17th & 18th Centuries
17th & 18th Century Essays
Deism & the Founding of the US
Divining America is made possible by grants from the Lilly Endowment and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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.
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 whose 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.
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.
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.
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. 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 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 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.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
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.
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).