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English Deist Henry St. John Bolingbroke

Henry St. John Bolingbroke's (1678-1751) philosophical writings were published as a five-volume collection after his death. He owes many of his ideas to John Locke. He would be an influence along with Locke on Thomas Jefferson.

Following Locke, Bolingbroke distinguishes between ideas of sensation and ideas of reflection. Borrowing further from Locke, he calls these "simple ideas" and says they are the materials out of which complex ideas are made. He goes on to say that although one may not understand the process by which objects produce sensory perceptions, one can know they do so.

Likewise, one may not know how the will causes action, such as the movement of an arm, but this does not hinder one from knowing it is the will which causes it. He presents these beliefs as clear and obvious and in no need of being questioned. Bolingbroke gives less power, than does Locke, to the mind concerning its ability to combine ideas within itself, putting this power in nature instead. Bolingbroke also maintains that nature (the observable world) serves as a reliable guide, and error comes when one uses one's faculties out of accordance with nature.

Bolingbroke is known for being a Deist. He asserts there is a God, and proving this by reason is possible. However, this God is not at all like humans, and Bolingbroke speaks of anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to an animal or inanimate object) with contempt. Instead, he says God is so dissimilar to human beings, the distance between them is unimaginable and no comparison between the two is possible. Bolingbroke uses the cosmological argument to demonstrate there is a God, but goes on to assert that this God is omnipotent and omniscient and always does what is best. (Bolingbroke even claims this is the best of all possible worlds.)


In order to defend his view of God's transcendence, Bolingbroke says that while one can be certain God knows everything, one can never comprehend the way in which He knows things, and goes as far as to say God's manner of knowing cannot be understood by human beings. God's morality is equally beyond human understanding. Our moral values are based solely on our existence as social beings who cannot live lives of isolation or follow a path of pure selfishness.

These morals can be discovered by reason. While they arise out of the nature of things created by God, they are in no way indicative of a divine sense of morality. God created the world, and the nature of the world determines morality. However, this nature does not reflect the character or nature of God.


Bolingbroke states Christianity was originally a "complete" and "very plain system of religion," was actually no more than the "natural religion," and Jesus did not teach anything more than could be discovered by reason. Bolingbroke expresses regret that Christian teachings did not remain at their initial, simple level, and wishes they had never been corrupted by such systems as Platonism, which he regards as the product of mere imagination. His understanding of religion furthermore denies the validity of prayer by insisting one could not come into contact with one's deity, denigrates the importance of the crucifixion in Christianity, and suggests one cannot know whether or not there is a soul which survives the death of the body.

Extract The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To quote Jefferson to Dr. Waterhouse, 1815,

The priests have so disfigured the simple religion of Jesus that no one who reads the sophistications they have engrafted on it, from the jargon of Plato, of Aristotle and other mystics, would conceive these could have been fathered on the sublime preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, knowing the importance of names, they have assumed that of Christians, while they are mere Platonists, or anything rather than disciples of Jesus.