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Revolutionary Deists: Early America's Rational Infidels

Revolutionary Deists: Early America's Rational Infidels

by Kerry S Walters

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This illuminating discussion of deism in the early American colonies presents an overview of its main tenets, showing how its influence rose swiftly and for a time became a highly controversial subject of debate among the first citizens of our nation. The deists were students of the Enlightenment and took a keen interest in the scientific study of nature. They were


This illuminating discussion of deism in the early American colonies presents an overview of its main tenets, showing how its influence rose swiftly and for a time became a highly controversial subject of debate among the first citizens of our nation. The deists were students of the Enlightenment and took a keen interest in the scientific study of nature. They were thus critical of orthodox Christianity for its superstitious belief in miracles, persecution of dissent, and suppression of independent thought and expression.

At the heart of his book are profiles of six "rational infidels," most of whom are quite familiar to Americans as founding fathers or colonial patriots: Benjamin Franklin (the ambivalent deist), Thomas Jefferson (a critic of Christian supernaturalism but an admirer of its ethics), Ethan Allen (the rough-edged "frontier deist"), Thomas Paine (the arch iconoclast and author of The Age of Reason), Elihu Palmer (the tireless crusader for deism and perhaps its most influential proponent), and Philip Freneau (a poet whose popular verses combined deism with early romanticism).

This is a fascinating study of America’s first culture war, one that in many ways has continued to this day.

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Kerry Walters
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-190-5

Chapter One

The "Age of Licentious Liberty" Deism in America

When Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of his massive Democracy in America in 1840, one of the aspects of the culture of the early Republic that he examined was religious sensibility. De Tocqueville, a French Catholic, was intrigued by Christian belief in the United States. He was particularly impressed with its pervasiveness. "The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States," he says. Elsewhere, he marvels that "America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest power over men's souls.... [T]he sects in the United States belong to the great unity of Christendom, and Christian morality is everywhere the same." But even more amazing to de Tocqueville than the ubiquity of Christian sentiment was his perception that Americans regarded Christianity as "necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions." He noted that any politician who dared attack Christian belief would suffer a swift public fall, and that witnesses in courts of law who denied belief in the existence of (the Christian) God would not be sworn in, "on the ground that [they] had destroyed beforehand all possible confidence in [their] testimony." His conclusion was that "for the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other." Consequently, he suggested, "Religion, which never intervenes directly in the government of American society, should [nonetheless] be considered as the first of their political institutions."

De Tocqueville's appraisal of the role of Christian belief in early nineteenth-century America provides us with a fascinating portrait of religious sensibility in the early Republic. But when read against its broader historical background, this snippet of Americana becomes even more intriguing. It is obvious that de Tocqueville's 1840 description could, with a few qualifications, equally well describe American religious belief today. It may be that a greater number of citizens now than in de Tocqueville's time have reservations about the literal truth of many Christian doctrines, but it is a fair estimate that few political figures who publicly confess such infidelity will enjoy long public careers. (In a 2007 poll, for example, over half of surveyed Americans said they would not vote for a presidential candidate who professed disbelief in the existence of God.) Moreover, although the doctrine of separation between church and state has continued to withstand periodic judicial challenges, it is also the case that the notions of liberty and democracy are still inextricably associated in the public mind with Judeo-Christian values. It is as true today as it was one hundred and fifty years ago that religious conviction—or at least rhetorical appeals to it—is a sustaining element in Americans' attitudes about civic and political responsibility as well as about personal character. As such, it is still a "political institution"—in, of course, de Tocqueville's sense.

But if one moves backward in time from de Tocqueville's 1840 description of Christian belief in America, a rather startling discovery surfaces. Barely a generation before de Tocqueville traveled to America, a century-long revolt against Christian belief was at its high point. Had an eighteenth-century de Tocqueville visited America sometime between, roughly, 1725 and 1810, he would have received a much less homogeneous impression of religious sensibility in America. In those years, orthodox Christian belief was systematically and at times savagely criticized by a group of thinkers who called themselves "deists." Influenced by the Enlightenment's championship of reason and science, the American deists rejected the supernaturalist worldview of conventional Christianity. They denied the possibility of revelation or miracles, refused to acknowledge that Jesus was divine or the Godhead trinitarian, and in many instances they even insisted that the moral precepts spelled out in the New Testament were unworthy of either God or man. In place of the Christian faith, they defended a religion based upon the dictates of reason and conscience, and argued that God revealed himself not through the moldering pages of Scripture so much as through the panorama of natural law. The deists would have agreed with de Tocqueville that religious sensibility should be a guiding force in the establishment of social mores and political institutions, but would have vehemently insisted that such sensibility springs from the religion of nature, as they frequently called their perspective, and not from Christian dogma. For them, orthodox Christianity was one of the primary historical obstacles to the progress of both government and science. It was an "infamy," a "despotism," a form of "mental lying," which enchained the human spirit in superstition, ignorance, and fear. It was a tyrant to be deplored and overthrown, not the salutary spiritual standard applauded in Democracy in America. In short, religious belief in eighteenth-century America was not at all the pervasive and rather complacent Christianity that de Tocqueville encountered in 1840. Three generations of deists, whom their orthodox contemporaries lambasted as "infidels," saw to that.

Although deism in America erupted into a national and militant movement toward the end of the eighteenth century, its early and middle periods were relatively sedate. Early American intellectuals such as Benjamin Franklin were sympathetic to the idea of rational religion, but wary about publicly trumpeting their infidelity. There are several explanations for this reticence.

First, early and mid-eighteenth century sympathizers with deism's rejection of supernatural religion were often somewhat ambivalent in their endorsement of the new way of thinking. Most of them agreed that orthodox tenets of American Calvinism such as the utter depravity of humans were unacceptable because they were offensive to human reason and dignity. But because they lived during a period in which orthodox Calvinism's worldview was so pervasive, many of them were unable to completely throw over the trappings of supernaturalism. Franklin, for example, continued to believe in the possibility of special providences, holding that the Deity could and occasionally did supernaturally intervene in human affairs. Later deists rejected such lingering fidelity to Christian doctrine. But deistically minded Americans in the early years of the eighteenth century, caught as they were in the sometimes confusing transition period between Calvinism and the Enlightenment, were not as unambiguously confident. Deism in the first half of the century, then, was often an uneasy amalgamation of Enlightenment-based natural religion and Calvinist-inspired supernaturalism. The theological ambivalence felt by its early supporters made them reluctant to defend publicly a religious model about which they themselves, to one degree or another, were unsure.

Moreover, early sympathizers with deistic rationalism hesitated to go public because of their fear that dissemination of the new way of thinking would undermine social stability. Many colonial intellectuals attracted to deism were also suspicious and contemptuous of what they tended to think of as the "mob." They feared that a diminution of the normative and ecclesial authority of traditional Christianity would open the floodgates of anarchy. The "common" people, in their estimation, were too boorish and unlettered to appreciate or profit from a religion founded upon reason and nature, and therefore needed artificial and institutionalized standards to control their behavior. The deists thought it better to allow the mob to retain its faith in conventional Christian beliefs until such time as it was better educated and hence more receptive to the dictates of rational conscience. Until that day arrived, deism was best confined to the genteel drawing room and the gentleman-scholar's study. This fear of the socially disruptive effects of natural religion's demolition of Christianity was expressed as late as 1786 by Benjamin Franklin, when he advised a correspondent against the publication of a popular tract on deism.

I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the Tyger, but to burn the Piece before it is seen by any other Person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of Mortification from the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and Repentance. If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion, what would they be if without it?

Franklin's advice is especially revealing, because it also hints at the third major reason for American deism's early reticence: "You will save yourself a great deal of mortification from the enemies it may raise against you." Franklin was quite correct, even as late as 1786. The American colonies had a long history of religious intolerance. In 1658, for example, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony enacted an anti-Quaker law that mandated "No Quaker Rantor or any other corrupt person shall be a freeman of this Corporation." A few years later, three "incorrigible" members of the Society of Friends were hanged by the Puritans in Boston. The southern colonies also enacted equally draconian laws against religious dissent. In the early eighteenth century, Virginian legislators decreed that disbelief in the authority of the Bible was illegal, and disqualified non-Christians from holding public office. Blasphemy, which included as minor a transgression as the profession of doubt about scriptural authority, was a jailable offense. Nor did other colonies, with the exception of Rhode Island, brook dissent. Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, New Jersey, and New Hampshire each required that members of their assemblies be Protestants in good standing. Even Pennsylvania was no exception. An act passed in 1700 required inhabitants to either attend church services on Sundays or show they worshipped privately in their homes. Violators of this early "blue law" risked a hefty fine.

These and similar pieces of legislation predictably served as disincentives for public confessions of deism, which most American Christians, regardless of their particular sectarian allegiance, regarded as outright atheism.

Repressive laws against religious dissent were gradually expunged from the books toward the end of the eighteenth century, largely due to the tireless efforts of legislators such as Jefferson, Madison, and South Carolina's Charles Pinckney. But even then, freethinkers who publicly advertised their apostasy suffered social opprobrium as well as sanctions. Ethan Allen, who in 1784 published his Oracles of Reason, the first full-blown American defense of deism, was castigated by the faithful as "one of the wickedest men that ever walked this guilty globe." Tom Paine, whose militant book The Age of Reason came out in 1794/5, was contemptuously dismissed as a "drunken atheist" and "detested reptile." Thomas Jefferson, an intensely private man who never publicly discussed his deistic sympathies, was branded an "atheist and fanatic." Even after the likelihood of legal persecution had diminished, it was an act of almost foolhardy bravery to admit to deistic leanings.

Still, as the century progressed, deistic sentiments became more prevalent and their holders more outspoken. American colleges were the first settings to be infected by public infidelity. As early as 1759, Ezra Stiles, alarmed at what he perceived as the frightening extent to which skepticism had encroached upon the academy, lamented that "Deism has got such Head in this Age of Licentious Liberty" that colleges had no choice but to acknowledge its presence and "conquer and demolish it." By the end of the century, "licentious liberty" was even more entrenched in American colleges. Yale, for example, had earned a somewhat exaggerated reputation for free thought. Lyman Beecher, who became a student there in 1793, later recalled that the "college was [then] in a most ungodly state. The college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical.... That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school. Boys that dressed flax in the barn, as I used to, read Tom Paine and believed him.... Most of the class before me were infidels, and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D'Alembert."

Nor was Yale the exception. Apostasy raged at any number of other institutions of higher learning. Virginia's College of William and Mary was known as a training ground for "infidelity." In 1799, the College of New Jersey (Princeton) had "only three or four [students] who made any pretensions to piety." A 1789 alumnus of Dartmouth College recalled that his fellow students had been "very unruly, lawless, and without the fear of God," and lamented that ten years later "but a single member of the class of 1799 was publicly known as a professing Christian." Even Harvard became enmeshed in free thought. William Ellery Channing, who graduated from there in 1798, sadly recalled: "[the college] was never in a worse state than when I entered.... The tone of books and conversation was presumptuous and daring. The tendency of all classes was to skepticism." Officials at Harvard obviously shared Channing's concern. In 1791, the college's overseers publicly banned and burned Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire because of what they perceived as its uncomplimentary interpretation of early Christianity. Three years later, when young William Channing matriculated, each incoming student was presented with a copy of Richard Watson's Apology for the Bible. This treatise was a polemic directed against the "Tom Paine school." The very fact that Harvard officials felt compelled to make Watson required reading reveals the extent to which young college-bound men at the end of the century were fascinated by and attracted to the religion of nature.

Deism's influence in the American colleges was more intense, perhaps, than in the general populace. But even there, infidelity became increasingly obvious—and, to the faithful, worrisome—as the century drew to a close. Newspapers, journals, magazines, and broadsides published scores of articles on deism, many of which spawned additional scores of furious or delighted responses. Elihu Palmer, a blind renegade minister, is largely responsible for moving deism from academic enclaves to the popular forum. Beginning in the early 1790s, Palmer launched a nationwide crusade for deism which, ironically, had all the rhetorical fervor of an old-fashioned religious revival. He stumped the Eastern seaboard from Maine to Georgia, touting the religion of nature and harshly condemning Christian doctrine and ethics. In addition, he founded deistical societies in state after state to continue spreading the word in his absence, and edited two deistical newspapers, each of which enjoyed wide circulations. The first, called The Temple of Reason (1800–1801), exerted such influence in the Middle Atlantic and Southern states that John Hargrove, a Baltimore minister, felt obliged to found The Temple of Truth as an orthodox antidote to Palmer's perniciously spreading appeal.

Palmer's second journalistic foray, the Prospect, ran from 1803 to 1805, and likewise attracted a large readership. The extent of its circulation is suggested by the fact that its subscribers were requested to pay their rates to agents in Newburgh, Rhinebeck, Philadelphia, and New York City. Thanks to the efforts of Palmer and other militant infidels, deism at century's end had thrown aside its earlier reticence. Doctrinal ambivalence, genteel qualms about the socially disruptive consequences of deism, and fear of persecution vanished in a wave of enthusiasm for nature's God. The widespread popularity of deism at this time is indicated by the following outburst of frightened rage by one Rev. Robert Hall in his 1801 publication Modern Infidelity:

The efforts of infidels, to diffuse the principles of infidelity among the common people, is another alarming symptom peculiar to the present time. [Earlier deists] addressed themselves solely to the more polished classes of the community.... [But now deism,] having at length reached its full maturity ..., boldly ventures to challenge the suffrages of the people, solicits the acquaintance of peasants and mechanics, and seeks to draw whole nations to its standard.

Deism-inspired infidelity, in short, was no longer the preserve of the cultured and educated. It now belonged to the masses, and embroiled the entire Republic in a debate as incendiary as it was far reaching. Through either personal reading or word of mouth, few people in these years were unaware of the deistic challenge to Christian authority.


Excerpted from REVOLUTIONARY DEISTS by KERRY WALTERS Copyright © 2011 by Kerry Walters. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kerry Walters (Gettysburg, PA) is the William Bittinger Chair of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is the author or editor of nineteen books and more than one hundred articles.

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