The word originated in France in the middle of the sixteenth century. It is religion based on natural reason rather than supernatural revelation. Deism was a product of love, hate, and hope. Deists loved the ethical teachings of the classical philosopers, nature, and man's freedom. They hated priests and priestcraft, the dwelling on mystery, and the assaults on common sense. They hoped and believed that life's problems could be solved by pure human reason and that mysteries of the universe could be defined and understood by man's study of science. Deism is somewhat synonymous to rationalismand freethinking.
There were different types of deists. Some denied Providence, other acknowledged Providence in natural religion but not morality. Also, some denied future life and admitted the moral role of a god, while other acknowledged future life and other doctrines of natural religion.

American Deists
Benjamin Franklin acknowledged himself as a deist to close friends when he was 17 years old, but still attended church. He wrote the "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion" when he was 22. Franklin got his ideas from the British Deists.
Thomas Jefferson was also a skeptic. Although he was a member of the Episcopal church, he compiled "The Jefferson Bible, being The Life and Morals of Jesus Christ of Nazareth". The compilation affirmed Jesus for his moral teachings but rejected the supernatural elements.
George Washington, like Jefferson, was a skeptic but a consisten church-goer. He advocated total separation of church and state and made sure that the Constitution had no reference to Christianity or any deity.
Thomas Paine wrote "The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology" which attacked the Old and New Testaments. He was considered an atheist, infidel, radical, and drunkard.
Ethan Allen was the first acknowledged American Deist, but he acquired his knowledge by reading about British Deists. He wrote "Reason the Only Oracle of Man, or a Compendious System of Natural Religion" which was anticlerical and anti-Christian.
Elihu Palmer, a blind ex-Baptist preacher, tried to lead a popular crusade and led a fiery deistical campaign against the authority of the Bible through speeches and writing. He organized the Deistical Society of New York and edited a weekly deistical paper.

Resources for Studying Deism
Deism: An Anthology by Peter Gay, published by D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc (1968)
Deism and Natural Religion edited by E. Graham Waring, published by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co (1967)


Deism is a religious philosophy that ascribes to a "God-as-Watchmaker" type theory. Deists believe that God did, in fact, have a hand in creating the earth and human beings. However, once God was done with creating the earth and getting humans off to a right start, he left the earth behind, such as a watchmaker will leave behind a watch that he has finished constructing and knows for certain that it works.

Deists acknowledge the presence of a Supreme Being, and the possible presence of an afterlife. However, at the same time, deists believe that God has no hand in current affairs on Earth, and has left everything up to human machinations. Many of the Founding Fathers ascribed to deism, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Deism was a theological movement that grew in the 17th and 18th centuries and was particularly popular in England. They affirmed the existence of a Creator (as distinct from atheists) but denied revelation, even in many cases the Divine origin of the Scriptures. This view had been taken by the Spiritualists in the 16th century, but they had dismissed the Bible as a "paper pope" and professed allegience to their "inner light" - the Deists, on the other hand, professed allegience only to that which could be proven by reason and empricism. In his The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695), John Locke had declared that the Gospel was compatible with reason - the logical conclusion for the next generation was that those parts not compatible with reason must be discarded. Five years before The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke had published An Essay concerning Human Understanding, which had split human knowledge into two categories - that which was a matter of revelation (of this one could be certain), and that established by the senses (of this one could be certain to a degree of probability). But among the former nothing could be admitted that was contrary to reason. "How a rational man," opined Locke,

that should enquire and know for himself, can content himself with a Faith or Religion taken upon trust . . . is to me astonishing.

Locke's Baconian rationalism became a potent tool in the hands of the Deists. Locke himself had noted some problems with the Scripture - he remained silent on the matter of the Trinity, and did not believe that Jesus Christ came to absolve mankind of its sins. The point of Christ's coming was to provide a new torch of reason and cast away the vices of the priesthood, who had "excluded reason from having any thing to do with religion." Locke said that Jesus had never assumed the role of priest nor alluded to a priesthood, in which may be discerned the anti-clericalism that was the Zeitgeist in late 17th century England. Locke had established a link between reason and revelation, accepting in principle the subordination of the latter to the former. The Deists were even more radical in that they went on to attack Scripture and revelation itself.

Just as God had provided men with the facility for knowing what benefitted or caused harm to their physical body - pleasure and pain - surely he would not have been so absent-minded as to leave them incapable of discerning their spiritual well-being. The faculty provided by God for man to know his Creator and the way to Salvation was, said the Deists, reason. The "Book of Nature", ie. empirical observation of the natural world, was sufficient to know God's will. This had only been subverted by vile "priestcraft" - which was taken to be actively malevolent, the means by which the priesthood tried to enslave man and promote its arbitrary power. The Divine status of Scripture began to come under fire. How could a reasonable man think God would first reveal his will through the book?, asked Matthew Tindal. What of the virtuous pagans who had lived and died before Jesus, and the millions who had never heard God's Word? Locke had used natural law to save their souls, but the Deists had no such faith. Clearly, if the Word was needed to save souls, then millions of pagans would go without Grace. This was not compatible with reason and God's infinite goodness.

Most of the received tradition of the Jewish and Christian faiths was superstition, said the Deists. They set about demonstrating what they believed were the psychological reasons for people lapsing so easily into superstition - evidently the machinations of the priests were not sufficient alone. Using Lockean empiricism, they explained how sometimes people became cut off from their sensory apparatus out of fear for what it might tell them, and aliented from reason likewise. At times like these - most of the lives of primitive peoples - they would accept tradition and ritual as a replacement for reason if doing so proved more comfortable. Belief in miracles fell into a similar category - and many Deists denied that miracles were occuring in the World of the day, as people said they were. And if they accepted this, it was also unlikely that miracles also took place in Palestine over a millenia and a half ago - another attack on Scripture. Miracles in the Bible had to be interpreted spiritually and not literally to have meaning.

Deism was very influential in the 17th and 18th centuries, colouring the views of many people in what is now called the Enlightenment. It tied in neatly with the popular rationalism and empiricism of the day and the fashionable snobbery towards superstition that was at the time popular. Particularly in England - the nation par excellence of freedom and religious toleration - Deism was identified with the patriotism of the people in being free from all manner of evil Popery and delusions. It of course came under attack from religious conservatives - Protestants and Catholics alike - who sniffed in it, not without reason, the destruction of their entire system of belief. Likewise, Locke's silence on the Trinity meant that Deism was often tainted in many people's eyes by an association with Arianism or Unitarianism, faiths which denied the Divinty of Christ altogether.

It also eventually helped give rise to pandeism, a movement which combined deism and pantheism, and about which more can be learned in the write-ups in that node.

De"ism (?), n. [L. deus god: cf. F. d'eisme. See Deity.]

The doctrine or creed of a deist; the belief or system of those who acknowledge the existence of one God, but deny revelation.

Deism is the belief in natural religion only, or those truths, in doctrine and practice, which man is to discover by the light of reason, independent of any revelation from God. Hence, deism implies infidelity, or a disbelief in the divine origin of the Scriptures.


© Webster 1913.

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