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Deism and the Founding of the United States

Darren Staloff
Professor of History at the City College of New York and
the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
©National Humanities Center

In recent decades, the role of deism in the American founding has become highly charged. Evangelical and/or “traditional” Protestants have claimed that Christianity was central to the early history of the United States and that the nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. They point to the use of prayer in Congress, national days of prayer and thanksgiving and the invocation of God as the source of our “unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence. Secularists respond that large fractions of the principal founding fathers were not Christians at all but deists and the American founding was established on secular foundations. Their principal evidence is the strict separation of church and state they find embedded in the first amendment. They further cite the utter absence of biblical references in our principal founding documents and note that the God of the Declaration of Independence is not described in a scriptural idiom as “God the Father” but instead in deistic terms as a “Creator” and “supreme judge of the world.” Although both sides have some evidence, neither is persuasive. Ultimately, the role of deism in the American founding is just too complex to force into such simplistic formulas.


Deism or “the religion of nature” was a form of rational theology that emerged among “freethinking” Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries. Deists insisted that religious truth should be subject to the authority of human reason rather than divine revelation. Consequently, they denied that the Bible was the revealed word of God and rejected scripture as a source of religious doctrine. As devotees of natural religion, they rejected all the supernatural elements of Christianity. Miracles, prophecies, and divine portents were all proscribed as residues of superstition, as was the providential view of human history. The doctrines of original sin, the account of creation found in Genesis, and the divinity and resurrection of Christ were similarly castigated as irrational beliefs unworthy of an enlightened age. For Deists God was a benevolent, if distant, creator whose revelation was nature and human reason. Applying reason to nature taught most deists that God organized the world to promote human happiness and our greatest religious duty was to further that end by the practice of morality.

Edward Herbert,
1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury,

by Isaac Oliver
The origins of English deism lay in the first half of the 17th century. Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, a prominent English statesman and thinker, laid out the basic deist creed in a series of works beginning with De Veritate (On Truth, as it is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False) in 1624. Herbert was reacting to the ongoing religious strife and bloodletting that had wracked Europe since the onset of the Reformation in the previous century and would shortly spark a revolution and civil war in England itself resulting in the trial and execution of King Charles I. Deism, Herbert hoped, would quell this strife by offering a rational and universal creed. Like his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, Herbert established the existence of God from the so-called cosmological argument that, since everything has a cause, God must be acknowledged as the first cause of the universe itself. Given the existence of God, it is our duty to worship him, repent our failings, strive to be virtuous, and expect punishment and reward in the afterlife. Because this creed was based on reason which was shared by all men (unlike revelation), Herbert hoped it would be acceptable to everyone regardless of their religious background. Indeed, he considered deism the essential core religious belief of all men throughout history, including Jews, Muslims, and even Pagans.

Despite Herbert’s efforts, deism had very little impact in England for most of the 17th century. But in the years from 1690 to 1740, the very height of the Enlightenment in England, deism became a major source of controversy and discussion in English religious and speculative culture. Figures like Charles Blount, Anthony Collins, John Toland, Henry St. John (Lord Bolingbroke), William Wollaston, Matthew Tindal, Thomas Woolston, and Thomas Chubb championed the cause of deism. In so doing, they sparked theological disputes that spread across the channel and the Atlantic.

These Enlightened deists capitalized on two critical developments in the late 17th century to bolster the case for the religion of nature. The first was a transformation in the understanding of nature itself. The path breaking work of physicists like Galileo, Kepler, and, especially, Newton resulted in a vision of the world that was remarkably orderly and precise in its adherence to universal mathematical laws. The Newtonian universe was often compared to a clock because of the regularity of its mechanical operations. Deists seized on this image to formulate the argument from design, namely that the clockwork order of the universe implied an intelligent designer, i.e. God the cosmic clockmaker. The other critical development was the articulation of John Locke’s empiricist theory of knowledge. Having denied the existence of innate ideas, Locke insisted that the only judge of truth was sense experience aided by reason. Although Locke himself believed that the Christian revelation and the accounts of miracles contained therein passed this standard, his close friend and disciple Anthony Collins did not. The Bible was a merely human text and its doctrines must be judged by reason. Since miracles and prophecies are by their nature violations of the laws of nature, laws Voltairewhose regularity and universality were confirmed by Newtonian mechanics, they cannot be credited. Providential intervention in human history similarly interfered with the clocklike workings of the universe and impiously implied the shoddy workmanship of the original design. Unlike the God of Scripture, the deist God was remarkably distant; after designing his clock, he simply wound it up and let it run. At the same time, his benevolence was evidenced by the astounding precision and beauty of his workmanship. Indeed, part of the attraction of deism lay in its foisting a sort of cosmic optimism. A rational and benevolent deity would only design what Voltaire lampooned as “the best of all possible worlds,” and all earthly injustice and suffering was either merely apparent or would be rectified in the hereafter. True deist piety was moral behavior in keeping with the Golden Rule of benevolence.

Christianity as Old as the
Creation: Or, The Gospel,
a Republication of the
Religion of Nature

by Matthew Tindal
Most English deists downplayed the tensions between their rational theology and that of traditional Christianity. Anthony Collins clamed that “freethinking” in religion was not only a natural right but also a biblically enjoined duty. Matthew Tindal, the author of Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730)—the “Bible of Deism”—argued that the religion of nature was recapitulated in Christianity, and the purpose of the Christian revelation was to free men from superstition. Tindal insisted that he was a Christian deist, as did Thomas Chubb who revered Christ as a divine moral teacher but held that reason, not faith, was the final arbiter of religious belief. How seriously to take these claims has been a matter of intense and prolonged debate. Deism was proscribed by law after all; the Toleration Act of 1689 had specifically excluded all forms of anti-trinitarianism as well as Catholicism. Even in an age of increasing toleration, flaunting one’s heterodoxy could be a dangerous affair, driving many authors into esotericism if not outright deception. When Thomas Woolston attacked the scriptural accounts of miracles and the doctrine of the resurrection, he was fined one hundred pounds sterling and sentenced to one year in prison. Certainly, some deists adopted a materialistic determinism that smacked of atheism. Others, like Collins, Bolingbroke, and Chubb, questioned the immortality of the soul. Even more challenging was the propensity to ascribe the supernatural elements of the Christian religion to “priestcraft,” the cunning deceptions of clergymen who gulled their ignorant flocks by throwing the pixie dust of “mystery” in their eyes. The Dudleian lecture, endowed by Paul Dudley in 1750, is the oldest endowed lecture at Harvard University. Dudley specified that the lecture should be given once a year, and that the topics of the lectures should rotate among four themes: natural religion, revealed religion, the Romish church, and the validity of the ordination of ministers. The first lecture was given in 1755, and it continues to the present day.On the other hand, the rational theology of the deists had been an intrinsic part of Christian thought since Thomas Aquinas, and the argument from design was trumpeted from Anglophone Protestant pulpits of most denominations on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, Harvard instituted a regular series of lectures on natural religion in 1755. Even anti-clericalism had a fine pedigree among dissenting English Protestants since the Reformation. And it is not inconceivable that many deists might have seen themselves as the culmination of the Reformation process, practicing the priesthood of all believers by subjecting all authority, even that of scripture, to the faculty of reason that God had given humanity.

Like their English counterparts, most colonial deists downplayed their distance from their orthodox neighbors. Confined to a small number of educated and generally wealthy elites, colonial deism was a largely private affair that sought to fly below the radar. Benjamin Franklin had been much taken with deist doctrines in his youth and had even published a treatise [A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain] in England on determinism with strong atheistic overtones. But Franklin quickly repented of his action and tried to suppress the distribution of his publication, considering it one of the greatest errors of his youth. Henceforth he kept his religious convictions to himself and his clubbical “pot companions” or drinking friends, and tried to present as orthodox a public appearance as possible. Like his handful of fellow colonial deists, Franklin kept a low theological profile. As a result, deism had very little impact in early America up through the American Revolution.

In the years after independence, however, that began to change. In 1784 Ethan Allen, the hero of Fort Ticonderoga and revolutionary leader of the Green Mountain Boys, published Reason: The Only Oracle of Man. Allen had drafted much of the work some twenty years earlier with Thomas Young, a fellow New England patriot and freethinker. Allen rejected revelation (scriptural or otherwise), prophecies, miracles, and divine providence as well as such specifically Christian doctrines as the trinity, original sin, and the need for atonement. A tedious and long-winded author, Allen’s lengthy tome had little impact other than raising the ire of the New England clergy and the specter of homegrown freethinking. The same could not be said of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason (1794). The legendary author of Common Sense brought the same militancy and rhetorical flair to the struggle for deism that he had for independence. Paine lambasted the superstitions of Christianity and vilified the priestcraft that supported it. More than simply irrational, Christianity was the last great obstacle to the coming secular chiliad, the Age of Reason. Only when it was vanquished could human happiness and perfectibility be achieved. Paine’s impact was due as much to the punchy power of his prose as the extreme radicalism of his views, as evidenced by this denunciation of the Old Testament:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debauches, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.

Militant deism had arrived in early America with a bang.

The Temple of Reason,
by Elihu Palmer
The flame that Paine sparked was fanned by his good friend Elihu Palmer. A former Baptist minister, Palmer traveled along the Atlantic seaboard lecturing audiences large and small about the truths of natural religion as well as the absurdities of revealed Christianity and the clerical priestcraft that supported them. A skilled biblical casuist, Palmer exposed the irrationality of Christianity and its debased moral principles in Principles of Nature (1801). A radical feminist and abolitionist, Palmer found the scriptures filled with an ethical code of intolerance and vengeful cruelty in sharp contrast to the benevolent humanitarianism of his own rational creed. Palmer spread the word in two deist newspapers he edited, The Temple of Reason (1800–1801) and The Prospect (1803–1805). By the time he died in 1806, Palmer had founded deist societies in several cities including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

Organized deism did not survive Palmer’s demise, as much of the nation was swept up in an evangelical revival. In fact, the militant deism of Paine and Palmer never really threatened mainstream Protestantism in the early Republic. But that was not the way many orthodox divines saw it. In the years after Paine and Palmer began spreading their message, many ministers (particularly in New England) angrily denounced the growing menace of godless deism, French-inspired Atheism, and revolutionary and conspiratorial “illuminatism.” These charges took on an increasingly shrill and partisan edge, so much so that they became a campaign issue in the Presidential election of 1800 which several clergymen depicted as a choice between the Federalist patriot John Adams and the Francophile anti-Christian Thomas Jefferson.

Guiding Discussion

After explaining the nature of deism, you are in a wonderful position to enrich your students understanding of the role of religion in the founding of the United States. The first thing to do is to show the inadequacy of the polemical formulas stated at the outset of this essay. Begin with the secularist case for a deist founding. First note that of those men who signed the Declaration of Independence, sat in the Confederation Congress, or participated in the Constitutional Convention for whom we have reliable information, the vast bulk were fairly traditional in the religious lives. The presumed deists comprise a fairly small group, although most are prominent “A list” founders like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. At least two of these names can be struck off the list immediately. Freemasonry

The teachings and practices of the secret fraternal order of Free and Accepted Masons, the largest worldwide secret society. Spread by the advance of the British Empire, Freemasonry remains most popular in the British Isles and in other countries originally within the empire.

Freemasonry evolved from the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders of the Middle Ages. With the decline of cathedral building, some lodges of operative (working) masons began to accept honorary members to bolster their declining membership. From a few of these lodges developed modern symbolic or speculative Freemasonry, which particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, adopted the rites and trappings of ancient religious orders and of chivalric brotherhoods. In 1717 the first Grand Lodge, an association of lodges, was founded in England.

Freemasonry has, almost from its inception, encountered considerable opposition from organized religion, especially from the Roman Catholic Church, and from various states.

Though often mistaken for such, Freemasonry is not a Christian institution. Freemasonry contains many of the elements of a religion; its teachings enjoin morality, charity, and obedience to the law of the land. For admission the applicant is required to be an adult male believing in the existence of a Supreme Being and in the immortality of the soul. In practice, some lodges have been charged with prejudice against Jews, Catholics, and nonwhites. Generally, Freemasonry in Latin countries has attracted freethinkers and anticlericals, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon countries, the membership is drawn largely from among white Protestants.

“Freemasonry” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
22 Feb. 2008.
Hamilton had been fairly devout as a youth, and while there is little evidence of much religiosity during the height of his career, in his final years he returned to a heartfelt and sincere Christian piety. John Adams was far from orthodox in his beliefs but he was no deist; he was a universalist Unitarian whose views were remarkably similar to those of Charles Chauncy, the minister of Boston’s First Church. The next category is those whose deism is ascribed on slender evidence. George Washington’s deism is inferred from his failure to mention Jesus in his writings, his freemasonry, and his apparent refusal to take communion during most of his life. That Washington was not a fundamentalist goes without saying, but there is simply no evidence that he was anything other than what was known at the time as a “liberal” Christian. A regular attendee of religious services and a vestryman in his parish, Washington peppered many of his addresses and speeches with biblical references and appeals to divine providence as well a messages extolling the role of religion in public life. And the evidence of Mason and Madison is even weaker than that for Washington. The only really plausible cases are Franklin and Jefferson. There is no doubt that both were taken with deist doctrines in their youth and that they informed their mature religious convictions. Yet neither entirely embraced the religion of nature, especially in its militant form. Franklin never accepted the divinity of Christ, but he did specifically argue for a providential view of history. As for Jefferson, there is some evidence that by the late 1790’s he had abandoned his deism for he materialist Unitarianism of Joseph Priestly. This is not to suggest that there were no deists in the founding. Thomas Paine assuredly fits the bill, as do Ethan Allen, Phillip Freneau, and possibly Stephen Hopkins. But these comprise a small fraction of the B-list, not the cream of the crop.

Having dispatched the secularists, turn your fire on the case for a Christian founding. First, note that while the aforementioned founders were not deists, they were far from traditional in their beliefs. Washington may not have mentioned Jesus because he doubted the divinity of Christ, a doubt that was assuredly shared by Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and possibly Mason and Madison as well. Real whigs held that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, denounced standing armies,… argued that ‘freedom of speech is the great bulwark [safeguard] of liberty.’ feared religious establishments,… were preoccupied with limiting government and protecting a sphere of privacy from undue governmental intervention.”

Citizens and Citoyens: Republicans and Liberals in America and France, by Mark Hulliung. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2002. page 11.
These were, after all, men of the Enlightenment who, in the words of historian Gordon Wood, “were not all that enthusiastic about religion, certainly not about religious enthusiasm.” And even if their views were somewhat atypical, they certainly did not hamper them from gaining the respect and public support of their more orthodox countrymen. Moreover, it is important to point out that a country founded by and for Christians does not a Christian founding make. The “real whig” ideology that inspired the colonial protest movement of the 1760s drew on classical and early modern rather than Christian sources; there is very little scriptural “During the early modern period, the context of human affairs was changing dramatically. Within the globalization of life, three major changes were of special significance.

1. The development of new-style empires and large state systems that came to dominate global political and military affairs.

2. The internal transformation of the major societies, but especially the transformation of society in western Europe.

3. The emergence of networks of interaction that were global in their scope.

These developments reoriented the global balance of societal power. In 1500 there were four predominant traditions of civilization in the Eastern Hemisphere in a position of relative parity, but by 1800, one of these societies, the West, was in a position to assume political and military control over the whole world.”

The Encyclopedia of World History:
Ancient, Medieval, and Modern,
6th ed.
, edited by Peter N. Stearns.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
February 2008.
authority for the maxim “no taxation without representation.” Similarly, the doctrines of mixed and balanced government, the separation of powers, and all the other principles of prudential politics association with the Federal Constitution were drawn from the writings of European philosophers rather than biblical prophets or exegetes.

Once your students have seen the inadequacy of both current formulas, push them to rethink the relation of politics and religion in the early Republic. You might suggest that the natural religious language of the Declaration served as a neutral expression acceptable to all denominations rather than a deist creed precisely because a tradition of natural theology was shared by most Christians at the time. Deist phrases may thus have been a sort of theological lingua franca, and their use by the founders was ecumenical rather than anti-Christian. Such ecumenical striving sheds fresh light on the first amendment and the secular order it established. This secularism forbade the federal government from establishing a national church or interfering with church affairs in the states. However, it did not create a policy of official indifference, much less hostility toward organized religion. Congress hired chaplains, government buildings were used for divine services, and federal policies supported religion in general (ecumenically) as does our tax code to this day. The founding generation always assumed that religion would play a vital part in the political and moral life of the nation. Its ecumenical secularity insured that no particular faith would be excluded from that life, including disbelief itself.

Historians Debate

Unfortunately, many recent books on deism and the Founding of the United States are polemical in intent. There are two notable exceptions however. David L. Holmes, The Faith of the Founding Fathers (2006) makes a scholarly argument for the importance of deism in the founding, albeit by examining a handful of Virginians. Alf J. Mapp, Jr., The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Fathers Really Believed (2003) takes a more balanced view but is based on little primary research and tends to be conjectural in its conclusions. Little work has been done on deism in early America itself besides Kerry S. Walters, Rational Infidels: The American Deists (1992) which remains the best book on the subject. There are, however, hosts of good and popular books on individuals “deist” founders. Two excellent examples are Edwin S. Gaustad’s Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (1996) and Edmund S. Morgan’s Benjamin Franklin (2002). A good general introduction to the role of religion in the early republic is James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (1998).

Darren Staloff is a Professor of History at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has published many papers and reviews on early American history and is the author of The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts (1998) and The Politics of Enlightenment: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams and the Founding of the American Republic (2005).

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