparently the primary author of a manuscript on which Ethan Allen based his book, “Reason the Only Oracle of Man,” published in 1784.
Deism is clearly present in the personal beliefs of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he referred to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” Although he was reared in the Episcopal Church and participated in the parish, Jefferson held deistic views. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general and particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, of consummate skill, indefinite power in every atom of composition….it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is….a fabricator of all things.”
Jefferson believed that the teachings of Jesus had “been disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers” but he believed that Jesus taught “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Jefferson made his own “Bible” by extracting what he found to be valid in the life and teachings of Jesus. This “cut and paste” version is now called “The Jefferson Bible.” It omits the “miracles” of Jesus and makes no reference to the “resurrection” of Jesus.
To Jefferson, religion was a private matter. He wrote, “I have ever thought religion a concern purely between God and our consciences for which we are accountable to him, and not to priests.”
Elihu Palmer (1764-1806), an ex-Presbyterian minister, was a deist who was active in preaching deism and organizing Deistical Societies in New York and Pennsylvania. He also edited and published deistic newspapers and wrote the “Principles of Nature” (1801) as follows:
1. The universe proclaims the existence of one supreme Deity, worthy of the adoration of intelligent beings.
2. Man is possessed of moral and intellectual faculties sufficient for improvement of nature, and the acquisition of happiness.
3. The religion of nature is the only universal religion; that it grows out of the moral relations of intelligent beings, and it stands connected with the progressive improvement and common welfare of the human race.
4. It is essential to the true interest of man, that he love truth and practice virtue.
5. Vice is every where ruinous and destructive to the happiness of the individual and of society.
6. A benevolent disposition, and beneficient actions, are fundamental duties of rational beings.
7. A religion mingled with persecution and malice cannot be of divine origin.
8. Education and science are essential to the happiness of man.
9. Civil and religious liberty is essential to his interests.
10. There can be no human authority to which man ought to be amenable for his religious opinions.
11. Science and truth, virtue and happiness, are the great objects to which the activity and energy of human faculties ought to be directed.
Elihu Palmer’s statement of “Principles” would certainly gain approval from most intelligent and civilized individuals today but, in my view, the “Deistical Society of New York” was a mistaken effort to organize “deism” apart from its Christian foundation in the teachings of Jesus.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), was reared in the Calvinism of the Presbyterian Church but, as a youth working in his brother’s printshop, he saw some anti-deist literature which had the opposite effect on Franklin. Franklin said that he briefly became a “thorough deist” but, at age 19, he adopted a materialistic philosophy. Franklin then returned to the Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia, but he ceased attending this church when Franklin was 22 years of age. Then Franklin wrote his own “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion” returning to his deistic views of religion. Near the end of his life, Franklin wrote, “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion . . . .” Franklin’s deism is apparent in this statement, but there is no agreement among deists that the soul is immortal. Deists do agree that God’s power to give life is not limited.
Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson kept their deism very private because both were prominent political leaders, and they wanted to avoid controversy over religion. Ethan Allen published his (and Dr. Thomas Young’s) book, The Oracle of Reason, only after Young’s death and shortly before Allen’s death, so this book had little or no influence on the deist movement in the United States at that time. Thomas Paine and Elihu Palmer both opposed the irrationality of trinitarian theology but failed to accept the English deists’ view of Jesus as a teacher of the natural religion of deism. The deaths of Paine and Palmer ended their efforts to organize local non-Christian deistical societies.
In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in deism. The internet has provided more communication between individuals who are interested in natural religion based on human observation, experience, and reasoning. Individuals are experimenting with ways to bring deists together for mutural support and the promotion of deism. I believe that the life and teachings of Jesus make the principles of deism understandable and provide a personal religion that can be practiced every day. I hope that my essays may assist others in identifying themselves as “Christian deists” who choose to follow the human Jesus. May God bless you.