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Revolutionary Deists: Early America's Rational Infidels

Kerry Walters

(Prometheus; US: Jan 2011)

One flew kites in storms and the other drafted America’s Declaration of Independence, but how did Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson feel about religion? Answer: both were participants in a movement known as deism, a re-imagining of the human relationship with God that seized the best minds of 18th century America.


That movement’s story is told in this book through the lives and writings of six men—Franklin, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and the lesser but captivating figures of Ethan Allen, the militia commander; Philip Freneau, the poet; and Elihu Palmer, the renegade minister blinded by yellow fever. All of them, along with many of their contemporaries, were children of the Enlightenment and inheritors of its rationalist philosophy. Influenced also by European liberal theology and anticlericalism, they denounced the follies of Scripture, denied the divinity of Jesus, and insisted that America’s prevailing brand of Christianity, with its superstitions, intolerance, and Calvinist creed of “total depravity”, should be replaced by a humanist religion where God’s only job was as Divine Architect of nature.


The story of deism proves that America has never been, in an absolute sense, a Christian nation. Indeed, the founding and early years of the Republic were marked by a powerful mood of revulsion against the churches –- cruel and oppressive institutions known to have hanged people in Puritan Boston just for being “incorrigible” Quakers.


As the revolutionary fervor associated with the War of Indepence gripped the land, so did a zeal for reasonableness and rights drive the deists’ assault on religious authority. Hence Paine denounced churches as “no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”; Jefferson compared priests to darkness-shedding scuttle fish; Palmer, who also campaigned against slavery, for universal suffrage, and for women’s rights, castigated the “twin despots” of “king-craft” and “priest-craft”; and Freneau opined that “the profession of a priest is little better than that of a slothful Blockhead”.


Yes, much has changed in religion, politics, and everyday life since the days when deism roamed America; but not so much that we fail to foretaste in Freneau’s poem “On the Causes of Political Degeneracy” the injustices of our own era:


“Left to themselves, where’er mankind is found,
In peace they wish to walk life’s little round,
In peace to sleep, in peace to till the soil,
Nor gain subsistence from a brother’s toil,
All but the base, designing, currying few,
Who seize on nations with a robber’s view,
With crowns and sceptres awe the dazzled eye,
And priests, that hold the artillery of the sky;
These, these, with armies, navies, potent grown
Impoverish man and bid whole nations groan.”


Behind this energetic fist-waving stood a pugnacious early capitalism striving to shake off outdated customs and “to command nature in action”, as Francis Bacon had described science’s new mission. Capitalism’s eventual success, however, begat some new troubles. By the start of the 19th century, the harsh realities of industrial society were beginning to register, and tempers turned dark and escapist, heading quickly away from the Enlightenment and towards Romanticism. American religion duly experienced the Second Great Awakening, a revivalist movement that peddled personal salvation and was fiercely anti-intellectual, and then the individualistic, eclectic Transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau, and others. The time had passed both for orthodox Calvinism and for the deism of the rationalists.


Still, as the author of this book tells us, the deists left behind an important legacy. Their case for freedom and reason was never properly refuted, and was ultimately incorporated, in varying forms and degrees, into later paradigms. To this day, Jefferson’s revolutionary “wall of separation between church and state” stands in American politics. Well, sort of; the phrase ‘In God We Trust’ is emblazoned upon courtrooms throughout the country, and this is but one example of this breach, and conservative Christians regularly catapult their shots over it.


Compared with today’s New Atheists, the deists actually seem tame, in that they did not dare dump God altogether; but this meekness was a product of the historical environment, and especially of the Newtonian vision of nature as a machine designed by a higher power and set in motion by some kind of mighty kickoff. On the other hand, the same historical environment made the American deists more politically radical than the currently fashionable New Atheists.


Missing from this volume are illustrations and other ingredients to give a fuller flavor for the period. One book, however, can only do so much, and the author is a philosopher—his main concern is with the finer points of each of the six thinkers’ arguments, such as whether our moral faculty is “nonrational”, as Jefferson held, or “coextensive and co-existent” with rational knowledge, as Allen argued. It was a deeply political question, translating, as Jefferson explained, into whether a ploughman was just as capable of moral virtue as a professor.


Today few of us are either ploughmen or professors, and fewer still stop to ponder the sources of virtue—the more reason to learn from and admire the religious infidels of 18th century America.

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Paula Cerni is a teacher and independent writer who holds a degree in English, and an MPhil in social science from the University of Sussex (UK). She writes non-fiction from a radical and progressive perspective. www.paulacerni.wordpress.com.


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