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

by

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”.

Share your thoughts. Leave a comment:

6 Responses to “A Brief History of Deism”

  1. Dr. Solomon Huriash
    July 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Dear Chuck

    Being Deism is a knowledge of God based on the application of our own reason, perhaps you will enjoy our book ‘WHY HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT NEED BLIND FAITH TO BELIEVE IN CREATIONISM’ because in chapter 1 we literally proved that the Biblical story of creation (Genesis 1) is in sync with the teachings of modern science. This work is a first and it means that it would have been humanly impossible for Moses, or 1000 like him, to have known of every basic detail and the exact chronology of events of the creation story.
    As the ramifications are myriad, might you wish to contact me?
    Sol

  2. Md Sayeed Sikder
    June 12, 2012 at 5:51 am #

    I am highly interested in Deism, I like the reasoning explanation of Deism. I have some quries e.g whether Deism contents the belief of afterlife like other major revealing religions, whether Deism needs any church to ponder over or to think on the life and universe and to pray or for well wishing or to express gratitude for giving human life, whether Deism try to explain the mystery of life, nature and whole universe, whether Deism have any explanation why the god has created all this of the nature and universe, why only the mankind has got so called rationality, why other species lacking it and so they have no so called civilizations, whether Deism beliefs in doom day and trial and hell and heaven. May be more queries in future,it is my humble request to get some quenchable reasoning and answer.
    It would be highly appreciated if some lights are thrown on the above queries of myself.

  3. Lewis Loflin
    September 6, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Good work Chuck. Deism seems more of an over-broad classification than a belief system. The largest draw it seems to have for most is being anti-Christian. It’s become so vague I ask for a definition and most people throw a fit.

    If one can’t even define something they can’t get much of anywhere. Even here one would go away still asking for a usable definition.

    Christianity itself creates a lot of ignorance of the Bible because of the attempt to fuse monotheism, pantheism, and Platonism into one religion when in reality they can be combined.

  4. iMe
    December 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    i would like to know if deism is related to illuminati or it has anything to do with illuminati??

  5. Darth
    December 31, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    Dear Person who wrote this,
    Im an extreme Deist, so I am telling you all of this is wrong cuz I am the best. Revise your work. Please!!!

  6. Bill McCracken
    January 5, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    Unfortunately, Chuck recently passed away. He will be missed by many in the deist community. I will do my best to answer these questions, but these are my answers as a deist.

    To Solomon: The chronology of the bible puts creation at about 6000 years ago. Modern science in now way substantiates that. Science tells us that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old with mankind being roughly 200,000 years old.

    To Sayeed: Deists are usually agnostic toward an afterlife. We have no churches as we don’t tell one another how to worship God. We don’t know why God created the universe except that, perhaps, we are God’s way for the universe to experience itself. We don’t believe in doomsday or heaven or hell as there is no evidence for any of these notions. But we also have a saying, “If you’ve met one deist, you’ve met one deist.” We are free-thinkers so we don’t tell each other what to think or believe. We make up our own minds based on reason and experience.

54 queries in 0.881 seconds