Exploring Deism Its Origins and History

by Lewis Loflin

My purpose here is to explore the history and origins of deism. It's time to put aside political agendas and secular religious bigotry to put deism back in its proper historical context. Also see my page on Classical Deism.

Visit our Facebook Page Classical Deism

The Age of Reason was an English affair and should be severed from The Enlightenment, which was a later French affair, occurring at a different time with very differing results. The Age of Reason sought to reform religion, the secular Enlightenment sought to destroy it in total. That is what clearly differentiated the American Revolution from the blood-letting and violent French Revolution.

The idea was never to strip religion from the public sphere, but to preserve individual liberty. See On Separation of Religion and State. To further quote Jefferson to put this in context, I consider religion a supplement of law in the government of man. Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, Foley 1900 (#7242).

Broadly deism rejects the authority of revelation, the claim that God communicates through selected men or people any special divine knowledge or authority. And that god (lower case 'g' because this for radical deists is a philosophical concept and no relation to any traditional understanding of God) has no interaction with the world beyond creation. There's also some recent variations called pandeism and panendeism which is simply pantheism. (God and nature are the same.)

Deism as it is today is clearly not a religion but a philosophy. It's weakness is it's so vague one can manufacture almost any meaning one wishes.

The Founders of America were not those type "deists" as defined Voltaire, Rousseau, and the French Revolution and the French Enlightenment. The Deism of the French Revolution would be the 'Watchmaker" god of Voltaire that went away after creation and had no further interaction with the world. This was part of the French humanist/atheist effort to de-Christianize French society and substitute Eastern mysticism and Greek/pagan philosophy. See the Cult of Reason and Robespierre.

The American Founders never called themselves "Deists" and Jefferson and Adams considered themselves Unitarians and said so. They are better defined as Unitarians because they believed God was active in the world, divine punishment for evil, and an afterlife. See Existence of Deity/God by Thomas Jefferson

Classical Deism was defined by Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648) and was one of the earliest proponents of Deism in England. In his book "De Veritate," (1624), he described the "Five Articles" of English Deists:

1. belief in the existence of a single supreme God
2. humanity's duty to revere God
3. linkage of worship with practical morality
4. God will forgive us if we repent and abandon our sins
5. good works will be rewarded (and punishment for evil) both in life and after death.

This is broadly the beliefs of Jefferson and Franklin as well. As Ben Franklin noted in a letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790 what Deism is all about, and speaks for this writer as well:

Here is my creed. I believe in One God, the Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can 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.

(Salisbury, Dorothy Cleaveland. "Religion: As the Leaders of this Nation Reveal It." Daughters of the American Revolution Vol.106 (1972): page 541.)

The Apostle Paul even agrees with Deism in Romans 1:20:

"For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse."

Getting a Better Definition

Just what is Deism? Encyclopedia Britannica 1958 has three definitions:

1. The belief in the existence of a personal God , based solely on the testimony of reason and rejecting any supernatural revelation; natural religion.

2. The belief God created the world and set it in motion, subject to natural laws, but takes no interest in it.

3. The belief in a first cause which is not intrinsically perfect or complete, and therefore not a proper object of worship.

Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1941, defines Deism as: "[From Latin Deus, God Deity] The doctrine or creed of a Deist." "One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being, but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason."

From John Punshon's Portrait in Grey:  A Short History of the Quakers. we have the Quaker view:

Deism, the "doctrine that God is quite other than the cosmos and entirely transcends it." Having created it as a closed system, he remains aloof from its operations and lets it go its own way" (160). This is God the creator, the "father." People who adhere to this theology tend to stress rational thought and science as a way of discovering truth; they tend to also place great emphasis on classic religious texts. Orthodox Quakerism is more sympathetic to Deism. For deists "the light was the inherent rational capacity of the mind." (161)

See Deism and Quakers Here we have another view that differs from Christianity in two respects; Christianity placed revelation over reason and God was never considered "aloof" from human affairs. Christianity had never abandoned reason and many of the great early men that laid the foundation for science were believing Christians. In fact Christianity is attacked for just that by radical environmentalists such as Lynn White.

See Origins of modern environmental religion. But more important is from the Quaker view was never hostile to Christianity, but seemed happy to co-exist with it. This was clearly it seemed to be the God of the Bible, but far less controlling.

Fairly good definition, but not really detailed. From Crim, Keith (ed.). The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1989). Reprint; originally pub. as Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions, 1981; pg. 213:

"Deism. The Enlightenment endeavor to purify Christianity, to rid religion of all that was not rational, natural, and moral, and develop a natural religion. An international movement, Deism reflected local religious, philosophical, and social expressions of the Enlightenment. In England, it was critically concerned with the origins of religion, but positive in moral and religious affirmation; in France it was anti-Catholic, shading into skepticism, atheism, and materialism; in Germany it was championed alongside nationalist metaphysics and historical criticism; in America it embraced a revolutionary creed... Though indebted to various European cultural developments, Deism was particularly an early eighteenth century English affair. Important literary productions included John Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)... and Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as Creation." (1730)

In this definition there are several critical points we must consider. Here we have Deism as a "particularly an early eighteenth century English affair." Another important point is what has been collectively called "deism" varied from country to country and by culture. Let's consider the confusion surrounding the term The Enlightenment. As we note with France it veered into atheism and pantheism. Pantheism is a type of atheism that believes Nature is somehow one with God or God. I call it spiritual atheism. To quote Wikipedia:

The term "Enlightenment" came into use in English during the mid-nineteenth century with particular reference to French philosophy...The terminology Enlightenment or Age of Enlightenment does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent.

The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Some classifications of this period also include the late seventeenth century, which is typically known as the Age of Reason or Age of Rationalism."

As is typical of academics and Wikipedia they simply can't produce a coherent definition of anything. In other words the term The Enlightenment along with deism is a dumping ground for a number of ill-defined ideas and philosophies they claim are based somehow on reason. Let's look around some more at definitions and narrow this down.

From Occhiogrosso, Peter. The Joy of Sects: A Spirited Guide to the World's Religious Traditions. New York: Doubleday (1996); pg. 386:

"Deists: Those who believe in God, or at least a divine principle, but follow few if any of the other tenets and practices of Christianity (compare with Theists, who believe in a personal God). Developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, Deism envisions a kind of clock-maker God who set the universe in motion but then let it run on its own, calling into question the Jewish and Christian notion of God's intervention in history. A number of prominent early Americans, including Ben Franklin, were Deists, along with French Enlightenment figures Voltaire and Rousseau. "

Now it has become again more muddled. As I will demonstrate Jefferson and Franklin did not believe in the same things as Voltaire and Rousseau. Voltaire/Rousseau are considered by many as the Fathers of the French Revolution, while Jefferson/Franklin were among the prominent Fathers of the American Revolution. But the French Revolution led to mass murder, the Reign of Terror, and laid the groundwork for modern dogmatic Humanism, Marxism, and Nazism. The American Revolution the exact opposite. If all were "deists" and believed the same thing as many try to imply, then just what is going on here?

Let's turn to a more reputable source with www.sparknotes.com and according to them The Enlightenment lasted from 1650-1800 A.D. They claim the first major Enlightenment figure in England was Thomas Hobbes and his book Leviathan in 1651. Some claim he was an atheist, others dispute that. John Locke stands as the main influence of the English Enlightenment or Age of Reason. Locke's A Letter on Toleration (1689) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) would be a major influence on Thomas Jefferson. To quote Sparknotes,

Although Hobbes would be more influential among his contemporaries, it was clear that Locke's message was closer to the English people's hearts and minds. Just before the turn of the century, in 1688, English Protestants helped overthrow the Catholic king James II and installed the Protestant monarchs William and Mary. In the aftermath of this Glorious Revolution, the English government ratified a new Bill of Rights.
Unlike the Thirty Years War that devastated Continental Europe and killed millions, England was spared that blood-bath over religion. The result was the English and by extension the English Colonies never acquired the hatred and loathing of religion the Continent did. In Will Durant's The Age of Reason Begins he would push the English Age of Reason back another 100 years as gross superstition was on the wane in general.

Sparknotes clinches it:

Many of the major French Enlightenment thinkers, or philosophes, were born in the years after the Glorious Revolution, so France's Enlightenment came a bit later, in the mid-1700s...The philosophes, though varying in style and area of particular concern, generally emphasized the power of reason and sought to discover the natural laws governing human society...

In reaction to the rather empirical philosophies of Voltaire and others, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract (1762), a work championing a form of government based on small, direct democracy that directly reflects the will of the population...Another undercurrent that threatened the prevailing principles of the Enlightenment was skepticism.

Skeptics questioned whether human society could really be perfected through the use of reason and denied the ability of rational thought to reveal universal truths. Their philosophies revolved around the idea that the perceived world is relative to the beholder and, as such, no one can be sure whether any truths actually exist...

Ultimately, the Enlightenment fell victim to competing ideas from several sources. Romanticism was more appealing to less-educated common folk and pulled them away from the empirical, scientific ideas of earlier Enlightenment philosophers. Similarly, the theories of skepticism came into direct conflict with the reason-based assertions of the Enlightenment and gained a following of their own. What ultimately and abruptly killed the Enlightenment, however, was the French Revolution...

And what came out of the French Revolution? To quote Sparknotes:

Deism: A system of faith to which many of the French philosophes and other Enlightenment thinkers subscribed. Deists believed in an all-powerful God but viewed him as a "cosmic watchmaker" who created the universe and set it in autonomous motion and then never again tampered with it. Deists also shunned organized religion, especially Church doctrines about eternal damnation and a "natural" hierarchy of existence.

As further evidence, to quote the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

English Deism entered France, where, however, only its materialistic and revolutionary phases were seized upon, to the exclusion of that religiosity which had never been lost in England. French Deism stood outside of theology...Their moral theories...lost all connection with the position of Deism, which became for them a mere armory of weapons for the destruction of all religion with its consequences, intolerance and moral corruption...The "Enlightenment" was mainly a French affair...

And it was mainly a French affair. This is like calling Christianity an extension of Judaism when they are simply two very different belief systems. They (Voltaire and the French) stripped Deism to almost nothing. But where did we get this "clock maker" god that went away? The actual Deists in England, Jefferson, and Franklin referred to the God of the Bible, but sought to reform it, not to destroy it. Again we must turn to Voltaire whom some claim was really an atheist. He removed the God of the Bible and inserted another one.

To quote the New World Encyclopedia:

Deism has come to denote the theological belief that God created the universe according to scientific laws, but does not interfere in its daily operation. Voltaire first articulated this argument in his Traite de Metaphysique (1734). God is like a watchmaker who designed the universe and set it in motion. He does not interfere with its operation (especially through historical figures like Jesus or churches), yet his presence is still visible in the grain of all creation.

Most Anglo-American Deists did not have such a minimalistic view of God's activity in the world; thus Lord Herbert of Cherbury, considered to be the father of English Deism, took as one of his five "innate principles" compatible with reason that there are rewards and punishments after death, and in general the American Deists believed in a general concept of divine providence. Nevertheless, by not allowing special revelation, these Deists were left with a weak theological foundation that could not clearly explain God's activity in the world. Hence, today it is Voltaire's more extreme view that defines the Deist position philosophically...

Since America was founded when Deism was popular, it is not surprising that numerous founding fathers of the nation such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington identified with some of its ideas. In fact, the first six presidents of the United States, as well as four later ones, had deistic beliefs.

Where did Voltaire get this "minimalistic" notion of God? As they attempted to strip French society of all Christian influences including morality, they filled it with a lot of Greek pagan philosophy. This new god was Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" to quote,

The unmoved mover is a philosophical concept described by Aristotle as the first cause that sets the universe into motion. As is implicit in the name, the "unmoved mover" is not moved by any prior action. In his book Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the unmoved mover as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: itself contemplating. The Unmoved Mover is also referred to as the Prime Mover or the Prima Mobile.

Thomas Paine

The man best known that defines traditional Deism the best is Thomas Paine. Most focus on his attacks on Christianity, but not what he believed. Quoting Paine,

"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life."

"The moral duty of man consists in imitating the moral goodness and beneficence of God manifested in the creation toward all his creatures. That seeing, as we daily do, the goodness of God to all men, it is an example calling upon all men to practice the same toward each other."

"I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body" (Age of Reason).

"I consider myself in the hands of my Creator, and that he will dispose of me after this life consistently with his justice and goodness" (Private Thoughts on a Future State)

"We believe in the existence of a God, and in the immortality of the soul."

"Were man impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought to be with the belief of a God, his moral life would be regulated by the force of that belief; he would stand in awe of God and of himself, and would not do the thing that could not be concealed from either. ... This is Deism."

As the fourth century "Church Father" Jerome wrote: "The Jews insist upon a literal interpretation of the Scriptures based on thirteen rules, but we know that the spiritual interpretation is far superior." To quote Thomas Paine,

Each of those churches shows certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses face to face; the Christians say, that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say, that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all.

Failure of Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine's Age of Reason was an attempt to save Deism from the onslaught of atheism and extremism in France. It failed in several respects:

  1. It alienated Paine from many people such as George Washington and John Adams by his open attacks on Christianity.
  2. In America and England, Deism was closely intertwined with Unitarianism and operated within the fringes of liberal Christianity. The Age of Reason and the reaction to it served to sever it totally from Christianity, just as Paul severed Christianity from Judaism.
  3. The Age of Reason for many merely became a weapon for undermining Christianity, not promoting Deism. Paine so buried his religious beliefs in anti-Christian rhetoric it's easy to define him as an atheist, something he clearly wasn't.
  4. This led to new a counter-offensive by Christianity called the 2nd Awakening.
  5. His view of God is so poorly defined that some such as political science professor Fruchtman (Towson State Univ., Md.) "argues that Paine was a pantheist who saw God's handiwork in all nature and in humanity's struggles to improve the common good." See Thomas Paine, Apostle of Freedom.

Reaction to Thomas Paine and His Age of Reason

Benjamin Franklin:

I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that . . . the consequence of printing this piece will be a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others.

He that spits into the wind, spits in his own face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? . . . [T]hink how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue . . . . I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person . . . . If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it? I intend this letter itself as proof of my friendship.

Ref. The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Jared Sparks, Ed., (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1840) X:281-282, to Thomas Paine in 1790.

Samuel Adams:

[W]hen I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States. The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love.

Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy at a time when they are hastening to amity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your Age of Reason. Do you think your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?

Ref. William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1865) III:372-73, to Thomas Paine on Nov. 30, 1802.

John Adams:

The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue equity and humanity, let the Blackguard (scoundrel) Paine say what he will.

And:

Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God.... What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be."

And as Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813:

The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite....And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United...Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.

John Quincy Adams declared that "Mr. Paine has departed altogether from the principles of the Revolution."


The French Revolution was based on reason alone led to only bloodshed and tyranny. Reason without an underpinning of God or a higher power leads only to ruin. To quote Noah Nissani:

Rationalism (is) an exaggerated faith in human logic...Unlike the Jacobean rationalism, represented by Voltaire, the chief Girondin ideologue Montesquieu, followed Aristotle's empirical method. He added to the research of around 150 regimes, which served as the basis for Aristotle's "Politics", another twenty years of study, with a team of assistants, for writing his book "The Spirit of the Laws" (1748). Together with the Bible and the Greek philosophers, this book guided the founding fathers of the American Revolution in shaping the principles and institutions of the United States...

See Left vs Right, Montesquieu by Noah Nissani.

Another source for study

The primary influences of the US Constitution were John Locke, Montesquieu, the Bible, Greek philosophy, and the Freemasons. Another excellent reference for Deism is The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes. (Buy it here.) To quote one book review:

Why is this book important to read? Simple, there are extremists on the right and left that have utilized historic revisionism to push their political agendas and they do this by twisting the founder's beliefs into something that will backup their political claims. This has lead to a general confusion in regards to what the founders actually believed.

The secondary importance of this book lies in its focus on the Enlightenment religion of Deism. In truth, there are very few books regarding the richness and diversity of Deism in early America and the important role that it played in founding the USA. Most books use a few sentences to state that Deism was a belief in a God that created and then abandoned the universe. This "definition" was the creation of preachers during the Second Great Awakening to damage the theology of Deism that had become popular among the educated.

Holmes devotes more than just a few sentences to the subject of Deism. He devotes 3 chapters to the subject and goes into detail how diverse Deism was among its adherents and that it had its own sects just as Christianity did and does. Despite what many believe, Deism was (and is) a faith that is rich with diversity and is not the "God who abandoned" religion that has been put forth for far too many years. He breaks down the belief of the founders into three categories which are Non-Christian Deism, Christian Deism and Orthodox Christianity...

An important fact to consider is Deism is a private belief system, not a "church" with a dogma. As Holmes points out, the Founders didn't push their beliefs even on their own families. Many of their wives (the exception of Mrs. Adams) and children were pious Christians. Holmes also doesn't push a political agenda.

An interesting e-book on Rousseau entitled Rousseau and the Real Culture War by David Heleniak can be downloaded for free at http://www.lulu.com/content/844957. To quote, "In his examination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Second Discourse, David Heleniak contends that libertarians are the heirs of the Greco-Roman pagans and the "modern pagans" of the Enlightenment, conservatives are the end product of the Christian doctrine of original sin, and the American Left is the consequence of the doctrine as transformed by Rousseau." I've read this and highly recommend it.

Misc.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (no friend of Deism): " Thus there have been French and German deists as well as English; while Pagan, Jewish, or Moslem deists might be found as well as Christian." Many people tend to be Deists or have deistic thinking, but really don't know it or what to call it. They go on to say in regards to Deists in general and this still applies today,

Because of the individualistic standpoint of independent criticism, which they adopt, it is difficult, if not impossible, to class together the representative writers who contributed to the literature of English deism as forming any one definite school, or to group together the positive teachings contained in their writings as any one systematic expression of a concordant philosophy.

The deists were what nowadays would be called freethinkers, a name, indeed, by which they were not infrequently known; and they can only be classed together wholly in the main attitude that they adopted, viz. in agreeing to cast off the trammels of authoritative religious teaching...

Deists do not accept the authority of so-called "religious leaders" or their man-made holy books. Because we tend to be individuals, it's unlikely one will ever see deist' churches. I don't believe such an institution is even possible, while perhaps non-formal fellowships would work well.

Again, quoting from Richard Hooker,

The philosophies of mid-eighteenth century France developed this mechanistic view of the universe into a radically revised version of Christianity they called deism . Drawing on Newton's description of the universe as a great clock built by the Creator and then set in motion, the deists among the philosophes argued that everything-physical motion, human physiology, politics, society, economics-had its own set of rational principles established by God which could be understood by human beings solely by means of their reason. This meant that the workings of the human and physical worlds could be understood without having to bring religion, mysticism, or divinity into the explanation.