Chuck Clendenen
Chuck Clendenen is a member of the Deist Alliance and one of the founders of Unified Deism. He is also publisher, contributing author and editor of the book Deist: So That's What I Am! In real life Chuck is a security consultant and a grandfather living in Central Texas.

A Brief History of Deism

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A history of Deism is not a history of the growth and development of an organized religious movement, because Deism never has been one…

A Brief History of Deism

As with the Deism 101 article, this brief history is intended to help you understand how Deism came into being and how it developed into what it is now, but this article will not read much like an encyclopedia entry. It admittedly is not an objective history, since it was written by a Deist. There is value in understanding Deism’s history only if it helps you understand the origin of many Deist ideas. No two Deists think alike, and not too many modern Deists believe what
the earliest Deists believed.

The history of an organized religion normally will include its origins, its founders and leaders, its sacred texts, its geographical area of influence, and its growth (and sometimes decline) in membership. Keep in mind throughout this article that a history of Deism is not a history of the growth and development of an organized religious movement, because Deism never has been one. What follows is a history of individual authors and philosophers and the reaction of society to their writings. Deism has never had leaders; it is a belief system that rejects prophets and sacred texts. We will cover English Deism and Deism in the United States, but we will not discuss French Deism. It is not that the French Deists are uninteresting, but few of their thoughts and influences are factors in contemporary Deism.

Most trace the origin of Deism to Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury. He was not a Deist in name, but he laid the foundation for what would later become Deism. When it comes to the origin of Deism, there are two schools of thought. One opinion is that Deism grew out of dissatisfaction with the Christian Church in the 17th century, while others believe that Deism existed long before as a natural religion based on a reasoned belief in God. The latter argument would lead us away from Deism’s history of written works, which is almost all the evidence we have to report, so we will choose the former theory for that reason, not necessarily because we are convinced that it is a more accurate representation of Deism’s development.

Lord Herbert’s beliefs definitely diverged from traditional Christianity in that he believed in natural religion based on reason, and he did not accept church dogma. He accepted the concept of revelation, but only as true for the affected individual. The book that best expresses his beliefs is De Veritate, written in Latin and first published in 1624. It has been translated into English, but a copy is very difficult to find. In this work Lord Herbert described his five “Common Notions”:

1. There is a Supreme God.
2. This Sovereign Deity ought to be worshipped.
3. The connection of Virtue and Piety … is and always has been held to be the most important part of religious practice.
4. The minds of men have always been filled with horror for their wickedness. Their vices and crimes have been obvious to them. They must be expiated by repentance.
5. There is reward and punishment after this life.

Lord Herbert’s notions probably are closer to Christianity than to later Deism.

Charles Blount built on Lord Herbert’s concepts, and his beliefs are more similar to what we consider Classical Deism. He was quite critical of the Christian church, denying the ideas of revelation and miracles and questioning the truth of the Book of Genesis.

John Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious anonymously in 1696. The book was burned by authorities as heretical. Toland believed that revelation could not contradict reason. He was considered an Atheist by many in his time and by some today.

Matthew Tindal wrote Christianity as Old as the Creation in 1730. He described true Christianity as natural religion, therefore asserting that Christianity’s concepts had been around as long as man. Tindal believed that God’s revelations came through nature and were never contrary to reason.

Other Deists such as Thomas Morgan, Henry St. John (Viscount Bolingbroke), Thomas Chubb and Peter Annet contributed to the body of Deist works after Tindal. Because we see Deism only through the eyes of these and a few other authors who wrote during the 17th and 18th century, it is easy to draw the conclusion that Deism appealed only to the educated gentry at the time. Considering the literacy level of the rest of the population and the fact that most of what we know of Deism we find in the works of educated authors, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion. Some contemporary Deists reject the Classical Deism of these intellectuals and landed gentlemen as elitist.

Dr. Thomas Young introduced the young Ethan Allen to Deism. They worked together on a book, which Ethan Allen made public only after Young’s death. Allen’s Reason, the Only Oracle of Man was printed in 1784 and was the first book about Deism published in America. Allen sold only 200 copies.

But Thomas Paine was the first Deist to create a real international stir with the publication of The Age of Reason in 1795. Paine was a well-known author and a persuasive pamphleteer, and for a short time The Age of Reason sparked interest in Deism in the United States. But Paine and his work were attacked viciously in England and later in America, and interest in Deism waned. The Age of Reason is still in print today. Paine is quoted widely, and this work has led generations of people to Freethought. Many, perhaps a majority, of contemporary Deists would tell you that reading Paine’s work was what first brought them to the realization that they were Deists. History has not always been kind to Paine; Teddy Roosevelt called him a “filthy little atheist,” and Paine’s harsh analysis of Christianity and other revealed religions also have been criticized strongly over the years.

Later Deist authors included Elihu Palmer, who published Principles of Nature in 1801. Palmer was also an orator who attempted, but without lasting success, to found Deistical Societies across the United States.

The 19th century did not produce many other well-known Deist works. Transcendentalism was in vogue, and it developed partly as a backlash against the emphasis on reason that Deism advocated. Probably the best known Deist of the 1800s was Lysander Spooner. The 20th century certainly produced a number of books about Deism, but there are few works by practicing Deists that stand out.

The Internet enabled a resurgence in Deism. A Web search results in a wealth of sites promoting, describing or criticizing Deism. There are also many people exploring a wide variety of the branches of Deism: Classical, Modern, Panendeism, Christian Deism and more. Some are blending Deism with many other belief systems, sometimes to the betterment of both. There are blogs and discussion boards and communities where people are trying Deism on for size, and a number of people are finding it to be a good fit. Although Deism is not a large movement, a surprising number of spiritual but not religious people believe pretty much what Deists believe. It’s just that they have never before heard the term “Deist”.

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