Deism asserts the primacy of human reason and experience over and above spiritual knowledge based on special revelation. Born during the
Enlightenment, Deism was spurred by the intuitional observations of Francis Bacon, the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton, and the philosophical
queries of John Locke. Taken together, these ideas were called New Learning.
Bacon formulated a philosophy of induction in which knowledge began with experience and observation, whence broad generalizations and abstractions
were drawn. Isaac Newton discovered a set of natural laws on which the workings of the universe were based. John Locke claimed that knowledge was
based on intuition and experience, and that, with the aid of human reason, clarity of thought was possible. The principles of New Learning formulated by
Bacon, Newton, and Locke presented a picture of the world that operated on natural and observable laws. While most of the early advocates of New
Learning were not hostile to the concept of God, the underlying assumptions and the implications of this system opened the door to a universe in which
God was relegated to a creative, yet disinterested, role.
Deism elicited significant consideration in such an intellectual climate and after a wave of notoriety in Britain took root in the North American colonies.
British Deism began in the seventeenth century with Lord Herbert of Cherbury, whose De Veritate (On truth) advanced core ideas of Deistic thinking.
Cherbury argued for God’s existence; for reverence, worship, and awe toward the deity; for a moral and ethical life; and for the reality of eternal life.
Another early English Deist, Charles Blount, advanced similar ideas but focused specifically on living an ethical life. British Deism was further bolstered by
the writings of John Toland, whose influential Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) pushed for a more logical understanding of Christianity and largely
rejected supernatural revelation. Anthony Collins continued the assault on traditional Christianity, and his Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion
(1724) questioned the biblical theme of prophecy and rejected Jesus’s claims to divinity. Similarly, Thomas Woolston’s Discourses on the Miracles of Our
Savior (17271729) sought to uproot biblical accounts of miracles. Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730) essentially collated the
views of his predecessors and issued such a comprehensive account of Deistic thinking that this work became known as the Deist Bible.
While Deists such as Toland and Collins were known in the North American colonies, John Tillotson and William Wollaston were most popular among
educated colonists. Tillotson and Wollaston argued that reason was the arbiter of truth and that God was best worshiped with the mind.
Deism first gained a foothold in the North American colonies with the decline of Calvinism, a rigid theological system that emphasized the absolute
sovereignty of God in matters of salvation. As the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth century, Calvinism received a decisive blow with the
religious revivals of the 1740s known as the Great Awakening. Factions emerged as the fires of revival settled and rational religion gained notoriety with
the writings of influential Boston ministers such as Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew. Deistic thinking was less widespread throughout the middle
colonies, although clearly visible, and did not make significant ripples in the Southern colonies.
While the more radical forms of French Deism (as in the writings of Voltaire) remained silenced until after the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin
was influenced by French philosophy and helped to popularize a liberal and rationalistic view of the world. Such modes of thought helped to liberate
religious claims from distinct references to God and Jesus, all the while providing a foundation and impetus for the North American colonies to declare
independence from Britain. This helps to explain why Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason received considerable endorsement. Thus as Calvinism was
supplanted by rationalism and as distinct threads of Deistic thought helped to shape American independence, rational religion gained a prominent place in
North American culture.
Following the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson became a leading advocate of Deism, and at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Deism was
subsumed under Unitarianism and Universalism, broad systems of Christian thought that placed a premium not only on rationalism but also on ethical
living. Deism was critical to the development of North America, because it upheld the necessity of rational religion, while laying claim to a distinct system
Phillip L. Sinitiere
See also: Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay); Jefferson, Thomas; Religion (Chronology); Religion (Essay).
May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Morais, Herbert M. Deism in Early Eighteenth Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.
Walters, Kerry S. The American Deists: Voices of Reason in the Early Republic. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
Walters, Kerry S. Benjamin Franklin and His Gods. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Walters, Kerry S. Rational Infidels: The American Deists. Durango, CO: Longwood Academic, 1992.
The influences of neighboring Pennsylvania and Maryland converged with the social, political, and economic forces of the colonial Atlantic world to shape
the unique colonial history of the Three Lower Counties on the Delaware, one of the two official names of Delaware during the colonial period.
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